Circles vs. Rows

There is a story about the northern Natal tribes in South Africa. They greet one another each day, saying Sawa Bona, which means “I see you.” Their response is Sikhona, which means “I am here.

Through this exchange, they are telling one another “until you see me I do not exist; and when you see me you bring me into existence. When you see me, I am fully present, I am here.”

Members of these tribes go about their day with personal validation from everyone they encounter–they are seen for who they are.

They are a community where everybody is somebody. The wholeness of each individual coalesces into the wholeness of the community.

Poet David Whyte writes,

“To be human

Is to become visible

While carrying what is hidden

As a gift to others”

A fellow blogger, Jacky Yenga ( relays a story that highlights this principle so well:

At the Festival of Peace, in Florianopolis, South Brazil, the journalist and philosopher Lia Diskin related a beautiful and touching story of a tribe in Africa she called Ubuntu.

She explained how an anthropologist had been studying the habits and customs of this tribe, and when he finished his work, had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play.

He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies.

When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it.

The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets.

A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”

The anthropologist was dumbfounded! For months and months he’d been studying the tribe, yet it was only now that he really understood their true essence…

These children were demonstrating a dearly held principle in Africa called Ubuntu, which means that we are only human through the humanity of others. In other words, I am because we are. Community is at the core of Ubuntu and it drives the thoughts and actions of the people of Africa. Those children in their decision to join hands rather than race against one another were living out Ubuntu. They have mastered living in a circle! We also see this demonstrated in Acts 2 when Paul describes the first church.

The Fellowship of the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Contrast that with our Western culture. We are fast-paced, we often don’t know our neighbors, we’re suspicious of strangers, and we often ask questions like “what’s in it for me?” We are the masters of living in rows. In fact, we LIKE our rows! They’re comfortable, we feel safe, and we don’t have to risk vulnerability or rejection or pain. At the same time, we compete with one another, we individualize everything, and we think that the only person we have to rely on is ourselves. We put ourselves in rows every single day. How often do we really SEE the people around us? And I’m not talking about just a casual glance – I’m talking about REALLY seeing them. I tend to put myself in a row around others when I’m not comfortable in a situation. I have suffered from EXTREME shyness my entire life. In fact, my mom tells a story of when I was a toddler, I would literally recoil when other babies would get too close to me. From birth, I have been a fan of literal and figurative personal space and that has permeated into my adulthood. I tend to shuffle right back into that row when things get scary or uncomfortable.

But EVERYTHING in me says that God never intended for us to live this way. He DESIGNED us to live in Ubuntu community and anything less than that will leave us feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps you’re feeling that tension today. You need to know how to build a community and you have no idea how to start. I know how hard it can be to build this, especially where I live in Las Vegas. Let’s look at HOW to build Ubuntu community in a world full of rows!

When the senior pastor of my church gives the message on Sunday, he always has one or two “big ideas” to take away. So, to steal his term here’s your first big idea – stepping out of your row and into a circle of community requires a CONSCIOUS CHOICE. We have to DECIDE to step out of the row ourselves, no one can do that for us.

When I was seven years old, my family moved to a remote island in the South Pacific called Yap, which is in the Federated States of Micronesia. We had a community here in the States, I had best friends, we were totally happy. So naturally, I assumed my parents were trying to ruin my little life. I had to give up my dog, my friends, my house that was the only one I knew, my school, Nickelodeon, and my beloved Burger King. Plus, as I mentioned I was really shy so I was scared about how I was going to make friends in such an unknown place. I remember seeing a postcard that depicted Yapese boys (probably about my age) in their traditional dress. It was something similar to this from

I. Was. Mortified. Shortly after, I learned that traditionally, the women went topless with grass skirts like this (from

It was almost too much to bear for my little 7-year-old mind.

The time to move came and we packed up all of our earthly possessions and sent them off on a ship that would take 3 months to make it out to the island. Meanwhile, we boarded a plane and life as I knew it was – POOF- gone. It was really hard to acclimate to such a different place at first. We were in a temporary house that had a rat living in the stove and the biggest (FLYING) roaches we had ever seen. I was getting regular nosebleeds from the change in climate and I was all-around miserable. Finally, we were able to move into our permanent house and get a little bit more settled in. Soon after, our stuff arrived from our house in the States and that returned a little bit of normalcy to my life. One day, I was sitting out on our porch and I noticed a couple of the neighborhood kids watching me from just up the hill. I could tell that they did not know what to make of me and my shyness nearly sent me running back into the house. But that day I made a different choice. I chose to go WAY outside my comfort zone and talk to them. I found out that they spoke English and from that day on, we were all inseparable.  

Another example of making a conscious choice to live in a circle instead of a row comes from the story of the loaves and the fishes in Matthew 14. Large crowds had gathered around Jesus and he had compassion for them, healing their sick and talking with them.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The disciples were ALL ABOUT their rows – places to go, people to see, it’s all about our schedule. Why care about these people? They chose to come here, let them figure it out. Sound familiar? But Jesus was different. He chose to SEE the people and live out the principle of Ubuntu by feeding them well.

Sometimes when we’re pursuing Ubuntu community, we get to do what we don’t want to do. We get to sacrifice our agenda for someone else’s, we get to listen when we feel like we don’t have time to, we get to help when we don’t feel like we have enough resources. Living in circles means opening ourselves up for hurt and heartache, which is why many avoid it. But friends, the rewards are SO MUCH greater than the risks. Had I never approached those neighborhood kids and risked getting rejected, I would have never made those friendships that absolutely got me through those first few years living on the island.

My 7th birthday on the island

So the first big idea is all about your community at large. The second big idea is a little bit closer. Think about all of the people you interact with on a daily basis. Let their faces run through your mind.

Now, think about only those people who you consider close to you. Was the second group smaller? For most of us, that “close” group is a fraction of the large group – we would call that our “inner circle.” Of course, our spouses, children, and other family members will probably show up in this circle. But there’s a whole other group that I’d like to focus on. Our friends. What is a friend exactly? One of the best definitions I’ve read recently states that a friend is a person you take the time to understand and allow to understand you. Do you hear the choice there? Much like you choose to step out of a row into the circle of community, you CHOOSE who gets to know you on a deeper level. You get to pick your “tribe.” A British psychologist named Robin Dunbar has done a lot of work on figuring out just how many people you can accommodate in your “tribe” – and his answer is five. He describes it in layers – the top tier has only one or two people (think your spouse and/or a best friend who you have daily contact with), the second tier can accommodate at most 4 people with whom you have great affection and that require weekly attention to maintain the relationship. Everyone else is in the outer layers and would be considered casual friends.

Take a moment and write down who is in your first and second tiers. Look at those names and ask yourself – am I investing enough time in these relationships to keep them in these tiers?

Perhaps you had a hard time coming up with names to write. Don’t worry! If your life includes a lot of rows, those first and second tiers might be hard to fill because you haven’t really built deep connections with anyone. This was me in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. On Yap, I had incredibly deep connections with two girls who I called my best friends. We loved the band Hanson, sleepovers, and making scrapbooks of our shenanigans.

Then, the year I turned 16, my parents decided that I would move back to the States to finish my last year of high school before heading to college (which was a non-negotiable item, even though I wanted to live at home forever). I had been homeschooled since third grade so the notion of attending a public high school terrified me. Not only that, the island was my home now and I was going to be completely uprooted from everything I knew. It was scary! The time came and I said goodbye to those amazing relationships I had known for so long and moved back across the world to a place where I knew no one besides my sister and brother in law, who I lived with during that year. Even my parents remained on the island (they moved back a couple of years later), although my mom stayed most of the summer to get me settled. So here I was in a fairly small town about to start my senior year of high school with a bunch of strangers. To understand just how scary this was for me, you have to understand that I am an introverted, debilitatingly shy person at my core. Remember the story about me recoiling from the other kids when I was a baby? Yeah, that followed me into my teen years too. My row was social anxiety that was so severe I couldn’t even use a public restroom. I felt incapable of making new friends because the only voices I heard were “you’re not good enough” and “why would they like you, the weird girl from Yap?”

Two amazing things happened that year that flipped this script. First and foremost, I met Jesus, who brought me into a circle of believers that fundamentally changed my life.  And, a girl named Megan decided to step out of HER row on the first day of school and provided me with that close friendship that was my lifeline all throughout that year of high school.

Erin & Megan

In both instances, I had a choice – I could have said “no” to both of them at their invitation to join their circle but I didn’t. And I’m eternally grateful I said yes.

So now the question is – how do you build your “tribe”? This can be a daunting thing so to make it easier, let’s first talk about who SHOULDN’T be in there according to Brene Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: 

1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.

2. The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel so sorry for you) rather than empathy. (I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: “Oh, you poor thing.” Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive southern version of sympathy: “Bless your heart.”

3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.

4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: “How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?” Or she looks for someone to blame: “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass.”

5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”

6. The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you: “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”

Who SHOULD be in my “tribe”?

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown talks about a formula that is critical in all successful relationships:


Sharing of ourselves means we get to be vulnerable. In our age of social media, as connection becomes less and less prevalent, this is a scarier proposition than it was in the past. Being vulnerable is scary! It means putting ourselves out there and risking pain, rejection, and fear of the unknown. It requires COURAGE! That is a NECESSARY part of this formula. Often we think of heroic acts when we hear the word courageous but the word actually comes from the Latin word cor, which means to share one’s whole heart. In order to get to the end result of connection, we must first be courageous to share of ourselves.

When we do that, the person we are sharing with can have a multitude of reactions. They could be the friends that we talked about earlier. If that’s the case, we can’t get to the result of connection because those friends don’t meet us with the other necessary component of COMPASSION! When we are willing to stick our neck out there and be courageous, we need someone that will meet us with compassion, not judgment or shame.

The result of all of this is CONNECTION and THIS is where the tribe is built and solidified. Your tribe is made up of people who meet your courage with compassion and you do the same for them. This doesn’t happen overnight! This takes a very intentional process of saying Sawa Bona to those around you and really SEEING them. Living in circles with Ubuntu faith ensures that we are connecting not only with our community at large but also our tribe.

After high school, I moved into the dorms at CSU Stanislaus in California and thus began my first experience living completely on my own. Many people let loose their first year of college and it’s common to put on what’s called the “freshman 15”, referring to the amount of weight you gain from the less than healthy food offerings in the cafeteria. Not me! I actually LOST 15 pounds. Why? Because I refused to eat by myself and although I had three roommates, I didn’t really connect with any of them. In a way, I was still that scared little toddler shrinking away from as many people as I could in an effort to preserve my comfort zone. My “tribe” in high school had all dispersed as friends from high school tend to do and I was on my own, starting from scratch. I felt alone and unwanted, firmly planted back in a row.  But the good thing about college is that you have a built in social circle through all of your classes and soon enough, I had added to my circle.

Then came sophomore year of college. That was a great year for my circle. That was the year I met one of my dearest friends and we are still friends to this day. She always has and continues to meet my courage with a ton of compassion and we have a connection that will last a lifetime, even though she lives far away.

Erin & Bree

That year, my parents also moved back to the States and when the year was over, I said goodbye to dorm life and finished out my last two years of college back home with my family. Like I said, it was a great year.

As I moved forward with my adult life all the way up to this very moment, I have been on a journey to discover who I am. And you know where the best answers have come from? Jesus and my inner circle. When I look back on the 16 years since college (whaat?!), I see a rich mosaic of friendships that have molded me and shaped me into who I am today.

My courage was met with compassion and I was able to build connections. I get to write and speak on stages today because key people in my circle recognized an ability that I had downplayed and underutilized for a long time. They showed me how God sees me. They were Ubuntu for me.

Who embodies Ubuntu for you? Think of that person. Write down one or two things you can do this week to connect with that person and be Ubuntu for them. IF you’re having trouble, think of the biggest embodiment of Ubuntu there every was – Jesus Christ! Jesus is the CENTER of your inner circle. Maybe the relationship that you need to cultivate is with Him. That way He can begin to bring in those people who will form your inner circle. For me, my friendships are always the richest with Jesus at the center. I have to be leaning into Him in order to be discerning about who is in the inner circle.

Think back to that story about the African children who chose to join hands and run the race together. What would happen if we did that exact same thing?

One thought on “Circles vs. Rows

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