This past weekend my youth group had our yearly fall retreat and I had an opportunity to give a talk about something I’m truly passionate about – community. I’ve used this blog to talk about some of the communities I’ve been a part of and explain why they’ve been so important to me. I want to delve a little further into the value of being in a community and why they are life-changing.
In order to really appreciate a community I think it’s important to first distinguish a community from a group. A group, at its very basic level, is a collection of people that are affiliated in some way. It could be a team, an organization, an office, and so on. Members of these groups see each other on a regular basis. However, the connection between group members remains on the surface, never going too far beyond very basic personal interaction. Group members know things about each other, but they don’t know each other. A community, on the other hand, goes much deeper. Each individual member feels a true sense of unity and belonging. There’s an intimate connection between community members where each one feels valued and loved.
During my talk I discussed some of the communities I’ve been part of but I also went into detail about some groups in was in. I won’t go into too much depth about those groups here but I do want to talk about how some of the groups I’ve been in have been toxic and painful.
Growing up most of my life I was very shy and reserved. I had trouble feeling like I could open up around people other than my close friends. I was more comfortable staying within myself and not doing too much to draw any unnecessary attention. What I had was a crippling sense of fear – a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated. I had a fragile self esteem and sense of worth, so any form of public humiliation would be devastating. With that being the case I figured it was best to just be quiet and try my best to blend into the background.
I went into high school with that type of mindset. I felt it was better to remain anonymous and invisible than to stand out. In the groups I was part of – teams, organizations, even friend groups – I did my best to blend into the background. Through my first couple years of high school I was successful in my attempt to remain invisible. People didn’t really know who I was and that was fine with me. What I didn’t realize, though, is that I was effectively depleting my self-confidence and self esteem. The people I was surrounded by on a daily basis barely recognized I was there, and in turn, didn’t see the value I had. I didn’t see my own value because of that fear. The groups I was in did nothing to convince me otherwise.
So what changed? The short answer – St. Cletus youth group. I began going sporadically as a freshman, simply following my grade school friends that went. However, over time I realized that the people there began to notice me despite the fact that I was the quiet kid trying my best to go unnoticed. They took an active interest in my life, asking me questions about myself and proactively trying to get to know me. To them I wasn’t invisible or a nobody. To them I was a valued, loved human being. That fear and self doubt began to slowly evaporate the more time I spent with these people. I noticed myself starting to open up and feel better about who I was. What was there to be afraid of? So what if I made a mistake or embarrassed myself? That started to not matter as much the more I learned to love myself.
I owe all of that to the community I was a part of at St. Cletus. They welcomed me and accepted me for who I was, and what’s more, they helped me discover who I could be. For while they accepted me as that shy, quiet kid, they helped me realize that I could be so much more. When I left the youth group I was infinitely more outgoing and confident in who I was. That’s what a community is all about. Cultivating an environment where people feel comfortable in their own skin and creating a space where people can see their own value and purpose.
I wish I could say that with my newfound confidence I didn’t have any other negative group experiences. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Over the years I’ve been in a number of groups where I felt invisible, insignificant, and worthless. What makes those experiences especially difficult is that they often occurred within groups that I spent a fair amount of time with. It’s tough going into each new day knowing that the people you’re around don’t or won’t make an effort to truly know you or simply put you in a box. I no longer desired to remain invisible like I did when I first entered high school. I wanted to stand out and be someone. That just made things more painful.
But again, it was my communities that saved me. One in particular was my Catholic Newman Center community. It was there that I made the absolute best friends in the world – friends that brought the best out of me. With that being said, they didn’t expect me to change. They loved me no matter what. They embraced me for who I was, flaws and all. This community was a place where I experienced true joy and happiness but it was also a place where I could share my frustrations and sorrows. I didn’t have to hide or altar anything. I could express myself without that fear that had once crippled me. My Newman Center community changed my life.
It sounds stupid, but when I graduated college I assumed my community building days were over. I think that’s an indication of how naive I was but also how powerful my Newman Center experience was. The community I was part of there would be enough to sustain me forever. In the years since I’ve realized that was wishful thinking. That’s not to diminish the impact of that community. That Newman community is still a huge part of my life still today. However, it’s difficult to be as invested in a community when it’s no longer part of your daily life. The friends and members of that community are now spread out. We’ve all moved on to different things and places in life. This has left a pretty sizable void that I haven’t quite realized was there until recently.
A little over a month ago I heard about this new young adult ministry called Via. I didn’t really know what to expect but I figured it would be worth a shot. Fast forward to today and I’m starting to see the makings of a true community. Within my first couple weeks of going the leadership team had already learned my name and made real efforts to get to know me. I felt welcomed and accepted. Via quickly became something I looked forward to each week because I desired that community.
We all have a desire to fit in. We all yearn to belong to something. Sometimes it’s more than a desire, it’s a need. That need consumes us and can be suffocating. As a result, we feel like we have to change ourselves or sacrifice aspects of our personalities in order to fit in. With that comes a depleted sense of self-worth and we become a shell of our true selves. We may attempt to fit in with a group that expect us to change. In order to truly be a “part” of that group we have appease the other members or tear others down to raise our own stock.
Communities have the opposite impact. They teach us how to love others and ourselves and they show us the importance in being who we are. Communities create a culture of acceptance and support for one another. Within a group there tends to be a hierarchy. Within a community every single member is loved, valued, and cares for one another, regardless of who they are or what their background may be.
It would be an oversight to talk about community and not end with the community I just had a blessing to spend a weekend with. Being a part of the St. Cletus youth group today is something special. When I first joined it was the people in the youth group that helped me find value within myself and embrace who God made me to be. Now I want to help the teens discover that within themselves. I want to help them see just how loved and important they are. I want them to know they are enough. And yet despite my best efforts it’s them who continue to do more for me. They never fail to make me feel valued as a core member and loved as a person.
I’m sure just about everyone has been in a group where they didn’t feel valued or worthy of attention. If you’re reading this, maybe you’ve been in a group where you’ve been actively torn down and ridiculed. I’ve been in groups like that. Maybe you’ve been in groups where you’re invisible, simply a face in the crowd. What I hope everyone finds at some point in life is a community where everyone knows your name and your story. I hope everyone finds a place where instead of being torn down they are lifted up and supported through everything. Within a community you find solace, comfort, and purpose. For anyone that has helped me find any of those things within a community all I have to say is THANK YOU.