Authors: Jennie Allen
IN 2017, AFTER LIVING FOR
more than a decade in the same place, my family decided to move to Dallas, Texas. “After eleven years in a city we love,” I wrote in a post online, “we are moving from Austin, Texas, to Dallas…. In the last week, doors closed with schooling for our youngest two, who have learning differences. So, faced with spreading our family all over the city of Austin in three different schools, we chose instead to pull everyone in close and to move near family.”
The post was all true. But it was also incomplete. Yes, the school issue had become a real dilemma. But it also just felt like the sprawling nature of Austin was not working for us anymore. We never saw some of our most beloved friends, and our extended family lived too far away for us to get together on a regular basis. Even with all the amazing people we loved in Austin, we still felt lonely. Would a move help?
When I told one of my family members about our plans, she both celebrated our decision and forecast the doom I feared: “I think your kids will be fine, Jennie. I just worry about you. I’m afraid you’ll be lonely starting over in such a big city.”
I swallowed hard and reupped my commitment to this plan. Zac’s job and my organization could move. And even if they couldn’t, we were craving a new way to live that transcended our jobs and house size. We were ready to see if we could build a life around people.
Now, let me calm your fears: What we are about to discuss here will not necessitate a move for you. So don’t go scrolling Zillow just yet. But something about our family’s experience in starting over from scratch clarified for me was what it takes to build this kind of deeply entrenched community—wherever you may be.
When my husband and kids and I relocated two hundred miles to the north, the move represented the first family-wide upheaval in over a decade. For years, we’d been humming along, making our way through the young-children ages and stages and goings-on of life that everyone knows and loves. We had established rhythms with church, school, sports activities, and all the usual aspects of home and family maintenance. We had our places to shop and hang out. Life was a little isolated but predictable.
And then, the move.
With the exception of Zac’s family and a few friends from previous seasons of life spread across the metroplex, the six of us were starting over. With four anxious kids and my family
members’ gloomy forecast beating back my usual optimism, the stakes seemed ridiculously high.
On the big day, having unintentionally beat the movers by four hours, Zac pulled into our new driveway and exhaled. Was it relief he was feeling, or frustration? I didn’t know, and I’m not sure I cared. I was more concerned about the panic attack building inside me.
I walked through the front door of this place that was supposed to be home. As empty as the rooms felt, the city felt emptier. We were lost here.
Not only did I not know where to buy groceries or get a haircut, but I had four kids who each needed friends, doctors, tutors, mentors, people to call their own. I didn’t know where to turn for help. The ache of needing everything and knowing next to no one intensified. I felt sure that we could settle our home in a few days. But would our souls ever settle again?
“Shoot, I forgot to get rug pads!” I snapped at Zac.
“What?” he said, distracted by the loads needing to be brought in from the car.
“The rug pads!” I was on the verge of tears. The movers would soon be arriving, ready to dump our stuff, and if I could just get those stupid rug pads down first, then we could start to build our life here. But I’d forgotten them. It was nothing, and it was everything. I was spinning.
Zac saw panic flash in my eyes. “I’ll find some pads,” he whispered, as he slipped by.
In the days preceding the move, I’d had the presence of mind to call the college pastor at the church we’d soon be
joining. Did he know of a kind, responsible young woman who could be our babysitter? Cooper, our youngest, was nine at the time, and while many nine-year-olds require little supervision, Cooper’s RPMs have always run high. Given how full my hands would be with the move, the transition of IF:Gathering to a new town, the general nuttiness of establishing a new six-person household, and my own emotional tailspins, I figured a sure, steady presence would be a gift to Cooper—and to me.
Two hours after the trip up I-35, we’d unloaded the car and I was sitting on the dining room floor of our empty new house, crying embarrassing crocodile tears in front of the young and lovely Caroline Parker, who probably wondered what on earth she’d gotten herself into.
“I need help,” I admitted, as if it weren’t obvious.
Caroline sat there totally expressionless, earning my confidence with her quiet, nonjudging presence. “I’m not easily stressed out,” she said to me.
I told her I thought we’d get along just fine.
In the middle of my desperation, God had dropped into my life a college-aged babysitter who would go on to love my kids, fold dozens of loads of laundry for me, work at IF:Gathering, become part of our family, and to this day be one of my safest coworkers and friends in this city.
Caroline Parker taught me in short order that my little village here was going to (1) come because of my neediness and desperation, not in spite of it, and (2) be built in unexpected ways and with unexpected people.
Why is it that the most frequent question I am asked online is “How do I make friends?” With all the problems we are facing as a society, you might assume that I am exaggerating, but ask my team and they’ll confirm: this is
It sounds like something first graders would ask, you know? When my kids were that age, they would show up at school and have to make new friends, a skill they obviously didn’t yet have. But no, this is something sixty-year-olds are asking, twenty-five-year-olds are asking, young moms are asking. And I get it, because the art of making and keeping friends was never really spelled out for most of us.
We learned how to read and write and name the planets, dress ourselves, get a job, and even have sex, but no one ever really sat down and taught us how to make a friend or how to be a friend.
Is it possible that we (all of us, I mean) are asking the wrong question? Making friends, yes, that’s a concern—as is keeping them.
But what if that intimate circle we’re craving is actually found in the wider network of the village that we’ve been missing?
We wait for those perfect few friends to come along, and then we look for them to play so many roles in our lives. We look to them to be
to us. What if the power of a little team of friends is that each one brings different things to your life?
I have fun friends who always make a plan and always
make me laugh. I have wise friends who give me advice and call me out. I have encouraging friends who cheer me on and tell me what I’m doing well. I have challenging friends who disrupt my thinking and push back against assumptions I have made or push me to take greater risks.
If I expected one or two people to fill all those roles, no one would ever hit the mark. Also true: if I didn’t appreciate the unique roles my friends play in my life, I might be mad that my “challenger” friend doesn’t encourage me more, or my “wise” friend isn’t fun all the time.
If I start to see that God has put different people in my life to bless me in different ways, then I can both embrace who they are and rest in what I bring to those relationships. These words from C. S. Lewis, written after losing a dear friend he shared with J. R. R. (Ronald) Tolkien, helped me see how my different friends and their unique value in my life are irreplaceable.
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically [Charles] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.
Maybe the question we are really asking behind the question of “How do I make friends?” is this: “How can I belong to an intimate community of people?”
As I sat on my dining room floor in our new home in Dallas, which, as you’ll recall, had no furniture yet, crying in front of my new babysitter, Caroline, while feeling alone and afraid, a clear memory came to mind.
I pictured myself back in Rwanda, where Zac and I traveled to meet our new son, Cooper. It was late spring 2011, and I was in the passenger seat of a tiny ramshackle van, staring out the window as the driver slowly bumped us along a rutted road. Every few feet, I’d see another mass of women, all different ages walking together, water jugs balanced atop their heads, making their way back to their homes. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but their countenance transcended language. They were talking. Laughing. Filling in blanks for each other. Loving each other well. They were tight. They all were tight. This wasn’t a series of cliques; this was a community. A village. An entire town that knew everything about everyone—and was better off for it, no doubt.
“You’re giving your son such a better life,” people in this country would say after I returned home with Cooper’s hand in mine. But I knew the truth. Yes, he would have a family and his needs would be met, but we had also stripped him of a vibrant, interdependent culture to bring him to the hyperindividualized U.S. of A. I was transplanting Cooper to the land of fast loneliness, praying that the four years he had in Rwanda would keep him tethered to Africa’s relationally saner way of life and committed to bring him back as often as we could afford.
“You do everything alone in America,” our good friend in Rwanda, Pastor Charles Mugisha, always reminds me. “We [Rwandans] do everything together.”
For better or worse, in the traditional village structure, the people all know your name.
More sobering still: they all know your pain.
But time and again, they throw in to help you survive, to help you get through this thing called life.
Somewhere in the transition from hunting and gathering and cooking together to having our groceries delivered to our doorstep or the back of our car, we stopped needing each other. We don’t need each other to survive anymore. We don’t even need to borrow an egg.
Or do we?
Professor and author Brené Brown famously told the story of a group of women in a remote village in Africa who spent their late afternoons at the river’s edge, washing their families’ clothes by hand.
There in the sunlight, they would swap stories. They would ask questions. They would check in with each other. Most days, they would laugh so hard that they’d cry.
These women were stuck in the throes of poverty, but you wouldn’t know it, aside from the tattered clothing and the obvious detail that they were forced to wash clothes in mucky waters.
Well, sometime later, the entire village experienced a massive shift in its resourcefulness, after residents learned to plant and harvest crops. They could sell fruits and vegetables in a larger town nearby. With their new income, they could afford
uniforms and send their kids to school. They could upgrade their modest huts to substantial, permanent structures. They could wire their lives with electricity. They could dig wells and finally have clean water. They could even buy a few modern conveniences, like cell phones, toaster ovens—and washing machines.
Interestingly, once nearly every home in the village had its own washing machine, the prevalence of depression among the moms in that region rose sharply. What was going on here? The village was thriving, right? Look at all the stuff they had!
The explanation may not be obvious to you and me, but it is to people like Pastor Mugisha, who was raised in a family of refugees following the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After coming to the States for the first time, he made this observation to me:
“The more resources a person gets, the more walls he or she puts up. And the more lonely they become.”
Let’s step back for just a minute to gain perspective. I like to start with the end in mind. If I know the goal, then I can build an effective strategy to reach it.
So let’s go all the way to the very end, to heaven, where we will be surrounded by people who love God, people from every nation, every tribe.
We will be together forever, with no more
death, division, comparison, fighting—no sin. Not just singing in some heavenly choir but
living, working, relating, eating, loving, worshipping, enjoying God forever with a diverse group of people we recognize and who recognize us—forever.
That’s the future, where we are headed.
Now, let’s look back to the beginning to see how we got to where we are right now.
We can’t start any
further back than Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God.”
As I’ve mentioned, God existed in community and created us out of His love. Genesis 2:18 says that after God had created one person on the earth, Adam, He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (
So God created Eve, and He gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to thrive, to grow, and to live together on the earth. The first two humans lived together with God in the garden. They were naked and unashamed. No shame before each other, and no shame before God. Just free, beautiful love and the safety of authentic relationship. They shared the goal of caring for creation. They were given a boundary (just one). And they had all the time in the world to enjoy God, His creation, and each other.
When I slow down and really consider what life looked like back in the Garden of Eden, I see five realities:
They enjoyed physical closeness to each other and God.
They were naked and unashamed, fully known and fully loved.
They lived under submission to God and to each other.
They were given a clear calling to care for creation.
They couldn’t quit each other. They needed each other and shared everything together.
These five “tastes of heaven” provide the framework for how we build healthy community in our own lives today. God established a perfect community that we can work to reclaim here and now.