I grew up in a very strong church community. My parents were deeply involved in our parish, so everyone knew them and by extension, me. We spent a lot of time at church, and all my friends were from church (or our parish elementary school, which I attended). I would periodically get involved in activities, like acting, outside of our church community, but I never picked up new friends there.

As my illness set in at a young age, I found myself increasingly separated from my classmates. I felt perpetually misunderstood, mocked, and ostracized. Experiences I know falsely started in my head eventually became reality as my negative expectations increasingly reflected in my behavior. As it continued, I increasingly found myself a lone person in a crowd. Even as I interacted with those around me, that sense of deep loneliness didn’t fade. Although I seemed to belong to a community, I was not reaping any of its fruit.

I increasingly found myself a lone person in a crowd.

Frustratingly, my childhood experiences set the tone for my adult life. I never set roots down into a community, establishing a sense of belonging, out of a false conviction that the relationships would end anyway, or my life would change dramatically and either I or the community would decide to part ways.

It was one of the things I hoped for when my husband and I relocated our family to our current hometown. From the outside, everything about this town had the appearance of a small, tight-knit community. Parents volunteering to coach sports; others running local philanthropic efforts; an active Facebook group and neighborhood watch organization were all the kinds of signs we looked for in our new home.

Yet, three years later, we were still disconnected from the community. While I had connected with a few people and even started attending a local church, I still didn’t feel like I belonged. It was disappointing. As much as I yearned to belong, I didn’t know how to get started or make it beyond the initial, superficial level.

Coming out of my depression, I was encouraged to get more deeply engaged in a local community. Mike, my therapist, suggested I start at my church. “See if there’s something small you can do there,” he suggested. So, the next Sunday, I took a moment to talk with one of the pastors about a way I might be involved.

He invited me back for a deeper conversation. In that chat, he suggested several ways I could help, including the time commitments. After some discussion, we came to an agreement. I signed up as an Usher to help greet people, hand out programs, and take up the collection a couple of Sundays every month.

My first Sunday I was nervous but I didn’t need to be. The pastor led me to the Lead Usher, who guided us through the entire service. It was a great experience.

Better, though, was what happened later: I started recognizing people as they came in to church. The Lead Usher would greet them by name and introduce me, and before I knew it, I was recognizing faces across the courtyard and getting to know people. It was a small step and an important one.

Small steps are important.

In the giving, sharing, and receiving, we create something larger than ourselves.

As nice as that was, it was when I got involved in small groups through my church that my community experience took off. Meeting with a small group of people on a weekly basis where we shared what was going on in our lives showed me what true community could look like. As I branched out and joined different groups, I got to know people on a deeper level, and discovered what it feels like to be cared for and about.

Best of all, the leaders were the ones who made the effort to draw me in and make me feel comfortable. Their kindness overcame the fears and inhibitions I felt and helped me engage in the group. They helped me take the steps I didn’t know, moving beyond the superficial level to a deeper and richer experience.

It was in this process that I began to understand why belonging and participating in community is so important to our mental health. When we are in community, we have a sense of belonging and importance. Our very presence and participation grants the same to others. In the giving, sharing, and receiving, we create something larger than ourselves: a community.

Tips on Locating and Joining a Community

Once upon a time, our towns were our communities. They were places where generations of families grew up and grew old together. As families are increasingly mobile, work hours increase, and we live busier lives in general, we are exposed to fewer centers of community.

One of the most easily accessed is the neighborhood bar. Unfortunately, the type of community offered there is typically superficial and offers risks that are generally unacceptable to those of us walking the road to mental health.

If you are looking for a true, healthy community experience, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

– Find an interest or a passion of yours and run a Google or Meetup search for others who share your interest in your local area. Make a personal commitment to go to the experience and participate.

– Look for local charities and volunteer to help. Many charities have options with flexible time commitments and are happy to work with whatever you can offer. Look for chances to work in a group or team situation; it’s typically easiest to get to know people in these environments.

– If you have kids or enjoy working with them (and are willing to go through a background check), inquire at your local schools, public library, or recreation centers for opportunities to volunteer.

– Find a local church. You don’t have to be a believer to volunteer at a church. In fact, I know several people at our church who attend simply for the community experience. You can volunteer, join a small group, or simply participate in some of the church’s activities; all offer rich opportunities to engage and connect.

You may find that your go at joining a group or community isn’t successful. You may have different values or simply not enough in common. That’s natural and OK; we are not cookie-cutter images of each other. I encourage you to keep trying; just because the first (or even the second or the third) attempt doesn’t work, you will find a community that works for and with you.

However, for any of these suggestions to work, you have to engage. It’s OK to start small – maybe with just one person – and ask a couple of questions. Get to know them slowly. They are likely to help connect you with others in the group and bring you in. If you make the effort, a rich experience awaits you on the other side.

For us to truly experience community, we have to engage with those around us and it’s OK to start small.

Joining and participating in community is a tremendous aid to our mental health. We are built for it. Community not only provides us a sense of belonging, it also helps give us purpose. It is a safe place for us to learn to give, receive, and share with others. Finding community can be a challenge, and taking that first step is often the most difficult. Even so, they are challenges and steps worth taking. An amazing experience awaits you on the other side.

Are you a member of a community now? How did you join it? How does it help you?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below!

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