My friend Shira often used to lament living alone. It wasn’t that she longed for a partner or even a roommate. She believed it was unnatural for her to live in the relative isolation that has come to be our norm.
“I think I was made to live in community,” she would say, having thrived in the time she spent in Ghana in college, where, in village life, she felt a sense of belonging to “one giant biological family who has been living on the same piece of land since the dawn of time.”
I couldn’t relate to that experience or to her longing, though I suppose community takes many shapes and forms for each of us. My mom’s large, boisterous family in St. Lucia often feels like a community, given that she is one of seven on an ever-expanding tree that has branched off into dozens of cousins and grandchildren, making it almost impossible to go anywhere in the town of Vieux Fort without running into someone who is related to us.
Being a part of marching band in high school and a sorority in college could be considered an experience of community, as could the various groups I’ve belonged to since then, including my interfaith fellowship, Common Ground. I sometimes even think of my diverse circle of friends as my community, though our paths may not wind as collectively as the term suggests.
Recently, however, I was powerfully reminded of what it means to me to have such a kinship and how vital that space can be for the expansion and nourishment of our lives. Last weekend, I was one of the 22 members of Journeys of the Heart who gathered in Wyncote for our annual retreat. The organization, which I have been an officiant with since 2005, was founded in 1995 as a nondenominational ministry to provide ceremonies, both sacred and secular, for occasions ranging from weddings and memorials to civil unions and baby blessings. And every year, we come together to be renewed in each other’s company and recommissioned for the work we do.
And with every retreat, I walk away marveling at how this very eclectic group — comprising ministers and teachers, therapists and caterers, writers and performance artists with other careers in between — feels so much like family.
We do not see each other often. Our retreat time is supplemented with quarterly meetings and a holiday gathering around Christmas. But when we do get together, time and distance collapse in a heartfelt camaraderie and communion that I never expected to find when I joined Journeys in a surprising stroke of serendipity six years ago. I was having dinner with my friends Mollie and Teresa, when Teresa, at the time the organization’s administrator, began talking about the wedding ceremonies performed by its officiants. Romantic sap that I am, I don’t think either was surprised when I proclaimed something along the lines of: “Wow, that must be the best job in the world — to marry people!”
But I never expected my enthusiastic response to launch me a few weeks later into an interview and then my training to become an officiant. Years later, my work with Journeys of the Heart — though I consider it more a gift than a job — remains one of the most fulfilling parts of my life.
While I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of so many meaningful moments in the lives of those we serve, and in truth am still often struck with wonder that I am doing this at all, I also have come to treasure my connection to my fellow officiants. For if community is a place to be seen, heard and affirmed, a place that honors our most authentic self and encourages its every expression, then I have found my home. Yes, we are all bound by our mission to serve others with love, compassion and acceptance. Beyond that, however, we also seem to have pledged an unintentional vow of support to each other, creating a haven where we hold each other’s dreams and hopes, prayers and yearnings as closely as we do those in our most intimate relationships.
At our recent retreat, we welcomed the second daughter of one of our officiants with a baby blessing where we each shared a wish to sweeten and guide the unfolding of her days. We held another of our own, bravely fighting the return of cancer, in a prayer of healing and sent her home with a tangible expression of our blessings. Whenever we spoke, we trusted the safety of our space to unburden the painful, the frustrating and the uncertain — sometimes finding answers along the way or simply grasping a glimmer of peace in being witnessed exactly where we stood.
Of course, we laughed, too, and took the opportunity to share and celebrate just as many accomplishments and joys. And when we could have been rocked by the unexpected announcement of one officiant’s departure, we welcomed this, too, recognizing that the coming and the going and the ready allowing of both is part of belonging to a community. Instead of mourning or bemoaning the decision of one, we chose instead to thank her for her honesty and vulnerability and to wish her well in whatever awaits ahead.
It was a day of many gifts, some wrapped in tears, others in unbridled laughter and inspiring revelations. I left so grateful to be part of such a community, though I never imagined that this, too, I would receive when I was chosen to become an officiant. Yet over the years, my Journeys of the Heart family has held me, and all that has been quiet and simmering in my life, with faithful attention. Whether I was asking for prayers for my dad as he battled esophageal cancer, becoming ordained as an interfaith minister, slowly giving shape to my dreams or welcoming new love, I have always found a safe landing for whatever I choose to share. A moment that I will always remember followed a surprising incident of discrimination in the natural course of our work. Our director, Marguerite, subsequently went out of her way to assure me of my worth. When I hadn’t even begun to fully process how deeply wounding that experience had been, she opened herself to the rawness of whatever would be released in the face of her own outrage and impassioned reassurance.
I may not need to live in community, as my friend Shira does, but I do need it as a grounding force in my life. In a culture of insular living, where it is easy to confine ourselves to the limits of our guarded existence, it is here that I often find the scattered parts of myself. Through such rich communal connections, I am reminded of the journey we all are on, each of us with so much to give, to learn, to reap — from the perfectly imperfect breadth and depth of who we are.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times