On Finding Community

by Adele Booysen on November 28, 2012

I had hardly been in Kenya a month when friends came to volunteer at the children’s home where I was working. They hand-carried a care package from a lady at our home church: Some notes from her Sunday school class. Some Christmas treats. And a little green guy: an M&M character whom we promptly named Kiptoo [kip-‘toe], the Kalenjin name for a boy born at a time when visitors are at your home.

It was 2005, and the cross-Atlantic trip from the US to Kenya was officially Kiptoo’s first as a stowaway. Since then, Kiptoo has listened to the songs of the Dinka in Sudan, slipped around on muddy trails in the D.R. Congo, and marveled at sunsets in South Africa. He has also walked on the Great Wall of China, cringed at critters in a market in Hong Kong, and sunbathed in St. Thomas.

Fear not: Kiptoo is not Wilson. We’re not planning on building a raft anytime soon, and I definitely don’t talk to him. Despite ascribing responses to various experiences to Kiptoo, he is very much simply a 2-inch-tall plastic container.

So why bother lugging the little stowaway around the world in my camera bag? Kiptoo really is a means to an end. He’s a fun way to share with friends the places I go, the food I try (or won’t try), the things that I see. He’s a way to connect my friends to my world without seeming narcissistic. And he’s plain fun.

‘Cause when you’re single and get to travel a lot for work, traveling isn’t always exciting. Long layovers at airports, well, they’re long, regardless of how many books you carry with you. And thus, you create fun Facebook updates and blog posts. And when you see something breathtaking and you’d really like to take a photo but it would be fun to have a person in the picture, too, Kiptoo is usually keen to crawl out from under the passport pouch and pose. Or when you’re moving to yet another new country where you know no-one, it’s fun to say, “Kiptoo and I are exploring today. We’ve discovered this road up the mountain from where you can see the entire city…”

If I lugged my little M&M all around town with me, though, and if, after a few months in my new city he was all I had to show in terms of someone with whom to explore, well, it would be fair to say that I’m on a downhill slope. Someone throw me a lifeline, quickly!

Dare I ask, What if Kiptoo was like some of our other tools for survival? Would being content with Kiptoo’s company be anything like settling for virtual community rather than going through the hard work of nurturing new friendships? Maybe not. At least friends on Facebook talk back, right? And a good Skype call with a friend back home can be the best medicine to a weary soul any day—but especially when you’re new to a new to an area.

Virtual community should never take the place of real friends, though. It doesn’t matter how many readers subscribe to your blog, how many friends you have on Facebook, or how many followers you have on Twitter: None of that compares to real friendship, to walking off with a smile in your heart (and on your face) after connecting with a new friend and seeing new relationships bud. As my (real-life, long-term) friend Idelette from shelovesmagazine recently pointed out:

“There are some nights when you simply put away the phone [I’d add laptop and iPad, too] and you savor the now of conversation and the gift of Presence.”

I learned that the hard way. Years ago in Kenya, I went through one of the hardest seasons in my life and I discovered what donning the heavy boots of depression felt like. The main reason was that I did not have close friends around me. I was surrounded by dear Kenyan colleagues who were kind to the core, by 100 orphans whom I loved dearly and who gave the tightest hugs imaginable. I even had regular calls with friends back home. But there was no-one right there with me who would ask me tough questions, no-one with whom I process “stuff,” whether important or insignificant.

Some dive buddies from work and I in Boracay, Philippines

Around that time, I explained my state of mind to supporters, equating the experience to scuba diving. As a diver, you are required to have a dive buddy. Your dive buddy checks that your gear is in order, and keeps an eye on your under water. As I’ve become a more experienced diver, I have found that the most enjoyable dives are with buddies that also marvel at the little things, like watching how an anemone moves when you swim by, or how a goby stands guard at the entrance to its burrow, disappearing abruptly, leaving you wondering if you had imagined seeing it. In my world, a good buddy is someone who enjoys the dive as much as I do, all while keeping an eye out for my safety.

On a recent dive in the Philippines, two colleagues and I teamed up as buddies, and having two buddies, not just one, was an even better experience. One of them was always close enough to share a discovery, or close enough for me to share in the joy of what they had just seen.

Life overseas is very much the same way. Though one friend is great, community, by its very nature, is plural. Just one friend cannot meet all your needs. In fact, I have seen (and experienced) how unhealthy that is.

But I’ve also experienced how hard it can be to forge life-giving community when you live in remote parts of the world. There’s no denying that.

To withdraw into a world with only virtual community, though, can be a slippery slope. While I pray that what we have here grows into a place where you can come back and learn from others, where you can meet people who are in a similar situation as yours, people who can pray with you and challenge you to think differently about your circumstances, in the end, this community is just a means to an end. It’s a tool to help you connect with your own real-life community, right where you are. 

It’s true that Intentional Community = Greater Joy. And the joy and the benefits of community are things that must be actively pursued.

“Joy is not something you find when the circumstances change. It’s something that changes the circumstances,” says Erwin McManus.

So, I’d like to challenge you:

  • What can you do to connect to community right where you are?
  • What can you do to bless someone else today? Might it be time to turn off your phone, close your laptop, and be intentional about connecting to people around you?
  • What can you do this week that’s simply fun and would make you smile from the depths of your soul?

Wherever you find yourself today, may God fill you with joy. And may that joy open up doors to rich soil of community, to a place where you can thrive and live in such a way that others will find Hope through you, so your work and ministry is more than a means to an end, but Christ in you would become both the means and the end.

Adele Booysen – Currently oversees the leadership development program with Compassion International in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Happily single, Adele appreciates the company of wonderful friends around the world, while she practices her Thai cooking and taekwondo. You can read more about her adventures at www.adelebooysen.com.

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  • Liz K

    boy, this is so timely!! We have only been in our new community for about 7 weeks and I am struggling to find anyone to connect with!! We haven’t found a church yet, and I am at home most days with my three little boys. I keep praying God will show me how to get involved!!

    • Adele Booysen

      Liz, having moved to Chiang Mai just 6 months ago, I did things like go to the same place to work (a coffee shop) where people started recognizing me. And despite not being perfectly content with the options for churches, I decided to go to just one and stay. And I sought places where I could serve. From this has grown a rich community of friends for me. I pray that God would connect you to a few good souls in your new community–however that might look for a mom of 3 little boys.

    • Liz– being at home all day, alone with kids is SO. HARD. Like Adele, I will pray for you to connect with others quickly. That you would have the energy to pursue and the sanity to make it until you connect with other adults!

      • Liz K

        ha! “that you would have the energy to pursue and the sanity to make it until you connect” LOVE THIS!! I find with our three busy boys, (5 1/2, just 4 and 5 months) most days I just want to take a nap 🙂 But yes, we need to get out there and make some friends!

        • Liz, I wonder how far the drive is from you guys to us or vice versa? We have plenty of room here in our house and maybe we could make a little Christmas connection? There are five boys here who would be happy to entertain your guys! Our neighbors all lived in the States for 12 years and understand English and have daughters who love to play with gringos. I don’t know if you can Google map rural Costa Rica (?) but maybe we can see if it feasible at all..it won’t fix your need to find community where you, but it could be a breath a fresh air amidst the search…

    • We came to the field with 4 little ones, 5 and under. No vehicle, barely intermittent internet, a little leery of the taxi system, excessive sun and heat and distance making walking with littles improbable and probably unwise… It is hard. While it is lonely, if you are an introvert, it is easier to hang out at home, slip into a virtual world, etc. It is also true that sometimes, it takes a bit of time to break into athe nomadic, expat community. Most of that first year, my community was my husband, my kids, my house helper, a young neighbor who came to learn English and our dog. No kidding. Once I decided that wasn’t healthy, that I wasn’t the wife or mama that I needed to be, that I needed to do the hard steps of getting out and meeting others instead of making excuses as to why I couldn’t – I began to integrate little by little into the community. Some places, people will wrap you up and bring you in. Other places, you have to go out, self-advocate and dig out that community.

      Some ideas – see if there are any English speaking philanthropy/charity/development groups where you can volunteer. Try to meet wives of the men your husband works with. Are there any playgroups? Do you drive? If not, learn. Is there a school where expat kids tend to attend (even if your kids aren’t old enough to start yet). Is there a place that focuses on teaching English – try to connect with people that volunteer or work there. Make sure your hubby takes you on regular dates so that at the very least, you have uninterrupted adult conversation, etc., etc., etc.

      While it wasn’t the same, those first months with no one as a friend, really, other than my house helper, have forged a very strong bond between the two of us and I consider her one of my dearest friends, anywhere in this world. It is, however, a friendship that might never have happened if I’d had that expat community right away, because it does take a lot more work to bridge the culture divide.

      Prayed for you, will be praying for you, Liz!

      • yikes, I’m an introvert. Definitely part of my problem. I speak the language now, so have a lot of local friends. but the internet is my main connection with the western people.

        • Adele Booysen

          Lana, having good friends who are nationals, I value the blessing of local friends. If that is sufficient for you, consider yourself thoroughly blessed! I wonder, though, if there aren’t some Western ladies in your community who might be yearning for friendship with someone like you, someone who knows the culture and can help them find their feet, also with the new language.

      • Liz K

        Oh Richelle!! Thank you so much! You know, don’t you? Our boys are 5 1/2, just 4 and 5 months! Yeah, I find just having the energy to want to connect is hard! 🙂 But yes, I need to. Thanks for the ideas! We do have a vehicle and I do drive, but most days my husband has the car. We work with all nationals and that brings up another obstacles, my Spanish is horrid! I am working on it, but it’s just one more thing ya know? Anyway, thanks for the prayers! And by the way, are you over at Missionary Mom’s Companion? ‘Cause I am the Liz K over there 🙂

  • Your M&M guy is fabulous, Adéle! I love your final line: “…but Christ in you would become both the means and the end.” Yes! This is what I so hope for.

    You bring up the truth that community, by definition, is plural. Reminds me of a teaching I once heard drawing attention to the plural verses in the bible. Sometimes we get too focused on making Jesus our ‘personal’ Lord and Savior that we subliminally translate plural verses into singular verses.

    For example we might say, “I have the mind of Christ.” Hold on a minute. What does the bible really say? WE have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Consider the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: OUR Father who is in heaven… (Matthew 6:9). As a final point, some might say, “I am more than a conqueror.” Looking closer we can see that this is another plural verse: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

    Thanks for the sweet reminder to make flesh and blood connections a priority. You are a dear!

    • Adele Booysen

      Angie, these are such true words. Our views as Westerners are much different than that of first-century followers of Christ. A dear prof of mine used to always remind us to go back to the text, make sure it really says what we’ve made it to say, and think of what it would’ve meant for the original audience. We read with glasses tinted by egocentricity, which robs us of the richness of community… I look forward to meeting you someday when I make it to Bolivia. Not sure when that will be, but I’m sure I’ll end up visiting Bolivia someday for work. 🙂

      • Oh, that is a nice thing to look forward to! Yes, indeed. I would love to meet you!

    • Love how you pointed out the “I” vs “we…”

  • verdette

    extraordanary well written, agree with it all

    • Adele Booysen

      Thanks, Verdette. 🙂

  • Great post. So on target. When I run stress management or resilience building workshops I always talk about this. There’s no silver bullet to stress management, or resilience, or joy, or happiness … but community, relationships, is the single most important piece of the puzzle.

    • Adele Booysen

      Thanks, Lisa. I’ve seen what a tremendous difference it has made in my world, having connected with a handful of amazing women in my community. It took time and effort, but the time and the effort was well worth it.

  • This post is beyond fantastic. Excellent story, illustration, application to our lives. GREAT!!!!

    • Thanks, Joe! So glad you enjoyed it. I think I sometimes forget that guys need community as badly as we girls do!

  • I’ve actually found it harder to establish community when I’m in the States, as opposed to when I’m overseas. So thanks for the reminder of how important it is to connect to people, no matter where I am!

    • Laura, I can imagine that connecting to community back in the US can be hard! Praying that God would connect you with some folks who “get” your stories and your worldview that’s so different from that of the average American.

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