The Value of Community

Back in the fall of 2014 I went out to Colorado for the second time ever. This time though I wouldn’t be staying for 2 weeks like before, this time I’d be staying for 3 months, a whole semester long. The longest time I’d ever stayed away from home, especially being so far away.

I was nervous, excited and a little bit unsure of what to expect. I’d been trying to get into this program for 3 years. When I first heard about the opportunity it seemed like a dream that would never actually happen. Why should I try then if it isn’t going to work out? I thought that about a hundred times. But I went to the hour-long session where we could ask the director of the program anything we needed to anyway. He encouraged us to apply, he made it sound like it was possible and I decided then that I would try my best to make it happen. Which lead to 3 years of me attempting to figure out how to pay for the program and finally, with a lot of help from others, it actually happening.

So I found myself on a plane for the first time ever flying to the Denver International Airport to meet up with a few people who would attend the program as well. Flying was scary by the way, not the actual flying part, mainly trying to figure out how to navigate airports on my own. But with the help of a few really nice customer relations people and flight attendants, I survived.

I walked down the moving sidewalk in the center of the airport and saw a tall guy with spiked hair, another guy with dark hair and a lovely blonde girl who made me feel so much better about meeting a bunch of strangers in the airport. We chatted a bit and were met later by another guy who was headed to Summit Semester as well. We didn’t sit together on the plane, as strange as that sounds now. I had no idea that at the end of these next three months these would be people who I would travel exceptionally long distances to see. Or that us and so many others would grow so close in such a short amount of time. We just sat, scattered throughout the plane and rode along.

I remember thinking on my first day that there was no way I’d ever be friends with most of the people I saw. They were all too good-looking and confident and I’d be lucky to just survive the next three months. I was overwhelmed by all the beauty we were surrounded by, how many new people there were and how long it would all last. But if I had any doubts at all, they went away rather quickly.

From this point on everything is very much a blur. I remember things vividly but not in the proper order. We had classes together, ate together, prepared meals together, worked together, studied together and rested together. We did all of those mandatory team building activities which at first were awkward  but soon enough we embraced doing things with each other. We planned camping trips, nights of dancing, walks out in the cool night air when we laid on blankets and looked up at the stars, mornings of hiking up the mountainside behind the lodge, movie nights and afternoons of cooking a favorite dish for dinner. We rose early and went to class most days and slept in occasionally. We woke up on freezing cold Sunday mornings to pile into a 15 passenger van and go to church early to help set up the chairs before service.We took long drives through the mountains and camped in beautiful places, we visited the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe and many other little towns in between. We were almost always doing something, almost always together, and we loved it. We thrived. Throughout all of it we thrived.

I didn’t realize how much of our time there was so greatly effected by the leaders around us. I mean, I knew they were there. They were structuring so much of what we did, giving us room to make many of our decisions on our own, pushing us to think deeply about what we believe and teaching us the value of community and hard work and structured time and intentionality and countless other lessons we learned. Even the movies that we watched every Sunday night were picked specifically to bring about some moral question and get us thinking again. And I think I’ve realized more and more in the years that have followed our time there just how much we learned from them. How deep it went into us and how much they must care about us to poor that much time and energy into training us to be people who love truth and seek it out instead of just taking what’s handed to us.

They had us read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together the first week we were there. The chapter on community specifically. I remember learning from it that Christian community is so very important, that we need it to thrive, that finding it is like searching in a dark place for some sort of light and warmth and finally finding it and then embracing it and living in and through it. That it is how we were meant to experience life, in communities that aren’t broken or torn apart or difficult to deal with. But around people who give us life, encourage us to grow and understand us. I also remember reading that we were not always meant to stay in community that is so wonderful, at least not so long as we are in a broken world. We’re supposed to take our light and spread it throughout the earth, not stay in places where we are warm and comfortable and safe and keep it all to ourselves. When I read this for the first time, I rejected it completely. I didn’t want to accept that we would need to leave it one day and go out on our own. That seemed like the worst thing that could happen. But, the knowledge of what Bonhoeffer wrote about community has guided me ever since we left. Because we did have to leave in the end. And it was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done.

If you’ve ever had a dream that was so good you didn’t want to wake up and so you slept on further hoping it would continue and then you couldn’t quite get back to it the way it was and no matter what you did the dream kept fading away. And then you’re forced to realize that you’ll have to wake up and soon forget about it entirely. The sweetness of it fading with sleep itself. That’s sort of what it felt like to leave Semester, only  there was a lot more grieving involved. This may sound dramatic to some, but on the last night of our time there most of us stayed up all night so that we could say goodbye to those who left early in the morning. And we cried. We cried all night. So much so that they were telling us to make sure we drank lots of  water to make sure we stayed hydrated so that we wouldn’t pass out from losing so much liquid, which had apparently happened to someone in a previous year.  We didn’t know how to handle it and we were over emotional and exhausted. It felt like every good thing, our whole lives that we’d been living for 3 months was coming apart at the seams. And we knew we’d never get it back.

I often wonder why the people who lead the program would be willing to put us through something so emotionally taxing and difficult. Why let us grow so close and then brutally rip us apart in that way? But I think I may be beginning to understand that we needed each other and our time there, but we also needed to be brought out of it. As painful as it was to endure, I’ve come to believe that Bonhoeffer is right. How are we really living for Christ if we stay hidden away and don’t make every attempt to learn how to love others and take this hope we’ve been given and spread it around? Our world is broken and cursed, which means we have to be brave enough to take the light that we have and go to the dark places and plant it there and help it grow. And I grow more grateful every year to have learned that lesson.

I still talk to the people who went through those three months with me, the people who became my family. I talk to them because I need them, because we’re growing and changing and learning more about life out here away from our little safe haven and we need each other. When I think about Semester and our time there I mostly miss the people because they are what made it up. But I also miss our lives together. I miss seeing their beautiful faces all the time, sitting on the couch together when we were studying, snuggling close together during cold nighttime stargazing trips, sharing difficulties and heartaches with each other, making popcorn and laughing in the kitchen before movie nights started, late night conversations, hearing some of the guys sing every word to every 21 pilots song on the vessel album, sleeping in the bitter cold up on the mountain behind the lodge just to prove that we weren’t wimps and we could stay out all night. I miss laughing together, learning together, the crisp mountain air and the stars that were so bright. I miss never being alone, always having someone to go to and being able to be alone anytime you needed to just by hiking into the woods a little ways. But mostly I miss being a part of it all. Belonging there. I often find myself longing for the warmth, safety, security and structure we had. But…. And it is a big “but”…. Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only left all that was warm and safe to fight for what is right, he laid down his life for the cause. And I believe we are called to do the same.

And life is exciting. And I’m finding that there are so many worthy causes that need to be fought for. Which is why I’m glad we are out here now in our separate corners of the world, embracing opportunities to apply what we’ve learned. And we can do it better because of our time together. I at least, am reminded of why I’m doing these things every time I think of our time in Colorado and those I love so much.

This is an invaluable lesson that I’ve learned from and with all of them. Yesterday marks two years since our session began. Two years ago half of us were out in the mud in a big field below the lodge asking each other questions about our lives and pulling stubborn and prickly weeds out of the ground while the other half of us pulled up in nice clean shiny vans and settled into their rooms. And I can’t believe it’s been two years. It was our home.

I know we’ll never go back to that place, I know that the longing I have to go back and be a part of it all again will never fully go away or leave me. But I consider that a privilege, to have tasted what it undoubtedly will be like when the earth is renewed. And  how amazing is it that we are able to have each other as we endeavor to live for Christ? Even as far apart as we all are. Not everyone can say the same. All we need to do after all, is cross a few rivers and roads to reach each other.

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“Home is wherever I’m with you.”

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