I was busy doing something on Facebook last night when a photo from a friend's profile popped up on my sidebar. I clicked on it - it was kind of small - and was greeted by a photo of four people who, at one time, were among my closest friends. I sat and looked at them, so long ago, each and all so beautiful they took my breath away. The photo reminded me of so many things, not the least that it was taken at a bittersweet moment. It was seminary graduation day, 1992, and the four folks pictured had just picked up their Master's Degree diplomas and were headed out to their separate lives. For the previous two years, they were among the people who embodied a reality that is part and parcel of the Christian faith - the blessed, loving community.
When I arrived at seminary, I knew exactly one person. I was starting over in my life after a period of drift, and some recent experiences that left me floundering, feeling depressed. Shoot, I arrived at seminary without any idea what I was really doing there, how I would pay for it, or much anything else! It was a Foreign Legion experience, running away, really. I chose Wesley for the simple reason that it was an excuse to do what I'd wanted to do since childhood - live in the nation's capital.
There, in the midst of so many questions, so much anxiety, doubts, fears, a sense of my own worthlessness I found a small group of fellow students who became not just friends, but mentors. I liked them, came to love each and all of them, but more important, I looked up to them, because from them I learned what it means to be in the midst of a loving community. First and foremost, it means a lot of laughter. Man, we spent a whole lot of time laughing together.
More important, it means living through the stuff that ticks you off. I am quite sure there were moments when each of us grumbled and mumbled about one or another of us. Yet, we had the strength and humility to speak of these things, to put the health and love we had for one another ahead of our selfish desire to revel in being pissed off.
The moment when I realized what "acceptance" - what embodied, lived grace - really means, came early on in that autumn of 1990. I forget who, but someone asked if I wanted to help hang some panels from the AIDS quilt that had been borrowed from a display at the National Cathedral. They were going to hang them in the chapel for use during a service the next day. I will never forget, standing there in Oxnam Memorial Chapel, as we figured out how to get those huge, heavy quilt panels to stay in place, that it hit me - they had asked me to come along and help them. Where I had been apart, now I was a part. Where I had been a stranger, I was now a friend.
For the next two years, this group of people taught me so much. At the feet of these wildly diverse, smart, funny, beautiful, faithful, dedicated people, I learned what it means to be in loving community with other people. As the end approached, I mourned because, while I knew that change is a part of life, it was this group whose friendship and counsel I cherished, who had sustained me in ways they will never know, that would now fracture.
The moment captured in that photo, for all that it signaled an end, also brought to mind so many other thoughts, not the least of them being that we were something very special together. To have been called friend, to be included as a part of this group is a blessing I will always cherish. I am grateful for having the opportunity last evening to recall, in vivid detail, a time when I learned from the best folks I have ever known what real friendship, real community, is all about.