by Dustin Davis
Every Wednesday my alarm sounds off, dark and early, at 4:30 in the morning. I resist the urge to press the snooze button, swing my legs out of bed, and stumble to the bathroom. I put on some workout clothes, fill a bottle with water, eat a quick snack, and then drive the (almost) empty streets of early morning Los Angeles up to the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park. Once there I meet up with a few dozen other yawning but excited people who have shown up to be experience community at 5:30 AM. This group, and the more than 40 other groups just like it all over the world, is called November Project. Together we run, sweat, jump, cheer, and squat - otherwise known as eating hills for breakfast - as the sun rises over the Hollywood hills.
November Project is a free work out group started by a few friends in Boston in 2011. Since then it has grown into a global movement whose only requirement to join is a willingness to just show up. I have been just showing up to NP LAX for 5 months now, and, in addition to increasing the number of burpees I can do, I’ve experienced a thing or two about community that I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced anywhere else. Yep, even in congregational life.
I was first invited to check out NP by one of my friends from a running club I attend. At first I said no, but she was relentless in her invitation. Every week she invited me, and every week I said, “We’ll see, but 5:30 is really early.” She never made me feel bad or guilty when I didn’t show up. She would just ask again the next time I saw her, again and again and again. When I finally made the effort to go I was surprised at what I found. There were all types and shapes of people there, not just people who were clearly more fit than I was. This group of total strangers asked my name, gave me hugs and told me they were glad I was there. This wasn’t unique to me, as I’ve since learned, but it made me feel welcomed as the newbie all the same.
Almost immediately I could see the parallels between this community and our faith community, and the draw to just show up, despite the early hour, became obvious. November Project has traditions and rituals, everything from welcoming newcomers, to the jumping warm up and chants (the other week we sang “Little Red Wagon” which immediately transported me to a campfire), to the finish tunnel we all make at the end of the workout. They have their own vocabulary. There’s a logo they spray-paint onto shirts so you can identify with the group or wear with pride if you visit another NP location. And working out with this many people helps to keep me accountable to my fitness life.
As a faith community, I think vulnerability is something we struggle with the most, the ability to be completely honest and open with each other, the chance to drop the masks we wear and show our truer selves. Although it’s a different sort of vulnerability at November Project, I can tell you that there is no where to hide running up and down the steep trails of Griffith Park. It’s clear in the first few minutes where everyone is, who’s huffing and puffing and who hasn't even broken a sweat. For me it’s an incredibly vulnerable experience. Also, talk about humbling when the fast people start to pass you up and lap you! But there’s no judgement, only encouragement and high fives. It’s not about who’s the fastest, only that everyone just shows up and does their best.
The joy and enthusiasm at November Project, something I think we could always have more of in congregational life, is infectious. People are excited, not obligated, to be there, because they know that what they are doing is good for them. They see and experience the results in daily life. How often can we say this about Sunday morning worship? As we all struggle to do that last set of pushups or hold that plank for another 10 seconds people are shouting, “You’ve got this!”, “You’re crushing it!”, “You can do this!” When was the last time you felt this type of encouragement at church? Or offered it for that matter? And when that sweet moment of release finally comes and we can all relax there are cheers, laughter, and sweaty hugs for everyone.
November Project could easily be dismissed as some millennial (although it is intergenerational), good vibes, feel good community. I am, at times, tempted to do just that. High fives won’t feed the hungry. Running a faster 5K won’t help the environment. I certainly don’t experience relationships at near the depth I do in our congregation or larger faith community. Sometimes I wish we could watch the sunrise in silence or offer a few words of gratitude after the workout. This is why the identity, mission, message, and beliefs of the Community of Christ are so important. And I will admit here that it feels easier, not as much cultural baggage, to invite someone to a workout group than to church.
However, being a part of NP LAX teaches me every week that the Kingdom of God isn’t just an ideal or just at our congregation. It’s anywhere and everywhere, a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is no where, as Richard Rohr likes to say. The Kingdom of God is moving, growing, creating, sweating, hugging, and laughing all the time. God is inviting us all the time, in every moment. God doesn’t judge us or love us less when we fail to accept. God just offers again and again and again. And God will be there, ready with a hug and words of love, when we are vulnerable and joyful. God will bless us when we just show up.