I arrived in the Flathead almost two years ago and have spent the time since finding my place in this beautiful corner of the world after leaving Billings, a community I had lived in for 24 years. Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning two years ago just as I was not the same young woman who arrived in Billings 24 years prior. I left behind a life that was full of responsibility, friends, and community. In Billings, people of all walks knew me and more importantly, I knew them.
Despite my familiarity with the people in my old stomping grounds, I always thought of myself as a bit of a loner. Moving around every 4 years or so growing up tends to make you that way. Making new friends and saying goodbye over and over again taught me how to be comfortable being alone and on my own. As a youngster I made fast friendships… it was easy to find a community just by strapping on my roller skates (yes, I had strap-ons) and gliding up and down the sidewalk with the rest of the neighborhood kids or joining the kickball game down the street, wowing the team with my off the field kicks (there was usually an adult around who recognized the need to let a new kid on the block join in). Before long, I was one of the gang. However, as I got older, joining in as the new girl in town wasn’t so easy. Over time, I grew to think that I was just fine on my own and became more and more content being everybody’s friend rather than feeling as if I belonged to a specific group. As I got older, being on my own was easier than facing rejection from long-established cliques.
In all honesty, for most of my life I did not feel like I fit in anywhere, that is until I left Billings. After 24 years in one place one tends to belong, whether you realize it or not. In my case, while I definitely had firmly planted roots in Billings (you need those to remain upright there) and my church was more like a very large family, it took me moving away to realize what I had lost in the leaving. In fact, the sense of loss that came over me as I settled into this very new locale was so overwhelming that I went through a period of grieving for the community I left behind.
Moments of panic would mix with this sadness, as there were times I felt so alone. My new neighborhood seemed so foreign, unlike my neighborhood in Billings where evening walks usually turned into neighborhood meet and greets. Looking back at what I had left I realized that in the years I had lived in Billings I had developed a new sense of who I was. I was not the proud loner I made myself out to be in high school and continued to play in college and young adulthood. Rather, I had grown into a woman who valued connection and thrived on meeting and welcoming people into her life all the while growing richer from their influence. By seeking community, I became more giving of myself and in turn influenced others as much as they influenced me.
As Paul writes in Romans, he was called to share his spiritual gifts with others so that they would be strengthened in their faith. However, the connection did not stop there. Through their relationships, they were mutually encouraged and strengthened by each other, each giving support and encouragement as they received the same from each other.
Rather than waiting for others to invite me to play kickball like I did in the third grade, I have made a concerted effort to find my own community of friends here in the Flathead and have been richly rewarded. I started waving at my neighbors as I walked by and guess what! Most of them waved back! Pretty soon those waves turned into “hellos” or “boy it’s a cold/hot out today” (depending on season) and while that may seem small or commonplace to those who have lived here a long time, the fact that people recognized me as a part of their neighborhood is a big deal for someone who is new. Through my involvement with choirs, church, clubs, and hiking groups as well as investing time with people who have reached out to me in welcome, I have created a community of friends that not only supports me but also allows me to support them.
Oftentimes I think I am alone on this journey fraught with struggles that I must keep to myself. Yet as my community of friends expands, I realize that my burdens are much lighter. There is an old saying “a joy shared is doubled… a sorry shared is halved.” This is most certainly true! In my community of friends I have found those whose struggles mirror mine or who have walked a similar path. We end up bearing one another’s burdens and helping one another move forward, ministering to each other with empathy and understanding.
I don’t seek out community with others solely for support and encouragement, however. I also seek out a community of friends that will challenge me. As iron sharpens iron, my community of friends includes people who have gifts, talents, and characteristics that I aspire to. By making myself vulnerable and sharing my goals for improvement in my life, my community of friends keeps me accountable in my quest for change. They set good examples of living for me and hold me accountable while I provide the same model and accountability for them.
With the prevalence of social media and the constant presence of people online, one would think that the need for community is vanishing. However, I found that I am not alone in my quest for community. Most of the people who are involved in the various organizations that I am share the same desire to connect and share with others.
I recently read an article about a couple who moved to Colorado Springs, CO. After living there for 6 years and still not finding their place in the “community”, they decided to create their own. Once a month they opened their home to virtually anyone and everyone for cocktails and conversation about The Things That Matter. They started by inviting acquaintances from work or neighbors in passing and encouraged them to invite others. Sometimes they had as many as 30 people come, sometimes as few as five, and sometimes none would show, but they did not give up. Eventually, they were surrounded by people who enjoyed each other’s company, who had good conversation on a regular basis, and who found common ground with those they may not otherwise have shared thoughts with. They looked forward to this monthly Happy Hour as a time to come together and the people that came were thirsty for the same cocktail of community.
Just as I am creating my own community of friends, by reaching out and making themselves vulnerable and available, this couple created a community on their own. One not defined by homeowners associations, neighborhood engineers, city planners, or careers but rather, a common thirst for connection.
“Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but en courage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” ~ Hebrews 10:24-25