“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” ― David W. Augsburger
In April of 2020, my friend made a Marco Polo group of twenty people, myself included. Marco Polo is a free video messaging app for your phone like email, voicemail, or texting, but using videos. The group was functional. A four-year-old in her extended family was dying fast. She wanted us all to know, she only wanted to say it once, and a group text seemed too impersonal to relay the crisis.
Over the next couple of days, we all added video responses and acknowledged that, although there are no helpful words to attach to such a tragedy, we were there to dwell with and accompany her in her grief.
Group members left video messages of love and support in response to my friend’s updates, showing up for each other as we adjusted to our limited options during the early months of Covid-19. The videos felt wildly insufficient, and better than nothing. Eventually, she varied her messages to include other parts of her life, and we followed her lead. We missed each other and were hungry for connection, even if asynchronously on our phones. We did the best with what we had.
Over time many of the group members dropped away, its initial purpose having been fulfilled, until six of us remained. 2020 became 2021, and as we turn toward 2022, the six of us women continue to leave each other Marco Polo video messages on a regular basis. We have supported each other through the birth of three babies, one wedding, one engagement, one breakup, one book launch, three job changes, and the death of three additional loved ones. We’ve shared our birth stories and our core wounds. We’ve asked questions of each other ranging from, “Should I get bangs?” to “Should I send my son to therapy?” We’ve crowdsourced topics from how to improve pelvic floor health to birthday party ideas for six-year-olds.
We are in our 20s, 30s, and 40s. Some of us are parents, but not all. We live in four cities spanning two states. We have never all met in person, and several of us met on Marco Polo. Sharing, lifting each other up, telling stories and listening deeply, we marvel at how it has become a trusted community of close friends.
It is more than the barriers of gathering during the pandemic that makes our Marco Polo group so essentially life-giving for us. It feels profound as women to talk without interruption. We’ve stopped apologizing for rambling. It’s okay to take our time processing a thought or telling a story. It’s okay to speak your truth clearly or shoot from the hip, stumbling. It’s refreshing to listen when you have time to really engage and respond when it works to respond. There is no facilitator or rules. Inevitably after days of quiet someone will pop on with a question, story, or call for connection. We listen to each other and leave videos while we walk dogs, prepare meals, and run errands, while our kids nap or after we have put them to bed.
Amid our layered lives, we carve out time to hear each other and allow ourselves to be heard, and in doing so we have created a loving and valued community.
Recently, I interviewed Pastor Brett Younger from Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, for the Unlikely Conversations podcast. He told the story of starting a small group to work through The Artist’s Way together during the pandemic. He proposed 7 PM for the online meeting time, and the lead congregation member said, “No, it has to be 8:15pm. We’re parents of young kids. 7 PM is bedtime.” Thinking an hour would be too short, Pastor Brett proposed meeting for 90 minutes and she said, “No, if it’s more than 60 minutes no one will come. We’re busy.” The group met from 8:15 PM -9:15 PM. It was well attended and meaningful.
He reflected, “For years I’ve scheduled ministry to meet at 7pm in the church because it worked for me. I thought if the content was appealing, folks would come. They taught me that no matter how enticing the content, if the meeting time doesn’t work for your life, you won’t come. These are people from Plymouth I hadn’t seen at church outside of Sunday morning worship. The pandemic and online ministry invited me to rethink everything. I learned what worked for the young parents in our church.”
When my children were very little, two women at church invited me to join the Monday night women’s Bible study. It met during my kids’ bedtime, and I already worked at church on Wednesdays during bedtime. I didn’t want to be away on a second night every week, so I said no. They pressed, stating the strength of the female community and the transformation that can happen during the study. I believed them and declined. They pressed more and I started to cry and said, “Right now, bedtime is spiritual practice in my life. Bedtime is my Bible study. In those quiet moments with my kids, those moments I know are numbered, God comes near. Thank you, but for now, my answer is no.”
My Marco Polo group feels like spiritual practice. It feels like ministry. It’s not easy, but it brings ease. The speaking and listening, the witnessing and accompanying that happens is real and healing. It recognizes that our time is finite, the pandemic is real, and yet we were created social to be in meaningful relationships with each other. I crave closeness and get it here, on my phone, asynchronously.
I am not proposing that asynchronous ministry would ever replace in-person or synchronous online ministry. However, especially for isolated folks, for women, and for parents, asynchronous small groups — or ministry with an asynchronous component — is a fantastic opportunity to create new relationships, deepen existing ones, and connect in the reality of our messy, sacred lives.
Ellie Roscher is the author of 12 Tiny Things, Play Like a Girl and How Coffee Saved My Life. Her writing also appears in the Baltimore Review, Inscape Magazine, Bookology Magazine and elsewhere. Ellie hosts the Unlikely Conversations podcast, is a certified yoga instructor and teaches at The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Writing Project. Ellie holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in Theology from Luther Seminary.
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