An Unusual Community

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Last year, I started an online community. Though my faith–and my understanding of faith–has changed in the past three years,* I still will say, unblinkingly, God nudged me to start this group. I’m certain this was God’s intent, and the reasons have become clearer through the life of the group.

We started with twenty and now have over a hundred members. One of our members died last year. Several of us have had children go through hellish difficulties–which means we, the parents, went through them, as well. We’ve gone through political turmoil, personal crises, and even an epiphany or two. We laugh and cry and scream and bitch and celebrate together.

I decided to write about our group because one of our members just went through a horrible crisis and immediately reached out to the rest of us. You know what? It works. We rallied. We’re spread out across states and even countries. Some of us believe in God and some don’t. Several of us mean different things when we say “I believe in God.” Some of us pray and some of us don’t. We all love. We all encourage and support one another and speak truth. We all seek peace–shalom–and pursue it.

Writing about our group is a little tricky, of course, because it’s a closed group for the safety of some of our members. We keep one another’s confidence within the group. It’s a space to vent, to ask and offer reality checks, and to laugh painfully at the madness of it all…and then go on loving.

But without violating trust, here are things I can tell you:

It’s social media the way you wish it worked. I mean, if you’re sane and kind, it’s how you wish it always worked. We share pictures of our pets and dig into our deepest traumas. We talk about justice and about healing. No one trolls. Ever. It’s an explicit Troll-Free Zone. Some of us are more blunt and direct than others and some cuss more than others are comfortable with. But we trust, and we merit one another’s trust.

We didn’t all know one another outside of this group. In fact very few of us did. There are small circles of friends and acquaintances, but most of the members didn’t know 80%+ of the others when they joined. We know one another much better now. I do believe you can get to know people in a forum like this, even if you haven’t met “in person.” It helps if people are being honest about themselves and not merely trying to look good or keep up a persona. I take that back, it doesn’t merely help, it makes all the difference.

Not everyone in the group is equally active, and that works, too. Some folks are more quiet, rarely comment, and just follow the conversations. We love our lurkers. Some check in only rarely. But everyone can receive support or exhort the rest of us or just scream when they need to; everyone can offer wisdom or humor or randomness when they feel like it.

When the January 6 attack on the Capitol was happening, and in that murky aftermath, we worked together to help one another figure out what was really happening–and not to freak all the way out. The cooperation helped tremendously.

When I started this group, I was on the verge of disconnecting from all social media. I had nearly concluded that I was not helping or making any significant difference and, on the contrary, my participation was damaging me and sabotaging my efforts to be a loving presence in the world.

But I’ve decided for today–and leaving tomorrow’s worry for tomorrow–that I need to keep speaking up and encouraging, offering a few laughs and baseball pictures, as well as sharing my out-loud wrestling to love others and be the change I pray to see in the world. I can’t fix the nastiness and sheer hatred that bubbles up on social media like some poison broth. I can continue to offer something else…and refuse to get involved in spooning that hatred up or ingesting any slurps of it myself. I don’t always refrain from the sheer foolishness of reading random people’s malicious comments, but I’ve gotten much better at catching myself quickly and turning my energy to more positive, constructive pursuits.

This group is one of those, usually the main one when I’m online. As I grow older, I am far less interested in arguing or debating for no apparent gain. Honestly, I enjoy arguing less, period. Life is too short and my time and energy too limited and precious to squander what I have that way. I find myself moving away from relationships with people who seem not to gain much from me but are intent on letting me know how wrong I am. If I can choose between 1)encouraging a friend who has escaped an abusive relationship and 2)debating a friend about whether or not sexual assault is as prevalent as statistics suggest–yes, real life examples–I’m going to leave the convincing to someone else. Not saying it’s unimportant to challenge people’s mistaken views–or even to have my own challenged, when necessary–but a few people need what I can offer while a bunch would love to spar. I want to leave the sparring to others. That’s my conscious goal, anyway.

I love our online group, because we are there for one another and we don’t have to agree on everything. We can and do love our differences. I think it’s the best example I’ve seen of mutual acceptance in a group, certainly in one that does more than superficial chit-chat.

We are called to love others but not to fix their thinking. Perhaps that’s because God empowers us to do the former but not the latter–at the very least, that’s a good clue. I appreciate being in a community in which some of the folks are not Jesus followers; those who are not reflect back to me how my words and actions come across to someone who doesn’t know the lingo or share my assumptions. They teach me how to love outside of my own box, which reminds me that God is bigger than my understanding.

They remind me that grace is greater.

I’m convinced that is still, and always, the main point.

PS I wanted to share about our group because I want to encourage you that better things are possible, even in the sometimes toxic social media world. I’m not inviting anyone–“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club”–but I would challenge you to start or help create such a community, if that’s what you need.

*To be clear, my love for Jesus has not changed. I’d say my belief in God’s love is greater now than ever before in my life. I just don’t have such confidence in my own understanding as I once had. I consider that growth.

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