It was the first gathering of a newly formed small group. The eight people who gathered in Ann's living room recognized one another, but had no real connection, except for the two married couples who were there. Ann, one of the two leaders of the group introduced herself, offered opening words from a hymnbook, and then invited a moment of silence. In the silence, a slow gentle relaxation came. A man who had come directly from work loosened the grip of his tie. A young woman's shoulders dropped visibly. Another woman leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and focused on her breath for the first time in days.
Ann broke the silence. "As Bill and I talked about this group, we thought it might be odd to begin with a regular check-in since we don't know one another well. We decided it might be helpful to begin with a question about the way in which we're all connected: our membership in the church. So, here's the question we came up with: How is our congregation important to you?"
Feet shuffled a bit, and a tinge of anxiety entered the room. A young woman interrupted the silence. "I'm Dylan. I've only been a member of the church for a few months. I never thought I'd be a church person—I mean, my grandparents are not church people. My parents don't go to church. But the music transports me, and the minister speaks directly to my life. I have found one friend who takes classes at the same college I do, which is nice—it makes me feel like I have a connection to someone. There's a professor from my school who comes, too, but I'm kinda shy about that. I don't know whether to say something to him or not, but it's sorta comforting to see a familiar face. Running into him at school reminds me of my connection to the church, and running into him at church helps me feel connected, even if I don't know him, really, at all." She paused a moment and gathered her thought, "I've been looking for some way to search out answers for the big questions I have about where I'm going and what matters in life. Who would've thought I'd find it in a church? But here I am."
Dylan's words were greeted by smiles and nods.
Two of the men looked shyly at one another and one began. "I'm Arturo, and this is my husband Alan." Alan, the man who had loosened his tie earlier, nodded. "We found the church when we were looking to get married. The openness and acceptance impressed us."
Alan picked up the story. "You'd think the hard part would have been our sexuality. What was funny—not funny funny, but odd—was I learned things about my family I hadn't expected. They were OK with me being gay, but seemed uncomfortable with Arturo's heritage."
"I'm Cuban," Arturo interjected. "And, I'm not sure they were OK with your being gay."
Alan laughed. "Anyway, Rev. Chris was great with talking us through everything—not only the ceremony, but the family dynamics. Even the cultural issues."
"Yeah, we did our vows in both Spanish and English. My grandmother really appreciated that," Arturo beamed.
Alan went on. "We decided to explore making the church our home. And it was the perfect place to bring Diego, who we adopted from Columbia. It matters that he's around other families who completely accept us as a family."
Another woman went next. "I'm Leslie. When I moved across the country to here, I had no idea how to make friends or where to start. I had been active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation back in North Carolina, but it took me several months before I was ready to jump in. Once I did, I could remember what I loved about my former congregation. They're different, sure. There are ways I'd pick my old congregation. But, there are ways I'd pick this one. I've made friends. I've learned the routines. I'm glad to be here."
Bill, the second leader of the group, spoke next, beginning with a deep sigh. "Some of you know my story. This church saved my life." He paused a moment, biting his lip and composing himself. "Our son Matt was fifteen when he took his life. I don't know how I would have survived without this church community. People came immediately, bringing food, giving hugs, and taking the younger children so Patty and I could be alone together and try to make sense of it all. The service was amazing. Andy and Nick, Matt's best friends from the youth group, spoke a marvelous tribute at the service." Bill stopped to wipe his eyes. "Since then, I've learned a lot about youth and suicide. I've gone into the schools and talked about the realities and the resources. The people of this congregation have supported me through it all. I've grown into a more out-going and self-confident person. Of course, I'd trade it all to have Matt back. But I don't think I would have survived, much less grown, if it hadn't been for this congregation."
Silence enveloped the group for a moment.
"It's hard to have anything to say after that," said Ann. She smiled shyly. "My name's Ann, but I already said that. I don't have a story anywhere near as dramatic as Bill's, but my connection runs deep, too. I came to the church just after my divorce. My children were grown and gone, and I was lonely. There was a lot I didn't know about myself, though. I started going to the women's group. Listening to their stories, I realized I wasn't alone with my issues. And whenever I needed to talk, they listened to me, too. Since then, I've branched out. I even started singing in the choir." She laughed. "I hadn't sung since I was in high school, and it was great! I agreed to co-lead this group because it's time to take a risk and try leadership. I hope I'll do OK for you."
The next woman picked it up. "I'm Donna. I first came to this church when I was ten years old. My mother was a charter member. Most of my adult life I lived away, but when Mother got sick ten years ago, I came back here to take care of her. First, I came on my own; for a year, I commuted back and forth before I persuaded my family to move here." She smiled at the man next her and took his hand. "Mom had drifted away from the church, but I brought her back, because I needed the support, whether she did or not. Her old friends took her in right away, but it took awhile for me to find my place, especially to find a place separate from my mother, but still somehow connected. I found it in the Green Sanctuary group. I was a biologist before I moved back here, and I get really excited about being an environmental evangelist." She looked to her husband.
He spoke up. "I'm Ted. Donna brought me along. Me and our two teenagers. I had never been part of a church, so it was an adjustment. What really helped me, though, was knowing that my kids' questions were being heard in an atmosphere that I could trust. I've worked in the religious education program with the middle school youth. Middle school's such a great age—they've begun thinking for themselves, understanding abstract concepts, and they have such incredible energy." Ted's eyes twinkled. "I've loved it."
Ann summed up. "There are a lot of fabulous stories in this group. I'm glad we're together, and I look forward to where we're going to be able to go as a group."