Ever Outward: An Invitation to Community
Five years ago, after having coffee with a student at the University of Texas and learning about her work in social innovation, I walked with her a block to the church I served as interim pastor so she could see the underutilized property we were beginning to reimagine for social impact, including space for student programs and startup ventures.
A handful of church members were passing out water bottles on that hot August day as the new semester began. I introduced the student to a couple who were members since the 1960s, and, as I recall, the husband said, “Are you going to join our team?”
I interrupted right away. “No, we’re going to join her team.”
What I meant was that whatever the student was working on, whatever she hoped to create in the world, we wanted to be part of that.
It was an invitation to a different kind of community: first, an invitation to the couple and to myself to reorient our understanding of church; and, second, an invitation to the student to consider us traveling companions.
I often think of this moment as it captures the essential move for the health of spiritual communities — to turn inside out. The motion requires letting go of control and the certainty of being the center. So that moment in between the church steps and the university campus underscores the challenge faced by religious institutions today, and really since antiquity.
From the Jewish prophets to Christian apostles, a crucial question confronts the faith community: Will it respond to the summons to go beyond itself — beyond its self-interest, beyond its comfort, beyond its security — to join the world in solidarity?
In Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, the question is in the teachings on showing hospitality to strangers. It is embodied in the stories of the Prophet feeding the poor and the Buddha encountering suffering as prelude to enlightenment.
The invitation to community is ever outward. It is a calling to go to the other, and along with the other, however we may define that person, group or place. In connecting across differences, we encounter the wholeness of all humanity, and we find our own healing.
My friend and mentor Mahan Siler offers a reframe: We can choose the story of relationship rather than the story of separation. This has always been an option for humanity. It’s why the sacred stories and teachings are preserved: We seem to know, intuitively, that there is no true community without the outward journey, without communion with the other, without crossing thresholds from sanctuary to street, from religious to secular, from sacred to civic.
Will we trust what we know? Will we follow the Divine direction, and our own yearning, into the structures of the world? Will we make community along the way, always on the way?
That’s the invitation.
Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara. Receive updates and reflections from Daniel by signing up here.