I want to tell a story about hope and communion, and how they are found in small, fragile, unseen things. My wife and I have been church planters in our neighborhood in East London for eight years. One of the projects we have run for the last several years is a community garden on a council estate close to our home. Originally we intended it to be a place to grow food for our poorest neighbors.
It certainly continues to be that, though on a smaller scale than we originally intended it to be. For the most part, through the pandemic and beyond, it has morphed into a quiet space in an urban area for people who experience stress and anxiety. It has also become a place where people can belong and just come and be in community with others, while enjoying some light gardening. It’s a micro-acre of God’s Kingdom.
On Saturdays through the warm months I go to water the garden and maintain it. On one Saturday recently I was joined by Azi (name changed), a wonderfully neuro-divergent* friend who we have gotten to know over the last few years.
There are two things that are worth knowing about Azi’s neuro-divergence which I have observed over time. The first is that Azi’s emotions are far less hidden and have far greater pendulum swings than most people. So when he is up, he is super happy and super talkative and it can be difficult to get a word in. But when he is down, he is really down, very quiet, non-communicative, withdrawn. The other thing worth knowing is that Azi, upon hearing something he finds interesting, meaningful, or useful from another person, will often quote what he has heard almost word for word as if it was his own thought or insight. This is part of how he processes, but it can be very funny!
When Azi came into the garden on this particular day, it was just the two of us and he was feeling very down and very non-communicative. I decided to stop what I was doing and make him a cup of tea. Then I just sat with him in silence. I have learned that God does His best work when I remember to ride the silence for as long as possible.
After about ten minutes, Azi started to explain to me why he was so down. He had been asked to leave a social group that was very meaningful and important to him. He had been asked to leave, basically, because others were uncomfortable with his neuro-divergence and had misinterpreted some of his words and actions and taken offense at them. He was deeply sad and deeply frustrated that he had been misinterpreted.
Sadly this happens a lot to people like Azi in our city. I didn’t really have much to say.
“Azi, I am so sorry. It’s so frustrating and painful when others misunderstand us and reject us. I feel awful when this stuff happens to me, but I know that God sees my frustration and my pain and He meets me in it. Maybe you can pray to God about what has happened and He can draw close to you with love and give you hope.”
Azi and I continued to sit in silence.
After a while he said, “How are things with you, Oli?”
I have learned it’s important to lead from weakness and, when others are vulnerable with you, to return that vulnerability. “Azi, things are really bad right now. A lot of things are falling apart and people close to me have been withdrawing. They can’t say why, and I can’t work out why, and I feel like you—very misunderstood and confused.”
There was a pause, and then Azi replied in a very sympathetic tone. “Oli, it’s so frustrating and painful when others misunderstand us and reject us. I feel awful when this stuff happens to me, but I know that God sees my frustration and my pain and He meets me in it. Maybe you can pray to God about what has happened and He can draw close to you with love and give you hope.”
My own words of comfort were parroted back to me! My own attempt at comfort was mirrored back and was also just the words I needed to hear in my own spiritual poverty and weakness. “I think you’re absolutely right, Azi. I’m going to do just that. Thanks for the good advice. You have helped me feel better,” I said with sincerity.
Azi left me to work in the garden; he seemed a touch lighter and brighter when he left. I was left to wash up his tea mug. At the sink I noticed that there were some biscuit crumbs in the bottom, and the scripture came to mind: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19) I had just shared the hope of communion. I had just shared, and shared in, the love of Christ. What I had given out to Azi I had received back as nourishment for my needs.
There is hope and communion in the small and virtually invisible. No big fanfare. Hope is shared and planted in my community through vulnerability, weakness and embracing what is small.
*Neuro-divergent means having a brain that works differently from the average or “neurotypical” person.
Constance and Oli are Church planters with twenty years of experience eachand have been involved in 8 church plants in both the U.S and U.K. They have been involved in pioneer church planting in post-Christian contexts in London for many years and currently lead a creative church planting work in East London called 3 Cups Church.