Three weeks after obtaining my undergraduate degree, I was out on my own, 3,000 miles from what had been home and starting my first postgraduate job in health care communication.
New to Southern California, I searched the Internet for what I thought was the closest Seventh-day Adventist Church. One particular church caught my eye. It had an up-to-date website and was hosting a popular Adventist speaker that very weekend. Jotting down directions, I headed out on Friday night to find the church some 45 minutes away.
An hour and a half later (after getting lost multiple times), I finally arrived at the church where the vespers seminar was in full-swing. During discussion time, I participated and dialogued—yet name exchange never happened. Even after the program, I stayed around to ask questions about the church and the area. When I left, no one knew my name or even if I was an Adventist.
The next day, I returned in time for the church service. In the sanctuary, I recognized several people from the previous night, but again no one acknowledged me. When the service concluded I waited to leave hoping someone would talk to me or even invite me to the fellowship dinner that was advertised in the bulletin.
I gave up after waiting for several minutes. The reality of my move and the sudden lack of community hit strongly. Everything I had known had changed. I cried all the way home.
Community had always been created for me thanks to my pastor father and my teacher mother. Even in college, community was ready-made. As a young adult venturing out into the world, I didn't know how to find and build a sense of community.
My experience in Southern California was not an isolated event. It's occurred weekend after weekend as I visited more than 30 churches throughout California and later in Washington.
There was only one exception—one church that truly made me feel welcome from the first 60 seconds after I slipped into the service late. Before song service was over, five people sitting around me knew my first name. Before the postlude ended, I had a lunch invitation, an opportunity to go camping with a group of young adults, and two people's phone numbers—and this was all before the church knew I was the new pastor's daughter!
In the last two and a half years, I've become more adept at church visiting and introductions. Yes, I've learned a few lessons in the art of visiting: offer my name, indicate that I'm a visitor, ask questions. Yet, I wanted to be more than a visitor. I wanted to be a valued member. I've learned to volunteer for ministries and projects, participate in church events, initiate conversation, exchange phone numbers with visitors and guests, and offer a friendly greeting.
As I've talked with peers, our experiences mirror one another. Integrating into a community is not an easy task (for anyone), yet the value is so important. My church family helps to hold me spiritually accountable. My church family provides a platform for ministry and fellowship. My church family values me, and in turn, I value them. This is what community is all about.