After more than a decade overseas, building community is still both the biggest struggle and the biggest blessing. I wish someone had given a pep talk to fresh-off-the-plane Emily, encouraging me as I established a new life and pursued new relationships. If I could give that pep talk to myself, it would probably go something like this:
1. Community takes work. Remember the saying “You have to be a friend to have a friend?” Well, it’s true. I’ve had to initiate more than I felt was fair, reaching out to schedule video chats and coffee dates. I’ve had to open my heart and my home again and again to new friends, both fellow expats who arrived after me and the local people I was getting to know. You might feel uncomfortable always risking rejection by initiating, but it’s worth it to form friendships. To build community, you’re going to have to give of yourself.
Passport country friendships will change. Time hasn’t stopped for the people you left behind. As much as you’re going to wish they would always remember you, the hard truth is that those relationships will change. You need to pick up the phone and call them, find creative ways to celebrate birthdays and holidays with them, and give them grace when you feel left out of their lives. Remember that you have a whole new life that they know very little about, and be intentional about sharing it with them and helping them understand it.
Host country friendships will change. There will be So. Many. Goodbyes. And so many hellos. The rhythms of coming and going in the expat world will exhaust you, but don’t let it harden you. Keep your heart open to new relationships – God ordains the crossing of paths. Remember that you were once the new person trying to build a new life, and remember those who welcomed you with open arms and hearts.
2. Your expectations for community are not going to be reality. You might end up fellowshipping five times a week with local believers, or you might end up fellowshipping on Sunday mornings at an English-speaking church for expats. Your peer group, whether that’s 20-something singles, young families, or empty nesters, might not exist in your host culture. Or maybe they will and you’ll have a vibrant social life. After so many years, I still wish I had more local friends, and lately I have often wished for more friends with young families. Regardless, hold your expectations loosely, because God has something more beautiful in store for you.
3. You will mess up in your efforts to live in community, both with those around you and those far away. My relationships have often reminded me that I am a broken, sinful person, which means community will always be an opportunity to practice repentance and forgiveness. In his essay “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry”, Henri Nouwen writes, “To forgive other people for being able to give you only a little love—that’s a hard discipline. To keep asking others for forgiveness because you can give only a little love—that’s a hard discipline, too.” That hard discipline is part of the refining, sanctifying work of living in community. Whether it’s over FaceTime, at work with local coworkers, at coffee with an expat friend, or at home with your husband, God will use each of those relationships to mold you into his likeness.
4. Loneliness is real. There will be seasons when you feel like you don’t have any friends, and there will be seasons when you are surrounded by friends but still don’t feel understood. For me, loneliness has been triggered by both big things, like my best friends moving away, and little things, like feeling left out when I still don’t understand the jokes after ten years. Whether you’re single or married, loneliness will still creep in. In every season, run to Jesus to be your truest friend. He is your unchanging rock and closest companion in this overseas life that can be overwhelmingly full of change. Don’t look to your community to give you the identity and security that only God can give you.
5. Community is worth it. Not only because of the richness it brings your life, but because of the beautiful glimpse of God’s glory that it displays. As I’ve done life with others, I’ve seen more of God’s triune nature, and my understanding of God’s character has widened into much more than I could have ever known on my own. Not only that, but especially in our diverse overseas life, our community foreshadows the day when every nation, tribe, and tongue worship at God’s throne.
So don’t give up! Launch yourself into this new life, with all the ups and downs, with all the changes and transitions. And launch yourself into community, excitedly embracing all the growth, hardships, and blessings that God wants to give you.
What have you learned about living in community that you wish you had known when you landed on the field?