Dec. 31, 2018.
By Lay Minister for Membership & Outreach Shannon Williams.
“Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”
– Vera Nazarian
A random bounce through UUCF’s website encounters no fewer than a dozen versions of the word “connection.” Interconnectedness. Building connections. Grow, Connect, Serve. This word in its many forms weaves itself around all the ways we work for love and justice in our congregation.
Its meanings are even more varied outside of congregational life. From electrical engineering to neural networks to ecological systems, connection suggests relationship, coherence, continuity or a sequence of ideas. It can be as concrete as a train track or as abstract as metaphysical experience.
Does our congregation have a shared concept of connection? When we peel away the abstraction and the wordplay, how do we actually do connection? Do we know what it looks and feels like, fully grasping why it matters?
We certainly feel its opposite. Disconnection – from each other, from work that has purpose, from a rich grounding in community life – is far too common, particularly in a region as career-driven and transient as the DMV. This isolation arises from demands outside of us as well as what we carry within. It serves a purpose. Distance can act as a kind of safety valve, keeping us from bowing under the pressure of others’ burdens. When we stay apart from others, we free ourselves from obligation as well as from potential hurt. We can shelter ourselves in the illusion that it’s possible to live without messing up and causing harm, if only we keep our heads down and our hearts walled.
This safe distance comes at a cost. The limited tools that have helped us survive may be ill-equipped for changes in our lives and the world around us. We continue to suffer with our own seemingly individual struggles and miss opportunities to let others share our burden. We also forgo the closeness that comes with taking a bit of weight from our neighbors’ shoulders.
The bonds many of us maintain in our lives may conceal disconnection. Our group of friends, our work and volunteer commitments, the places we return to during our routines … our circles ground us. A circle, of course, is the strongest shape. It keeps us in connection.
It can also keep others out.
At the Membership Committee retreat this fall, we shared our earliest experiences of belonging at UUCF. For many of us, the first moment we felt connected had little to do with learning church and everything to do with being seen or heard without judgment. Someone turned toward our unfamiliar face and extended caring attention. Someone here welcomed us exactly as we were.
We came back not because the people here kept a safe distance. We came back because other congregants bridged that distance, opened toward us and invited us into a shared journey.
Our world needs Unitarian Universalism’s messages of hope and love now more than ever. UUCF is filled with people who want to share those messages. How then do we draw ourselves into relationship with other humans? How do we keep taking the risk to truly welcome neighbors and friends? More importantly, how do we make sure that this congregation cultivates belonging, spiritual enrichment and a sense of home for all who walk through the doors?
We can start by deciding that our shared definition of connection involves opening the circle. Here are some ways we might do that:
- Listen with an open heart. So many of us want to have someone to hear and hold our stories. We can begin here, with simple, delighted, tender curiosity. It helps to remember that we have yet to meet the friends we need as well as the friends we can be to others.
- Turn outward. During social time after services or picking up children from Religious Exploration (RE), pay attention to how you hold your body in conversation. Are you in a small group with your back to the room? Or do you turn outward, positioning yourself with an opening that invites others in?
- Say hello. At least one service each month, sit in a new part of the Sanctuary next to someone who you haven’t gotten to know yet.
- Invite someone you don’t know well to accompany you … to lunch, a group meeting or a social activity outside of UUCF.
- Use the Realm member database to send a note. Tune in to small moments of engagement, service or kindness. These can be during services, RE, coffee hour, groups or events. When someone does something that catches your attention, no matter how minor, take the opportunity to appreciate them.
- Ask for help. Life can make involvement complicated for many of us. Accessibility issues, parenting, life transitions, rides to events, technology, navigating congregational life … The Spiritual Docents, the Pastoral Care team and so many others want to support you on your spiritual journey. In building this web of relationships, asking for a hand is as important as extending one.
While stepping through the doors may be the start of a journey, it’s actually that moment of joining and coherence – the moment of connection – that carries us forward. As Vera Nazarian reminds us, we begin in relationship at the moment when we reach out to meet another, inviting the heart and spirit to follow.