This week of #JVStories, Katie a FJV living in Colorado shares more about living in community during her experience as a JV. Learn more about what her relationship with a community mate has taught her about engaging with people who may outwardly appear to be extremely different from us.
By Katie Lacz
Community in Divisive Times
We know that we live in exceptionally divided and divisive times right now. In my circles, there’s a lot of conversation around the questions: How do we connect with people who think differently from us? How can we have a civil conversation when we disagree deeply on issues that feel so important? More than that, how can we become a beloved community?
When I began my JV year, one of my community members and I realized fairly quickly that we were extremely different. Where I was introverted, Elyse was a total extrovert. Where I was quiet, she was talkative. Where I was more buttoned-up, she had a flair for the dramatic. She made friends wherever we went; I usually kept my head in a book on the bus.
At first, we were curious and a bit confused, and we watched one another warily. Since there were four people in our community, we would gravitate toward our other housemates because it was comfortable and easy. The superficial differences were keeping us apart.
Coming Together Despite Differences
At our fall retreat, we had scheduled “dyads” (one-on-one conversations) with each member of our community. I met with our two other housemates first, and had a little bit of dread headed into my one-on-one with Elyse. Immediately, we said the obvious – that we are SO different.
We finally acknowledged it. We talked about how our different personalities made it difficult to understand one another. Then recognized that we each addressed aspects of the other’s personality that weren’t obvious at the forefront. We decided that we were “polar opposites.” And we agreed to apprentice one another in the ways of our strengths.
Over the course of the year, Elyse taught me to speak to strangers. She showed me how to speak my mind, and reminded me that showing my anger was OK. I showed her the value of quiet time, of being “alone together.” And we found that our common desire to serve and be changed by our year of service bound us closer together.
Overcoming the Divisive
When I think about trying to reach across the gulfs that seem to divide us, the lessons of living in community with my “polar opposite” come to mind. Sometimes, personality differences are a lot easier to bridge than political ones, but here are some things I learned from my year:
Acknowledge the obvious.
It’s OK, and even good, to recognize the huge differences in perspective or personality between you and another person. It’s likely you both are aware of this anyway, and naming them diffuses them of their power to separate you.
Break bread together.
There’s a reason why the central sacrament of Christian life, the Eucharist, is a meal. To share food together is an intimate experience. The daily practice of sitting down together to eat whatever we creatively patched together brought our community closer. It wasn’t about asking the tough questions, though that sometimes happened. It was about showing up for one another. In fact, one of my favorite memories with Elyse is the day we fell on the floor to laugh at the process of cooking a meal that mysteriously ended up involving beans and tequila.
Find common ground.
Start small. Maybe you believe every child deserves a quality education, even if you disagree about how to get there. Begin with the easy stuff. There will be time for the hard stuff soon enough. At the very least, nearly everybody likes chocolate, or pizza, or puppies (not to eat). Maybe that is your common ground.
Agree to learn from one another.
Even when we completely disagree with someone, we can learn something from (And I don’t mean something backhanded like, “how not to be a jerk.”) Maybe you can learn something from a life story that’s totally different from yours. Maybe they can teach you to knit. Or build a bookshelf, or cook an omelet. Everybody has something to offer, even if it’s small.
Be gentle with each other, and be gentle with yourself.
This advice was given to us at Orientation at the beginning of my JV year. You have, and will continue to, mess up. So will the other person. One of St. Ignatius’s great contributions is what’s often called the “Ignatian plus sign” – assuming the most positive and charitable interpretation of what another person has said. When we come from a stance of openness and generosity, we’ve fought half the battle.
In my experience, community never meant that we agreed on everything, or that we ignored our differences. It means a radical reaching out to others, acknowledging your own imperfection, recognizing their imperfection, and embracing it. It is, as Dorothy Day put it, the only cure to our “long loneliness.” Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities where typically abled and developmentally disabled people live together, offers sound advice for our times: “It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community.”
Katie served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2006. She holds a BA in Journalism from Ithaca College, and a Masters of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She currently lives in Colorado with their family. Katie also maintains her own blog at Pure Buttermilk.