I moved to Jackson a starry-eyed eighteen-year-old ready for the “real world.” I came to Union University to play volleyball and study my way to becoming a chemical engineer who would change the world with brains and athleticism.
Three months into my first semester, I had quit volleyball and was failing at my chemistry courses. A few days into my second semester, a tornado blew away all my belongings, including those starry eyes. All that I knew had been taken away, and I felt strikingly alone even though I was surrounded by people.
That summer the Lord took me away to Branson, Missouri, to work at a theme park and participate in a discipleship program through the Young Life organization. I spent my days working carnival games and spent my nights learning about Jesus.
I fell in love with the Lord that summer. I went back to Jackson ready to change the world with my Holy Spirit zeal and newfound wisdom.
Three months into that semester, I was burnt out and struggling with depression. Again, I felt an aching loneliness.
It seemed to be the new pattern: excitement and then failure. Zeal and then burnout. Hope and then loneliness. I started to hate Jackson and the disillusionment it came to symbolize.
The next semester I met the love of my life. He was older and handsome, and the first time I saw him, I told my journal that I was going to marry him. I have never been lacking in wide-eyed idealism. Luckily, this time it worked out.
Jon graduated from Union and moved to Waco, Texas, to go to graduate school. We dated long-distance, and I dreamed of the day that I could get out of Jackson to be with him. I went through the monotony of school and responsibilities but was always waiting to get out of town.
We got married in 2010. I was barely over twenty, and I finally got to pack my bags and hightail it out of Jackson. We moved into a tiny apartment in Waco and started “real life.” I worked at a women’s shelter, and Jon went to school. I spent my free time watching Law & Order: SVU and wondering why I didn’t have any friends. Why was no one asking to hang out with me? In my loneliness I retreated more and more into Netflix and mystery novels.
Two months after moving to Waco, I found out that I was pregnant. We had been married less than sixty days. We had no money. I had exactly zero friends and Jon had exactly zero job prospects. I was terrified. I cried and cried but had nobody to share my fear with. So we told nobody.
A few weeks later, I found out that I was miscarrying this precious life that I had been so afraid of. At the same time, I caught an awful stomach bug. Doubled over in pain in our tiny apartment bathroom, I realized more than ever before how truly alone we were. Jon drove me to the hospital and sat with me while I puked in the ER waiting room and the cold IV gave me shivers.
We sat together, quiet and afraid.
When he left to go to the restroom, a young, pregnant nurse came into my room, her belly swollen with life. She took a look at my chart and then looked at me. I guess she saw the tears streaming down my terrified face. Taking a seat in the chair next to me and grabbing my hand, she looked straight into my eyes and started to cry. She didn’t say anything, but I knew in that moment that she was feeling some of my pain. In that tiny moment I wasn’t alone. She saw me. She didn’t know me, but she saw me, and she entered into my pain in a way that exposed how isolated I had become.
This story is not supposed to be about the kindness of a nurse in Waco. I am supposed to be telling you why we have dug our roots into life in Jackson, Tennessee. But I cannot tell that part of the story without telling about that moment.
The months after my miscarriage were hard and lonely. We had no one to tell about the loss because we had not told anyone about the pregnancy. But the memory of that nurse crying with me had planted a strange seed of hope. The connection I felt with her in that moment of pain led me to believe that I was not meant to be alone. I was not meant to live in isolation, and there was something better ahead.
Jon started looking for jobs all over the country. He applied to probably a hundred schools, but his only offer came from Union. We moved back to Jackson with no stars in our eyes but with a determination to find a place to belong.
We started to visit churches and found ourselves at City Fellowship Baptist Church. We endured months of awkwardly trying to meet people and form relationships. We became discouraged many times. I remember getting so exasperated at how long it was taking us to find friends. I thought it would be as easy as it was in grade school when play dates were planned and you were invited to everyone’s birthday parties.
It was easy in the moments of discouragement to blame others: blame our church, blame the people, blame Jackson for our lack of belonging. But something about my painful time in Waco kept me believing that community was not only possible; it was vital to our survival. It was something I needed to fight for.
It took experiencing deep pain and profound loneliness to teach me what my idealism had failed to consider: you can not find deep, meaningful friendships without hard work. It requires painful vulnerability and prophetic endurance to build community. It may mean bravely calling a stranger to ask to go to coffee with them. It may mean inviting someone to your dinner table ten times until you start to feel comfortable with them. It will certainly require hospitality. It will most definitely require generosity. It will look nothing like you plan.
Building community requires courage to show up and be seen: seen on your best days but, more importantly, seen on your very worst days. It takes screwing up and having to shamefully ask for forgiveness. It requires a short memory of offenses done against you and a willingness to stumble through miscommunications and hurt feelings. It requires resolve. It requires patience. It requires a visionary hope of the joy that is promised in knowing and being known. Community is not easy, but I believe that it is worth it. People who were once strangers have now walked with us through grief, celebration, job changes, and the birth of babies. They have lifted our faces in periods of burnout and disillusionment. They have been a source of love that has healed painful places in our lives.
I have learned in my time in Jackson that the people are the beauty of a city. Jon and I have not found community here—we have fought for it. We have experienced the joy of belonging to a place but, more importantly, belonging to people. No city will do the hard work of friendship for you, but the beautiful people in Jackson are worth the fight.
Olivia Abernathy is a wife to Jon and mommy to two beautiful daughters, Avery and Annie. She loves to read, dream, and hear people's stories. She works at Union University as an academic counselor and helps lead Baby University, a ministry to new moms at City Fellowship Baptist Church. She lives in midtown with her family and loves all that Jackson is and is becoming.