I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the concept of community. The dictionary defines it this way: 1) A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. 2) A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. I like both of these definitions, and when put together, they do a fairly good job of giving us a literal definition of community. But I think the bigger question is not “What is community?” but rather “How do we authentically experience and live in community?”
One of the greatest gifts of having cancer has been experiencing authentic community. I can honestly say that I do not know how I would have survived the last 3 years without the support of my friends and family. And when I think about community, I see this beautiful tightly woven net, each thread unique and relevant, and as I free fall, as my life takes hard turns and unfathomable twists, this net is always there to catch me and lift me back up and make sure I land safely back on my feet. So as I reflect on authentic community and the gift that it has been, and continues to be in my life, I have come to conclude that authentic community goes beyond location and distance, it goes beyond individuals or neighborhoods, it even goes beyond shared history. Authentic community is about showing up for people and being vulnerable. So I have written my own definition of community in hopes that everyone can experience the amazing gift that has carried me through this life.
AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY IS A TEAM EFFORT. This may be obvious because community clearly implies a group of people, but it really is about teamwork. My pastor always says “Teamwork makes the dream work.” And it’s true. The beauty of community is that it is about everyone doing their part, no matter how big or small. Everyone has something to contribute and everyone matters. I think about the chemo schedule my friends put together for me and how many people it took to support me through just one day of chemo. Someone would pick me up from my house and transport me to the infusion center. They would hold my hand as my port was accessed. They would ease my fear as the medicine began to drip into my body. And then each hour another friend would show up, often with a treat from Starbucks, and they would sit and talk with me and try to take my mind off of the impending darkness. And for 6 hours, each chemo, this rotation of friends came and sat with me and encouraged me. And after a long day, I would crawl in a friends car and be lovingly transported back home and tucked into bed. I could point to a hundred other ways my community worked as a team to care for me. The meal trains, months of dinners, made by countless friends, delivered to my door each night. Carpools for school and sports and visits to friends homes. All of these simple tasks, done by hundreds of people, working as a team to make sure my family was cared for.
AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY SHOWS UP WITHOUT AN INVITATION. I think this is so important. Often when someone is in crisis, they aren’t in a place to identify their needs and ask for help. The day I was told that my cancer was back and that I would need chemo and surgery, I went into survival mode. All I could think about was how I was going to beat cancer and stay alive for my children. My mind was spinning at such rapid speed that I was unable to focus on my daily tasks. I knew I desperately needed help but could not even begin to figure out what I needed and how to ask for it. But my friends didn’t wait for an invitation – they just showed up! And it wasn’t invasive or overwhelming, it was perfect. And by showing up, I had a deep sense of peace and freedom, because I knew that I was no longer fighting alone. I knew that my community was going to take care of me. So many times we make excuses as to why we shouldn’t or can’t show up. We want to help but don’t know how. We wait to be asked or invited. But authentic community doesn’t need an invitation.
AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY IS NOT ABOUT PROXIMITY OR LOCATION. Often when you hear the word community, we automatically think of proximity. Certainly, there is something wonderful about living in neighborhoods and walking to a friends house and festive block parties. I absolutely love my Cotswold neighborhood and proximity certainly helps when crisis hits. But it was also my broader and distant community that showed up and joined the team. I spent 12 years living in Indianapolis, Indiana and in those 12 years I had the privilege of making deep, life-long connections with some amazing women. When my friends in Indianapolis heard about my diagnosis, they didn’t wait for an invitation, they just jumped into action. They quickly formed the group HeatherStrong. And this group of about 30 women, some whom had never even met, looked for ways to weave themselves into the net that was supporting me. They met regularly to pray and plan on how they would show up. And from 600 miles away they continued to show up for me in big and practical ways. They provided meals and care packages. They flew out to care for me and flew my children their to be loved on. I received cards of encouragement and extravagant gifts. This beautiful group of women was not hindered by the distance between us. But authentic community isn’t about proximity or location, it’s about proximity of the heart.
Which leads me to the most important point of all, AUTHENTIC COMMUNITY IS ABOUT BEING KNOWN AND KNOWING OTHERS. So much of what I have already said hinges on our willingness to be vulnerable with our hearts so that we can be known. It’s about letting people into our messy complicated lives. It’s about being real with our fears and our faults and our needs. And in turn it’s about being willing to invest in others and listen and learn and care. If we aren’t willing to be known, if we aren’t willing to invest in one another’s lives, when crisis hits we will be left without a net to catch us. Authentic community requires transparency and familiarity. My community had an intuitive sense about how to care for me because they knew me and I knew them. Obviously some of my friendships are built on years of sharing and intimacy, but some of them are new and built on a conversation or two. The key is that whether it’s someone you have know for 20 years or 20 minutes, that each encounter is real and authentic. One of the coolest things that my HeatherStrong community in Indianapolis did was not actually directly for me. At the same time I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a dear friend also diagnosed. The day I had surgery to install my port, my friend had a very serious surgery. Because my friends in Indianapolis know me intimately, they knew that it broke my heart that I could not be there for my friend in her time of need. So, in my absence, they showed up on my behalf. They sent her cards and care packages. They prayed for her. They rallied around her and became her community. Uninvited, no proximity, they had never even met her, but they showed up anyway. They showed up because they knew it was what I would have wanted. They knew me.
We all will face something hard in our lives, something tragic. And it’s not just in times of crisis that we need community. Authentic community feeds our souls. It connects us and makes our world smaller. It makes good times even better and difficult times bearable. Authentic community enriches our lives by giving us opportunities to get into each others mess and dysfunction. It teaches us that we are never alone. It teaches us to serve and to love and use our gifts. It makes us better people. I’m so thankful for my beautiful, live-saving, life-giving, tightly woven net that constantly surrounds me. It gives me the courage to let go and experience freedom and peace, because even in the hardest of times, even when I’m free falling and spinning out of control, I know one thing for sure, my net will always be there to catch me.