When you go looking for community, be careful. It may find you. -- Bill Leonard
On July 1, 2000 I packed my little red car with all my belongings and drove from Marshall, TX to Waco, TX, passing through most of the East Texas towns that I had become familiar with over the previous 25 years. The thing I remember most about that day is that it was hot. An interesting thing about Texans is that we rarely pretend it isn't hot when it is. Go to Alaska when it is 20 degrees outside and the Alaskans will try to convince you that it is not really that cold. Go to Texas in 100 degree heat and we will tell you-- It is hot.
On that day, it was hot.
I suppose I had no reason to believe a move to Waco would be any different than the moves I had made during the previous years. After college I made it a habit to move to a new place about once a year, with every intention of that new place becoming a permanent home. But none of them ever stuck, so I moved on to "greener pastures."
After a few short weeks in Waco I had the distinct impression that I would continue to be on the move. People here were strange. The job I was in was vastly different than the exact same position I held previously at another place. Friends who had come here at the same time, but for different reasons, began to separate and make lives for themselves in their respective corners of this medium-sized city. That summer was more than just hot. It was miserable.
Then in August of that year things were put into motion that would prove to be watershed moments in my life. A friend found a particular church and told me about it. I remember the moment he brought a sheet of paper with the church's values and mission statement on it to my apartment to show me. He said he really thought I should check it out. So I did, and I am glad I did. Later that week I met the pastor of the church who quickly became one of my closest friends.
This city, however, remained strange. I bounced around between jobs and seminary and short-but-excruciating stints of unemployment. Were it not for my burgeoning love for, and involvement in, that church over on Dutton Avenue, I probably would have bolted. But I stayed. The gravitational pull of this place pulled me in and held me close. The odd things about this city ceased to be odd to me. Or perhaps the oddness began to seep into my pores until I no longer saw it as odd. Quirky became normal.
Of course there was an elderly black man who may or may not think he is the president who walks down the street waving at everyone he sees.
Of course North means East and South means West.
Of course there are Mexican/Chinese restaurants, as well as dives called "Health Camp" that have absolutely nothing healthy on their menu.
I ended up at a job that was sometimes meaningful, even joyful, other times a living-hell. Yet all the time it was a hub of the city that brought people from all geographic, social, and economic corners of Waco to one place, around books. I met JoAnn, who probably lived life a little too fully in the 1960's, and Dorothy, the widow of a missionary from Japan who expected me to hug her when she expressed anger at her husband leaving so early. I became good friends with Rodeo Steve, so named because of his past as a cowboy. Steve is approaching 70 and doesn't look a day over 45, and is deeply in love with Mickey. I was the officiant at their wedding. Then there was the cranky old lawyer who had an insatiable appetite for very specific types of erotica, as well as the old Baylor professor who died of lung cancer and would break out into poetry whenever she pleased. The broken people who fill the pages of Chekhov and O'Connor began to fill the pages of my own life.
These people became my home.
Then those of us who had come here together, yet had grown apart, began to find each other again. It was as if we had been separated, on our own journeys of discovery, and had returned to tell about what we had found, and also about how much we missed each other.
And that church continued to wedge its way into my life as I wedged my way into it. Life was lived, energy was created, and tragedy hit, leaving us without the pastor and friend who I had become so close to years before. But we continued to find each other in many ways-- through conflict, tears, beer, the Bible, and the general passing of time.
I returned to school and began to feel young again. New possibilities emerged. New friendships developed. A sense of calm slowly returned after years of grieving the loss of my friend. The hole was still there, but it became less raw, easier to navigate around. What seemed inevitable was that my time in this city I had grown to love was slowly coming to an end, as it isn't wise to spend time and money on a seminary degree if you aren't prepared to explore your calling wherever it may lead.
But the calling was closer than I suspected. That church that I had walked alongside for years asked me to be with them a little longer, and I accepted. And I sit here now, on the eve of my tenth year in this place, thankful. It's really all I can be. Ten years is a long time, and yet I still feel so young. There are corners of this city, people in these neighborhoods, who are yet to be discovered. I've got time.
When you go looking for community, be careful. It may find you.