“There is no distance in the Spirit.”
After 30 years as a believer, I experienced the truth of that statement — powerfully and indelibly — in an unlikely place: online.
Like so many of more than 500 million (and growing) members, I signed up for Facebook, the social networking site, a few years ago out of pure curiosity -- to check in with old friends, boyfriends and former colleagues from a safe distance. With its plethora of personal photos, videos and regular “status updates” from members, it was a voyeuristic paradise, not to mention an excellent place to kill time.
I am by vocation a journalist, author and blogger and had grown accustomed to sharing glimpses of my life in print and online. Facebook was just another venue to do that, but little more.
That is, until early one morning in April 2008 when I signed on to my account, wiping sleep from my eyes with coffee in hand, and noticed the status update of a friend from college: “David is really sad that Mark died today.”
The words ripped a hole in my heart. Our friend, Mark, a former U.S. Navy Seal who was working in Iraq training Iraqi Special Forces, was gone. He had been killed instantly by a roadside bomb outside Sadr City.
Sitting in bed with my computer on my lap, tears streaming down my face, I sent David an email asking what had happened and how I could help, joining him in prayer for Mark’s family and the rest of us who loved him (even if we hadn’t seen him in more than 15 years).
In about 48 hours, as news of Mark’s death began to spread, dozens of fellow classmates from our alma mater, Wheaton College, joined Facebook to share stories and pictures of Mark. Facebook became the place where we could mourn together and reconnect.
A couple of weeks after Mark was killed, I sent a group email on Facebook asking for responses to a column I was working on. That email started a “thread” — a discussion among a group of people. There were 20 of us from all over the world -- Southern California, Chicago, Hawaii, Spain, New York, Atlanta, Florida, North Carolina and Dubai.
Nearly four years later — and almost 100,000 posts — later, the thread is still going. We call ourselves “Wine & Jesus: The Communion of Sinnerly Saints,” and our cyber-community is, in a very real way, church for some of us. Our conversations were mostly about Mark at first, and about faith, loss, God’s will and grieving. But they soon turned to the rest of our lives, the mundane and the transcendent.
Collectively we are husbands and wives, brothers and sisters (in law and biologically), Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, conservative and liberal, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party, vegetarian, entrepreneurs, musicians, stay-at-home moms, married, divorced, widowed, mothers and fathers, adopted and adopters, seminary graduates, pastors, chaplains, writers, filmmakers, artists, lawyers, church members and church-averse and believers all. Some of us were close friends in college, some were acquaintances and some had never met. But we are now, I would dare say, utterly and wholly committed to one another. As Bono said in U2’s theological opus, “One,” we are one but we’re not the same; we get to carry each other …
Via our conversations online, a few of us have even begun to rediscover (or exhume) our faith. If you had told me a few years ago that I would find community — real, authentic, deeply connected, deeply faithful community — online, I would have scoffed. I’m not, by nature, a joiner.
And yet, here we are, almost four years of daily interaction later, with a communion of 20 souls around the world. Since we formed this unlikely community online, we’ve walked with each other through sickness and pregnancies, the death of parents and siblings, job losses and career changes, one-and-a-half presidential elections, recession and war, adoptions, divorces and even a marriage between two friends who met through the thread.
For me, the thread has become what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, in his book The Great Good Place, described as a “third place.” Most people have two primary places — home and the workplace. Then there is a third place where they feel part of a chosen community. It might be a bar (think the Boston tavern in Cheers) or a restaurant, a house of worship or a tennis court.
For me, Facebook is that place. Despite its undeniable worldwide success, one of the persistent criticisms of Facebook and other online social media is that they provide a false sense of intimacy and community — all of the interaction with none of the commitment. While that may be the case with some folks, nothing could be farther from my experience.
Rather than satisfying our need for connection and leaving it there, our Facebook community made us yearn to be in one another’s physical company. Two years ago, my family moved from Chicago to Laguna Beach, Calif., so that we could live physically near several of the members of the thread. Mark's best friend, David, now lives about four minutes from me, we worship together at the same physical church, and his wife, Sarah, whom I knew only in passing before our initial encounters on Facebook, is my son's godmother.
Yet, whether he's down the road or having dinner in Tokyo, we still connect every day online.
The constraints of Facebook limit the membership of any thread to 20. But I think I speak for all of our members when I say there is a 21st member: the Spirit of God. Jesus said whenever two or more are gathered together in his name, he’s there, too.
And he is, in all of his glory and grace, right there with us. On Facebook.
As Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners, my prayer is that this space might become a vessel of grace and true community for you.
Sojourners is many things: an organization, an idea, a magazine. But first and foremost, we are a community where we walk with, challenge, encourage and carry each other.
Sojourners has a Facebook presence as well, one that is growing by leaps and bounds and set to expand even further in the coming weeks in innovative and exciting ways. Through our Facebook community page, we share news that’s relevant to our social justice mission to be advocates for the poor and marginalized, but our hope is that our online community — here and on Facebook — will become something much more than that.
A safe space. A sacred place, where our members and friends can share their concerns, joys and work. A place where we can join in prayer, celebrate victories and continue our journey toward making things on Earth as they are in Heaven, together, even through the flickering pixels on a computer screen.
Won’t you join us?
Click HERE to “like” the Sojourners Facebook page and continue the great conversation.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of four nonfiction books, including the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and her latest, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl