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    The Membership

    June 29, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    One of the only modern writers I am willing to read is Wendell Berry. I have already admitted that part of the draw for me is that my oldest child reminds me of what I imagine Mr. Berry to be like. We often joke that we are raising Wendell Berry. Beyond this, Berry happens to understand certain things about life that elude most people, and he writes about it in a way that expands the souls of his readers.

    I, for one, am certainly a better person for having read his work.

    Berry’s fiction takes place in an imaginary small town {settlement?} called Port William. He calls this community “The Membership,” which is an allusion to the apostle Paul’s description of Christian community in his epistles, where he calls us members of one body, which is to say Christ’s body:

    Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

    Romans 12:4-5

    The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.

    I Corinthians 12:12

    In Berry’s version, the concept of membership is expanded to the general community, a community that hearkens back to the earlier days of America when faith and public life weren’t as divided as they are now.

    The Membership is paradoxical in nature. Members are free, and yet they have responsibility towards one another. It reminds me, actually, of a scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, when Almanzo had just saved the town by acquiring wheat to stave off starvation, and then the owner of the store selling said wheat wants to price gouge. Pa Ingalls avoids a riot by explaining to the store owner the nature of the situation: he has the right to charge whatever he likes, but he needs to understand that those who survive the winter will not forget his deeds, and they will choose to shop elsewhere when spring finally arrives.

    The implication in the story is that the store owner was wrong to charge poor starving people outrageous prices. We all think this now, but these days most of the stores we patronize are owned by multinational corporations who could care less about Ma and Pa Ingalls. They are not part of The Membership.

    Once upon a time, earlier in our marriage, Si and I were part of a beautiful little ministry in our church that I suppose had its own version of The Membership. We helped each other through life in our own ways, mostly through baby showers and meals whenever a young family was in distress. I treasure our memories of this group, but I think it in no way prepared me for the actual membership to which we belong, and have always belonged, I suppose, without realizing it.

    The Membership of which I speak is the one which has carried us these past few weeks. Members sat beside me while my husband was in a coma. They brought, and still bring, food to our home every single evening without fail. They played with my children. They ran my errands. They helped me fill out paperwork. They fixed my broken sprinklers, mowed my lawn, and repaired our drainage problem. They helped me keep my sanity. They prayed fervently for our family.

    The Membership to which we belong is a little more complicated than Wendell Berry’s simple world. We belong to our church, but also to our family. We belong, in a way, to Si’s workplace, and also to old friends scattered throughout the state, the country, and the world. And we belong to the worldwide Body of Christ, which has labored in prayer for our little family for reasons I cannot fathom.

    Did I ever tell you I have gotten emails from around the world from people praying for my husband? Why these people remember us and care about us is beyond me. I am so small, and yet I am grateful.

    In all of this, the concept of Membership, something I understood intellectually, became living and breathing. I have seen love in action, and I am refreshed. I have been on the receiving end of deeds done by people who would never want credit for them, but I declare that I have been blessed beyond all expectation.

    Who knew that out of chaos could come such stability and love? If God has revealed anything to me in this time, it is the nature of The Membership, something I think I did not fully understand before. I feel obligated, but in a good way. It is sort of like the obligations of the marriage covenant, born of free will and deep love. These are obligations we give ourselves to fervently for we know we were created for such things, and happy is the one who fulfills his duties.

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