Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another.
— Henri Nouwen
I’m an only child. I grew up with lots of personal space and didn’t ever have to share anything. I had my own bedroom, my own bathroom, and could watch what I wanted on TV. I’ve always been content spending time with myself. Reading a good book or taking a long walk alone invigorates me. I fall strongly into the introvert camp and have generally thought of my independent streak as a positive attribute.
In 2017, my husband and I started feeling called to attend a three-month ministry school on a remote island off the coast of New Zealand. I’d always wanted to go to New Zealand (especially after seeing all of the Lord of the Rings movies), and I was excited by the possibility. Everywhere we turned, God seemed to be confirming that New Zealand was the place for us. So we submitted our application and waited with anticipation.
Eventually, we put down a deposit and started to plan our journey. Many of the school’s participants share rooms, some with a single roommate, others with several people. As a married couple, we knew we would get our own room. But as our departure drew closer, I started to experience some anxiety. Private room or not, we would be living in close quarters with sixty people from all over the world whom I’d never met. We would be eating all of our meals with them and (Yikes!) sharing a bathroom with them. If you grew up in a big family, I’m sure this doesn’t sound like much of a challenge. But I’m not exaggerating when I say this was well outside my comfort zone.
I honestly wanted to get to know the people at our school. But doing life together 24/7 was a little panic-inducing. I knew God had us there for a reason, so I gave it my best shot. I scrubbed greasy casserole pans in cold water with classmates from Switzerland, Finland, and San Francisco. I hiked 45 minutes with women from Canada, Norway, and Cambodia to get coffee from the nearest village. I played badminton with a young man from France and a young woman from Thailand. I watched stunning sunsets night after night with a host of God’s children from all across the globe. Gradually, our walls came down as vulnerability and trust emerged. Sure, it took time and real commitment on my part, but it was absolutely worth it.
The wonderful leaders at the school imparted much to me, but I’m convinced that sharing community with others opened my heart to receive all that God had for me during that season. I am not the same person I was.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and authentic, our hearts begin to soften. God’s love becomes more tangible when we see it flowing in others and experience it pouring from our own imperfect hearts. This simply doesn’t happen when we won’t confront the walls we’ve built.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
I’ve often wished this sort of transformation could be achieved alone — just me, my coffee, and some books. But I’ve come to realize the work God has done in my heart during the last several years happened mostly within community. Throughout that period, I’ve also experienced beautiful times of stillness alone with God, but I had to step outside my comfort zone, and my isolation, to discover what God wanted to deal with in my heart.
When we aren’t challenged, it is easy to hide our wounds, even pretend they don’t exist. But authentic community engages with the heart and encourages us to grow in love. You may not have the opportunity to live with 60 perfect strangers on a remote island, but you can take some simple steps to embrace community. Inviting someone to have coffee or go for a walk is a great place to start. Ask God to place someone on your heart today.
Shay S. Mason is a Chicago-area native living in North Carolina. An autoimmune disease and OCD/anxiety overcomer, she is a firm believer in God’s healing love. Shay and her husband Bruce are the founders of Love Inside Out, Inc. in Raleigh and have spent extensive time ministering in Madagascar. They enjoy spending time with their two almost grown kids and spoiled Goldendoodle. Shay is the author of Rest for the Weary: Finding Freedom from Fear in the Heart of the Father. Her blog, The Spacious Place, can be found at shaysmason.com.