When I was in high school, I was part of a retreat program called Antioch. It brought together teenagers from my church and a church in a neighboring town for bi-annual weekend retreats and weekly follow-up meetings. But it was more than just a retreat program—it was its own world. Antioch gave a rare gift to teenagers: a place where we could genuinely connect with each other as our truest selves. During a time in our lives when we were hyper-focused on fitting in and pretending to be something we weren’t, we found ourselves in a community that let us take off our masks and exhale.

The differences that divided us in our other worlds of school and home didn’t matter at Antioch. We all belonged. We didn’t judge each other. We offered each other unconditional love and support. It was the first time I really opened up and got emotional with my peers, with people who were strangers hours earlier. Grief, mental health issues, the list of the heavy topics we got into could go on and on. These were the things we carried around, the things we were silent about because we felt shame and fear. We were able to release them. The way I communicate today—the way I process emotions in a healthy way—has so much to do with what I learned at Antioch. I will always be grateful for the tools I gained there.

Antioch gave me a deep sense of belonging. It’s such a powerful experience to feel so connected to a community and not feel pressure to change in order to belong. So you can imagine saying goodbye to Antioch was difficult. Fortunately, I found a similar community in college at Fordham through a student organization called Global Outreach. In Global Outreach (or GO!), we went on service projects around the country and the world to stand in solidarity with our partner organizations and work alongside them towards their own goals. We lived by the pillars of community–simple living, social justice, and spirituality. Again, I experienced that powerful connection, that sense of belonging.

GO! West 2015 (Photograph courtesy of Sara McDonough)

For a long time, I tied the power of these communities to faith. I thought spirituality was the only way to get to that deeper sense of connection. This posed a serious problem as my faith began to waver. I accept doubt is a natural part of faith. When I do figure out what I believe, I think it will be stronger as a result of this doubt. But I worried if I would be able to find another community like Antioch and GO! when I couldn’t connect to my spirituality. So I panicked and tried to force it, only to learn these communities can’t be manufactured. While I was busy trying to fit in at a new church, I found belonging in an improv theater.

By this point, I had already been doing improv comedy on and off for years. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t really believe I belonged until improv became the one thing that made me feel like myself. I had been in Chicago for about six months and I was desperately searching for something that felt like home. Well, I found a home and I found a family. In these improv communities, we form strong bonds. Bonds that are forged by adrenaline and sealed by support. By definition, we have absolutely no idea what will happen when we improvise. But when we step into a scene and face the unknown, we face it together. Although I have moved away from Chicago, I still feel a connection to my improv community there. I’ve also found a community just as loving and supportive at my improv home in New York, The Magnet Theater

The Magnet Theater Level 3 Class (Courtesy of Sara McDonough)

Antioch, GO!, and my improv communities really aren’t that different. They’re all beautiful communities that give people a chance to grow. To open up, to discover what they are capable of. To connect with others and form strong, deep bonds. I think I was right: faith is part of the power in these communities. Improv isn’t a religion, but I have faith in my scene partners. It’s a requirement for improv. You have to trust each other or it won’t work. My introduction to a strong community may have been through church, but I think we can all find a sense of belonging as ourselves no matter what we believe. The only prerequisite is that the community encourages vulnerability, love, and support and intentionally rejects judgment. 

It’s a little odd writing about connecting to a community during a period of social distancing and isolation. But we don’t need to be in the same physical space to connect, to feel loved and cared for, to check in on one another. Many things in our lives are on hold right now, but connecting to a community doesn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be. That connection is what is going to get us through this. So let’s check in on our communities and let’s form new ones. I’ve seen such creative and inspiring methods of connection during this time. 

Let’s explore the possibilities together.

Sara McDonough is a Fordham alumnus, writer, and improv comedy performer.