the simple, messy, complicated art of friendship.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper and Jesus reminding the disciples that they were no longer his servants but his friends (John 15:15). That receiving was just as important as giving. That they needed to “do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of going on a Learning and Listening Trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Some of you may already be familiar with it and the realities of the Lakota tribe. I first heard about Pine Ridge just 4 years ago and was floored by the reality of the statistics–life expectancy for men of 47 and 52 for women, a 93% unemployment rate, the second highest infant mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere with Haiti being #1. It’s a third-world country, 6 hours from Denver and a short drive from Mount Rushmore, hub of Americana. If you want to learn more about it, a good starting place is this Ted Talk by Aaron Huey, a National Geographic photographer who shares the powerful, painful story of the history of Pine Ridge in 16 so-worth-watching minutes.

The friend that brought our group has close relationship there built up over many faithful years. She offers the thing that I think is the key to everything–friendship.

Simple, long-term, redemptive friendship.

Friendship doesn’t take years and years of training, a seminary degree, or a budget.

It doesn’t require permission from an organization.

It doesn’t need a strategic vision or a mission statement or an action plan.

It requires one thing and one thing only–showing up and being together.

Showing up and being together.

And yes, that will always be the most vulnerable thing that we do.

The thing where we can’t hide behind our defenses.

The thing where we don’t just give but also receive.

The thing where we stop being over another or doing things “to” or “for” another but walk alongside, “with” each other.

This is why so many of us would much rather be part of a safe program, a sign-up-for-a-specific-way-to-serve, or create some kind of “initiative” that has nuts and bolts and clear goals and specific outcomes.

It’s not that those things are wrong or bad; there are definitely lots of ways to play.

The Refuge is an initiative, an intentional Christian community, a way-of-being as a local mission center with a heart for transformation.

But I will suggest that in the same way we need to make advocates, not buildings, we really need to make friends, not missions, in all the different contexts that we live and move in–with ourselves, with others and at work, at school, at play.

Jean Vanier, one of my all-time-most-favorite-authors-and-practictioners-and-prophets-to-the-church, says this:

“In every human being there is such a thirst for communion with another, a cry to be loved and understood–not judged or condemned; there is a yearning to be called forth as special and unique” (Community and Growth, pp. 30-31).

I think if we really wanted our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, our cities, the world to change, we’d dedicate ourselves to the art of friendship not as something to dabble in or hear a sermon on once in a blue moon, but to tackle together as human beings being honest-about-how-hard-it-is-to-actually-practice.

There are a lot of forces working against the simple, messy, complicated art of friendship in the church. Here are a few off the top of my head:

Our aversion to pain. Real friends hold pain tenderly. We know each other’s stories not from far away but up close, in the flesh. It’s a lot easier to rejoice with those who rejoice than mourn with those who mourn. Most of us are fixers; we like things to get to a better place more quickly. We like resolution. We like plans for what we think is forward movement.

It requires too much vulnerability. Oh, I’d much rather give than receive! It’s so much more comfortable. But friendship requires receiving more than giving. Who wants to be friends with someone who never shows themselves, who always “helps”, who never receives?

It’s not measurable. And how we love our measurements! How many people helped? How many people attending? How many people baptized? These questions are still often the first ones that get asked and the ones that many donors and results-oriented-funders care most about. Long haul relationships just can’t–and shouldn’t be–measured.

We love our plans & programs. It’s not that plans and programs are bad. As I mentioned before, structures and initiatives and dreams need frameworks and containers, no matter how simple. L’Arche communities are deeply dedicated to friendship, but there’s not an agenda of “we are going to move this person from here to there (whatever that might be) in ____ months” that is at the core of so many ministry initiatives.

What else would you add?

As I watched what my friend does month after month, year after year after year in simple friendship at Pine Ridge with no big funding, no organization behind her, no support-in-the-way-that-we-so-often-think-of–support, I’ll admit it triggered a bunch of big feelings about misappropriated resources in the church, how programs with wow and what is perceived as strong leadership and results get funded easily and so many of my friends who are in the trenches with people in all kinds of wild & beautiful & messy ways are piecing together odd jobs to make rent and never have the support they deserve. I think it’s because of the forces working against friendship.

My trip to Pine Ridge was painful. There’s no easy way out of the mess we’ve made for First Nations People. There are no perfect programs or let’s-do-this-and-it-will-change-everything initiatives.

But I was reminded, yet again, how the simple messy complicated art of friendship changes everything because it means we’re somehow in the thick of it together.

And that is worth more than we know.

It also is beautifully reflected in a moment during our visit, we received a gift from my friend’s friend, as he welcomed us into this home and unexpectedly offered Lakota prayers and a smudging for us. His last words in Lakota will always linger, an “Amen” which translated to–“We’re all here together.”

We’re all here together.

Maybe that’s the greatest gift we will ever receive, ever give.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • This is incredibly important! No-one wants to be someone else’s project. We all want to know and be known. Relationship, friendship, intimate connection – that’s what we crave. Just the everyday walking together as if we really are worth it!

  • Beautiful Kathy! Thanks. This is an area where us guys particularly need women’s input. Our (at least my) lack of tendency to lasting and deeper friendships, particularly, is a loss. Some guys do it better, but I rarely hear one talk about it.

  • What else would I add?

    Firstly, I would affirm what you say about connection and aversion to pain being a hindrance to that. I’d also say attachment to desire – to have to have “the best meat” at the expense of others going hungry is a hindrance. Yet some of the greatest times to be had are when there is connection, belonging. love, purpose.

    An eye opener to me was being on a mission trip to Kenya. I lived among the Masai. Like the Lakota, the age expectancy is around 50. I say around, as a guess as most in the tribe don’t go by age, they don’t know how many years old they are. Yet what was an eye opener to me was in that abject poverty, there was a richness of community. It made us feel sad to realise that in the west we didn’t have that connection.

    So what do we do about it? All I can say is I am trying to change. I like what you say about receiving. Letting people in. Yet it is risky. What is it that I am attached to or potentially attached to that prevents communing with others? What pain is there that I avoid or am tempted to avoid.

    I find what helps is first of all acknowledging that it is natural to protect and be adverse to pain, as it is to be attached to desire and to hold these with compassion but nether being a slave to comfort or getting what I want. Second, to acknowledge the need for forgiveness and forgiving others – where there is resentment and bitterness connection is prevented. I know it’s not popular to talk about forgiveness and sometimes it opens up old wounds, but this must happen for healing and peace so that connection can happen.

    Lastly, I think that if we are connected, then changes will naturally happen as a matter of course. This is the long haul, they may or may not be measurable, but this is not a quick fix. It may take generations, centuries even for justice equality and freedom for all ad there will be many battles to fight along the way. But God willing it can happen men women, Jew gentile, slave free and all the tribes of all the nations of the world, if our starting place is what we share with our common humanity.

    “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope one day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one” Imagine – John Lennon.

  • We have learned that many people don’t have real friends and don’t know how to be a friend except to people (who may or may not be who the say they are) on social media whom they’ve never met in person. Real friendship, in our opinion, requires actual physical presence at least part of the time. Real friendship often takes work and time.

    Real friendship is more than merely being acquainted with someone. It involves, as you say, walking alongside each other. Then there are those exasperating folks who show up only when they need something (usually money, free stuff or free labor, and sometimes someone to listen to all of their many problems) then they disappear until the next time they need something.


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