Unlike a number of college sophomores, I wanted to live in the dorms. I had such a fantastic experience in the residence halls my freshman year. It was like living with all of your friends. And there were so many fun and silly antics we got up to, as well as the reassurance that there was just someone nearby staved off any loneliness.
Sadly, as a sophomore transfer student coming to a college where the residence halls were barely able to hold all the freshmen, I was left out in the cold. I moved into an apartment with a girl I didn’t know, and we barely talked to each other all year.
I needed community. I needed friends. I knew this. It would be crucial to surviving college – and just surviving life. So I did what seemed to be the most reasonable thing to me at the time: at an information fair I went straight to the Religious Campus Organizations table and grabbed one of [almost] every brochure.
I went to several of the larger gatherings first, the popular ones. I sat in huge lecture halls with a hundred other students while we sang praise songs and listened a speaker. But no one talked to me – beyond the mandatory, “Turn and say hi to someone around you.”
And then one Thursday night I went to a smaller group. I barely found it because the room where they met in was in a stairwell – no joke. Instead of hundreds of people, there were a dozen. So it was obvious I was new. I talked politely with a few people, trying to put my introvertedness aside, before we got to the programming of the evening.
Afterwards, before people dispersed, one of the girls I had talked to came back us to me to continue our conversation. And she asked me a question that changed my life.
“Would you like to go to the tea house with me to get some gingerbread?”
It was such an absurdly specific request. Not, “want to get coffee?” or “we should hang out sometime.” I didn’t know this girl at all beyond her name. I didn’t know anything about this group I had wandered into. I didn’t know where this tea house was. And I didn’t even like gingerbread. But it was such an absurdly specific request that I found myself responding with an answer that changed my life.
So a few days later I found myself at the Dushanbe Tea House ordering tea and gingerbread with this girl I didn’t know. I found out she was named by her hippie parents after the mountains where she was born. She wanted to be a midwife. She had a big smile with crooked teeth and a soft, gentle voice. Also, thank goodness, the gingerbread turned out to be more like ginger cake rather than the cookies that you break your teeth on at Christmas.
And because she had invited me for gingerbread, I came back the next Thursday night to that little room in the stairwell. And the next. The girl left at the end of that year and we didn’t stay in touch (pre-Facebook days…). But I stayed with that little group of people who over time became friends. We went to church together and out for lunch afterwards. We’d get together for movie nights. We went sledding and ice blocking. We had Super Bowl parties. We went to Denny’s all. the. time. and not for the cuisine. Even after I graduated college I stayed on as a volunteer with that campus ministry, putting in seven years total in those small classrooms.
I had found a community. And here’s the more amazing thing: it’s still alive and vibrant.
Two of the people I met 14 years ago are still my closest friends. Over the years we grew as more trickled in. Things have gotten more complicated as we’re no longer all living in the same college town and people have gotten married and started having kids, but we still get together. One person holds a standing movie night once per week for anyone to drop in, and there are usually at minimum six people there. Sometimes I’ll go a few months without seeing some of them, but when we get back together we just click. One couple moved out of state for several years, and when they came back they fit right in like they had never left.
I’ve seen many news articles saying that most adults have only two or three close friends. If you define a close friend as a person that you could call at two in the morning if you are having a crisis, I have over a dozen (and that’s just in this group – not even counting friends from my current church or Bible study or work).
Throughout the years, these people have shaped who I am. They have accepted me with my flaws and forgiven me time and again when I say or do stupid things. They have selflessly shared their time, money, and possessions with me and not expected anything in return. They have stood by me and supported me when I went through dark days of depression. They have prayed for me and challenged me to grow in my faith. And if I were in a car accident tonight I have no doubt that I would open my eyes in the hospital to see them gathered around my bed, probably cracking jokes and playing Munchkin or Cards Against Humanity.
We’re not perfect, of course. We get on each other’s nerves from time to time. But I know that they’ve got my back, that they’ll always accept me and stand by me.
At our Fourth of July party this year, as I ate my brat I looked around at all of these people on the porch trying to trace back how I knew them all. A few had married into the community, but all of the rest of us could be traced back to that tiny campus ministry that used to meet in a stairwell.
One that I may not have given a second thought to if it hadn’t been for an invitation for ginger bread from a person I haven’t spoken with in 13 years.
There’s a quote that’s attributed to Helen Keller:
I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.
I doubt that when the girl invited me to tea that she had any idea she would put me on a course that would introduce me to some of the people who would shape my life so profoundly. She didn’t set out to do something grand and noble. She just shared a moment of her life with someone who was lonely.
We all have the incredible power to makes someone’s day or to ruin it through our interactions. If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know that to be true. But more than that, our words and actions have the power to redirect someone’s life.
What are some small things that you can do today to reach out to someone?