Not long ago I realized I had been pursuing a false sense of community. Our social media feeds depict happy, well-groomed people sitting around long reclaimed wood tables, drinking wine from mason jars, and eating from-scratch everything, and we call it “community.” Moments like these, if we’re privileged enough to experience them, are very Instagram-able. But it’s not community. At least not the whole picture. I think I’ve been in love with a distorted vision like this one for a long time.
A few summers back—coincidentally, it was around the dinner table—a friend asked me why I had bounced between so many places throughout my 20s. (I lived in six different cities during one five-year span). I didn’t really know how to answer his question in the moment but later that week I journaled:
On one hand, I was motivated by the desire to explore new places and have exciting adventures. I think a lot of people, especially in their formative post-college years, can relate to that wanderlust. But beyond that, I think I was chasing a perpetual stream of notoriety. [I worked on a project early in my career that received international attention and learned that applause can be addictive]. I didn’t have much to ground me during that time in my life and it occurs to me now that stable and consistent community was a major missing factor. Not once have relationships affected my desire to stay or leave a place. People have always come second to finding the next interesting project to tackle.
Those last two lines hit me hard. People always came second to projects. Relationships had never been my priority.
As I reflect on those words today I can see how the things I value have changed. In fact, last year, as my husband and I discerned whether or not to take the scary first steps towards home ownership, we wrestled with whether or not Cincinnati (a place neither of us are from) would be the ground in which we sink our roots. If I’m honest, it’s not necessarily the first place I’d choose. But when I consider who on God’s green earth knows the real me and who’s been courageous enough to show me the real them, I see the faces of people who live in this city—mostly within a 5-mile radius from our little home. We chose Cincinnati because of these people. Relationships have become my priority.
At the same time, it can feel risky to choose a place for the sake of relationships. While I long to be invested in a place, living alongside neighbors who are committed to supporting one another through all life’s ups and downs, there’s a real part of me that knows how hard and messy that can be. People move. People change. People disappoint. I could move. I will change. I am capable of disappointing. It’s much easier and far more comfortable to keep one foot pointed towards the exit—the “exit” being prospects in other cities, mobility, privacy, limiting friendships to texting “relationships” that skim just above the line of meaningful depth, etc.
Still I choose to press towards a deeper vision of community, because I’ve started to taste the fruit.
Earlier this year my husband and I decided to host a once-a-month Sunday Supper with folks we lovingly refer to as “in-betweeners.” We brainstormed people in our community who were in-between school and careers, in-between jobs, in-between homes, in-between relationships, or, like us, living on some perpetual edge of transition. We provide a simple main dish and invite our guests to contribute something to the table, be that a side dish, drink, flowers, records, questions, etc. Each month we hope enough sustenance shows up to nourish our evening; so far it has. We’ve tasted the sweetness of JP’s famous brownies, the hoppy-ness of Emily’s funky beer choices, the soulful sounds of Renee’s record selection. In a culture easily dominated by notions of scarcity, Sunday Supper has been our little way of cultivating a better story, one where we choose to trust that abundance emerges when we act in community.
If six people gathered around a dinner table in a little house on the West Side of a Midwestern American city feels small to you, it’s because it is. It’s hard to believe that such a tiny, private, seemingly insignificant action might actually lead to healthy, flourishing communities. But I’m convinced these are the precise actions that shape us as a people—and what is a community if not her people? As we gather around a table and enjoy a meal that we’ve all played a part in creating, we begin to recognize something of our shared humanity. We begin to see our need for one another. We see how deep down we’re all starving for meaningful connection, to know and be known. An invitation to the table, to “come, eat,” may be the simplest call one can receive. Yet those same two words have the power to shake us from our loneliness forever.
In my 20s the vision of community stuck in my head looked like the bespoke picture I painted above—nice dinner parties under strands of backyard lights with people who look just like us. I moved all around the country searching for those experiences and, frankly, I found them. I’ve been to a lot of those dinner parties and yet, lovely though they were, I never found the rootedness I’ve always longed for.
One of my favorite quotes is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer, who lived with and trained pastors in “underground seminaries” subversive to Hitler’s regime, said this about living in community: “The person in love with their vision of community will destroy community. The person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.” Today, I believe we’re learning to love (and be loved by) the people around us, and what seems to be forming are glimmers of something true. I see real community when ten people show up in the rain to haul our belongings across town. I see real community when Emily turns up on my porch to lend an ear. I see real community when Steph bravely shares her struggle despite the pain such openness might reopen. I see real community when Mandy simply says: “I value your perspective.” I could go on.
A gardening metaphor (which I’m convinced is the only metaphor we ever need!) is useful here: We can’t expect to eat if we don’t play a part in planting the seeds. And the seeds look like showing up, being consistent in our practices, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Eventually the fruit comes and we enjoy the feast together.
Top photo of Cincinnati via Matt Hoffman.
About the Author
Megan Trischler is making a home in Cincinnati. For the past six years, she’s been cultivating community at People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab that equips citizens to play a bold role in advancing their city and lifting their neighborhoods. With a background in design, Megan is passionate about shaping spaces, places and experiences that foster human connection, growth and participation. Her philosophy on design and its role in supporting holistic community health and human dignity resulted from her experiences in Hale County, Alabama ,where she learned how to be a “citizen designer” alongside students at the Rural Studio. When she’s not designing, Megan is probably reading, hiking with her adventure partner D.J., or attempting to get her sourdough to rise.