When friends become family
Years ago, on a crisp autumn morning, I exited the busy streets of London and walked down the sterile corridors of the Royal London hospital. Local art hung on the walls in an attempt to make the ward more cheerful; fluorescent lights beamed overhead, bells were going off and “Code blues!” ringing out.
I was weary and my body was on high alert. For a week I had gotten very little sleep. A group of us had been tag teaming, coming and going, making sure a friend and her newborn son were not alone.
My friend gave birth without a husband or significant other, but she had friends by her side. The birth turned into a near-fatal experience and she had to spend a week in the hospital. Throughout that week she was accompanied by members of our community.
This little one had entered into our midst; he and his mother were decidedly not alone, even though they might appear so if you looked at the usual forms.
Being who we are, we broke most of the hospital rules.
One of the guys came to visit one afternoon and took the baby for a stroll, giving him a look at the London skyline while my friend had her dressings changed. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn’t supposed to leave the ward. Oops!
And visiting hours technically ended if you weren’t related, but we just quietly slipped in and out and kept acting like we belonged. We knew we belonged to one another.
The day before my friend was due to check out, I walked up to the nurses’ station and one of them casually said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Apparently, we had become the talk of the hospital staff.
She went on to say, “The love that flows out of that room…that mother and child are going to be OK. We just can’t figure out how any of you are connected, but it is clear there is love. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.”
Over the course of my life I’ve seen strangers become friends and friends become family. My mother modeled this way of living. I experienced it in my youth group, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. This closeness is a million miles from our societal norms of isolation, individualism and self-reliance at all cost. And it’s a huge part of what makes my life sustainable as well as beautiful.
At the beginning of the year, I found myself in another hospital room, this time thousands of miles from urban London. I had traveled to Alaska, in the dead of winter, and arrived to find my mother on the brink of death.
I wasn’t alone caring for my mother in this hospital room, any more than I had been when I was caring for my friend and her newborn son.
Linda, 10 years my senior, arrived right on my heels from Texas. Linda and I shared the load at the hospital, one of us doing days and the other nights. Her daughter, who calls my mother Mimi, came for a few days as well. We were a true team.
In the weeks we spent at the hospital, caring for my mother and getting to know the nurses and doctors, I realized they too were trying to figure out how we were related. In that dark and sterile room, I could clearly see, for the first time, that my mother was the first to imprint on me this woven patchwork of family.
Linda worked for my mother in Texas, helping care for my grandfather when he was in his final months, and she travelled to Alaska during several of my mother’s surgeries. Her daughter, Bianca, spent summers with my mother and stepfather in Alaska.
Linda calls my mother “Mom” and phones her frequently – in truth more frequently than I do. On this trip, I realized something my mother had realized and embraced for decades: Linda really is part of our family.
It wasn’t until I was on the brink of losing my mother that I realized how she modeled for me ways to love the stranger; how to trust that strangers can become friends and friends will become the family who bring richness to life.
Did my mother live this way – long before someone made up the word “framily” – because her capacity for loving strangers was naturally high? Or because she was so aware she couldn’t do life on her own? She grew up in a fragile family system, having lost her own mother to suicide when she was a young adult, and she craved a good and healthy family for my brother and me. So she wove one together from the patchwork of people that populated our lives.
I learned in these hospital stays that those who have people with them in hospitals get better care. It isn’t supposed to be this way, but it is. And yet, as I surveyed the wards this past January there were very few patients that had people really with them. I’m so grateful that my mother survived, and I’m sure it is in some part due to being surrounded by her wide, untraditional family.
Recently, The Atlantic revealed the results of the longest study on human happiness. The findings showed that deep relationships are the key to well-being. By all measures, they are simply the most essential characteristic of the good life. It isn’t wealth – it’s people, it’s relationships – that enrich our lives.
Seth Godin, in his CreativeMornings/NYC talk, “Thinking Backwards,” proclaims we are in the connection economy. This should be good news for people like me, who come from Christian backgrounds and claim to follow Jesus, but I’m not sure it is.
This leaves me wondering: Where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
Long-standing traditions of hospitality to the stranger are embedded in our ancient heritage, dating back to ethical standards spelled out in Hebrew Scripture. However, many contemporary churches I know operate more like enclaves of race, class and privilege, more concerned with keeping tradition than offering sources of mutuality and deepening belonging as the early church did. Revitalizing a heritage of hospitality where friends become family offers something the world really needs right now.
Has the search for Mr. or Ms. Right narrowed our imagination of family and community? My friend who gave birth in the London hospital received more support than many wives receive from their husbands. But it wasn’t a one-way street; our caregiving was completely mutual, nourishing to us all. Those of us who don’t have children of our own cherish the very special relationship we have with this growing boy.
We spend the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving together as well as the ordinary Sundays enjoying the company of one another. We are friends, of course. But to say “friends” is an understatement. We are more than friends, more than community: we’ve done life together for well over a decade.
We are from different classes, hold different political views, and have different marital status. We’ve witnessed weddings and baptisms together, created campaigns, labored to build houses together, attended births and funerals. We show up for each other in mourning and celebration.
The “we” is both a small group that sees each other weekly and a wider network of friends that exceeds 100. These relationships were built in action projects and over countless meals. Even though our community life has changed as people move and organizations evolved, the people stay committed to one another.
We might describe these connections as “chosen family,” people that intentionally choose to do life together regardless of blood or marriage. It is a choice you have to keep choosing because with any relationship come bumps and bruises as well as joy and levity. All relationships take work and intention.
These hospital vignettes show a life full of connection and interdependence, but it’s because it is a life rooted in love. Love builds connection, connection breaks down boundaries and creates value. This gift and reality is born out of ongoing formation in ways of being that value belonging: they run counter to a culture of quick fixes and feel-good moments.
It takes sacrifice and repeated acts of showing up. I am learning – in the hospital rooms of 80-somethings and birthday parties for 8-year olds – that when we do this over time, friends become family. We transform our individual lives, yes, and also the possibilities for our collective humanity.
This leaves me wondering: where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
Recently, after many years away and numerous COVID-related delays, I made my way back to the place of my childhood. I grew up along the winding Guadalupe River in the Hill Country of Texas, in the city of Kerrville, to be exact — a small town where I inhabited 11 different houses as a child.
Not only is this the place I grew up, it is also the place where I planted a church called the Soul Cafe in the late 1990s. I had anticipated going back for quite some time, and to my surprise, I found that not much had changed.
I was comforted to find a vibrant main street where I could still eat breakfast tacos on tortillas made fresh that morning. It was nice to sip coffee at Pax, have lunch at Francisco’s and enjoy the region’s wine at Grape Juice, all locally owned and operated.
I drove over low water crossings, remembering the thousands of trips down these roads in my 1985 turquoise-blue Camaro. I swam in the river and basked in the early-autumn sun below an enormous swarm of vultures circling overhead.
It can be easy to look back at the past, full of nostalgia, with rose-tinted glasses, but my childhood was more thorny than rosy, and that spilled into my experience of church as well. When I was a young teen, I endured a season in which my mother dropped my brother and me off at a different church each Sunday, hoping we would find one we liked. It was painful.
Despite an expressed emphasis on being welcoming, the churches I experienced felt anything but that. Awkwardly, I would enter, looking for a familiar face but sensing only impermeable boundaries roped off with pleasant smiles and perfect-looking family units.
My family was far from perfect. Dad had left when I was 5. Mom cycled through a series of relationships that kept us moving. My brother started using drugs at 13. Entering church on Sunday mornings, I stood out like a ragamuffin. I could find nowhere to hide, and it was impossible to blend in.
I ended up choosing the church where Regina went. A friend from school, Regina saw me at once and ushered me in to sit with her and her family. She truly and personally invited me in. Regina is someone who knows the art of friendship — someone I am still friends with today, over 30 years later.
In fact, she and her husband were part of Soul Cafe, the church I planted to reach young adults. Soul Cafe closed its doors several years ago, but there is still a group of people who are deeply connected by the experience of shared community it offered. These are the people I was keen to see on my visit.
On a Sunday night in late September, we gathered for a “come one, come all” potluck. In a familiar backyard under the stars, we jumped right back in with one another. We shared stories from the past, conversations about people who had moved away, photos and tall tales from weddings and other special events. We visited with young adults who had been babies back when Soul Cafe started, and we shed tears over the people who are no longer with us.
As I sat listening to stories and taking in the laughter, I just kept thinking: This is a holy space. This is what endures.
Several people have asked over the years what made Soul Cafe so special. My answer is always the same: community. It wasn’t that the worship was awesome (it was!) or that we were pioneering the coffee shop church movement (we were!). It was the way we did life together.
We were friends, loving one another in good times and bad — and there were plenty of both — supporting each other, holding one another accountable, wrestling across differences, including political ones. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans live in Texas!
Soul Cafe ended after 11 years. At the 10-year mark, the elders decided to pause for one year to discern whether or not to keep going. You see, it had started as a church for unchurched young adults but had grown to be a family church. Because family churches abound in Kerrville, the leadership thought perhaps new things needed space to emerge.
Soul Cafe ended with no conflict. The leadership distributed its ample resources into ministries that had sprouted out of the church. Soul Cafe as a noun, a place, ended — but the community, the doing, the depth of friendship certainly didn’t end. We’d been woven together, stitched into a sacrament with invisible threads. This rich community fed my soul back in the ’90s and sparked my imagination on my recent trip back home.
It left me wondering: Do we make church more complicated than it needs to be? Do we underestimate the power of friendship?
After all, the gospel was lived out in the company of friends. Jesus walked with his friends; he ate with his friends; he performed miracles at events with his friends. It was his friends who lamented when he died and who shouted from the rooftops when they realized the grave couldn’t contain him.
Scripture tells us people will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). It is not the isolating holy huddle but the connecting act of radical friendship that counters the cultural norm of every-person-for-self.
What if friendship re-imagined is the crucial element the church needs to embrace? Not just friendship among people who are alike but friendship defined more broadly. Deep, engaging one-on-one time that breeds responsibility and care, not only for each other, but for a widening circle of concern.
We are living in a time when people of all ages — especially the young — are experiencing excruciating isolation. One study shows that 1 in 3 young people feel alone most of the time and that 40% say they don’t have anyone to talk to. What if more gospel-infused friendships called us to create pop-up dinner parties and backyard barbecues that lived out abundance for everyone — the recently unemployed neighbor, the young person struggling with addiction, the lonely older person who lives down the street?
As a social innovator who often trailblazes new forms of community out of necessity, I’ve repeatedly felt ready to throw in the towel. Time and again, though, my community has showed up to sustain me. People have buoyed me along the way. Like Aaron and Hur, who held up Moses’ hands when he grew tired, people have appeared at my side to lift me up.
They have called me to return to radical action; they have stirred up new reservoirs of empathy, encouraging me to keep taking risks and keep imagining new tributaries where the Spirit is flowing.
At our backyard gathering in Texas, we took a moment to share a ritual. We drank from a common glass of red wine, passing it from one to another, communion-style, each blessing the next with one word of heartfelt affirmation. Words such as “passion,” “steadfastness,” “integrity,” “joy” and “loyalty” emerged to describe the ways people are showing up for life. These affirmations echo in my memory and call me to imagine.
Encouraged in the possibility of a church reawakened by focusing on a broad, expansive charge to befriend more boldly, I embrace this blessing by poet, mystic and soul-friend advocate John O’Donohue:
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself. …
May you be good to [your friends] and may you be there for them. …
May you never be isolated.
I have spent my entire ministry believing that disruption can be a good thing. Maybe that’s hard to accept in the midst of a pandemic. But when things are disrupted, something new can break in.
My ministry was born out of a frustration that too often we perpetuate models that no longer apply to the world in which we live, excluding and leaving people behind. To me, that is the antithesis of the hope of the gospel.
I have spent over 20 years pursuing alternatives, the last 15 alongside entrepreneurs faced with intractable challenges and systems that just aren’t working. I founded Matryoshka Haus, a nonprofit that was part incubator, part community, part training organization.
Yet after training entrepreneurs to tackle wicked problems and think in new ways, Matryoshka Haus found itself in a place where its model was no longer working. We had to do what we have advised others to do: we had to pivot.
Our organization has become three different nonprofits, including RootedGood, which empowers institutions, social enterprises and entrepreneurs to make good in the world. You’ll hear more about why we did this below.
From this experience, we have identified five distinct phases of a pivot — five stages you need to move through when the structures you’ve built no longer work.
In addition, RootedGood just released a tool called “What Now?” — a decision-making tool that helps leaders understand and map their changing needs and constraints, consider their resources and design new ways to respond to the challenges and opportunities they face.
I am sharing both our experience with the five stages and the free online tool because I believe they are relevant to all of us today.
The five stages of a pivot
Recognition is often the hardest stage in the process. You have to see that something isn’t working.
Cognitive bias predisposes us to retell a narrative suggesting that something is working or that the outcome makes it all worth it.
To recognize that something isn’t working does not mean that nothing good has come of it — rather, that the good does not fully reflect the intended impact.
At Matryoshka Haus, by some metrics we entered our pivot year more successful than ever. We were winning awards and getting the work we wanted with the people we wanted to work with.
At the same time, the wheels were coming off internally. We were burning through volunteers, our team was overfunctioning, and our reserves were tapped out. We were working harder and harder but not able to come up for air.
We hired a managing partner, and when he held the mirror up to us, we had a come-to-Jesus moment. Something had to change.
We can extend this to the COVID-19 world around us as well. Can’t we recognize that there is something broken in our ecclesiology and in our economics when the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger? Can’t we see that our churches’ economic models are failing when the church looks as busy and stressed out as the business world?
It is time to recognize that we’ve been totally out of control and the way we’ve been living hasn’t been good for people or the planet.
Once you recognize that things have to change, you feel loss — and with it, a deep fear because of the uncertainty of what will replace it.
Christians are a people that believe in a gospel of death and resurrection. But too often, we rush from death to resurrection and don’t acknowledge the pain and the loss. The challenge here is not to rush or move on too quickly. We need to acknowledge the loss and make space for our feelings.
For me, the grief about Matryoshka Haus was as much about the lost ideal as anything else. For so long, I believed that if we just worked harder it would all be OK. I believed that we really could overcome any obstacle. We were smart, creative and tenacious, and we were in it together. One of the hardest things was acknowledging that we, as a team, couldn’t move into the future together, and that whatever came next would be different.
With the current pandemic crisis, we’ve lost some of our sense of security. We are separated from others. Our economy is crumbling around us. And one of the hardest things is that we aren’t comfortable with grief. If we cannot acknowledge what is being lost, it is impossible to move forward in a healthy way.
Grief needs a way to commemorate and memorialize. At Matryoshka Haus, we created a ritual to allow ourselves, our community and other stakeholders the space to mourn and celebrate. We held a service that allowed other people to mark the changes with us, celebrate the past and pray for the future.
You don’t want to sit in grief forever. In this step, we start to see the things we want to take with us and the things we need to leave behind. We need to find a way to sift through the rubble and pull out the essential and meaningful parts from the past, but we also need to identify the assumptions that were problematic.
At Matryoshka Haus, we had several faulty assumptions. Things that worked for us when we were young and small became part of our Achilles’ heel as we grew.
For instance, we believed that our complexity was a gift, being part incubator, part community, part training organization. And the truth is that when we were young and new and small, it was an asset. But as we grew, that asset became a liability; everything became messier and more entangled.
However, we still had a lot going on that was good and worth celebrating. One of the most beautiful and powerful things that happened at our commemorative service was hearing people who had worked with us in different seasons talk about how they had been affected.
Our work was having a lasting impact, and in more powerful ways than we knew. There was gold in that, and whatever we do next, we want to create more ripple effects!
In our new COVID-19 world, we are still learning, but some lessons are becoming clear: how fragile our economic and civil systems are, as well as our models of church.
If we really have the courage to be honest, people on the margins have been telling us this all along. The church has been measuring success by the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the offering plate — as if that reflected authentic discipleship or the existence of beloved community.
Surely, we are realizing that individualism only gets us so far. We are interconnected. The opportunity here is to ask, What, then, is our path toward mutuality and interdependence, toward mercy and justice?
4. Renewed vision
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “knowing your why.” Your why is what helps you get back in the ring. When you truly grab hold of your why again, then the how you do your work and the what you do doesn’t matter.
What matters is the telos. To what end are you working? What is your desired impact? What transformation will you see in people, places, policies or systems? When you think through the lens of impact and purpose — the why — then you can more easily redesign the how and the what.
This is the step where hope can break back in. It’s where we can be more aware of both the opportunities and the challenges. We understand the reason we exist, and we can acknowledge our false assumptions.
At Matryoshka Haus, I had to go back to what got me into this work to begin with. Acts 17:6, which talks about “the ones that have turned the world upside down” with the gospel, has been a driving force for me.
It is the impulse of Christian innovation to demonstrate that another world is possible. So when Matryoshka Haus decided to restructure, we did it with our core intent in mind: whatever we did, we wanted it to be doing transformative work at a systems level.
In our infancy, we did that by incubating our own projects. In the next season, we will do that in partnerships.
I don’t know the why for America or the world in this time of crisis. But for Christians, surely our why takes us back to the fact that we are not meant to serve ourselves but the Lord. We are called to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Maybe that seems simplistic. But it is the answer Jesus gave when asked what is the heart of the gospel.
5. Re-imagined practice
Once you get clearer on your why and the impact you want to have, then you can re-imagine the how. This is where new practice can be developed.
In stage five, we hit the place where it is time to be brave again. But as we start again, we do it with our eyes wide open. Knowing more than we knew before, we get back in the ring.
Kenda Creasy Dean teaches practical theology and social innovation at Princeton Theological Seminary. She says that 90% of first-time entrepreneurial ventures fail but 80% of second-time ventures succeed — yet 90% of first-time entrepreneurs don’t try again.
Our pivot ended with a birth of new things. We decided to restructure all of our work into three new organizations, two in the U.K. and one in the U.S. In my new role, I am a co-founder and the lead cultivator of the U.S.-based RootedGood. The other spinoffs are Goodmakers Society and the Ti Group.
Rather than holding on to the complexity we once cherished, this restructuring allows each organization to focus on its mission and landscape and live out its prophetic imagination.
I have shared this five-stage process because I believe that the current disruption of a global pandemic is a moment in time where we, as Christian leaders and the church writ large, are being invited to pivot.
The world needs us to show up as a hopeful people and to be good news people. And this current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to turn the world upside down with the gospel.