Cultivating a community
By Patrick Gray, Class of 1997 and 1999
Life is full of lessons big and small. Everywhere I turn, there are opportunities to learn something new about others, about myself, about God. These lessons can be found through time spent with my kids, quiet evenings with my wife or conversations with friends over coffee. Regardless of where I encounter them, they all have one thing in common: every single one is made possible because of the relationships I maintain, the people whose journeys have collided with mine.
A few years ago, my best friend Justin Skeesuck and I took on an adventure that many said was impossible. We embarked on a 500- mile trek across northern Spain on the ancient pilgrim trail known as the Camino de Santiago. Because of a progressive neuromuscular disease, Justin lives life in a wheelchair. I, with the help of many others, pushed Justin in his wheelchair from Saint Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. For five weeks we navigated various terrain— mountains, rivers, valleys, and deserts—and met many beautiful people. Each day, men and women stepped in to help us climb mountains, trudge through mud, cross streams, and descend sections of trail treacherous for a wheelchair. Throughout those weeks, we were surrounded by people who made a choice to set aside their own pain and struggles to partner in ours.
And in the evenings, many of those same people sat with us around tables, ate good food, and told stories of life from every corner of the earth. Everyone longed to know each person more. Even though there was a strong likelihood that we would never see each other again beyond the Camino, we all sought to know one another in the deepest of ways. While the sense of community we experienced on and off the trail was stronger than anything I had known before, the men and women around those tables reminded me of my friends and mentors from college.
I attended Northwest Nazarene University (then NNC) from 1993 to 1997. My days there were the beginning of my understanding of what it means to be a part of a community. I had good friends in high school, and Justin and I had been close since we were young, but college was different. At NNU, I had a few professors who took the time to truly know me, so they grew to be men and women I trusted—people who weren’t afraid of my hard questions about faith or my periods of doubt. It was at NNU that I fell in love with my future wife, and I met friends who I drew close to, men and women I could confide in. I had found people who loved me for and in spite of who I was. While I know there were people like this earlier in my life, like my parents, there was something different—these people were my tribe, my church.
College was a place where I experienced academic growth and self-discovery, a period of my life where I was able to spread my wings, explore new realms of thought. But the most important thing that came out of my four years at NNU was the shaping and honing of my faith. It was the beginning of my understanding of what it was that I believed, rather than blindly adopting the beliefs of others. I owe much of that to the professors and friends from my days at NNU. Those relationships have helped shape me as a man, as a husband, as a father. God’s love for me was made real through this community.
Before my departure for the Camino with Justin, I had, to some degree, lost sight of that love because of long hours at work, busy schedules, and the fact that I was no longer looking for it.
Traversing the Camino awakened a desire in my soul for the same sort of community I found at NNU, but at a new depth.
After Justin and I returned from our Camino, we often spoke of the sense of community we experienced in Spain and how we missed it. In an effort to fill some of that void, my wife and I began inviting Justin, his wife Kirstin, and some mutual friends over for drinks and conversation on a weekly basis. We shared stories, talked of life struggles, and soon, we were approaching those relationships with complete openness and honesty, holding nothing back.
The result was astounding. Slowly, our group of four couples grew to seven. People from different walks of life, different churches, different political affiliations, all coming together with one common goal—to love and be loved regardless of who or what we are.
Five years later, we are still together, and we meet every Monday on our back patio. It is here that I experience what I believe church was meant to be, a safe place to share our fears, a safe place to question, a safe place to doubt, a safe place to let down our guard and know that we are loved in spite of what we say or do. It is here that I experience God’s love in the richest of ways because these people know all of me and still choose to love me, just as God knows all of me and yet He loves me.My hope for the men and women that attend NNU is that it will be a place where they experience deep relationships as I have, an environment where others will know all of them and still choose to love them. I hope they will discover what it means to be part of an authentic community.
Learn more about Patrick and Justin's journey: www.illpushyou.com.