While some faith communities are called to be large centers of worship, others are called to be small groups nimbly meeting specific needs in their community. Sophia Community is one such community — called to provide a community of support for those wearied by presenting a picture of living the "perfect life."
Many of us feel the pressure to present our lives as being happier or more fulfilling than they actually are. Such pressure is often quite limiting. The pressure spurs us to avoid certain situations. It keeps us from being open and vulnerable. We find ourselves unwilling or unable to admit our shortcomings, doubts and fears because doing so will put our life's flaws on display.
These feelings are stifling, and we long for an environment where we can be open to revealing who we truly are.
Nancy Raca noticed there were many women in and around Brighton, New York, who seemed to feel this stifling pressure. Brighton (population 35,000) is a suburban community in upstate New York. While the community is fairly affluent, a range of struggles exists underneath the veneer: difficult marriages, family issues, addiction, depression and health concerns. Nancy was especially aware of the women of Brighton who dealt with these issues while feeling the pressure to present the image of the "perfect life."
Nancy is a pastor. She understands that the church can be an environment where people find support and encouragement in community. However, she is also aware that the church can be an environment of pressure where we feel a need to put our best selves forward in denial of our life's brokenness. In short, church can add to the pressure. Such was the perception shared by many in Brighton, where many women — even women who appear to "have it made" — struggle and have no spiritual community to call upon for support. They had predetermined that church was "too judgmental or boring." Still, there was a definite need for authentic community.
In November 2014, Nancy started a spiritual community for women. They met in their local sandwich shop, which was a popular meeting spot in the community. Women were familiar with the location, menu and atmosphere. The shop was a "low barrier" to entry. This setting made it easy for participants to come for the first time and easy for them to come back. The budding group was very intentional about reaching women who were not interested in attending a traditional church service. The first participants were mostly women Nancy had met around town. One came simply because she saw a post about the group on Facebook. Sophia Community was born.
The group grew as participants invited friends to participate. After meeting at the sandwich shop for two years, the community decided to acquire their own space and moved to a house. The group's new space, named Sophia House, became a place of respite. The meetings continued, but the house also has become a center for spiritual retreats, support groups, craft nights and family activities.
Safety and acceptance are at the core of Sophia Community's practice. A stated goal for the community is to help women explore their spirituality in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. By openly exploring questions of faith together, the community is supportive while providing accountability.
"For most of my life, I felt church was a formidable place," said Emily, a Sophia Community participant. "I so wanted to find a community where I belonged, where others shared my belief that God's message was one of acceptance, hope, grace and love. Aside from a few happy years as a member of a tiny parish, I never found a church in which I felt comfortable. Then came Sophia Community."
The Sophia Community is quick to adapt to the needs around it. "The best part of doing ministry at Sophia Community is that we are creative and nimble," noted Pastor Nancy. "When we have an idea, we do it! We are helping people encounter Jesus in unexpected ways and inspiring people to undertake their own ministries."
The intimacy of the environment and personal interactions encourages the Sophia Community to be a tight-knit group. "I recently lost a significant source of income and the women of Sophia Community, with Pastor Nancy, have helped me work through it and have walked with me through this time of crisis," said member Deb. "Over the past few weeks, all the help I have received has been from Sophia women, each in their own way. Without these women, I would have felt despair. It's been a life-saver for me."
Being tight-knit does not mean being exclusive, however. The group consistently looks for ways to connect with those of the Brighton and Pittsford area who need a safe spiritual home. They recently began a partnership with another nonprofit to provide space for their programs centering on art, meditation and fellowship. Many of the nonprofit's members are not connected to a faith community.
"As the Spirit leads, we hope to also offer fellowship opportunities for men," reported Pastor Nancy.
The Sophia House now houses a worship service. In a sense, it has become a center of worship. But the Sophia Community still holds to its original vision: providing a nonjudgmental atmosphere for people to explore spirituality, discover God through Scripture, pray and serve one another, and share the love of Christ through their own ministry. The Community provides space for people to let go of the pressure to show a "perfect life," in the hopes that they may encounter better life.