If community doesn’t come naturally, we can practice

Photo: Mario Purisic, Unsplash. Photo: Mario Purisic, Unsplash.

We’re all in the same boat, and we’re all seasick. — G.K. Chesterton

When I lived in Kentucky, I joined a women’s ecumenical Bible study where many of the participants came from evangelical churches. As a new participant, I found myself quite the belle of the ball.

Strangers came up and asked me about myself, my family, my origins. The end of these friendly encounters always went something like this: “It has been so nice to meet you. I’d love to get to know you and your family better. Why don’t you come to our church sometime?”

After the second such conversation, I got annoyed. Clearly, I was just church bait to them. They didn’t want to get to know me, they wanted to get me to their church.

At the time, in my immaturity, I believed you couldn’t genuinely desire both.

Remembering those women 12 years later, however, I appreciate what they were doing. No, I didn’t need a church home, and yes, their attempts at evangelism were awkward and sometimes felt scripted. Still, they did seek me out. I wasn’t walking the halls alone and ignored.

More recently, my family started attending a new church, which is not evangelical. Perhaps that is why I waited weeks for someone to come up to me and initiate a meaningful conversation. Paid staff sought us out, of course. People greeted us casually in the pews before or after the service, but those greetings were of the hi-and-good-to-see-you variety. None of those interactions made me feel part of the community. I’d see the cliques chatting in the aisles and walk by alone, aching to be seen.

I realize some people feel awkward and uncomfortable in social situations, some painfully so. It is challenging for them to connect with other humans. But surely they still need to.

This goes both ways. Extroverted people like me have challenges, too. God created me socially intense. I talk loudly and often; I gesture largely. I become deeply invested in subjects and issues, which in conversation can be perceived as aggressive. As one person told me, “Sarah, you’re just a lot.”

There are plenty of folks who relate well to me just the way I am. But over the years I’ve encountered times when my natural self creates discord, even hurt.

Creating community is perhaps the most vulnerable work we do as humans. We put ourselves out there, knowing we’ll be judged. A first line of defense is to hide behind what comes naturally for us: I’m shy. I can’t handle conflict. I just tell it like it is.

Jane AustEn wrote about this in Pride and Prejudice. The interchange begins when Elizabeth, who has been playing the piano, accuses Mr. Darcy of being a social snob.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. . . . But then I have ­always supposed it to be my own fault — ­because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”

I share Elizabeth’s hope for better things. We can embrace the beautiful creations that we are while celebrating the strength we have to behave differently for the sake of others. We can love our neighbors as ourselves, put their needs first and do the difficult work of acting unnaturally.

For me, this means attempting to make myself smaller in certain situations. More gentle, less sharp. Another person might need to force herself to cross the street and initiate a conversation with a new neighbor.

And when any of this is hard for us, we can always practice.

Kevin & Sarah Kehrberg

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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