Emmeline Steiss told me that she’d stood in a room full of women, all strangers, and they were all the same.
That’s when I looked right into her and I could hear it, what her whole life was saying: no woman can ever heal in a state of loneliness.
Emmeline had lived alone. She had loved her cats. She had once had sisters, long ago. She had driven a mint green Chevrolet to town until they took away her license.
And every Sunday, Mama stopped in at Emmeline’s and brought her a banana loaf or a plate of cookies, and I sat beside my sister and we listened to her stories in a house that smelled of ache and time and felines.
Why did it take me half a life to feel this: in the space of the differences that separate us, there can be all this unique, creative strength, and in the places where we overlap, all this unifying certain comfort. What is there to be afraid of?
Emmeline had died alone by the time Mrs. Martin found Mama in the back of church foyer. Back by the coat hangers and children darting between legs, where Mrs. Martin had asked Mama if maybe I’d get together with a group of women weekly?
“No, Beryl, no I don’t think so.” Mama had just said it straight up. “She’s not good here. Not good at all.”
The details of what had happened doesn’t matter. There are times when leaving things unsaid to most, and mostly said to one, can be the way love covers over a multitude of sins.
All that need be said is that community had about hemmorhaged my heart and I dry heaved to breathe around women. Emmeline could have told me: The shields that protect you can easily become the bars that imprison you.
I can still see her — how Emmeline would pet that cat on her lap, the petting like beckoning someone to come. Like this soothing of her wounds.
The truth of it is, I wanted out.
For years, I wanted out of community.
I didn’t want gossip to catch my gizzards and bleed me dry.
I didn’t want insensitivity to numb the last of the feeling places.
I didn’t want love to hurt and the truth is that love means to suffer and there’s no getting around it.
Someone said that to me once: that loneliness is far better than rejection. True. And being dead is probably far easier than living. I had nodded. I have lived it — the quiet death of it all. And found loneliness to be more injurious than rejection because it can be self inflicted. There is always someone to love.
I told myself that when Flora Mullander floundered and spewed all the wrong words over me and my skin, right there around the tender places, flamed all raw. And when another woman murmured these white lies that stained, and a friend failed, and a whole community of faith fumbled — That love is a skill that can’t be learned in seclusion.
Love is a tree, each person a branch. And a pile of cut off branches doesn’t make a tree. Love can only be comprehended in community. You need imperfect people in your life to perfect your practice of love.
There are no solitary saints; all sanctification is forged in community.
That is why I stayed. The chance to love imperfect people is another chance to perfect His love in me. And all the believers are belongers.
You belong in the imperfect pews, you belong in the community that disappoints yet is anointed to keep on pointing to Him who cannot disappoint, you belong to the club of all the failing passing on all His mercy, all the members of the marred sisterhood being impossibly redeemed by love, lit by transparency, perfected by grace.
I had stood one October, at the far end of our lane, and watched a V formation of geese fly straight over Emmeline’s.
When one lone goose falls out of formation, falls hurt and struggling, two more fall out and follow her down. And stay with her until the flying again, until the flying as one arrow again through the sky.
Emmeline had told mama that. That her keeping company with her had kept something inside of her together. And I had felt those broken places in her when she’d said it.
Her petting this congregation of cats there at her feet, and the geese flying somewhere overhead in this perfect gathering of grace.
All calling each other upward and higher on this communal wing.
15 Reasons To Keep Reaching out Even When You’ve Been Hurt
1. Christ is the Body and He is Love and both can only exist in community
2. God’s people are given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5) and reconciliation begins first in our homes, down the street, in this pew, around the corner, in community — or we are ministers of misrepresentation.
3. It’s only when you reach out to community that your gifts can be used for the kingdom.
5. Community is only and always what people are: beautiful and broken and utterly redeemable.
6. There are no I-slands in the Kingdom, only His-lands, and the notion of lone rangers is purely bad fiction.
7. The wonder of this: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are the temple of the Holy Spirit? … God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple.” (1 Cor. 3) We are all the “living stones” of the temple of the Holy Spirit. But if one stone withdraws from the other stones? The “you” in 1 Cor. 13 is plural. Y’all together are the temple of the Holy Spirit; we are a temple of the Holy Spirit together — in community. We need each other, all of us. And believing is about belonging to a community. It’s when we are committed in community that we collectively live it before the world: God is among us.
8. 2000 years of Christianity is founded on the breathtaking living organism of community.
9. Community is healthy for us: “Those with strong social connections but poor health habits (eating, exercise, etc.) are just as healthy as those with good health habits but weak social connections.”
10. There are sisters in Christ who have died for gathering together with their sisters — how could I neglect so great a privilege?
11. “Dor” in Hebrew, it means generation. May we be the next generation to go next door, the generation who knows who lives next door, what they need next door, how they ache next door. The Next Christians need to be the generation of Next Door Christians.
12. The Christian life is the compassionate, crucified, cruciformed life. Not the comfortable life. Community is how God shapes His children into the image of Christ.
13. We love Him enough to meet Him where He is — “Where 2 or 3 are gathered there He is…”
14. Love is a tree, each person a branch. And a pile of cut off branches doesn’t make a tree. Love can only be comprehended in community.
15. Every chance to love imperfect people is another chance to perfect His love in me. This is a way to soar.
Q4U: How has community hurt you? How have you learned to keep reaching out, to keep staying in community? Why does it matter?
How are you flying down with the fallen?
How could you help someone heal in community? How are you practicing the practice of love with imperfect people?
How can we join you in praying for you and those you love to find community?
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