The quote above was Phil’s on 26/5/16. I liked it, so I memed it that same day… 🙂

Stories are worth remembering, I wanted to mark a point we’ve reached on this day in the journey of the Way Station. Today, it’s exactly one year since our original experiments in virtual community began. I’ve talked about this so often along the way because nothing convinces me more about hope than what has happened here, from out of nowhere, in just one year.

The night before – a random attempt to pray

I found myself praying one night, for the first time in a long time. Losing any supposed expertise at prayer, I just went for the jugular in my own words, listing the names of five people who had most comforted, listened and reached out to me online in the few months since I’d joined Facebook specifically to do the Peter Rollins course, Atheism for Lent (2016).

What do I mean by prayer? Well, I just said thank you (aloud, alone) for each of my friends in turn because they each reminded me of myself in different ways: the mother, the deep thinker, the romantic, the divorced person, the frustrated high achiever, the creative, the Christian from birth, someone hurt deeply by church, someone with enduring love for the idea of community, moved by the life of Jesus, someone with life experiences that feel like a complex shipwreck, who finds love overflowing effortlessly and with tidal force from out of my brokenness in the face of lives confessing to shipwreck, confusion, isolation… I’m not really sure why I prayed that night. There was certainly no strategy. It just felt to me as if those friendships were the major grain of hope in my life – the evidence of something valuable I did not want to lose, in a world where real friendships can feel elusive.

The next morning – a simultaneous vent

The next morning, as it happened, two online conversations coincided in a simultaneous outburst of grief. I read the first one, and found something surging within me to respond. So I wrote a response and posted it; an open letter to the other person, validating their words, and adding my own; offering a corner of a broken life raft in a virtual world, which was all I had to give. And then I deleted it in shame, because I wasn’t sure it was ok to be that honest.

After deleting, I felt the need to hide away. So I went for a long walk. I didn’t know what to do. Kicking myself for speaking out, yet crying out inside for the chance to do so. I felt that tension – that impending threshold of belonging – hope, merging with the reminders of having been badly burned before. But, tentatively, with nowhere else to go, I came back online.

There, I discovered that my words had been read in the few minutes before they were deleted. Read, and warmly welcomed. Within minutes, the two of us had grabbed a mutual third friend who is good at setting up spaces, and the three of us invited three more friends to join us. None of that was my idea or my instigation. But here, together, was that same group of six I’d prayed for the night before, all in one ‘room’.

In this safe space away from the public spaces, we had somewhere to share our stories and have our truth affirmed and welcomed. Right from those early days, it felt like an unfolding experiential theology worth its weight in gold. There was much laughter and trivia, alongside angst and turmoil. We found reassurance and hope revived as we listened to each other without judging or solving. I had been carrying wounds for a few years, but these friendships drove straight to the heart of those injuries and met me there. I had been crying for a few years, and yet one day I realised I’d stopped crying. I will never forget that.

A power station and some air punching

A month or two later, as I’ve often mentioned, I was walking in the woods near Bristol, and discovered a power station. Let’s be clear, the power station is only relevant looking back. There was no conscious link. I was just wandering alone with my phone through the woods, and suddenly it occurred to me to ask my five friends online if we should open the door to others to experience this belonging too. And there was also a power station there. Interesting.

So we chose an existing ‘room’ (closed Facebook group) that one of us had begun for faith explorers. It was a fairly quiet place with only 13 people in it at the time, including us. Having discussed it together, I wandered into two of Pete Rollins Facebook groups that most of us belonged to (Atheism for Lent and the Omega Course). There I invited fellow journeyers to join us in in our newly adopted space, as an experiment in virtual community.

Straight away 13 grew to over 30, then 83 in just a couple of days. The six of us were amazed at the speed of growth – some more unnerved than others, but all of us watching with interest, and open to whatever might happen. In that space we did our best to model the same interaction and mutual care we had been developing. New people joined and caught onto that culture, bringing their own personalities and insights on board, and so enriching the room. I remember specific names that were familiar to us, and how several of us punched the air behind the scenes and celebrated as we saw them turning up to join us in virtual community – “YES!!! Barry’s here! Hey, it’s Ryan too! ….and, the other Sarah’s on board!!!! Look, we’ve got Julie!!” And so on. 🙂 So much laughing and excitement – sharing and valuing the potential significance of those tiny moments of encouragement.

A new name: the Way Station

A few weeks after that, we knew we needed a new name, so it fell to the original six of us to go through the process of choosing from between the options, and ‘selling’ it to everyone.  It was a successful process that resulted in the room being rebranded as the Way Station.  But, imagine all the cross-culturally and politically charged creative issues that relate to any rebranding! We had to do all that blue sky thinking and executive decision-making through Facebook messaging only. This was not a question that could be sorted over video chat under these constraints – 4 continents, 5 time zones between us. It taxed our communication and took tenacity as well as inventiveness and experience. (And that’s the point. Even challenging conversations in the virtual space have been valuable experiences in honing specific skillsets required for sustained community building.)

So what’s this is all about??

Over 200 people have joined us on the path this year. What exactly is happening here? It’s a good question. After all, if you tell people about the solace to be found in a Facebook group, they’ll probably offer a creased-brow, head-tilted look of compassion and ask you how they can help you get a life. I know. It does sound a bit far-fetched from the outside. But I’m not alone in recognising the ‘real world’ significance and repercussions of this experiment, and the potential it holds.

Together with an increasingly large team of helpers and unofficial co-curators, we continue to model the kind of interaction that began a year ago, which is simply aimed at bringing the best out of each other, wherever we are on our journeys. It’s inclusive, affirming, and embodies genuine care offered in all directions 24 hours a day, depending who turns up at any moment. Any ‘badges’ among us are very few, and held quietly, lightly and inclusively. Any ‘teams’ are overlapping, undemanding and easy to find yourself part of, just by being yourself. The blogging team is a good example: we blog, not to preach an answer, but to explore belonging that needs no answers. Overlapping friendships, collaborations, and openhanded teamwork are part of the fusion and cohesion that keeps things alive and inclusive here as we journey with life and faith.

Cultivating community that deepens, grows and overflows

As we grow in numbers, we can’t predict anything. This is new territory, so we just watch and wait. Those of us who keep a close eye on the room over that time can trace a few repeating shifts and dynamics and patterns, just like any other face to face community, though perhaps with faster and more intense pacing because it’s happening mostly through screens and words. Numbers aren’t important. If people have good reasons to move on from the Way Station, that’s good too. But at the moment we’re growing steadily, and by word of mouth rather than advertising.

It can take a moment for each new person to discover how things work, but everyone is free to help and participate in that process, however long they’ve been on board. Everyone is automatically considered part of the A Team, whether they post and comment regularly, or only drop in silently to look around every few months. Any moderation from Admin is done, as far as possible, out in the open, in language that aims for kindness and inclusion and mutual learning. We want to create and cultivate a space that is conducive to inclusivity, authenticity, mutual safety, respect and care as we journey together.

And, honestly…

If things wind down in time, and the Way Station’s moment passes, that’s okay too. I’m not here to build a platform. That’s not what this is. Our idea was never to stage a revolution or create a new church. What’s happening is organic. There’s nothing here to join, we are just friends – friends who responded to each other one morning, exactly a year ago, and created a space, for as long as it helps, with no obligation to stick around.

If your own story has somehow found itself woven in along the way, then welcome. 🙂 There’s no plan here, we’re just watching the story unfold.