I remember being really nervous the first week I went to dinner group. A friend and I were invited for pizza and game night with a couple from church who hosts these weekly gatherings. I packed my Mary Poppins bag: a large blue purse containing my Tangle (a fidget toy), poetry journal, and a book (that night: Cynthia Kim’s I Think I Might Be Autistic). I usually bring at least one book to social gatherings — just in case. Sometimes what I’m reading becomes a point of conversation, but other times, it’s a way to recharge.
We arrived that evening to meet a couple in their 30s, a sociology PhD student and an engineer. They seemed nice enough; a mutual friend, who’s also a community pastor, had introduced us via email. At this point in the story, it’s probably important for me to note that I mostly attend church for the people. It’s a familiar point of contact I’ve had for most of my life. Their small children let me play with them, which was a welcome distraction from the unfamiliar (although friendly) setting.
As we ate pizza, we were invited to share our backstories. In a way, this sort of free form conversation felt like the intake interviews I’ve sat in before: “So what brought you here today?” And so I began telling my story, more deliberately than I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed at a coffeehouse and start talking at the nearest person. I talked about growing up in a relatively isolated environment, having trouble trusting people, and recently realizing I’m Autistic. These were the sorts of details I’d ordinarily allude to in conversation, but instead I got to say everything all at once. This is who I am; I feel safe enough to share that with you.
I’ve since attended dinner group once a week, and I’ve been grateful for this intentional community. It’s a loose knit group of grad students, seminarians, undergrads, and working people. Thursday nights are my pause button, a time when I’m closer to sharing how I’m actually feeling. I could be frustrated and uncertain, utterly exhausted, yet not be alone in that space. I can sink into the comfort of the couple’s couch with a cup of Roobois tea and talk through the confusion of the week.
We close with a time when people can review the week’s events and ask the group for prayer. Sociology PhD student says that rituals are important for communities like ours. We share and then reflect. I join in a familiar religious practice I don’t entirely understand, perhaps to honor our myriad of experiences (or the echoes of belief I still can hear). I’ve said before that I mostly attend church for the people. Maybe dinner group is an extension of this practice, a way of sharing in others’ internal narratives using a common language.
As the semester begins next week, I’m grateful for a group that reminds me, “The longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest.”