The Words of the Saunders Family
The Writers' Haven small group
We have all heard that one person can "make a difference" and be a game-changer. We have seen examples of great individuals in history -- George Washington, Martin Luther King, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mother Teresa and others -- who catalyzed change in ways we could not imagine without them. Our own tradition pivots primarily upon the life and teachings of one man -- the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
Yet it is also true, as John C. Maxwell writes in The Power of Partnership in the Church, that "few people are successful unless a lot of other people want them to be."" In other words, even the greatest individuals need the support of others to succeed in their endeavors.
Over the last twenty years, more than a dozen large international studies have shown that isolation is detrimental to one's wellbeing. This lesson is also the message of the recent movie 127 Hours, where mountain climber Aron Ralston realizes that all his life has led him to a tragic point because of his own isolationism.
The idea of a self-made man is a myth. Every one of us had parents. Every one of us is nurtured by the efforts of others, the earth, and the universe. We exist in interdependence with others. Yet, how often do people feel isolated and alone even when they are part of larger entities -- churches, political parties, universities, corporations or apartment complexes?
One antidote to isolation and powerlessness is small groups, or support groups, where people get to know and understand one another on an individual basis. Small groups generate a feeling of belonging and solidarity. In a support group, the power of the whole is always greater than the sum of its individual parts.
In his book Bowling Alone, which depicts the decline of social and civic bonding in the United States, author Robert Putnam says that people with support networks cope better with illness and recover better from trauma than people who are isolated. Research has shown that the more bound we are into a community, the less likely we are to experience such ill effects as colds, heart attacks, cancer, and premature death. Such protective health effects exist not only for those who have close family and friendship ties; they exist also for those who are affiliated with religious and civic associations.
Social connections also decrease depression and other psychological disorders. People who have close friends and confidantes, friendly neighbors or supportive coworkers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem and problems with eating and sleeping?
Jesus, another individual who changed history, endorsed small groups when he said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." From the original small group of marriage to larger groups and congregations, God seems never to have taken back His decision at the creation that it was not good for a man to be alone.
In the 1930s, stockbroker Bill Wilson was happily married and financially successful. There was only one problem in his life. He loved alcohol. His attachment to alcohol eventually led to poverty, the loss of his career and the loss of his self-respect.
Bill sensed there was only one way out for him: to band together with other alcoholics who wanted to change. When he found just one like-minded friend, Alcoholics Anonymous -- the largest, most successful support group in existence, recognized and recommended by therapists all over the world -- was born.
What can we learn from this globally successful small group? Let's briefly examine some of its prominent features:
A higher power is invited. Members are enjoined to turn their lives and affairs over to that higher power. Meetings begin and or end with the Serenity Prayer, invoking God.
Obligations to the group are manageable. Membership is free; costs are kept low. Attendance and participation while attending are voluntary. The duration of the meetings -- one hour -- is carefully respected.
There is a body of literature and principles that are normative for the group. The literature draws on wisdom from many different religious and philosophical sources.
Privacy is respected. No last names are used. No one is allowed to tell another person "So-and-so belongs to AA" or "Guess what So-and-So shared at the meeting."
Alcoholics Anonymous has helped literally millions of alcoholics through utilizing the power of the small group, expanding from two men to thousands of small groups in a hundred and thirty countries. Sociologists cite it as the premier example of a successful small group that eventually reached the global level.
Christi's group focuses on children inheriting their parents' faith.
Sometimes huge goals like saving the world, changing society and culture, witnessing and bringing many new members to our faith can become diffuse, causing a small group centered upon them to lose focus and disband.
Members may wish to establish small groups that focus on specific challenges, such as loss of a family member, dealing with rebellious children, raising children who have disabilities, unemployment, debt, cancer or other life-changing illnesses, difficult marriages, adultery, loss of faith, issues that block church participation, and so on. As long as the focus of the group is to heal and support members in facing their challenges and there is a confidential, non-judgmental atmosphere, people helping each other overcome the challenges of life can be a powerful source of therapy, spiritual enlightenment and even public good.
A powerful small group that grew out of challenging circumstances is Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD was started by a woman who had lost her thirteen-year-old daughter in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. MADD is credited with a steady decrease in alcohol-related car crashes in the United States since its inception in the 1980s -- something that benefits everyone who lives and drives there.
In our church in the United States, In-jin nim has encouraged people to form small groups based upon personal passions they can share with others. There are hiking groups, knitting groups, Reiki groups, table tennis groups, horticultural groups and others. In his September 13, 2008 sermon, "Returning to Our Safe Haven," Hyung-jin nim spoke of small groups as safe havens where people should be able to experience "the encouragement, friendship, fellowship and support that give us the strength, courage and confidence we need to be truly successful in our lives."
One small group that has been successful in terms of its longevity and member satisfaction (three years old and still going strong) as well as attracting the interest of people outside the church, is a small group I belong to myself -- the Writers' Haven, formed by members in the U.S. state of New Jersey.
Obligations to the group are manageable; we meet once every other week, on a Sunday afternoon, for two hours. That time period is respected. There are no membership fees and costs are low. Members rotate hosting meetings in their homes so the burden does not fall on just one or two people. The host or hostess is expected to provide refreshments, but they need not be elaborate.
Members take turns showcasing their own work and critiquing each other's work. Everyone reads the same piece before coming to the meeting in order to comment helpfully to the author. There is an atmosphere of respect and non-judgment. Although members sometimes question one another or give cogent advice for change, there are never any put-downs, negativity or hurtful criticisms.
The group drafted a mission statement that is normative for the group: "We have come together as writers to form a group for the purpose of creating literature appropriate to God's kingdom. In whatever form, our writing shall be for the purpose of inspiring children and adults to celebrate God's love and truth, ourselves as His sons and daughters, our families as schools of love, nature as God's gift to us, and the world as one family under God, our Heavenly Parent." This mission statement is the touchstone of the group.
As such, it is a natural thing to share with people outside the church who share a similar interest. Guests have come and continue to come to meetings.
Robert Beebe, who initiated the group, observes, "Those who are involved are in it not so much to fulfill a direction from above to do small groups, but because they believe in it and actually enjoy meeting together."
Focused small groups are harbingers and precursors of a future "hobby culture" with people spending the majority of their time doing things that they love. Joy and fulfillment, centered on activities that people genuinely love, cannot help being attractive to others outside the group as its members enthusiastically talk to others in a natural way about the groups to which they belong.
The principal of Jin-A Child Care Center, Christi Brunkhorst, has been part of a small group that started fifteen years ago, when Hoon Dok Hae began. The group's focus is to pass their faith down to their children.
The group keeps their commitments manageable -- they meet every two weeks and food is potluck. They do enjoyable things together -- barbecues, hikes, bagel breakfasts in the woods and Easter sunrise services. Manageability remains a watchword. "Sometimes people are busy and have other things to do, and we respect that," says Christi. "It doesn't have to be something forced or pushed. People come when they can make it, and they enjoy it so much more. The heart pulls you together."
As an educator, Christl realized the importance of making the readings manageable for the children in the families, aged eleven to twenty. The group did age-appropriate, short readings followed up by activities to make the concepts meaningful to the children. They washed one another's feet, had communion ceremonies with bread and talked about Jesus' life, always interspersed with readings from Father's speeches. Candles were lit to demonstrate the four-position foundation, giving the children a vivid visual of the concept.
Christl made the point that children hear a great deal from women -- their mothers and many teachers. The small group deliberately gave the fathers a platform to talk about their lives and faith. This masculine element was particularly impressive to the children.
The children have age-appropriate responsibilities. When they were young, they were asked to make drawings, say a prayer or choose a song. When they entered high school, they were asked to create the program. As young adults, they continue to come when they can and share testimonies about their matching, their Blessing Ceremony, international missionary work, STF work, or to give a Divine Principle lecture in front of the group. They know the group has been praying for them and supporting them in their lives and activities. Now some of the second-generation members in the group want to pass the tradition of this small group on to the third generation.
It is work, Christi confesses, but it is worth the effort. "It is so profound, all the love we have. Our lives would be very different if we hadn't done that. You go to church and you have the official service and a large group meeting, but in a small group, it becomes very intimate, particularly if you do it consistently and long-term."
The public-minded adults of the group found the small group nourishing in a way that helped them sustain their mission responsibilities. It was a safe haven. "A nice shelter," Christl reflected.
One of the most beautiful examples of a small group in nature is geese flying in a V-formation. As each bird in a V-formation flaps its wings, it sends air power or "uplift" to the geese behind it. The point of the V cuts down headwinds, allowing the geese to fly 70 percent farther than a single goose could manage alone. When the head goose gets tired, he or she rotates to the back of the formation and a less tired goose assumes the lead.
If a goose in a formation becomes sick or is wounded and falls to the ground, two other geese from the formation go down to help and protect the fallen goose until he or she either recovers or dies. A goose is never alone. He or she will always have a small support group, in life and in death.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we human beings could say the same?