The Common Good
March-April 1999

The Daily Grace of Give and Take

by Joe Nangle | March-April 1999

The final column of a six-year run gives the author permission to write in the first
person, wouldn't you say?

The final column of a six-year run gives the author permission to write in the first person, wouldn't you say? So as we bring "Life in Community" to a close, allow me to offer personal thoughts on the major inspiration for these lines over the past half-decade—my own Assisi Community.

The inimitable Ed Spivey Jr. once wrote in "H'rumphs" that I actually live as a recluse in Newark, venturing forth occasionally to buy People magazine as source material for this column. The reality of my life in the Assisi Community is much more fun—as well as real, varied, faith-filled, changeable, and always challenging.

We've lived all our 12 years in a gritty neighborhood of inner-city Washington, D.C., minorities in a predominantly African-American area. We chose the location purposely, not because of some messianic illusion, but to share the city's uncertainties, fears, and noise, as well as the neighborliness, occasional heroism, and respect that most people here exhibit.

The numbers in our community have fluctuated over the years, as have our demographics. When we reached 23 members inhabiting our two row houses awhile back, we knew that communal physical and psychic limits had been surpassed. We've always accepted the inevitability of younger members' moving on after a couple of years, and the older ones staying. That way change and vitality have combined with stability and serenity among us. The formula has worked well.

Details and vignettes of our lives at Assisi can be found in just about every column I've written in this space. Almost without exception our community members have shown enormous generosity with each other, and an extraordinary desire to make it work. Examples range from very public acts of community solidarity to quite mundane gestures of consideration. A number of us, for example, went to accompany an "Assisiite" who was fasting in the main plaza of Guatemala City. At the other end of the spectrum, each morning we do the "breakfast dance," courteously maneuvering around each other in the too-small kitchen space.

At the center of our community is Shadow, our dog. Estimates vary on how long this little ball of curly black hair has graced (I use the word theologically) our household. This humble and near-silent gift, obtained in a pound and totally without pedigree, has won the hearts of everyone in the community and all our visitors. Shadow gives his affection to each of us in equal parts, something especially noticeable upon returning from a trip. He greets our arrival with great bounds of joy, letting us know that he's missed us and loves having us back. Then he's back to business as usual, passing from one community member to the other, without favoritism, for a pat, a rub, or a crust of bread.

A little more about Shadow. One candidate for the community wondered if she would be able to live in a house with a dog. She had experienced considerable trauma because of one and had real fear in their presence. Fortunately, after observing Shadow move peacefully around our living room, she decided to chance it. Almost immediately, and thanks mostly to Shadow's instinctive sensitivity toward her, they became best friends—now she is one of our number who takes special care of him.

Early in our history the Assisi Community chose the old Quaker song, "How Can I Keep From Singing?" as our signature hymn. We use it on "state occasions," for example when we celebrate our community's special patrons—martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Dorothy Day, and Francis of Assisi. We sing it as well at moments when nothing else will quite do—a birthday, community anniversary, or the visit of a former housemate. The words always seem particularly appropriate: "My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentations. I hear the real but far off hymn that hails the New Creation."

Life in Assisi does not flow on quite that melodiously—we are very human. And earth's lamentations reach our ears every day, from our streets and from the work in which most of us are engaged. But behind the daily give and take, comings and goings, ups and down of our lives together, we do somehow hear echoes of that far-off hymn that heralds the New Creation. For we believe that hoped-for day will see God's people finally gathered in a great human community, where "He will wipe away every tearà and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain" (Revelation 21:4).

Allow me a final prayer, then, that each of you might seek and find a similar community experience to that we enjoy at Assisi. And my heartfelt thanks to all for a great six-year ride on this page of Sojourners.

JOE NANGLE, OFM, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. While this is the final "Life in Community" column, Joe will no doubt turn up elsewhere in our pages.

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