© 2019 by Carlton E. Smith. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
For some of us who were raised in and harmed by our faith communities of origin, there is no going back. Even to look back, as in the story of Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, would leave us frozen in our tracks.
We have to ask ourselves, What is it that our original faith communities provided, and where can we turn now to have those needs met? In my life, being part of a faith community was centered around three things, each of which could be found outside church — a sense of belonging, a place to recharge, and a desire to contribute to other people’s lives.
Belonging. An essential component of belonging to a community is a commitment to show up consistently. I have experienced belonging in a variety of contexts outside traditional congregational settings, such as the advanced step-aerobics class I was part of when I lived in Oakland California; the hula-lessons I took in Arlington, Virginia; the 12-step financial recovery meetings I was part of in Brookline, Massachusetts; and the musical theatre workshop I was part of when I lived in Metro New York. It doesn’t matter much the location or the activity people have gathered around … you can have the blessed experience of community wherever people are supporting and caring for each other while collaborating.
Recharging. Sometimes, opportunities for spiritual sustenance appear seemingly out of nowhere. A few months back, the aunt of a friend was
visiting from out of town, and I took her to Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, a former plantation in Marshall County, Mississippi. That day, a woman was doing a presentation on nature- bathing, a concept I had never heard of. The idea is that one goes into a forest and lets the well-being and vitality of their surroundings minister to them. A tradition that has roots in Asian culture, nature- bathing is a phenomenon that is spreading across the US as well. The schedule that day didn’t allow me to nature-bathe right away, but a few days later I went back to Strawberry Plains and took in the beautiful forest there … a leaf floating on the water, the breezes in the trees, the decaying branches, the crawling ants and leaping frogs, the muskiness of the air. I must have been out for about an hour, and at the end of it, I felt revived.
Contributing. One of the ways that I give back in my work is by offering workshops on Compassionate Communication (also known as Nonviolent Communication, or NVC). I was introduced to it in the midst of a leadership crisis at a church where I ministered many years ago, when some of us key members of the congregation were at an impasse. The technique involves connection with our own observations, feelings and needs so that we can make meaningful requests of others that benefit everyone involved. I love it when I see people’s eyes light up as they discover new, kind ways they might be with people in their lives. You can check out more about Compassionate Communication and NVC at cnvc.org.
As it is with our sexual expression, we get to choose how we nurture our spirits. We are free from the bonds that say it has to be done one way, or there’s only a single source of inspiration. We can drink from wells that actually sustain us and move forward fully as we are. We can take responsibility for our lives and find ways of belonging, recharging and contributing that suit us. They could be as close as the next dance class, forest, or conversation we have.
Carlton E. Smith is an ordained minister within and a staff member of the Unitarian Universalist Association (uua.org). In his spare time, he runs for elected office, serves on the Campaign Board for the LGBTQ Victory Fund (victoryfund.org), and promotes civil rights history in the South through his involvement with the Living Legacy Project (uulivinglegacy.org). He lives in North Mississippi and can be reached at email@example.com.