“We want a place where people can be welcome. Where they can come as they are. Where community and relationship can happen. Our goal is to build community.”
I remember last Fall repeating some version of that statement over and over again. We had just come to the decision to begin Our Common Ground, and in the course of gathering all the resources and support we would need, I was having many conversations about what we hoped to do in Everett and why we believed this new ministry would be important. Even though we were still working out the exact phrasing of our mission statement, one phrase kept popping up: Building relationships and community.
This phrase did not just come out of the blue, but came out of the years I have spent working with people experiencing homelessness. It came from learning from other ministries and organizations doing similar work, and seeing how vital these things are to them. It came out of listening to our Everett community for the year leading up to this, asking and praying how our small, brand new church community-in-formation might live into our mission of practicing welcome and justice in North Everett.
And five months into Our Common Ground opening it’s doors, I have some trouble with that phrase.
Please hear me out. I don’t think the sentiment is wrong, just that phrase. Most people, when they hear building community, know what you are saying. You want to be a part of helping a community begin and grow. But for me, early on, I took that phrase a bit too literally. Though I knew it wasn’t my job alone to build community, I took on the task like it depended on me. I believed in community so much that I was going to make it happen - regardless of who showed up, or if people even wanted it.
But then we started to grow. Fast. We went from 12 or so people at the Hospitality Space to over 50 in what seemed like a matter of weeks. I went from feeling like a community pastor to doing all I could to just keep the place running. I saw all the drugs and addiction and mental illness and trauma of the streets every day, and felt like we were doing nothing to help. And a few months into having continually growing numbers, I just broke down one day. I felt like I had failed. At building community. At building relationships. Yes, we had lots of people, but I didn't see much community. I felt like I had dropped the ball on the core element of our mission.
But in the midst of feeling like a failure, I began to pay attention. Because sometimes all you can do when you are not sure how to move forward is to actually stop and pay attention to where you are. And when I did that, I saw community. Sometimes it was just a glimpse, a fleeting moment. Often it was small. Something I would usually overlook. Occasionally it was right there, in your face, in ways I couldn’t believe I had missed before.
I saw folks in the community who are heroin addicts tell their friends to chill out, because this is a safe place and they are going to help keep it that way. I saw people on food stamps quietly leave a few extra cans of peanut butter, because they saw we were running low. I saw a friend picking up garbage around the church, because he noticed it was getting messy. I saw small moments of people caring about one another, caring about our space, and caring about our community.
And in the midst of noticing these things I had missed, I realized that community is not something you can force. Something that you can make happen. Something you can control. You can create space for it. You can cultivate it. You can welcome people and include them and care for one another. But like a plant, you can’t make it grow. You can just give it the best environment to flourish, with a few prayers and a little luck thrown in.
The funny thing is, I had expressed similar sentiments in the season leading up to starting Our Common Ground. But in the chaos and stress and challenges of running a hospitality space, they were forgotten. I thought I could make community happen through my hard work. Through keeping everything running perfectly. But it was precisely because of those things I failed to see the small moments of community happening all around me.
I just needed to pay attention.