Sense of community in Third Place benefits lonely people

Jenny Beck finds comfort in her "Third Place". 

I practise law by day (and ahem! by night as well) and this is what I observe.

People are lonely. Many of my clients have no confidant to help bear their burdens, much less a "village" to help raise their children.

It’s against this background that the idea of the Third Place so appeals to me.

Your First Place, the one that probably engages your heart most and rightly so, is your home.

Your Second Place, where you spend most of your waking hours, is your work place. And your Third Place? Sociologists who analyse our social surroundings identify Third Places as churches, cafes, libraries, parks, sports clubs, places where people gather for easy social interaction. They’re primary gathering places.

Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place says that these places are vital for social communion, community building and developing a sense of place and belonging. They’re anchors of community life, allowing for broader connections to develop.

Oldenburg says these Third Places: are welcoming and comfy, are accessible, provide food and drink, ideally aren’t costly money-wise, encourage regulars to attend, are a source of friends, new and old.

The Third Place is neutral ground; freely chosen, there’s no obligation to be there.

It’s also a leveller, in that no particular social status is required of attendees. It’s open and accommodating.

Conversation is the main activity, usually of the happy and light-hearted variety. The Third Place also has a homely feel; the mood which is set by the regulars is friendly and playful.

Above all it’s welcoming to newcomers who quickly develop a sense of ownership, regarding it as their "home away from home".

My church runs a cafe. Cafe Wednesday provides opportunity for us to meet and mingle, bring new people in, chat to those we find there fortuitously, carry on conversations about our lives and generally "hang out".

During last winter a group of women I was part of occupied the couches in the corner every Wednesday evening; we drank coffee and discussed books. I was amazed at how easy it was to fall into ongoing and often significant conversation in that inclusive, relaxed sort of atmosphere.

Because this is the truth, isn’t it — we don’t gather for ourselves only; we do it for others as well.

By being there we’re creating community beyond ourselves.

By filling tables we’re passing on a sense of vibrancy; by lingering and chatting to those sitting around we’re saying that we set value on this communion. When we bring visitors in we’re communicating the message that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God; when we show up regularly we’re affirming that these are our people and we’re in this family for the long haul.

Thinking about this gives me pause. This world, although splendid, is a broken place.

This question arises for me, Do I appreciate fully the life-giving nature of Third Places in my life? And this one, especially in the church context, Do I use Third Place opportunities to reach out and provide belongingness? As someone suggested to me, do I "drink coffee for the Kingdom"?

The traffic obviously isn’t all one way. In turn, participating in this Third Place culture helps me to feel grounded and valued in our community.

The other day I felt such acute sorrow watching the news. Coronavirus striking folk down and striking fear in hearts around the world, a former rugby league player despatching his wife, children and himself in Brisbane, an elderly lady dying in a house fire in Dunedin. In the face of such trauma, I often think, what can I possibly do, being just one person in the world?

The next evening I attended an Ash Wednesday Eucharist service.

The priest applied the cross of ashes to our foreheads and enjoined us to repent and be faithful to the Gospel. In parting he urged us to reflect in our hearts upon the question, How can I respond to God’s goodness in my life?

It struck me immediately as I walked home in the slanted evening sunlight. One way I can say thank you to God for my life, and counteract in a small way the sorrow and loneliness of the world, is attend and value my Third Places, especially my church.

Appreciate them as places where ordinary people pass on life to one another and God’s Spirit breathes.

Use them as an opportunity to push back loneliness and reassure others, simply by being there and contributing, that there’s hope in the world, and that life is very much worth living.

Let’s make our churches and other gathering places warm and fun, welcoming and supportive; let’s draw others in and give them a sense of belonging; let’s in a sense "drink coffee for the Kingdom".

 - Jenny Beck is a member of Dunedin City Baptist Church.


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