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A community unites as dogs scatter.

I left church that Sunday morning as hollow and disconnected as a rotting log. Incessant pleas for crafts and baked goods I had no time to make; dry obeisance to ancient words; a constant furtive checking of who was there, who wasn't. This was community?

My mind flashed to the handful of people I used to meet every weekday in the park. We shared a common desire to let our dogs run free, an outright defiance of the city ordinance. Every morning religiously, we led our four-legged outlaws to a secluded part of a big park, looked quickly over each shoulder and unhooked their leads. Our pup, Sophie, was so eager to play with her friends she'd drag me there early, sit smack in the middle and turn 30 degrees with each toll of the 8 a.m. church bell, watching for the first arrival.

We met more regularly than my congregation and greeted each other more eagerly -- sharing law-breaking's strong bond, as well as a certain empathy and set of values. We shared details of our lives, then broke off conversation to watch as the dogs reached full gallop. They loped up and down a big hill, made dizzying wide circles, leapt at branches, rolled in the cool, wet grass, danced through patches of early sunlight. We celebrated their freedom.

Meanwhile, John was relocating in a month to Texas, dreading the move, recovering from surgery; Lynne was cleaning houses while her little boy was in school, agonizing over how much to charge; Sharon was looking for a teaching job.

And Sophie was in love with George, a stocky cream-colored Labrador retriever with a furrowed brow who reminded me of Jason Robards. Whenever George chased sticks, Sophie ran alongside him, their eight legs a parallel blur, her puppy fur smashed into his short coat. When he stopped, she put her paw on his back, her gaze adoring.

We joked about bringing donuts and Thermoses of coffee; traded names of good electricians and plumbers; carried enough dog bones for everybody; invoked St. Francis when George ate his way to the veterinary ER. This felt like community.

Then reality intruded. Wellington started running too far away when he chased squirrels. And one day, Sophie ran eagerly up to an elderly lady to invite her dog to play. The woman was not amused. My scolding only made the game more exciting for Sophie, who is incapable of thinking anyone could not want to play with her. Ten maddening, burning-cheeked minutes later, the puppy collar was finally twined in my shaking hands. "This wouldn't happen if you kept her on leash like you're supposed to," the woman snapped.

She was right. And the idyll had ended. Sophie was too young and unreliable for us to break the law effectively; it wasn't fair to people who took no delight in the taunting of freedom.

I tried going to the park but keeping Sophie on lead. Tried once, left close to tears. John and Millie, his Brittany spaniel, heard the crack in my voice as they hailed me; by then I was on my way home, bitterly resentful over the unattainability of freedom for any creature living in civilized society. Why couldn't city parks just enclose large areas where dogs could run and play at their own risk, thereby removing the irritation from everyone else's path and significantly improving the temperament of city dogs?

Sophie didn't understand why suddenly she had to stay tethered and watch her friends run. Idiotically, I blurted something to this effect, and John gave quiet advice, even suggested a less-traveled park where I could try again.

Secretly for half a minute, I hoped the whole group would switch to that park and preserve our camaraderie. But communities form spontaneously out of common beliefs and life situations. They die just as spontaneously, when individuals' needs change.

By this point in my reverie, I was marveling that the church community even existed. Yeah, it seemed stale or forced sometimes, but it endured through a hundred very different people's changing needs and life situations. I didn't need to bake cookies right now, I needed time for contemplation. But that, too, was available to me through this community, if I looked patiently instead of overreacting with self-important guilt to the busyness my fellow parishioners thrive on.

At the park, we dog-walkers bonded because each of us had looked so urgently for a way to let our dogs run and play. We were taking a risk ($100 fine for starters) and we needed each other. (Unleashed on their own, our dogs just sat down and looked up at us curiously, wondering why on earth they were expected to run laps.)

Early Christian communities must have experienced a hundred times that energy, I thought, imagining their profound gratitude for each other, their unshakable commitment to the group even in the face of death. They existed on pure faith, outside laws and norms, under whatever informal circumstances they could arrange.

Maybe four walls, a roof and a long tradition make it all just a little too easy to criticize. We take community for granted or amuse ourselves, mentally remaking it to our own specifications.

For years, I've wondered how the church survives persecution and oppression.

Now I'm starting to wonder how we survive without them.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.
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Title Annotation:even though the Catholic church community may seen stale at times, it endures even more than the spontaneous yet short-lived community of dog walkers in a park
Author:Batz, Jeannette
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 23, 1998
Words:903
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