Of Institutions and Communal Memory

It’s been a tough week here in Waco. I hope readers of this blog will pardon my tendency to “read sociology” into my personal experience-maybe it’s how I cope sometimes. I’m currently a member of a local church as well as a faculty member at Baylor University. Both of these affiliations reflect an important connectedness one feels with others who also share these same identities. So it was doubly hard to hear on Sunday morning the news that a fellow church member and colleague passed away after a 6 month battle with lymphoma. Her memorial service was beautiful and I was struck by the mass of people who made it out to remember her in this moment. She was not even 40 but already her impact had extended well beyond her family.

And prior to this announcement I spent the previous week at court for the first time in a jury. I’ve always known in the abstract the duties of being on a jury, but as with participation in any organization and institution, one understands these responsibilities in a deeper way when called to serve. This was all the more pronounced for me since the case was one of the most pernicious: child sexual abuse. The prosecuting team did well in conveying the evidence, but the evidence, and the narration of events that connect the evidence together jostled me to the core. I could hear and see with my mind’s eye the multiple generations of dysfunction in this victim’s social context. It would take Child Protective Services, the police department, a local clinic, and lawyers to intercede and end over a year of abuse. But after the sentencing I still wonder whether (no, I hope) the resilience she showed in calling the cops the day that ended the abuse will carry her further still.

As organizations and institutions created by people, it struck me that churches, colleges, hospitals, law enforcement, social and legal services draw us into each other’s lives. We meet people we would not otherwise have ever known. And while in these institutions, whether for many years or a mere 3 days we share the experience of being embedded together. This I think invites us to remember the people who shared that same institutional space. Moreover it’s important that there are others who are also in this space with us to help remember together. It reminds me of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s concept of the plausibility structure (see their highly readable The Social Construction of Reality). Organizations and institutions help remind us of what is real and they help define how we are to relate to one another.

For my part, I will remember my church sister and colleague, and I will remember this young girl. Participating in these institutions of church, education, and law grant me, and others, the privilege to meet them as time and circumstance allow -and remember them.

  • http://perrin.socsci.unc.edu Andrew Perrin

    Wow, Jerry – a powerful post and what a week for you! Thoughts are with you.

  • Laura B

    Agree. Self reliance only cuts it so far. Living in society together offers us the chance to make a difference even after death, and offers some of us hope from personally unresolvable situation.


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