Over the past 20 years the notion of and attraction to community has altered. And no one has experienced it more than Chris Heuertz. He was mentored by Mother Teresa, worked to found South Asia’s first pediatric AIDS care home, has journeyed with women and children from the commercial sex industry to freedom, and has lived to tell about it.
His new book, Unexpected Gifts, digs deep into the challenges of community: things like failure, doubt, betrayal, the mundane, a loss of identity, sexual chemistry, messy transitions, and others. In RLC’s interview with Chris he explains, “[these] are legitimate reasons for people to leave their communities. However, sometimes the reasons we leave are actually invitations to stay–and when we stay, work through these inevitable challenges, they often become unexpected gifts.”
Chris is trying to unpack the assumptions held around our notions of community. He is deeply vulnerable and honest, recalling personal stories of failure and honesty, betrayal and self-worth. Chris digs deep into the assumptions that “are sometimes filled with unrealistic idealizations of what it [community] should be or what it might become.”
Chris points out that one of the reasons many people leave community is because of how isolated communities tend to become. To further his point Chris challenged me to take out my cell phone and review the last ten calls I had made. “Who’s on that list? How many of those people are of a different race, ethnicity, or nationality? How many are outside your age bracket or have different sexual preferences?”
He continued, “Not that one’s cell phone usage is the singular measure of the diversity in relationships, but for many people, the folks whose names appear in the call history staring back at us from our phones look a lot like we do. Many of us have a homogenized circle of friends who live like us, look like us, and probably even worship like us. Our call history is often a mirror of who we are. And, as a consequence, of who our community is.”
But he doesn’t just point out how community can be difficult and messy and leave the reader there. His 20 years in community have enforced the commitment that community can be beautiful and life-giving in the midst of being difficult and messy. The very title of the book, Unexpected Gifts, is provocative in itself given that “gifts” refers to challenges and tensions.
“My approach in introducing these challenges communities will inevitably face comes from personal experience, experiences that have broken me down and experiences that have been significant in my own spiritual formation, ” Chris explains. “The writing style utilizes story to illustrate struggle, but with the hope that in our best attempts and our worst failures we can stumble forward into the arms of grace. I do think this is my most vulnerable book, and my sense is that through narrating my own failures there is an accessible invitation for others to be honest about their failures.”
And when we learn to be honest about our failures and our shortcomings then we can truly experience the fullness of community.
“My real hope for the book is that readers would find the courage to face the difficult parts of staying in communities, that we might in fact come to understand that the reasons we usually leave communities are invitations to stay. And when we stay, when we learn to fight fair, when we learn to forgive, when we learn to love ourselves and subsequently love others, when we learn to fail with grace, THEN we’ll finally start to find our way to places of newly discovered trust, ” said Chris.
Chris Heuertz and his wife, Phileena, have spent nearly two decades working to help women and children who are victims of commercial sex-trafficking. For over 15 years he served as the international executive director of the Word Made Flesh community, and is now a founding partner of Gravity: A Center for Contemplative Activism in Omaha, Nebraska. Prior to Unexpected Gifts, Chris authored two books: Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (IVP, 2008) and Friendship at the Margins: Discovery Mutuality in Service and Mission (IVP, 2010) with Christine Pohl. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisheuertz.