This blog is the transcript of Episode #54 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.

After last week’s episode on the importance of community, I heard from many of you.  Not surprisingly, this topic touched a nerve. We are missing one another terribly. The gaps left in our lives by a world shut down, faces hidden and communities torn apart are enormous.  In countless ways, our lives are malnourished by social isolation.  In this episode, I’m going to share with you two, simple practices I have been honing for years on how to start community in the hopes that you will join me in rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty and getting to work filling some of those gaps.

I’ll start, as usual, with a story.

I come from a family of community starters.  I was just beginning elementary school when my parents founded a Christian based, non-profit substance abuse treatment center for adolescents and adults.  When I say founded, we are talking a humble start.  Everyone played a role. My father was one of two executive directors.  My mother was the adolescent program director.  My grandmother ran the thrift store that welcomed donations and raised money for their programs.  When I was old enough, I even temped over the summer doing clerical tasks. Our family spent weekends at sobriety parties and talent shows with the extended community of clients and staff.  We even housed one of my parents’ clients for a while, Susan, she was in her late teens, who would put eye make up on me and feather my hair. My parents’ business was called “The New Place”, where you could write the new story of your life, if you were willing to do the work.  The New Place and the families who ran the center and received treatment there was the backdrop of my childhood.  You could say that I was raised on service and community.

Watching my parents’ devotion, I learned that community is not something incidental to our lives. It is our lives.  From my parents’ work at The New Place to the prayer group my mother started in our living room to so many other involvements, as a family we were immersed in the constant give and take of creating the world we wished to live in. I look back with awe at how much my parents were out there making the world a kinder place.

Mark Nepo, spiritual teacher and author of many books on the sanctity of relationships, says we create community not to teach something we know but to learn and address what we need. I know that was the case for my parents.  I recall my mother’s loneliness that led to her creating the prayer group and her joy at finding other women with whom to share her spiritual fervor.  Though my parents never struggled with substances themselves, I know my father especially felt adrift many times in his life. He found purpose in bringing compassion to suffering I know he could relate to.

The first principle of growing community that I want to share is, tune deeply into your heart, ask it what you need and create from there.  In 2015, I started SpeakUP DFW, a conscious connection community in Dallas. In 2018, I started a chapter in the Pacific Northwest as well.  Up until the pandemic, a vibrant community of local participants gathered every week for laughter, tears and deep communing.  I count SpeakUP one of my greatest accomplishments.  I created it so that I would always have community where I would feel understood and welcome as a highly sensitive creature.

Tune deeply into your heart, ask it what you need and create from there.

Another, beautiful way of putting this comes from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner who wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  Consider what that intersection could look like for you, including asking, what is missing in my life and what would grow my gladness?  The answer may be the seed of your community growing initiative.

The second basic principle for growing community is, carefully construct the agreements that will guide you. You can think of agreements like the rails hugging the edges of the path and safely steering the flow of traffic.  They make what is inside of the group unique from what may happen outside of it. A simple agreement is, we will keep what happens here confidential. In AA, one of the cardinal agreements is, we will not use names.  In my coaching sessions, I make the agreements with clients that we will end by the hour.  Agreements define the values of the group and also function like a “net” catching us as we meander along the winding journey of relationships.

Here’s another example.  I recently started a virtual book club with a small group of colleagues in the healing arts.  After deciding on a day and time, our next task was identifying our agreements.  We came up with six.  They include, “Honor each person’s emotional energy and take ownership for your process and impact”. Another one is, “Show up as a person first – and a professional second – bringing your vulnerability with you”. Both of these agreements acknowledge that we are all healing educators with high emotional sensitivity and many people we are responsible for.  These guidelines are crafting a space where we can get vulnerable, not do extra emotional work and enjoy the learning. I know it’s true for me, and I imagine it’s true for the other members, that having these rails in place is helping me relax and already feel trust in the group even before we have begun.

In many of my groups, we read the group agreements at the start of every meeting. In the summer of 2021, I co-founded a collective to bring the vaccinated and the unvaccinated together to listen with compassion to one another.  We continue to meet monthly.  At the start of our gatherings, we pass around our long agreements document and each take a turn reading a section, to remind us of the ethics that are making this brave work possible. After each reading, there is always a calm across the group, as if we have just arrived together through the reminder of why we are there and the values that will guide us.

Creating, reading, abiding by and continuing to update group agreements is a mindfulness practice that can take gentle care of the precious community body.  Especially if you are new to creating agreements, it will take time as a group forms to identify them. Be willing to get messy and learn along the way. In a new group that my neighbor formed of friends who gather for a weekly online dance, we recently had the chance to update our agreements when something happened that showed us the need for clearer guidelines.  The next week, we made the update and are integrating that awareness.  Defining the group is a process of walking the path, falling off of it, repaving it and walking again. Agreements will represent the accumulation of the wisdom from the journey.

For this week’s homework, consider taking the first steps to initiate communing with others in a meaningful way.  You don’t even have to call it starting a community, which can sound too serious.  Mark Nepo advocates to bring three friends together and invite two new people to join, for a total of five to start.  Perhaps you will watch the sunset together each day and share poems at dusk. Perhaps you will swap parenting stories and offer encouragement and rotate childcare.  Maybe you will decide to grow a vegetable garden where there is now only dry dirt. A long time member of SpeakUP has been consulting me recently about a community he is forming.  Ask questions of people who might offer guidance to you.  And as you get traction, pen those agreements, even if all you have at first is the agreement to meet each week on time.

With so many forces separating us, the simple, sincere effort to bring people together right now is revolutionary. I hope you might be willing to explore where your heart’s deepest yearnings point you to what is missing in our world and get your hands dirty with me.  Be sure to write me to let me know what you discover.  And as always, thank you so much for listening.