Friendship and Community in Dialogue with bell hooks

As the Ontario GS community prepares to gather for our 6th annual Ontario Generous Space Retreat (OGSR), we’re inviting our retreat participants and the broader GS community into some of our team’s reflections on this year’s theme: friendship. Our first reflection was by our E.D., Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. Our second reflection was from our Director of Community, Beth Carlson-Malena. This final reflection is from our Operations Manager, Eric Van Giessen

While working with the GS team to pull together this year’s OGSR centred around the theme of Friendship, I was also reading “All About Love,” by bell hooks. I would highly recommend reading this entire book, but hooks’ chapter on community resonated deeply with my own journey and spoke profoundly about the type of community I believe we’re working to cultivate in Generous Space. In this reflection, I chose to put my own story in dialogue with some quotes from this chapter. I hope that it sparks nourishing reflections for you surrounding your own experiences of friendship and community: 

“Community cannot take root in a divided life. Long before community assumes external shape and form, it must be present as a seed in the undivided self: only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.” (Parker Palmer in hooks, p.127)

Whose stories speak more clearly of the perils of the divided life than LGBTQ+ people of faith? While some folks in our community have been blessed with families and faith communities that invited their whole selves into dialogue with the body of Christ, many of us are well-practiced in the skills needed to live a compartmentalized life. For more than two-thirds of my conscious life, I lived divided – confident, happy, devout, calm, and productive on the outside; anxious, depressed, doubtful, avoidant, ashamed and emotionally paralyzed on the inside. It wasn’t until I chose to take a season of space from my family, my home, and my church that I could begin to break down the internal barriers that were preventing me from showing up fully in my relationships. My college years, this ‘new season,’ was defined predominantly as a time in which I fell desperately in love with friendship.

“Friendship is the place in which a great majority of us have our first glimpse of redemptive love and caring community. Learning to love in friendships empowers us in ways that enable us to bring this love to other interactions with family or with romantic bonds.” (p. 134)

With these newfound friends, I found community for the first time. I confessed my doubt, betrayed my anxiety and depression, and tore off the mask that covered the panoply of emotions waiting impatiently just beneath the surface. I learned that strength can be found in vulnerability, and that true friends will love you in the midst of your own unique messiness.

“Loving friendships provide us with a space to experience the joy of community in a relationship where we learn to process all our issues, to cope with differences and conflict while staying connected… (p. 133-134)

My friends embodied Jesus for me – they redeemed me from the pit of my isolation, depression and crippling loneliness. However, I had yet to tackle the shame that tainted my every encounter. My fears surrounding voicing my attractions to men, and the shame caused by those attractions, made me desperate for the validation of my friends. I grew dependent on their love, the care they appreciated from me, and the important role I played in their lives. I escaped my inner turmoil by investing in community – still divided – and my avoidance of this self-communion, continued to limit the flourishing of my community and myself.

“…many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” (p. 140)

After many years of being honest about my depression and loneliness, but silent about my sexuality, friendship finally broke down my walls. The redemptive love and acceptance I received from my community eventually enabled me to begin to witness my own holistic beauty and belovedness – to be in communion with myself. The impact of these relationships has made me recklessly passionate about the power of community – of love – to transform lives, to cultivate hope, and to embody the gospel. I believe that community/friendship – when marked by deep care, respect, and knowing – can be one of the most profound ways to glimpse/experience the love of Christ.

Community is “the coming together of a group of individuals ‘who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to ‘rejoice and mourn together,’ and to ‘delight in each other, and make other’s conditions our own.’ ’ ” (Scott Peck in hooks, p. 129)

I’m deeply pleased that friendship is the theme for this year’s OGSR. Friendship has served as a site of complexity, difficulty, and redemption for me. It has sustained me through dark times and asked more of me that I thought I had to offer. The friendships that I have worked hard to cultivate, however — that are marked by vulnerability, honesty, and commitment — have become an important part of living well for me. In Generous Space, our values of humility, mutuality, hospitality, and justice serve us well in cultivating friendships marked by healthy interdependence and growth, and our commitments to non-violence and dialogical conversation empower spaces of trust and vulnerability.

“There is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community” (p. 129)

I chose to invest in the Generous Space community because at my first retreat I witnessed a group of people who were truly invested in learning to love one another well. Choosing Generous Space as a place of friendship and community for me, felt like choosing love. It felt like choosing to affirm my own belovedness and the belovedness of my LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ. If felt like coming home to a people who were passionate about living undivided lives — lives for which deep friendship and community are possible.

~ Eric Van Giessen

For more blogs related to our 2018 Generous Space Retreats – click here.

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