When I was a boy, I lived on the Jersey Shore in a little seaside town called Ocean Grove near Asbury Park. Once a year, on a Saturday in mid-June, the Eagle Hook and Ladder Company hosted the Strawberry Festival. This was a high holy day for our little town. From noon until 7:00 pm at night, hundreds of people, all day long, lined up around the block for a paper plate overflowing with a round yellow sponge cake, a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, and an enormous pile of fresh New Jersey strawberries. Holding paper plates in their hands like priests presiding at an altar, local residents found metal folding chairs at one of the wooden tables set up on the concrete floor of the firehouse where the fire trucks were usually parked.

Volunteer firefighters and their families, on the night before the festival, hulled thousands of berries using a small metal tool pinching off the green leaves of the berry. Once the leaves were removed, we threw the berries into a large 10-gallon metal milk container from a local dairy. With carefully washed hands, volunteers began massaging the red berries and sugar into a sweet, delicious mixture of mashed berries and red juice to pour on the ice cream and shortcake the following day.

Community is a gift we share with others. It takes time to nurture community, friendships, and connections. Community doesn’t just happen. We plan for it, cultivate it, and earn it hulling one berry at a time. As we keep the required six-feet between us, wash our hands, or shelter in place, we are finding that maintaining community is more difficult than ever. When we practice social distancing, we can feel isolated, lonely, discouraged, or worse. During the past two weeks, I have been the recipient of the generosity and kindness of people in the Eckerd College community, my family and friends, and my neighbors. I invite you to think about ways we might nurture community during these challenging times.

First, when cultivating community, we must show up. That sounds so obvious, but it is essential. The new challenges that we face require us to show up in new ways, using our cellphones to call or text, but also using social media and online meetings in more creative ways, not just for work, but also for connecting with our neighbors, deepening friendships, and nourishing community. When I was young, my neighbors walked to the firehouse, sat down and worked together. Like any chore it wasn’t necessarily fun at first. Yet, we found ways to make it more interesting and enjoyable, and doing the chores together made the difference. We show up and hull the berries one at a time.

Second, we must dig deep when nurturing community, because being in community requires getting along with a large number of people. Often, we huddle around the few people we know best and find it easier to interact with those who don’t challenge us. Real community demands that we dig deeper and move to the edges of our community seeking out those who may feel excluded or disconnected from others. If we are to live in a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community, we must move beyond the few people we know and enjoy, and reach out to those on the margins honoring the dignity and worth of every person.

Finally, be yourself, and authentically express yourself in your community. This requires some self-knowledge and reflection, asking, “How can I best participate? How might I make a difference in my community this week?” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, during a time of national crisis, said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” In the midst of this current crisis, community is a gift we share with one another.