On Birdwatching and What Happens When You Pray For Community

I love visiting the local pond.

It’s large and surrounded by preserved wetland, fringed with long reeds and grasses and fenced in certain areas so that humans can’t ruin it.  It is, I was told not long after I moved here, a birder’s paradise.

Cormorants roost on dead stumps poking up from the water.  Egrets hunt for fish.  Great blue herons raise their young here, and sandhill cranes make frequent appearances.  Two bald eagles return every year to nest and to fight with the ospreys who are also raising young.

But the people are just as fascinating as the birds.

A man in his forties or so, toting an enormous camera, leaned against the fence and told us the entire history of the eagles in the area: where they nested, how many of their young had fledged, when and how often he’d seen them. He helped me identify the cormorants and he showed us the pictures he’d taken of the eagle mid-hunt, a fish dangling from its mouth.

We met an older retired couple a few weeks later who ate their dinner in their truck with the windows open, hoping for an eagle sighting.  We talked about the birds in our backyards.  I told them the eagles had landed in our backyard trees and they asked to see the pictures; in return, they shared photos of their beloved bluebirds.

There is an elderly woman who sits on a bench in a particular area of the park, inviting anyone with an interest to scan the horizon with her ridiculously expensive binocular rig.  There was a father with his son leaving the park who, when he saw us exit the car with our binoculars, turned his car back off and popped out to tell us that the light was perfect for photography, but the birds weren’t out—but that it was okay anyway because, as he enthused, “the composition and the sunlight by itself is enough.”

Birders share a spirit of generosity and a great love of small beauties and moments.  They stop unbidden to share secrets, stories, the location of one particularly cool bird.  They enthuse about the carp and the frogs in the water and point out treasures.  They offer up equipment to total strangers.  They offer guidance and help and tell you where to go to find the good stuff.

The simple act of wearing binoculars and carrying a camera with us to the pond has placed us in this company, has identified us as Bird People.  We share an understanding with others who are out seeking the same glimpses of beauty we are.  And without ever speaking it aloud, we all abide by a quiet and agreed-upon set of rules and courtesies: be quiet, be still, be respectful, be generous.

“These are my people,” I told my husband recently, after our 45th conversation with a perfect stranger. 

I am delighted by the diversity.  The birders aren’t a monolith.  There are old couples and young singles and been-married-a-whiles like us.  There are fathers and mothers with kids, teenagers, boyfriends and girlfriends.  There are African American men, white mothers, whole immigrant families.  There are people with tattoos and motorcycles and people with sedans. 

The birders make me mindful of what it means to share a common identity, a common value, a common love.  I’m a better Christian for having been among them, because they are a reminder to me of how vital and precious community can be when it is welcoming, warm, and willing to guide.

I was still thinking about the birders a few Saturdays ago when my husband and I grabbed a patio at a local restaurant.  The restaurant sits across the street from one of the area’s largest synagogues, and I was warmed by the sight of families, friends, a connected community, drifting up to each other, sharing smiles behind their masks before they disappeared behind the closed doors together.

Community.  Care.  Joy.

I have been praying for a long time for God to offer Christian community in my area.  I have not found it, I regret to say, in my local church.  So I’ve been praying, hoping God will deliver me to that congregation, to that perfect group of people, to that Christian community that offers friendship with fellowship, that reminds me of the childhood church where I felt most at home. 

Instead, God has placed me among birders.  He has made me notice what I admire and enjoy in other communities.  And he has brought me people—friends.  This year, I have entered into genuine friendships that I had not expected.  But almost none of those friends are believers.

“God,” I pointed out recently, “I asked for Christian community.  You are bringing the community, but you forgot the ‘Christian’ bit.”

He didn’t, of course.  For everything from him is perfect and good.

And what my time among the birders is reminding me is that community is something I can create, that even in brief moments a sense of connectedness and care can exist and create impact.  That maybe my purpose right now is this season is not to receive community—no matter how badly I think I want it or need it—but to bring it myself where I go.   

I think I would really love it if, whether Christian or not, the people who encountered me said, “You know—she is my kind of people.  I always just feel like I am welcome when I’m around her.  I wonder why that is.”

In a world where everything feels like a powder keg, that seems like something aspirational.  Instead of going where the people are, maybe I can be where the people go.

I’m still praying for Christian community.  But I’m eager to see how God delivers on that answer.  I suspect it isn’t going to look anything at all like I imagine.

I’m glad.

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