Vulnerability & Community in the Whirlwinds | Reflections by Zach Balcomb '19

Recently, I find myself using the word whirlwind a lot... And by a lot I mean probably too much. I use it to describe the feeling of being a fourth year at UVa (i.e., a person with little time remaining in a place they’ve come to know and love) but also the feeling of trying to hang plants in my room. Obviously, these scenarios do not share the same emotional gravity, but I think my liberal usage of the term is significant to the state of my heart over the past few months.

In stressful moments, even those of an undeniably fleeting or trivial nature, anxiety has quietly crept in and occupied empty spaces in my heart. On the one hand, it’s easy to attribute this anxiety to the harsh reality that looms over all of us fourth years who have yet to figure out the next step. On the other hand, I would say that under the surface of the things that worry me, such as an unforeseeable post-grad life, anxiety arises from a sinful tendency that is often overlooked: resistance to vulnerability. It is from this resistance which anxiety has found a foothold in my life and “whirlwind” has become my new buzzword.

At the Horizons Fellows Retreat a few weeks ago, however, I experienced the beginning of a reset—I was reminded of my capacity and desire for spiritual vulnerability with others. I found joy in being in a transparent community, and I learned that when honesty has a place at the table in religious spaces, those spaces become more Holy. During the retreat, held at a Christian retreat center called Corhaven Farm, Fellows broke bread and laughed together. We snuggled up in blankets and sipped freshly-steeped tea. We pet docile, little donkeys and big, amiable cows (many of us, like me, admired them from afar). And finally, with crackling firewood and the sweet smell of s’mores as our backdrop, we took turns sharing our stories.

Our stories did not have to conform to a specific length or format, which I found so freeing. Growing up, I thought my story had to mirror what I had come to know as the archetype for a Christian testimony: a rip-roaring turn of events eclipsed by the earth shattering aha moment where “everything clicked.” Instead, I heard beautifully honest impressions on life and how people have come into relationship with their Creator over time. I heard people share things they have never before shared for fear of being judged or written off. More importantly, I saw people respond to these stories with kindness and an openness to learn.

In between storytelling, Fellows got to hear from Rev. Bill Haley, who taught us that we are to “cultivate relationship with the One who calls, so that when we are called we can respond efficiently.” We discussed the meaning of vocation, or more appropriately vocations, uncovering how they may not manifest in a paid position after graduation, but rather in how we bring God’s presence to the world. We listened and learned about the history behind the land upon which Corhaven is situated, which happens to include a cemetery where at least 25 black people who died as enslaved laborers now rest. As we explored the cemetery, which is now a memorial honoring the brothers and sisters who lay there, we grieved and prayed for an end to the 375-year reign of racial oppression in our country that still exists today.

In each of the aforementioned experiences, I felt our little cohort of Fellows displayed a level of transparency and celebration of difference that I have never before witnessed in a Christian circle. As interactions and conversations unfolded in this way, I felt spaces in my heart—once paralyzed with anxious energy—begin to breathe again.