This Sunday, we held the first annual Zuke Fest. As we mentioned in our last column, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of zucchini (by God’s grace) in our garden. So, on Saturday, we filled a wheelbarrow and two five-gallon buckets with all kinds of summer squash.
When life gives you zucchinis, you find out who your real friends are.
A whole afternoon spent stirring red lentils and zucchini, grating zucchini for chocolate bread, deep frying zucchini tempura and mixing up a mystery cheese-zucchini casserole feels just about impossible to find most days. Try this with a bunch of people bumping into each other in a kitchen and splattering grease on a lawn together, though, and you’ve got an amazing recipe for building community.
Community is revolutionary. When we bring it to a rolling boil, lives change and plans foment that ripple around the world. But it’s hard to cook up community from scratch in middle-class North America. Some days, just getting to know the neighbors on your street can feel like trying to get the wave going at a football game while everybody stares at you from their seats. Still, we go on believing that God made people—all of us, no matter your Myers-Briggs profile type—to need other people. So we need to figure out how to break our ruts of commuting, watching Hulu, and consuming Hot Pockets alone.
Goofy parties help, and Zuke Fest was far from our first. Just after we got married, we lived in an apartment building where all the residents opened their doors and hosted events like “Fried Food Night,” “Dessert for Dinner,” and “Vegetarians Eat Meat.” These were not Martha Stewart affairs with themed table decorations, mind you. They were more like a bunch of friends diving into minimal planning after saying, “Hey, what if we … ?” and then actually doing it.
Our attempts at feeding community often involve food—because, after all, everybody has to eat. When we lived overseas, we bonded with friends over attempts at Thanksgiving dinners in places without turkeys and cranberries. And we’ve been involved with what can only be called “The Whole Nicaraguan Village Is Eating Beef Because Somebody’s Cow Fell Down the Hill and Broke Her Neck.” But some of our connections with people don’t focus on food; we’ve also tried a square dance, a winter bonfire, a weekly sports night and a feat known to us as “Read the New Testament Straight Through in One Night.”
We’ve been charging this hill of community (and often falling back down it) for years because we know God made us and redeemed us for relationships. Here’s what we’ve been learning.
Give what you don’t want to give
If you’re serious about getting to know your neighbors, co-workers, churchmates, shopkeepers or other random people in your life, you can always start by giving them something. Think what might make somebody smile, and then figure out how to find or make it. It might be scones, a wood carving, a coupon booklet, an evening of babysitting, a lunch meeting to talk when you really want some down time, a ride to the doctor or even the tried-and-true casserole. Then stop by to give it to them and leave time to talk. Get each others’ info so you can reconnect soon. (And then do it.) Community often starts with asking how to help—and then actually helping.
Ask for stuff
On the flip side, ask people for help. Most people like feeling needed, as long as you’re not pounding on their door every morning asking for another splash of milk for your cereal. Think before you buy—maybe you could borrow what you need from someone instead. (And if nobody has the thing you’re looking for, maybe you could be the one who buys and then offers to share.)
Stick with your church
Sadly, this doesn’t go without saying. You need the Church, and the Church needs you. Get in. Stay in. Commit. It won’t be easy. But there’s no substitute for committing to a group of sinners (just like you and me) that Jesus is leading. We need to remind ourselves through this commitment that we can be weird in good ways and, through it, show love for a hurting world.
Get people to tell their stories
Don’t meet a new person and wonder, “How can this person be of use to me?” Instead, try to remember, “I get to share this right-here-and-now-moment with this person.” Treat people as people, not network threads. Ask questions that give them chances to share their stories, and as you listen, tell God thanks for the ways He’s working in their lives. There is no ordinary person on any continent. The person in front of you has a story worth hearing, opinions that will challenge yours, and maybe even some profound insights you need.
Take the bull by the horns
After complaining too many times that I (Chrissy) didn’t know anyone in the North American neighborhood we moved into a couple years ago, I finally figured out nobody but me was going to solve the problem. I got serious with God and started praying for one close friend and one tiny group of people I could have real conversations with at least once a month. It was a small start, but that’s where you’ve got to start. Then I took God seriously that He was going to answer that prayer and started making ways for it to happen. I brainstormed all the women I’d talked to in the last months about the lack of community in our lives and invited them all to the local Perkins restaurant. What started as sort of a “Lonely Ladies” support group is now, sure enough, a strong little community of friends a year later.
Be a quitter
Part of the reason community is hard to find is because people are so busy. Pick a couple favorite things, get fully involved in those, and quit the rest. Figure out the people you want to see more, and see them more—which, sad to say, probably means seeing some other people less. Most really close friendships don’t happen without seeing a person at least two times a week. Start with the people who live closest to you because that makes connecting with them easier. Don’t let your Facebook friends keep you from seeing the real faces of your friends.
Get to know people not like you
You might think it’s easiest to form community with those most similar to us, but if you happen to be busy, middle-class white people like us, you might also find that most people like us are lousy at community. That doesn’t mean people from different backgrounds than us are automatically good at community, but we do need people who are different from us in our lives. This means meeting families with kids if you don’t have kids and meeting singles if you do. It could mean pulling out your high school Spanish to strike up a conversation with a neighbor or helping an older woman carry her groceries across the street (seriously). Or, if you didn’t grow up in small town, Nordic, Midwest families where people greet each other by saying “Hey der” and make Tater Tot green bean casseroles for potlucks after church like we did, maybe the way to meet people not like you is just to make a casserole and invite them over.
And if all else fails, give us a shout and we’ll bring over a bucket of squash for your Zuke Fest. Seriously. We have way too much.
The Jeskes have lived lots of amazing days in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and the U.S. The latest book is This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. @ChristineJeske is getting a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and @AdamJeske leads social media for InterVarsity and the Urbana Student Missions Conference. Connect at Into the Mud and Executing Ideas.