Transformational Spaces

On an average day in the middle of last summer a soon-to-be fifth grader walked into our learning center. As is common among first day students, his eyes were down, his defenses were up, and he was palpably not happy to find himself in this situation. His parent said, “See you in a little while,” and left him in our care. We did our standard welcome activities — tour of the center including our prize area where students choose what they will earn for all their hard work, presentation of gifts including a t-shirt and a personalized water cup, and introductions to staff and students. Then, we took him to his instruction area to begin, and he bolted — took off running. He was getting out of there.

We don’t know why. We don’t know what this guy had faced in school settings over the past five or more years. We don’t know what kind of comments he’d heard from instructors — you’re not trying hard enough, this is an easy one, just look at the letters — or what teasing he’d received from other students — why can’t you read, everybody can read, I just read Harry Potter for the third time — or what pressure he was under at home. We just know that his experiences up until we met him had made him leery of entering into proximity with one more group of people who would likely have opinions about him, want him to try stuff, and eventually be disappointed in him.

Not too long ago I was stuck on my couch believing that I would be grieving forever. I didn’t have the strength to venture into new spaces where I might face judgment, misunderstanding, or possibly more pain. If people invited me to do things, I often found excuses — I was busy, tired, or not feeling well. I didn’t have the wherewithal to try — to have conversations, to meet new people, to share my story. If I did happen to agree to go to an event, I often grumbled my whole way there. Why did we agree to come here? It’s going to be terrible. I’m not talking to anyone. How soon can we leave?

It’s not easy to shift from that posture.

When you are convinced that all attempts will lead to failure, you can make failure happen. When you believe that everyone will disappoint you, you can ensure that they will. And when you experience what you expect, your beliefs about how broken, how stuck, how hurt you truly are become more and more etched on the fabric of your soul.

I think that a person needs support to shift away from a posture like that.

When I was feeling that I’d lost all hope, friends showed up. They knew I was on that damn couch, and they persisted. They invited. They texted. They picked me up. They dropped me off. They prayed with me. They cried with me. They cheered every win. They carried me into situations that I was afraid of, and they didn’t leave me alone.

When my student was bent on bolting, his parent sat in our lobby — he needed a partner in his investment, a cheerleader. We were, of course, ready to cheer him every step of the way, but he didn’t yet trust us. We worked hard to build that trust — we celebrated every win, and we were patient in his silences. Eventually, he didn’t need a parent to stay, but he was still reluctant to fully commit. What if it really wouldn’t work and these people, “the experts at teaching reading,” couldn’t help him? What would that mean? If we couldn’t teach him, certainly he was without hope.

A little over two years ago, my husband suggested that we join a small group of people — members of our church — and meet with them once every other week to share journeys, study the Bible, and pray. We’ve been part of many groups like this during our marriage, so I complied. We’ve often found good friendships and community in such groups.

But a couple months later, our lives fell into chaos. If we’d known we were broken before, we suddenly found ourselves face down among all the shattered pieces, grieving uncontrollably. I no longer felt safe going to our small group. I was grumpy and resistant. I went, doing my best to hold it together, but sometimes my snarling gave me away. If our group noticed, I don’t remember them calling me out; they just kept showing up.

Things got tough for my student, too. It wasn’t easy to work our program, hour after hour, day after day. Sometimes his snarling gave him away, too. He refused to work, hurled insults, and often — feeling frustrated — gave up. My staff hung in there, encouraging him, believing for him — You’re going to get this! — when he couldn’t believe for himself.

This past week, I was working with him on his goal of adding the 1000 most common English words to his sight word base when he looked at me with exasperation. “I’m never going to finish this list,” he said.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “You’re so close! You’re gonna finish it, trust me!”

Two days later, he took a break from instruction to come find me, “Kristin, I have something to show you.” He handed me the sight word list so that I could see that he was finished. The whole room — students and teachers — stopped what we were doing to applaud him. His face, which for the past six months had often been fixed in a scowl, was beaming. It continued to beam as he read his fifth grade level stories while I stood watching in awe.

Later that day, he took another student aside — a student who was coincidentally experiencing his first day at our learning center — “I know it seems a little hard today,” he said, “but you’re going to do great, just like I did.”

On that same night, exhausted from my day, I came home, swallowed food, and reluctantly got in our car to go to our community group. I literally said “grumble, grumble” as we drove through the freezing February night, but guess what I found when I got there?

I found people who had been consistently showing up, grumbling or not, for over two years. I found them sharing snacks, laughing, listening, asking questions, and leaning in to hear one another’s stories.

We heard about hurts from the past, challenges of the present, and stories of answered prayer.

I saw tears, I heard joy, I found love.

Sometimes, just when we believe that all hope is lost — we’ll never learn to read, we’ll never be finished grieving — we find ourselves in a community that is committed to showing up, waiting us out, cheering us on, and believing for us that hope is not gone. When we find ourselves in these spaces, we should expect transformation because this is where it happens.

Find yourself a way to be part of these transformational spaces.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Choosing Community, a re-visit

On Monday, I wrote about the ways I am witnessing change in Transformational Spaces. This post, written in March 2018 and dusted off for you here, recalls my journey into understanding the power of community.

I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks.  I love to be alone.

In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read away a whole afternoon in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.

As an adult,  I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking. Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love. However, while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.

In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation. If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry. I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.

My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others.  Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction. He believes so strongly in the power of  community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.

“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights. Ok?”

Every Saturday night? Who? Why?

My introverted self whines and moans, and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door. I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it. I tend toward the solitary.

In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight. You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.” I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.

I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close. The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best. We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives. However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in. What harm could a couple of grad students bring? Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa. I could easily keep them at arm’s length.

They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten. We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed. At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week; I would have a meal ready for them. Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together. Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.

At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future. When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail. They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love. Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.

I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.

I was wrong. Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here. Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.

Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church. In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning. We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.

I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.

I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot,  probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving. I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.

Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath. I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins. And not just mine.

As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time. The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.

Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time. It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.

Hebrews 10:25

Continue meeting together, encourage one another.

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way