Let me tell you about community.
I told you I had a few half-written blog posts in my drafts folder that got pushed aside back in July. Some of them we may see again, and some of them were ideas that faded when I didn't get the words down in the present. But this one was maybe my favorite part about my summer - which made it far too important not to finish for you.
When I got to Washington, D.C. to begin a month of classes on the Constitution, I expected to meet a few people I might get along with – we were all current or future American history teachers, so we definitely had enough in common. I expected those conversations to happen at lunch, in our classes, as we visited sites around D.C. and compared perspectives on them. And all of that was true. Week after week, I was consistently blown away by the people I met and the stories they had to share. I think I had at least one conversation with every person there, whether we walked back from discussion group together or we sat by each other on a bus or at a meal, and I learned something from every single one of them. And that was incredible. Just as I expected, if not even more so.
But what I didn’t expect was what happened on night one of our four-week course, just after dinner. Instead of going back to our dorms, a big group of us who had literally just met in the past hour decided to walk to Target. Together, we followed Google Maps around corners, down hills, and across the Virginia state line to stock up on snacks and things we hadn’t thought to bring to live in a dorm room for a month. We didn’t talk about history or teaching so much as we did the things to come that month we looked forward to, and the things that were hard for us to leave behind to be there.
We shared bits and pieces of our lives and stories with each other as we walked back across the bridge over the Potomac River, watching the sun set over the spires of Georgetown, our home for a month. And I don’t think any of us said it out loud, or in so many words, but as we got braver with each other and talked more about the ways in which it was hard and scary for us to be there, we all decided that doing the month together would be much better than doing it on our own. And just like that, when I walked up to the opening luncheon the next morning, I walked up knowing I already had people who knew me, people to find a table with – the beginnings of a community that would have my back.
Calling a group of people I’m with my community is one of the highest compliments I can offer. I have high standards for authenticity in community because I know what it’s supposed to look like, I’ve been in it before when it was done right and I can’t accept anything less than that as true. Community is deciding that you’re going to do everything you can - all you can, not all that's said you should or all you might want to do - to support the other people in it with you. It can be on day one or day 3683, or both, and sometimes it’s best done when you decide fresh every day in between. Support looks different on every one of those days, but what it comes down to is that you know you can reach out to anyone else in it and they know they know the same is true of you when the pieces come apart in the puzzle of our lives. We help one another look from a different angle to fit things back into place, or to forget they’re frayed for a little bit so we can come back to them with fresh eyes. And we give each other lots of grace.
The other thing I’ve learned about community, especially in these five-going-on-six years of college, is that you can’t begrudge others for having their own, even when it means you cannot be a part of it. It's easy to get frustrated that community comes easier in the shorter seasons of this stage of life - like my trip to D.C. - than it sometimes has in the long ones. I’ve gone to all the meetings, known everyone’s names, and known at my core that I was never going to be a part of what they had found for themselves. They weren't my people, and that said absolutely nothing about who they were as individuals or what they had created as a group. It just meant I had to keep looking until I found the fit I needed, one that needed me back. Sometimes I found individuals I loved dearly and connected with immediately, but our circles were different and we couldn’t find a way to make them overlap. Those are the times when the same respect I hope that friend would have for how I fit in a community I was a part of and they were not, I had to return with grace and without guilt.
We live in a world that tries to boil relationship down to a science. I’m here to tell you otherwise. You can do everything right and still not get what the world has promised you. You can say all the things you think you should and find the time in your schedule to go to every event you can, and still not become part of the community you hoped would sustain you.
Because it wasn’t meant to sustain you. Because only God does.
And I think He’s created the confusing and sometimes challenging courses to community in our lives to remind us that nothing is possible aside from Him, nothing is functional if He is not in it, and we are called to trust that where He leads us is for His glory and our good – even and especially when it feels very unglorious and very not good.
And when I can walk into a community without expectations for what it’s supposed to be for me, what I want it to do for me - knowing that God has already provided a source in my life, if I would look to Him for it, for whatever encouragement, whatever accountability, whatever wisdom, whatever joy I might need – only then is when community comes alive in my life, serving the purposes He’s designed it to serve.
In all the ways I didn't expect, even in a shorter season, I'm so glad this trip gave me that reminder. To the James Madison Fellows at the 2018 Summer Institute: thank you for choosing to care. Thank you for sharing your stories with me, and for listening to mine. Thank you for the things you taught me about how to be a teacher who cares, and how to be a student who thinks, and how to balance both at the same time. Thank you for your kindness, your generosity, your sense of humor, even at rainy day field trips and early morning breakfasts. I'm proud and grateful to know you all.