I grew up in a Black Church. Over the years, I have heard many well-meaning people say that my cultural faith experience was the most divided time in the American week. But I'd counter that it was merely a reflection of the already divided American experience. Though as I got older I have spent time in multi-ethnic ministries and opening up my world to learning about faith through the eyes of other cultural identities, I have held on to my love, honor and respect for The Black Church.
At Bethel Gospel Tabernacle, every 1st Sunday is Communion Sunday. It is the Sunday of tradition, where leaders wear Black suits and dresses, and Deacons wear a purple sash signifying the color of mourning, as communion is a practice of remembering Christ's death and sacrifice that is the cornerstone of our Christian faith.
On Communion Sunday, we'd sing spiritual songs and hymns about the blood that Jesus shed; how thankful we were for that blood of Calvary; about the days we were once lost but found the hope in the sacrifice of Christ in place for our sinful lives. Many times a choir would sing or a liturgical dance would usher us into a Sunday sermon, which would be followed by our Communion Service. My father, who was a deacon for the entirety of my childhood and now an ordained minister, would line up with the other leaders in the back, march down the aisle (wedding style) to their places at the front next to the communion table. Scriptures were read, prayers said, and each leader would help serve the rest of the church. We would then all take the symbolic body and blood of Christ (wafers and grape juice, guys) together. In Communion.
It was in this church experience that I first saw what community looks like. A people gathered for a unified purpose; serving one another, honoring one another, and loving one another. A people spurring each other on towards that collective end: growing closer to Christ and sharing his love with all of creation. A people that stands by each other during painful life experiences, and genuinely celebrates the goodness that life still has to offer.
Community unlocks passion: My trip to Uganda with Bethel in 2015 is partly why I am in the Peace Corps today.
Building on this solid foundation, I have put the tools of building community to work throughout my life: alongside my first cousins (#BenjiClan) and among my longtime childhood girlfriends through the transition into adulthood (#ThePact); in college with the National Society of Black Engineers and my sorority Phi Sigma Rho; in various ministries at Freedom Church of Philadelphia and Victorious Believers in Michigan; social groups such as the Houston chapter of Nomadness Travel Tribe... and now here, with the Peace Corps in Ecuador.
Communion is hard work, because building trust amongst people, agreeing on a unifying purpose, and committing to encourage each other to fulfill that purpose will require your full, undivided attention. The hardest part: when you realize it isn't going to work out any longer, and overcoming the fear to try again.
I have been part of collapsed communities of relationships gone sour, seasons ending like the good ol' college days, or moving away from churches I've loved because of my very mobile life. I give myself time to mourn those losses, especially the ones that I didn't see coming or didn't want! These are kinds of collapses that have the ability to take away all your trust in other people; the collapses that cause you to retreat into yourself because it's easier to deal with what you already know than to start over. I know because I have experienced that, too.
But I have found that nothing is more important in my life than communion. In Ecuador, that has been the toughest part of my experience because I got thrown into a completely new environment and around all new people: both fellow PCVs and those with whom share my life here in-country. It has taken me a long, painful year turning the dials to get the right settings of people & purpose mixed in with trust before I could really say that I have made friends here. Some people walked out of my life faster than the speed at which they came in, and the whiplash of those experiences broke my resolve when I had no one else to really rely upon.
Community is a built-in support network: Pride in my eyes while celebrating my friend, PCV Shekinah at one of her gigs in Quito! She can SANG <3
Still, I keep building. FREE, our PCV support network for volunteers of ethnic and religious minority backgrounds, continues to grow and thrive. I mean it when I say that group is one of the reasons I made it through my first year. With fellow Christian PCVs, we launched a spiritual retreat with a second one already in the works! In the meantime we share scriptures, sermons and songs with each other through the power of WhatsApp, haha. (Shoutout to Donette! Check out her blog: Nourish Your Nurture) I still plan "Everybody's Welcome" kickbacks every so often when I'm in the bigger cities, and now that we have more volunteers who have recently come close to where I am located, am hoping to create a network of support with them as well.
Community will meet you at your favorite beach to talk about God, life, and friendship over endless empanadas.
In Paján, I am in communion with my church, Iglesia Bautista Luz Divina, but also share my life and love with the people of my Bailoterapia workout club. For this past month, I've been working with elementary school kids on a dance performance and the love that those kids show me every day I am present with them fills me with joy and a whole lot of laughter.
Community will travel 6+ hours to dance in the street to Daddy Yankee <3
I have big dreams and goals for my final year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I find that all good work begins with community. So I continue to partner with different organizations and demographics to figure out what works best, and see if there is a collective purpose that we can all work towards. I am sure more challenges will come, but I am yet hopeful.
Though I do not serve wafers and grape juice on the first Sunday of each month these days, I share in the hope that the overall well-being of the people of Paján and the personal lives of my fellow PCVs will continue to grow stronger. This is my communion story.
Community will make sure you celebrate health goals with fruit!