Miguel: We are members of a very large Catholic parish near Denver, Colorado. We arrived there from Argentina about 3 years ago. We didn’t know anybody, not one single person in the area; we arrived in the middle of a “snowy” winter, when people – understandably so –tend to “socialize” less. The fact of us being retired didn’t help.
It was a new chapter in our lives, but, as always, a new opportunity to practice the “art of Christian loving”. We sensed immediately that it was going to be a matter of taking the initiative – be the first- to reach out to “strangers”: fellow parishioners, neighbors, etc, in an attempt to get to know and build more permanent relationships with them. So Raya and I said to each other: “We have to be pro-active and creative in trying to create opportunities to do this, not just for ourselves, our “survival”, but to contribute a little “to change our little corner of the world” for the better.
Many of our parishioners were well acquainted with one another and had enjoyed for many years well-established social networks that seldom allowed for newcomers. Our first effort was to deliberately hang around after Mass in order to start a conversation with someone. Our second effort was to meet and greet these folks each week for the next 18 months. I consciously did this by always asking them something they may have shared with me in our previous conversations, and almost everyone always seemed to feel valued.
Miguel: I joined a Catholic men’s association where I found myself helping others install big Christmas trees in the parish, , and driving 60 miles to take food baskets to migrant workers in the Colorado corn fields. In most of my conversations, I would first try to talk about what the other guys would feel comfortable with: daily life, Denver Broncos or mountain hikes; trying in other words to make myself “one” with them as the “art of loving” suggests. But then, whenever the opportunity allowed, I would also try to share something from my spiritual life and my experience in trying to live -not just think- in the spirit of the Gospel. Gradually, I could sense their “respect” and friendship was growing, and within less than 18 months, Raya and I were nominated for the Parish Council.
Raya: A few months later, we were asked by the Church to host a new “small faith community”. Since in all the 80 or so existing small church groups, we had not found any who emphasized the practical side, the connection between Scripture and daily life, we knew that we wanted to focus our group exclusively on this topic so we agreed to host these weekly meetings.
Miguel: About 50% of our time together in the group consists in the sharing of real-life experience in the art of loving so that the abundance and diversity of opportunities to love our neighbors can be universally appreciated. After a while people in the group also started sharing their own experiences of living the Word. One, for example: George, a computer engineer, shared one day: “Since I saw this new approach to the Gospel I realized that I had to change my relationship with my customers and colleagues, by being more attentive, 100% present in each moment, in dealing over the phone with anxious customers whose computer systems were not working, or by taking without the usual ’lamentations’ more complex jobs which my colleagues or boss would send in my direction.”
Raya: Eventually, I began to notice the power of this kind of sharing in helping to inspire others to live more authentically. One lady immediately realized that being a good neighbor was something that she and her husband could easily do—after all almost everyone has a neighbor or two. So, she recounts, “We took the initiative and went together to speak with a couple with whom we had only a casual encounter before. We soon discovered that the wife was about to undergo cancer treatment, and that the husband was quite anxious about it. We volunteered to prepare meals for him while she was in the hospital, we brought her flowers when she returned home, and afterwards I was able to share with them information gathered from my own workplace regarding many positive outcomes reported for her very kind of treatment.”
Miguel: But just having group meetings as you may all know is not sufficient to create a community – we also need to experience a sense of “family” among the members by relating one on one-personally- with each other and repeatedly. So whenever, our regular meeting schedule was interrupted, we would encourage group members to do something individually with another group member and to keep in contact with one another through telephone conversations at least once monthly. In addition, Raya and I regularly tried to model this individual caring for each of the members of our group by-for example- becoming empty of our own concerns when we would spend time with them, so that we could be 100% attentive to learning about theirs. We also encouraged others to share about their personal relationship with God, their deepest aspirations, and their honest struggles with the challenge to love others. All this, in the attempt to unite deeply, spiritually everyone in one group striving for a common purpose.
Raya: Striving to love our neighbors in this way always seemed to bear some kind of tangible fruit and the need to aim for this was always present. Sometimes, just before a meeting, Miguel and I would differ on how we were going to proceed. We also knew we had a responsibility to always practice what we tried to teach, so working to always love each other as “neighbors” - not without effort – also became an important prerequisite for each meeting. The more we practiced living the Art of Loving, the more we began to see tangible fruits from our efforts. In myself, I noticed an increased sense of peace and well-being whenever I put the needs of another ahead of my own. My relationship with Miguel also was enriched.
Our efforts were reciprocated. Our neighbors began offering invitations to us, and some of the group members began sharing experiences of observable behavioral change. The importance of “practicing what we preach” became abundantly clear.
Miguel: Once one member shared : “I was brought up in a solid and even intellectual Christian tradition but here there is something “different”, a new approach related to ‘real every day life’ – a way by which I can concretely contribute to make of this world a better place: at work, family, wherever … Now I am also involved a with the formation of a teenagers and young adults groups, in my church.
Our faith community helps me not to feel alone, it gives me the strength of a “group” to start each day and to practice the art of loving…”.