On the Side: September 2022
Open Arms and Happy Campers
by Carol Shrader
Tonight was the first softball practice of the new season with a new team and new coach. A small contingency of Cate’s friends from last season made this new team together, so they were standing chatting about all they had done in the [long] three weeks since their summer season ended. Other girls were clearly reuniting as well. But in the corner stood a lone player, sticking close to her mother. I cleared my throat to get my daughter’s attention and attempted to subtly nod my head toward the teenager. For her part, my teen furrowed her brows in the universal teenage face for “what are you saying?” So I had to nod more vigorously [read: less subtly], but then she followed the direction of my nod and immediately went over and introduced herself. My friend standing near thanked me for encouraging our girls to do that. I just smiled.
Behind the smile I was shouting, “Oh goodness mercy of course!” I have been the new girl showing up at the team meeting, the book club, the Bible study far, far more often than I have been the one standing with friends. It can be excruciatingly hard. It can also be invigorating. And it can be terrifying.
And there can be seasons where it is all of the above.
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, ESV).
I was nine years old the first time I went to summer camp. I took my little suitcase and boarded the church bus for four whole nights away from home. The phenomena of walking into a cabin of girls and knowing only one or two in the morning and knowing the entire cabin by lights out was perhaps the best thing I had experienced in my not-quite-decade of life. I was the dictionary definition of “happy camper.” My mother had packed a brand-new little address book and I had every page filled when four days later I boarded the church bus and headed home.
I loved it so much that when I was in college, I spent every summer working at that little summer camp to ensure other little girls had similar experiences. Even as a young adult, I marveled at the beauty of the bonding that occurred in those first few hours every single week without fail.
And so, early on, moving had a little bit of happy camper vibe for me—a new town, new school, new possibilities for filling my address book.
Wade and I loaded the U-Haul and moved to the University of Chicago like eager campers. We were ready for the adventure. And we met new friends, had new experiences (one of which was triplets…) and gained a hearty appreciation for deep dish pizza in our four years there.
When we loaded up for the move to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota there were five of us, but we were no less jubilant of what might lie ahead. And when the Alice Mayo Society held their welcome brunch, it really did feel like summer camp as I signed up for Gourmet Supper Club, Book Club and Bible Study and questioned whether I might have time for a volleyball team—though I had never had any interest in that and my 5’2” frame definitely doesn’t lend itself in that direction!
Maybe it was because Mayo was so good at connection, or maybe it was because it was five years later and I was older and trying to help three 7-year-olds navigate too, but moving for a one-year fellowship was hard. I don’t know if I doubted anyone would want to be my friend for just one year, or if they truly didn’t, but either way it seemed a bit less adventuresome and a lot lonely. I attended two different Bible studies that year and could not tell you one woman’s name in either. Friend groups were existing when I walked in the door, and I didn’t find a place. (Let me emphasize that God was still there, and the studies were still life giving. But relationships were not formed.)
Our first DWT (done with training) job was exciting, but there was no organized welcome, no way to meet other spouses, no way to introduce myself and fill my address book. And if I am honest, it felt far less like camp, more challenging than adventurous…and after two more moves, I wasn’t sure I even wanted new people in my address book. It felt too hard.
This last move occurred while my three young adults were in various stages of flying my nest and with one teen excited about her wings. It was actually my sweet teenager who was walking her dog when she met one of our neighbors. They struck up a conversation and the neighbor asked Cate if her mom liked to read. Cate nodded vigorously as the neighbor told her about the neighborhood book club. “Please invite my mom! She would LOVE that!”
It was my girl’s enthusiasm for me that prompted me to attend when invited. I wasn’t sure about being an outsider with no shared history. I stubbornly didn’t want to have to start over. I was hopeful but wary, and the wary was winning that first night. I had to dig deep to find the little camper who loved to meet new people just to summon the energy to even try.
My enthusiasm soon bubbled to the surface on its own, however, because this group was welcoming in a way I have rarely seen. I was at once asked about where I was from without being forced to take to the “stage” and give a dissertation on all my moves. There was not one closed circle in the group as we stood around making small talk. Not one group of women whose body language said they were enough without my presence. That’s a big deal. And I know you know what I mean.
“‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:35-40, ESV).
This month, many Side By Side chapters are kicking off around the country. And that means there are new women deciding right now if they dare take the first step in the adventure of Side By Side. Standing together in support of each other doesn’t sound scary…unless you are brand new and know no one. Can I encourage you to honor their courage and welcome them in? I know that just like Cate was so excited to see friends she KNOWS tonight, you will be excited to reunite with those you know, and I hope you squeal and hug and reunite. But sisters, I am also praying you remember how it feels to be the one stepping out and walking into a room where she might know no one.
A new city. A new life. A new group of women. I am praying that you find your inner camper, that you welcome all the new faces with a hunger to know them, to include them, to build shared experiences. Open your circle. Let her in. Unlike my address book of old, your contact list on your phone is limitless, let your heart be too!
Don’t make me come clear my throat and nod at you.
Carol is wife to Wade and mom to young adult triplets navigating their own new towns, new friend groups and new experiences, as well as her 16-year-old who continuously reminds her how to walk in to a new room expecting to make friends (and ensures my clothes and makeup are ok but that is another story! 😉 ).