Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Stepping Up Into Community

I know I have lots of company as a gay man who longs to be part of a culture where sexual diversity isn't merely accepted or tolerated, but celebrated as a resource for social good and spiritual growth. I want to belong to a world where I'm both at home in my own skin and where I don't have to look over my shoulder to make sure I'm not going to take flack for being seen in my skin; where I'm confident that my experience of life won't seem unsettling, strange, or scandalous.

I'm hardly a separatist, but I do believe that some of what we need we can only find among other queer men. I'm grateful for the glimpses of that world--for the experiences of intermittent community among us that I get at retreat centres and in workshops.
At the same time, I'm also aware that "workshop culture" carries the risk of turning those experiences of belonging, of spiritual integration and social solidarity, into a commodity that we shop for. I'm aware of the number of times I've heard men in such venues express the desire to find community closer to home, while they lament that they don't expect it to happen. As though the only way to find it again is to put our money on the table, buy the plane ticket, and book the next structured package where safety, belonging, and discovery will be delivered to us as a surprise crafted by expert facilitators who are gifted and accomplished as we are not. We want to feel like this back home, off the Magic Mountain, but we doubt that could ever be possible.
The problem isn't with these courses and settings per se: they offer precious opportunities and sometimes great blessings. The problem is that in a culture where everything is a product we can buy, it's incredibly challenging to remember that the magic is what happens between us, not the container in which it happens. We have to remember that we can do this among ourselves, because we're already doing it among ourselves.
If you've ever put effort into building queer men's community from the grass roots up, you've maybe found out it's easier to talk a good game and then drift away into individual agendas after the first couple of weeks or months trying to keep together. It's one thing to express a desire for the magic of deep community. It's another to stick around, tending and building the container when the payoff isn't more or less immediate.
If we're really honest, we recognize that it's not just others who fail to step up and hold space for the magic to happen. Often enough, we drop the ball ourselves. The monthly checkin we promised a circle of friends turns out harder to get to than we thought. The quarterly gathering we committed to conflicts with something else that's come up.
If you're steeped in the Christian New Testament, you might recall the parable of the rich man who prepares a banquet, only to find that all the invited guests make excuses for why they can't attend. One has just married. Another has to go inspect a field he's bought. Another has cattle to tend.
Or to put it in another key, we have to remember the words of Gandhi: we ourselves have to be the change in the world that we want to see. It's a surprisingly difficult lesson to absorb and then act on.
Caring, spiritually engaged community among queer men--a community where we dig deeper into the lessons of our shared experience, and where we explore and celebrate the differences among us--doesn't have to remain a utopian pipe-dream. It doesn't have to be restricted to the few days that we head off to a program, providing we can afford the time and money, while many of us can't. It doesn't have to remain a rare, happy accident.

True community is a dance between our individual longings and our deep awareness that we'll find what we're looking for only by being part of something bigger than we are--something that may unsettle us, knock us out of our preconceived sense of ourselves and remake us. Community is risk and adventure. It takes courage, because it opens the possibility that we can't control what will happen when we step outside ourselves.
You build community when you go to a meeting in support of a project you believe in, even though you've had a long day and just want some down time at home.
You build community when you walk into a nursing home to visit an elderly friend, even though nursing homes are probably the last places on earth you enjoy hanging out.
You build community when you respond kindly and graciously to the flirtation of men you're not attracted to, instead of shaming them with blunt rejection.
You build community when you let yourself be open to the possibility that a one-night stand might become a friend--or at least deserves a phone call to thank him for the time you spent together.
You build community when you follow through on the promise to check in with the men you met at a gathering that opened your heart, even when the intensity of that experience fades into the business-as-usual of your life back home.
You build community when you keep faith with the longing within you for a bigger, fuller, richer life: when you step up into the work of repairing your soul and repairing the world, of transforming them both, of making them both new.

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