Call in/as community

Divine interruption/abandonment of one’s plans as they are drawn up into another purpose. That’s my call story.

It took going to seminary to identify this as a call (I’d believed that a call had to be linear and probably only applied to men who were becoming priests). During my freshman year of college, a new friend, a Muslim woman, dragged me to the first meeting of a new interfaith group. I didn’t really want to go. I was attending mass weekly, as I’d always done with my family, but I hadn’t planned to think much about religion when I went to a secular liberal arts college. I was studying Spanish and Arabic. I wanted to travel the world and write.

The interfaith club changed my life. More than the club, though, everything centered around the basement of the chapel on campus, where we had an Interfaith Common Room, plus gathering and prayer spaces for the Catholic, Muslim, and non-denominational Christian students. It was stuffy and virtually windowless, but we had a kitchen, couches, and piano. I essentially lived there in college. I did my homework there, organized interfaith events there, cooked there, and found a close-knit group of female friends, Catholic, Muslim, Lutheran, non-denominational, Modern Orthodox Jewish, and non-religious. I met my mentor, an elderly, gay Presbyterian man who was chaplain to the college, who changed my life again and again. I developed a deep and complicated relationship with Catholicism. I got my heart broken (over religious difference), coped with hardship, and struggled with all the normal things that college students struggle with. It was not formal or programmatic: it was organic and alive, arising out of a space. When my Lutheran friend went off to seminary when she graduated a few years ahead of me, I got jealous until I realized that I could do it too. Going to seminary gradually became the obvious thing to do. I just wanted to be in seminary because I wanted to keep digging deeper with others.

The chapel basement is the site of my call in community. It interrupted my vision for college and my own life. That place is my WHY. It’s why I’m here. Place and community are everything. Radical, deep, intimate connection. Staying up all night studying Arabic or talking about God with friends. It is a place of sense memories, too: my best friend, a Pakistani woman, making her mom’s homemade chai on the stove; the smell of burnt cookies; the surge of adrenaline in a friend’s moment of crisis; incense in chapel; the call to prayer; the smell of sharpies as we made protest signs on the floor; the smell and touch of a dog (one of my best friends had a service dog that was just as much part of the community as the humans). There was no flash of lightning. There was just a warm, growing feeling that this was it. This space brought it all together. It grounded my nascent work for social justice in something transcendent and I knew that I was “not alone anymore.” New dreams replaced my old dreams. Being in a highly competitive, elite educational environment made me realize that my old dreams would never bring me ultimate satisfaction. Publishing my writing, which used to give me such a high, would always be an empty project if I didn’t have something worth writing about.

Community, especially (but not exclusively) community with women, is my why. I felt a similar sense of connection and purpose in the Women’s Interfaith Residency (where I lived while in graduate school) and at the Catholic Worker. The times when I have not felt firm grounding in place/community have been among the hardest times of my life. Spaces of deep connection fill me with energy because they allow me to see what’s possible. My projects and dreams arise out of these spaces. I chase after the feeling of intense belonging because that’s where I have known God.

If I am to do God’s will in the world, I know that it has to be in a space such as this. I can’t do it otherwise. Community sustains me and shows me what a new world can look like. My WHY is that I need to feel it and I’m chasing after it. The “it” is God incarnate among the people.

5 thoughts on “Call in/as community

  1. This is beautiful. I am in awe of your experience in the Interfaith group – I have just the slightest experience in that and would LOVE to learn from you. It takes courage and commitment and I admire your dedication… be my teacher! hahah

  2. Abby, I share your feelings about communities as a source of strength, but you have verbalized it so much more eloquently than I. I am looking forward to sharing in this community with you.

  3. Hi, Abby. The interfaith club and the Common Room you describe appear as gift in your life. What an environment you lived and thrived in, engaging with members of the different faith traditions and other Christians. I like that your why is that first experience of community. If I think about it, I derive a lot of energy and sense of renewal from my ISAIAH community, and I felt that in your story.

  4. “The truth is that I’m constantly exhausted. I don’t think I overload myself with commitments to escape my problems, though: I think my constant investment in religious spaces is a sort of desperate attempt to find meaning and belonging. I think it’s an attempt to deal with the root causes rather than run away from them, but I don’t know effective it is.”

    “I chase after the feeling of intense belonging because that’s where I have known God.”

    Wonderings & open questions for further reflection, if any seem to inspire or provoke that:

    What gifts do you notice come to birth in the context of community?

    When is a time you felt most alive since college. What were you doing?

    Are there practices that invite you to turn inward?

    There is a lot of chasing and seeking and pouring in to others — I wonder about whether you can think of a time when you received, not because of anything you did or achieved. What was that like?

    Who is someone you most admire — what about them do you find attractive?

    What do you find most attractive about yourself? What do you love about who you are?

    You mention that home in rural Vermont is a hard place, laced with memories of bullying — how might you narrate your own drive for community and work for justice as born from childhood experiences of pain and suffering?

    Does putting this into a story reveal anything about your self-understanding or sense of call?

    From the prompt: What is your earliest memory of experiencing God’s love? Your love for God?

  5. Abby,
    There is something so profound in experiencing the community as God’s incarnation. Your final line resonates with an insight from Thich Nhat Hanh: “The next Buddha may take the form of a community.” It seems we are connecting a lot with each others’ posts: your writing reminds me of my own experiences of experiencing God’s love first through intentional community. We should really talk—I would learn and grow a lot!

    But I want to focus on writing. I noticed your statement that a writer needs something to write ABOUT. I agree: writing is soul-work as much as anything. A writer offers her heart. In my experience, fallow times (not producing texts) are never wasted. A writer grows through living.

    I want to offer a few theme prompts for you, things I would ask someone who was creating a novel around their experience. What tensions and unanswered questions have you held through your time in community? Then, on the other side, what learnings do you consider your “personal wisdom” from these past few years? Could the experience of longing for community but not having a permanent one be fleshed out by creating a plot around it? What would your character go through?

    My final insight is that through participate in this workshop, you are writing. As my friend always says to me: from an Aristotelian perspective, if you do the action of writing, you are a writer.

    I really look forward to hearing more about your writing, since in this post we only got to hear a bit!

    I affirm your desire for community and I’ll be praying for you that this workshop helps you dig deeper into that desire.

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