Chris Heuertz understands the importance of community. Once mentored by Mother Teresa, he has spent nearly 20 years helping some of the world's most vulnerable and impoverished people in communities around the globe. Communities, like people, are messy and have their problems, but it's in that mess that Heuertz says there are "unexpected gifts" to be discovered.
His new book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community, reads as both informative and confessional, as he exposes even some of his own failures to illuminate the importance of lovingly dealing with hard issues in a community.
"I actually think that all of the things that are real tough about relationships or friendships or community are actually what makes it worth staying ... We shouldn't always stay for the sake of staying, but I think that it's like a gift component: a lot of the reasons we leave are in fact invitations to stay," Heuertz told The Christian Post on Friday.
At first he didn't want to write another book about community – he currently owns a stack of them which remain unread – but he felt that highlighting the painful issues he has witnessed and experienced could add a unique perspective to discussions about the topic.
"This is the way community will hurt you," he said. "These hurts are actually gifts, these pains that you'll experience are really the fruits of people loving each other poorly, attempting to love each other the best they can."
Heuertz spent three years in India learning from and working under Mother Teresa. During that time, he witnessed her "sincere and authentic humility" which, ironically, also brought her great notoriety. She not only served the poor but searched for Jesus in every situation, he said, loving God in each moment, and whatever person she was with in any given moment was the "most important in the world."
After spending time with "Mother" and the other sisters from Missionaries of Charity, and seeing how their lifestyles exemplified love for God and for others, Heuertz thought the same loving attitude could be reproduced in communities everywhere.
But community has become something that is abstract in Western society, he said, due in part to social media-only friendships that mimic true friendships but lack deep, personal connections – complete with their arguments, grief, doubt, betrayal and other personal failures.
"Fundamentally, community is about people coming together," said Heuertz.
Those living in community should be careful to love people more than principles, he said. There was a time in Jesus Christ's earthly ministry when he healed a man's withered hand on the Sabbath, Heuertz pointed out, and those who were against him were upset even though he had changed someone's life.
"The institution becomes the focus, and we lose sight of the divine imprint of God in all of us. We lose sight of a person suffering, we lose sight of somebody who's desperately in need. And I think that's the trick with community, is that we have to be really careful that the person who needs community isn't excluded because he or she maybe doesn't believe the right things or fit into the right category," he said.
Sometimes, said Heuertz, the way a community deals with a wrong committed by one of its members can do more harm than the wrong itself. In the book, he shares of how he once excluded a friend who had been accused of multiple misdeeds by writing him "one of the cruelest letters I've ever written in my life."
Heuertz has since apologized to that friend, who was deeply hurt by the letter, but said it's important for people to understand that even sensible people with good intentions will hurt each other. These growing pains will happen in genuine communities, but there are "gifts" to be received from them if only people will learn to better love and deal with each other's failures.
"We can handle each other's humanity better, but I think it has to actually start with handling ourselves ... I'm going to love myself so I can actually love someone else. And so what happens is, when we don't love ourselves and when we have these really malformed views of this very angry notion of God, we play that out on others," said Heuertz. "Fundamentally, I think that God isn't as hard on us as we are on ourselves."
Sometimes it could be "toxic" for a person to stay in a specific community, he noted, but often individuals and communities can find growth by sticking together through tough times.
"I think when we stay, when we stay when it gets tough, when we learn to fight fair, when we fail each and forgive each other, forgive ourselves, there's something beautiful there, there's something deeply spiritual there, there's something we can rest in there," said Heuertz.
Heuertz and his wife, Phileena, have spent nearly two decades working to help women and children who are victims of commercial sex-trafficking. Having previously served as the international executive director of the Word Made Flesh community, he is now a founding partner of The Gravity Center in Omaha, Neb., which is described as "a center for contemplative activism."
Heuertz's work has taken him to over 70 countries, and he has been named to Outreach magazine's list of "30 Emerging Influencers Reshaping Leadership." Unexpected Gifts, his third book, is slated to be released Jan. 8. and addresses a number of other community issues, including isolation, transition, grief, ingratitude, restlessness and more.