The very first tweet I woke up to in the four-word stories posted for #Antigonish2 today knocked me just a tiny bit sideways:
What people in a community say:
“How’ve you been, friend?”
— laura ritchie (@laura_ritchie) March 31, 2017
…and they mean it.
It resonated for any number of reasons.
This Antigonish 2.0 project that Bonnie Stewart has started up has rapidly become very near and dear to my heart, for no greater and no lesser reason (for the moment) than the hope that we can begin to build deeper, more accountable community among all of us, locally and globally, and use that community to build a more functional and positive world. This is the moment in my life when my own confidence in the institutions around me snaps, and while I’m not going to quit and become a hermit in the mountains, I’m going to realize that what is in existence around me is broken and there is a need to build something new, and there are plenty of people who are brilliant helpers who don’t look like what I’ve always been around and don’t believe the same things I was taught to believe and you know what it just doesn’t matter let’s get to work.
Laura, who tweeted that lovely thing, along with Kate and Tanya, who got tagged alongside me, have been people I’ve been sharing conversation with on a different social media platform who have given me opportunity to practice listening to other voices and to practice speaking more positively and more productively and giving up all kinds of assumptions. Laura, in particular, has been so wonderful and affirming to me personally, and I’ll assume I’ve been at least reasonably kind back to her given that I received such a wonderful little tag in tribute. Much of the sweetness of this spring hasn’t been found in the usual spaces, but within this new community that has sprung up, in fits and starts.
Of course, no matter how sweet a new community is, the sentiment is nothing new. We all want to be known, we all want to know people care about how we’re doing, we all want to know that the sentiments are real and not faked. We all hear people ask things like “how’ve you been, friend?” all the time. That’s not the part that hits your heart.
“…and they mean it.” That’s the hope. That’s the prayer.
And that’s what takes me back to SURF.
It’s a little bit stunning that I’ve not told the story in this space of showing up at a thing called SURFchurch in Bristol, Tennessee and finding myself welcomed welcomed. Here, have a short version: When I interviewed for the job at Virginia Intermont, in an odd circumstance that had to fit around the schedule of a Monday-Friday summer course, only one student sat in on the teaching demonstration, a kind young woman named Kayla. I made a joke or three about recruiting her to the sciences, but she had a very clear vision for her academic path, and a very deep passion for photography that kind of sounded more like a calling than a vision. Woo, I get the job, woo, I move to Bristol, woo, I start looking for churches and I start collecting a set of options and I happen to drive down a side road and see a small yard sign for SURFchurch and I wonder what in the world a SURFchurch is doing in Central Appalachia and show up one Sunday morning anyway and walk in the door and literally the first person I see is this Kayla.
These are the points that, in evangelical universe, we call “God moments”.
There were quite a few more college students (including students I would have in my own classes, soon enough) at this place, and the pastor, Matt Cross, turned out to be a Virginia Intermont alum, and there was a measure more authenticity in the relationships there immediately than there was at anyplace else I visited in Bristol, and well that’s going to be the church hunt sorted then.
Everybody at SURF was very good to me for the three years I was in Bristol, and while I was riding the roller-coaster that went from watching the colleagues from the old job broken up and scattered to the winds from afar to watching the situation at the new job steadily and completely deteriorate to nothing, I knew I had a refuge. And that pastor gave me a space to rest alongside the students I loved, and repeated to all of us four words that sustained the community and made the fellowship as genuine and authentic as anyplace I’ve ever been.
And we, in turn, learned to repeat those words to one another. Of course the students repeated those words; they could be easily abbreviated, shared on social media as a badge, turned into a slogan or a hashtag. #LYMI. But they could also be spoken. The “I”‘s in those declarative statements were implied, after all, so they could just roll off the tongue as cadence. The first two words were the sentiment, so often spoken thoughtlessly; but the second two words were the commitment, the reality that I couldn’t just say the words and let them rest halfway. I had to follow through.
I found myself saying these words to those same students, from the professor’s side of the fence. And of course I’d shown love to the students I’d had before, I’d given of myself. But this statement was the next step. It was taking that love and turning it into discipline, into a willingness to step outside of my authority and stand alongside them, to share in their hurts and fears, to encourage and to speak hope and promise, to simply listen and hear.
Of course it’s easiest to make that statement as something of an in-joke, because it’s associated with a church and it is shared with believers and it is our badge and all. But over time you don’t just want to share it with them. And in my role, I’m providing this support not just to my fellow believers anymore; I left that conservative-evangelical school in 2011, after all. I have students who don’t believe and who are very open about it, despite Virginia Intermont’s historic Baptist affiliation. That same love needs to be available to them at all. And it doesn’t just need to be spoken. It needs to be followed with action.
When the path takes you, between July of 2011 and August of 2017, from Rome, Georgia to Bristol, Virginia to Cookeville, Tennessee to Greeneville, Tennessee, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University to Tusculum College, there is nothing about that action that is easy and straightforward. You find the action that speaks to the people around you only to have to start and learn new people and start all over again. Community isn’t an automatic; you don’t just show up and find yourself belonging. Trust has to be earned, and there is work to be done just to allow your voice a hearing.
But that doesn’t change the commitment, and that doesn’t change the discipline.
Even as I was discovering that the clock was ticking on the job I hoped would be for a career, I was still facing the necessity of loving my campus throughout every up and down. Even as I was struggling mightily to adapt to a place that was ten times as large as anywhere I’d worked before and found myself drowning in the crush of people (and yes, you can drown in the crush of people in Cookeville, Tennessee), I knew I was surrounded by people who needed love and I needed to be patient and show it. The work of love is necessary, and never more necessary than in a time like this.
So I’ll ask forgiveness for the belief that a lifetime of learning and discipleship and good old-fashioned hard knocks are leading me to this place, and to these people, and to this work of community-building. And no matter how hard the times get, to the repetition of gratitude for the ears that I’ve had in this time, ears in Greeneville and in Cookeville and in Bristol and in Rome, ears in Fredericksburg and in Richmond and in Wollongong and in Guadalajara and in Charlottetown and in Chichester, and maybe even an ear or two back home on the edge of that old swamp in Hilliard, Florida. So many people have offered me such genuine friendship, and even a dose of genuine ministry. They sustain me, and allow me to do the day-to-day work with these wonderful students, and prepare me to serve beyond the city limits and beyond the state line into the world beyond.
And I’ll ask forgiveness of Matt and Sherry and the people of SURFchurch, but something tells me that they won’t be bothered if I share a little bit of that fellowship with the people of Antigonish 2.0.
Community in four words.
Love you; mean it.