Finding Community

Rebecca, center, eating with fellow pilgrims on the Camino.
“I feel like my week is off somehow if I don’t come,” I said to Chris as we left the coffee shop. I used to have that feeling about church. Now, I have that feeling about a Tuesday morning gathering — a gathering of returned Camino pilgrims.

I went on the Camino in part to find out if I was on the right path in my spiritual life. It was there that I realized it wasn’t a religion I was seeking per se — I was looking for a community. I never imagined I’d find it at the Atlanta Bread Company.

It’s an informal group. There is no set agenda, no proposed topics of discussion. We show up at the coffee shop sometime around nine and great each other like long lost friends — even though I knew not a single one of these people six months ago when I moved to Asheville. We ask after spouses, children, holiday plans. Eventually, without fail, discussion turns to a Camino memory. Or what we’ll do the next time we go. Or — a favorite of mine — how we’re applying Camino lessons in our everyday lives.

On a recent Tuesday, Peggy and Martha planned our Friday morning hike — a new tradition in its third week. Gary and Chris counseled a couple who came to seek our collective Camino wisdom for their upcoming pilgrimage this spring. I read a New York Times Book Review Mark brought to share with us (about walks around the world, of course) while Dave and Mark traded stories about the best relief for muscle cramps while hiking.

We unofficially call ourselves Pilgrims Anonymous. “But it’s different from other Anonymous groups in that we help each other to return to our addiction,” explained Chris the other night at a talk we held for potential pilgrims. This reminded me of my first day on the Camino when I met a French woman who told me she was walking the Camino for the seventh time. At first, I thought I misunderstood her French. She repeated herself: septieme fois. I had heard her correctly. My next thought? Who on earth does this more than once? But by the time I reached Santiago, I was already planning my next Camino.

As I think back, I recognize other groups that have fed a (good) addiction for me. A writers group that helped me keep the words flowing when I lived in New York, a weekly women’s gathering that offered wisdom and insight when I lived in Boston, a crochet and knitting group at the library that helped me finish many projects while listening to the wisdom of the women gathered there.

For all that these groups gave me, they also provided me the opportunity to give back. Whether it was writing critique or dating advice or a listening ear, they all have given me the opportunity to “pay it forward” — to recall all the people that helped me along my journey and pass on some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned.

I recognize now that what brought these groups together — writing, crochet, the Camino — is not what keeps us together. We return week after week for the community. A community of people who ask after you when they don’t see you one week, who remember a difficulty you expressed the previous week and ask about it, who are there every week whether you need them or not.

In 1999, I walked into St. Anne’s University Parish as a stranger — having just moved to Boston.It soon became a place where I would arrive early just to catch up with the friends I had made there. The parish was closed a few years later, and I was sent off into the world to find a new community.

Community. It’s what I asked for when I was on the Camino. I realize I’ve had it all along. And found it again — thanks to the Camino.

Where do you find community?