Hi, I’m Sarah. 🙂 I’ve been in the Way Station since the beginning, and I’m one of its founder members. We’re all planning to write something about our individual stories here, so here goes…
My interest in virtual community began over ten years ago. In that distant era before the social media wave really hit, I was a bit of an innovator on a small scale. I used to push domestic internet resources to their limits, playing around with hyperlinked documents, forms and spreadsheets, graphics and blogging – the social media equivalent of rubber bands and paperclips.
One of my early experiments was a virtual conversation space called Faith Safari.
The twelve or so friends who got involved were all people I knew locally from various walks of life, and all of us were either in, or on the fringes of Christian culture. The technology was a bit rough but it worked: a series of six linked single-page blogs, each with a different theme – theology, deep thinking, music and arts, virtual living room, book group, virtual meditation/prayer room. I even engineered a first attempt at virtual communion using a series of questions embedded in a responsive Google spreadsheet. It was all valuable experience, although, since I knew all those people in ‘real’ life, it might have looked as if I had just a bit too much time on my hands… There was heart and soul vision behind those experiments though. It was fun, but I wasn’t just playing games.
Deconstructing life and faith wasn’t openly encouraged in the circles I moved in, so my preferred kind of conversation was sometimes considered a bit subversive. Occasionally people raised concerns that I might be going off the rails and taking others with me.
For a few months I ran a large book group in a local coffee shop to discuss Insurrection, by Peter Rollins. Some people called us heretics. 🙂 (I suspect some who joined that group were there to try to keep us in order!) We also had vibrant ‘wrestling’ conversations with small pockets of people on the fringes of community over a glass of wine, but it was as if we had to keep our voices down.
I could never understand why people genuinely interested in faith journeying wouldn’t actively approve of, and hunger for, this kind of safe place to be real. That’s why I wanted to do it myself – provide somewhere with mutual permission to unpack and explore what life and faith is about. But it takes time to cultivate those places, and that kind of culture. It’s tricky for anyone to engage authentically unless they feel safe and personally welcome. And it’s about more than just an agreed ethos or mission statement. It needs the right feel – aesthetics, language, tangible warmth. Proactive and supportive friends. I hoped that with some virtual pioneering we could rehearse the territory, simplify the logistics, and maybe even pave the way for offline versions.
Anyway, those were the issues, and those were some of my early attempts at playing with the potential. Life and technology moved on a lot after that.
The Way Station
When Facebook finally swept into popular use, I made up my mind never to join. In fact, I decided I’d be the last person on earth without a mainstream social media account. But during February 2016 I kept remembering those coffee shop-based discussions and faith wrestling groups, and I longed for those kinds of friends in my life again. So I caved on the Facebook issue, signing up solely to join the group studying Pete’s course, Atheism for Lent.
In the context of that AFL 2016 group I discovered a lot of others in the same boat. My philosophy degree was no longer of minority interest. New friends shared my passion for words, theology, psychology and the arts. In and around that Facebook group we started to invest in discussions beyond the course materials, chatting about our real life experiences of life and faith. Then one day (from out of a simultaneous outburst of angst!) six of us came together intentionally to create a virtual room away from the crowds, where we could converse openly and listen to each other properly.
Those early days were groundbreaking for me. For quite a while I had struggled to come to terms with some difficult events in my recent past. Within that close knit group of friends I found myself leaving grief behind and finding hope that resonated. It was a game changer.
This wasn’t just offloading. This was a place to discover new foundations, to stretch out and openly explore big questions that had been crying out in me to be lived not suppressed. No previous contexts I’d known had ever managed to draw out such depths, or so vividly encourage me to run the distance of my convictions. I pictured Morpheus in the Matrix saying to Neo – Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!
Several months later our group of six decided to embark on something new and inclusive. We set up camp in a different Facebook space, rebranded it as the Way Station, opened the invitation to three or four mutually linked Facebook groups, and… boom! In the first eight months of virtual community we went from six to over 150. What started as a seed in our small group of six, has grown into a wider community of faith explorers. This all holds intriguing potential, I think.
It feels funny to tack this on the end, but I can’t not mention it. In the meantime, with so much going on in the virtual world, I decided I needed to set off on my own physical journey. So, in August 2016 I put practically everything I owned into storage and, armed only with my car, my laptop, and work from a few freelance writing clients, I began blogging my way on a very reflective and introspective ‘virtual camino.’ I travelled from Bristol to Lincoln (a Rob Bell / Pete Rollins conference), further north through the Lake District (youth hostelling), across to the island of Lindisfarne on the east, over to the island of Iona on the west, and up and around the Scottish Highlands. I’m currently in Oban on the west coast, and I’m about to move on again. It’s a personal journey of pilgrimage, listening to the inner voice, exploring depths. But the whole time, virtual community is at the heart of my adventure. I’m journeying in conversation with members of the Way Station, thinking aloud with them as I go. I’ve already met some of these virtual friends face to face along the way, and I hope to meet more of them in time.
The synthesis of virtual and real encounter is so powerful, but I have no big plan. I’m feeling my way, and continuing to play and experiment. 🙂