I went back to yoga class last month after a long break. Day by day, as I returned to my mat in a room surrounded by people— mostly strangers—of all ages, shapes and sizes, I felt the comfort and love of that community starting to envelop me. It wasn’t by accident that this yoga school has a welcoming feeling; the strengthening of connections, the building of relationships is done with intention.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, I ventured over for one of the few classes that would be offered that day. It was a beautiful day and a holiday to boot. I figured I’d be one of just a few. Instead, I was one of more than 50. The room was wall-to-wall mats, and yet rather than feel crowded or uncomfortable, it felt joyful and filled with the best kind of energy. I marveled that our class felt so in sync with one another and so grateful for this time to not only stretch our bodies but to silence our busy minds, to bow to one another with reverence, to be in that space without wishing to be anywhere else.
As I drove home, I thought about how much we as a Church could learn from places like this. Although we are a large and sprawling Church, can we find ways to create smaller communities within our larger communities to make the kinds of deep connections that would draw people to church in large numbers day in and day out, even on a summer holiday weekend, even when there’s no requirement to be there? Can we learn to be more intentional about welcoming people with warmth, about connecting people in a way that builds relationships, about sharing joy as well as Eucharist?
Twenty years ago, when I joined a new parish, I was looking for a small faith community that would allow my family to find a way into a new town, a new local church, a new life. I called the person who coordinated the existing small faith communities and asked if there was such a community for couples with children. I was told there was not. I could attend alone, or I could attend with my husband, but our children would not be welcome. I marvel at the fact that I joined the parish anyway when my family was clearly not important to them.
On another occasion, shortly after my first book on helping children through grief was published, I offered to do a workshop for a parish bereavement group. The leader told me it was not warranted since there were no grieving children in the parish. If there are children—and there were—then there are grieving children, whether they grieve for a pet, a grandparent or maybe just a friend who has moved away. Once again, I was struck by the short-sightedness of a church that does not recognize the needs of its own people, and doesn’t care to learn about them.
And now here we are. Our numbers are declining. Churches are emptier. Collections are down. Young adults aren’t joining parishes simply because they live in a certain neighborhood. What are we doing to draw them in, to feed them in a way that sustains them as they face challenges and grounds them in a community? In most cases, it seems like we’re not doing a whole lot, especially when I look at the spiritual-but-not-religious organizations that are rushing to fill the void and give people the connection they crave.
We can no longer live by the mantra, “If we build it, they will come.” We have to show people in meaningful and personal ways the beauty, joy and salvation that lives within our Catholic faith by thinking small. We have to go back to the roots of the early Church and create small faith communities where people will not only want to come; they’ll want to stay.