I had hoped to find community in a more organic way, a simple serendipitous meet cute that would be recounted for years to come. But here I am, looking for friends online.
I stare at the webpage for the singles’ ministry of a megachurch in Atlanta. It claims it will connect me to men and women with similar interests and, over five weeks together, provide a platform for relationship. Sure.
I scroll through the activity choices: Brunch? Sounds delicious but unproductive. Hikes? Possibly—the outdoors always bring me to a place of rest and worship. Dancing? Definitely not.
I stop scrolling when I see the option to serve at a homeless shelter for men, and my mind goes back to my days of being a misfit floundering about in the corporate world. I think of one interview in particular with a Christian company. The woman on the other end of the phone asked how I served my community in my free time, and I squeaked out, “I used to help the children rehearse for the Christmas program once a month at my old church ... ?” Her sigh of displeasure was the last I heard from that organization.
Serving at a homeless shelter? That will do. I can help people and make new friends at the same time.
A month later I creep into the church parking deck, where I’m told to meet the group and carpool to the shelter. I see men and women gathered, their bodies rigid, a safe distance from one another, united only by their registration. I sit in my car a minute longer than I need to and pretend that small talk will be fun, an adventure.
The next 15 minutes are a flurry of nametags, handshakes, nervous laughs, and my best efforts to dissolve the awkward tension.
When I was growing up, my mother was fond of repeating mantras. One of her favorites, long before Nike claimed it, was “Just do it!” At the first sign of a whimper regarding chores or homework, she would proclaim the phrase with such gusto that I’d suddenly feel eager to squash my own disdain. I hear her voice in my mind now and find myself opening the car door.
The next 15 minutes are a flurry of nametags, handshakes, nervous laughs, and my best efforts to dissolve the awkward tension. I think, Is it time to head out yet? It is, but piling into a car with strangers is not the reprieve I long for.
At the shelter, we’re tasked with remaking the beds and cleaning, and my muscles ease at the mere hope of a break from socializing. We scatter throughout the dorms in small groups. As we wrangle fitted sheets together and exchange fewer and fewer pleasantries, we eventually settle into a rhythm of teamwork that persists through the final mattress.
The next week, with my mother’s cheers still in mind, I honor my commitment to the group, and we do it all again. This time I laugh with one of my teammates and make plans for lunch following our service. Three more Saturdays pass much the same, and the cycle ends as quickly as it began.
But just around the corner is a birthday, so we get together for tacos. I slip homemade cookies into the restaurant. Then Labor Day sneaks up on us, so we throw together a hike in northern Georgia. And then we all download the Bitmoji app and communicate almost exclusively through our avatars.
I can’t tell you the moment we became friends, mostly because it happened without my knowing.
I can’t tell you the moment we became friends, mostly because it happened without my knowing. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was in the laughter. It was when joy would seize my entire body and spirit with such comprehensive force that I could be mindful of nothing else. I’d forget about my plans later that day, my social anxiety, the way my nose scrunches when I laugh, and even my desperate agenda to make friends.
One of the women I prepared shelter beds with that summer became my roommate, someone I shared peanut butter cookies and heartache and trash bags and silence with. Another is one of my closest friends, a steady source of laughter and my biggest champion.
So when one of the leaders at the church taps me to head a gathering in the next cycle, I agree without hesitation. This will be so much fun!
And then years of traditional Christian principles that preach fruit! and stewardship! and intentional living! wash over me. I can hear a choir of my Christian counterparts from childhood through college cheering me on, urging me to manage my responsibility with purpose and care, to dedicate it to expanding the kingdom of God. Well, I tell myself, this will be a good opportunity for me to develop leadership skills and invest in men and women who may not have a relationship with Jesus.
One night, shortly after receiving our group assignments, my co-leader Matt, one of the most goofy and excited people I know, calls me to discuss our vision for the gatherings—what we hope to leave the participants with. I’m quietly reciting these gospel-oriented, relationship-building goals to myself when Matt exclaims, “We’re going to make this the most fun gathering ever!”
I watch the men and women immerse themselves in frivolous bliss, forgetting the very reason that drove them to meet up with strangers.
We introduce ourselves with a ridiculous video, hand out silly accolades, and make jokes wherever we go. Shoulders loosen, eyes brighten, and I watch the men and women immerse themselves in frivolous bliss, forgetting the very reason that drove them to meet up with strangers, giving way to the possibilities of a beautifully pointless moment.
Matt’s attitude is infectious. By the end of the cycle, I can feel the fun seeping in—and it no longer feels threatening to the Christian ideals that form the scaffolding of my character. I’m witnessing God orchestrate friendships over a game of Guess Who? and starting to see that being playful really does have a place in His kingdom, right alongside the Great Commission.
A year later we still gather at the shelter, but we don’t prepare beds or serve lunch to the men at the shelter. We play games with them. We flood the cafeteria with music and snacks and laughter and high spirits, egging each other on with trash talk over Monopoly and cornhole. And we watch the men forget for just a moment that their identity doesn’t hinge on the season they’re in. We come with a carelessness that makes way for the divine.
Thoughtful intentionality still undergirds many of my decisions, but I now shamelessly weave fun into them. And when I do, I know better than to dictate its fruit. I commit to get lost in laughter. A long time from now, I know I will marvel at how God used the moments when I was so wrapped up in joy I didn’t realize I wasn’t in control anymore.