I’ve been thinking about communities lately. As a self-proclaimed introvert and until-very-recently shy person, I haven’t always valued the beauty found in communal spaces. I preferred to brood in private, and assumed the people around me could never understand my inner turmoil. I had a few choice friends to talk with, but avoided large groups whenever I could. Few things scared me more than socializing with strangers, I was judgmental, and often felt like an outsider within my own Utah-based, Mormon community.
I pretty much turned into a teenage boy as I entered my twenties, which is interesting but not especially helpful to my personal development or happiness. Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to mend my anxious, awkward social life over the past few months with surprisingly fantastic results.
One thing I have noticed since coming to BYU is that the LDS collegiate experience provides a unique opportunity to blend communities of school, work, home, and church, and that can be weird. It can also be perfect in the way Zion is meant to be perfect.
Because yesterday something marvelous happened: seventeen people I know from all over the place gathered to discuss a lovely, important book. There were a couple of new faces, and one friend I’ve known since she served as a missionary in my home ward when I was 17. There were several friends I met in a women’s literature class last September, which feels like years ago – I value them more than they know. A friend who studied abroad with me, a friend I’m going to study abroad with, and a friend I see every morning at work. Two phenomenal cats. A professor who has taught me amazing things, continues to do so, and was willing to invite us into her home to talk about our feelings for several hours.
It was a small taste of heaven.
Getting there was a journey that started on the first day of my senior year. I entered the windowless basement classroom that would end up being my favorite place for the next few months and chose a seat. When my professor referenced Amy Schumer and Arrested Development AND trashed Twilight, vampires in general, and bro culture all in that first class period, I knew signing up for women’s lit was one of those accidentally-perfect choices. I’ve literally kept myself awake at night trying to imagine how last semester would have gone if I hadn’t been in that class. The answer, of course, is “bad.” It would have been bad. Thank God for that seemingly-unimportant decision.
My classmates were also crazy amazing. They offered sophisticated interpretations of the readings, freely shared personal experiences, hated Donald Trump, and knew way more about feminism than I did. I wanted to be friends with all of them.
Fast-forward to the last day of class, and I was deeply mourning the impending loss of that community. It gave me a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt for a long time. It gave us all a space to learn from each other and from lovely lady-centric books. Like any class, there were papers to write and tests to take, but even those were oddly wonderful. In a lot of ways, it was a godly space, and my soul hurt to give it up.
I had also been talking to a friend about starting a feminist book club. Neither of us had many feminist friends beyond each other. We wanted more than two people to join. So I announced to my class our plans and passed around a signup sheet. Maybe I could actually be friends with all these fabulous people, or at least a handful of them.
To my surprise, it worked. 20 of my classmates signed up because they, too, couldn’t let things end. Feminist Book Club was born. I put considerable effort into setting things up, sending emails, monitoring our Facebook page. There are days I prioritize our readings over those for my Milton class, which is a problem, but it’s Winter semester so I don’t even care.
Our first meeting was wholesome and delightful. We made plans to read Ashley Mae Hoiland’s “One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly” for the next month, and things worked out just right to meet together in our lovely professor’s home. We talked about so many good things: Mormonism, missions, families, trials, doubt, empathy, kindness, hope, love, God, and all that jazz. We resurrected that familiar, godly community and basked in the delicious light that comes when sharing our stories and discussing good books. We communed with each other through Mormonism; the earthly divisions of home, school, work, and church erased completely for one heavenly morning.
By now I see the value in nurturing communities we want to see thrive. There have certainly been times I’ve hated living in Provo, a place unfortunately known for narrow-mindedness, conformity, and strict religious orthodoxy. But I see now there’s so much more here. There’s love, encouragement, and solidarity. There are people who love the church without loving everything about the church, people who want to see positive change. There are people who shrug off the judgmental hate-the-sin tendencies taught to us in our youth, who refuse to demean LGBT individuals or those who’ve left to choose different faiths. There is good here I couldn’t see before I read this book, took this class, met these people.
I’ve learned that choosing to engage is always worth the effort. That being a friend to people who are probably way cooler than you is usually an excellent choice. Choosing to be vulnerable in telling our stories is the best way to grow, learn, and support one another. Reading and loving the same book is remarkably connective and healing. Taking risks to build a community of hope, love, and mutual frustration is absolutely a great way of living your life.
Because experiences like this are recycled – they’ve already helped enrich the greater community I so disliked in the first place. As I fulfilled my Mormon duty of visiting teaching today – a responsibility I usually approach apathetically – I incorporated things I learned in that women’s lit class, things that we happened to discuss during book club yesterday.
“Our Heavenly Parents really do love us, just like our earthly parents. I think that they love us so much that they’re willing to let us fail and suffer so we can learn how to be better people. They love to see us succeed, but they love us just the same when we don’t. That’s why they sent Christ to atone for us.”
The girl we taught pondered my words for a moment, and told me she’d never thought about it that way before. We left her with a cupcake and a prayer, and as soon as we stepped outside my companion asked a question I wasn’t expecting:
“Emma, did you serve a mission?”
I told her I didn’t, but I knew she had.
“Really? That’s surprising. You taught that lesson like a missionary. It was beautiful.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was only preaching the gospel of Feminist Book Club, a gospel that I hope will eventually spread across Utah County and bundle us all in its goodness and warmth.
Until that day comes, I’ll dutifully plan our once-a-month meetings, thanking God all the while for providing me with this blessing of community within community. As sisters in Zion we might not always work together or have the same opinions, but we can meet to talk, to love, and to encourage each other as we collectively embrace all the beautiful complexities of life.
I don’t know where this will take us or how long it will last, but it sure beats private, introverted brooding. Turns out, having friends and gathering in large numbers is not bad or scary. It makes us better, I think. I’m also extremely glad I finally found my people – they really are that great.