Community That Transforms (Extended Interview)
In our hyper-individualized culture, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to live with a hodge-podge of people who share virtually everything: a roof, food, income, chores, prayers, frustrations, and friendships. And yet the increased popularity of intentional community and group living among progressive Christian groups (such as the new monastics) proves that people still long to connect with others, despite evidence to the contrary.
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For Sojourners, the principles of intentional community have been a part of the organization since it began in early-’70s as group of justice-minded Christians living together in Washington, D.C. In this interview, editorial assistant Amy Barger sits down with Bob Sabath, a founding member of the Sojourners community, and Sondra Shepley, a twenty-something who helped start a community in 2007, to learn the purpose, pain, and pleasures of community life.
Amy: Why did you want to live in community?
Sondra: I didn’t actually want to live in community. I had done an inner-city experience in [the D.C. neighborhood of] Anacostia, and after that I felt like I would like to move back to that area at some point. When I was starting to sense it was time to move, a friend of mine told me that a community of people was going to be living in Anacostia. I jumped on the opportunity more out of necessity as opposed to coming into it with an ideological framework.
Bob: For me community did not come naturally. As a kid I was a loner. My conversion experience opened me up to how I’m connected to other people. For me [seeking community] was part of a journey for inner transformation and social transformation. It seemed like those were two goals that could not be accomplished alone. And in fact that’s turned out to be the case: all places in my life where there has been connection and community have meant opportunities for inner growth. I guess that’s what kept me at it, because community can be really difficult. But it is the doorway to transformation. If I wanted to deepen my connection with God, it was through the door of other people.
Sondra, when did you begin to see community as a valuable thing in itself?
Sondra: I started to realize I was in need of family. When my parents got divorced, I was out of the house, and I had the presumption that it wouldn’t really affect me. However, I started to feel a sense of grieving when I would return home. Community is the dynamic that forms when people come together. Out of that dynamic come a common vision, a familiarity, and a spirit that’s intangible. And I missed that. I remember having a conversation with my dad and trying to explain that this physical place where I grew up did not feel like home. I remember coming back to my intentional community and feeling like in that place, that’s where I was finding that dynamic I was looking for.
Should the church be a place of community for us? Is that realistic?
Bob: This idea of community is embedded in the Christian experiment. Jesus was creating a social thing called “the church.” He knew that if there was going to be personal healing and change, there had to be a body and groups of people connected to each other. Even within the concept of God—the trinity itself is a community.
But community is very messy, and churches don’t like mess. I think one of the reasons there’s so little community in the church is that when hard stuff comes up, if there’s not enough connection between people, it’s easier to say, well, I’m just going to avoid them. I’m not going to connect my life to them and work out this tension; I’ll just find this other place where I can go. But if we’re mute about those [tensions], and never engage other people with them, then we’re stuck in them.
All the communities I’ve been in have been messy, difficult places. But we were able to struggle with our messes, to surround them with worship and prayer. Some of the most powerful times I have had have been coming to a Sunday worship completely undone and broken, and able in my brokenness to sing and lift this up. And when the breaking of the bread—this communion, this Eucharist—happens in the context of real community, worship becomes so authentic.
Sondra: My church is definitely a community for me. The people I live with are around the same age and station in life. But I find at church spiritual mothers and fathers who mentor me, give me guidance, [and] support me. That’s the place I’ve found wholeness in the broader sense of spiritual family.
Does it matter who takes part in communities that form? Can you make a community out of any group of people?
Bob: In the early Sojourners days, I used to see Father Abbot at a Benedictine monastery. I asked him once what the hardest thing was for him at the monastery. He said, “It’s the Vow of Stability. Community for me means I see these guys every day of my life and some of them I can’t stand. But I can’t get away from them.”
If we tried to build community out of the people we got along with, it would be a pretty boring place. Different temperaments and personalities get drawn to [a community] not of our choosing. And lo and behold, we discover there are people we really grate with, and who trigger all of this junk in us. I don’t think transformation is possible apart from that. Community becomes the glue that holds us to the fire so we allow transformation to take place.
There was a story of a community that formed in France -- it was a school. This guy was there who made everybody’s life very difficult. He grumbled, he tore into people, he had a very nasty temperament. One day, some of the people in that community took his false teeth (he was an old guy) and hid them. He got angry, and he left the community and vowed he would never come back. The students were all happy, but the teacher in this community hunted this guy down and paid him to come back, and everybody was shocked by it. The teacher said, “If he’s not here, I can’t teach you anything. If you’re going to have any possibility for real community to happen, he has to be here.” He hired him to come back so it could stir things up.
So conflict actually helps us build community
Bob: Community implies conflict; if there is no conflict, there is no community.
Sondra: I have to be honest here: my community is still learning how to engage in conflict. We don’t have a whole lot of it. That’s been stunning to me.
There’s no substitute for time. We’re a young community—maybe two-and-a-half years old. We actually spent more than six hours sharing information about ourselves when we first moved in. [But] there’s a real difference between knowing information and knowing someone. I can’t learn just by understanding your biography.
Sondra, are there situations in your immediate environment that your community feels called to address?
Sondra: A major issue for us is race. Being a primarily white community in an African-American [neighborhood] brings up a lot of challenges. Our community values reconciliation and a prophetic witness in the midst of that.
One of the major criticisms I have of the community movement—particularly the new monastic movement—has been its lack of attention on issues of race. A lot of the people who have gone to low-income neighborhoods to plant community have sometimes done so out of a very well-intentioned, but limited, perspective. I have heard that the community movement is really a recovery movement for whites. That upwardly mobile white people have sought community because we have lost a sense of community—and I say “we” as a white person. We enter these neighborhoods with a posture of wanting to learn how to do community, yet our communities themselves are not actually integrated.
We have tried to engage a larger network of intentional communities on that issue: whether integration within intentional communities is nice and will enhance who we are, or whether [the lack of integration] reveals brokenness within our communities. I am of the mindset that it reflects the latter.
For me, what’s lost is the struggle. White privilege says, “I don’t have to deal with this if I don’t want to.” But if someone is in my community who is not from my racial background and class perspective, then I have to deal with it because “it” lives with me. If I choose to ignore it, I am choosing to ignore the person in my presence. And it’s not just an “issue” that my community can talk about, but it’s fundamentally [a question of] how do I support that person and their own journey, and [recognize] the hurts society has heaved upon them because of their racial identity.
So that is still a process for us. We’re more integrated than when we first began our journey.
Bob: In the early days of Sojourners, we were a white enclave within a sea of black people. And we really wanted integration, but it never quite happened the way we wanted. The structure of our community was so intense that we probably did not have a chance. Unless there’s intentionality from the beginning, and an aggressive seeking out of diversity, it’s really hard to pull that off.
One of the things that made it difficult in the Sojourners Community is liturgy divided the cultures. What fed [one of] us—the music, the conduct of worship—would be boring to the other, or just not familiar.
The Church of the Saviour has this group I’ve started going to called Becoming the Authentic Church. The groups were formed with as much diversity as they could muster: rich and poor, black and white, male and female, young and old, gay and straight. You get everybody into this room with horrible cultural dissonances all over the place, and you seek to become a body from that. They’re having some success with it.
For people who don’t live together, what are some ways to experience community?
Bob: I don’t think community has anything to do with living together. Connection with another person means you actually talk to them, you listen, you create a context where real questions and heart concerns can be spoken.
We are so drenched in individualism as a culture, we don’t even know how to listen to each other. Listening becomes a ping-pong game. You say something, and it triggers some random response in me. I serve it back to you, and you serve it back to me. There’s never any curiosity or going deep with the other person. All I mean by connection is taking a risk to go deeper with another person so your vulnerabilities are not hidden. You know the truth of another and of yourself. If you want to be an authentic human being, we’re all called to it. If you want to be an American individualist, you can avoid it, and your life will be cheapened for it.
Sondra: I totally agree with Bob. I don’t think you necessarily need to live in a household together. The only thing that arrangement does is it forces transparency. With my housemates, I can try to put up a façade, but after a while they’re just going to see.
Bob: You can’t hide yourself.
Sondra: Right. And there are intentional ways we can be honest and genuine with other people outside of our households and cultivate that discipline. But for those who feel that arrangement is helpful, it will certainly create the scenario where you can’t hide.
Bob: Household living is like a cast. If my arm is broken, I put a cast around it. My brokenness is my cultural addiction to individualism. And for some, the only way it can be healed is by the cast of actually living with other people.
Does the type of community you have a need for change as you get older?
Bob: Definitely, the form changes. But [what remains is] the fact of community and the need to take risks and stretch—to try to always put ourselves in that place.
Sondra: There’s a tension between commitment and the recognition that community in its various forms comes in seasons. I never entered into community thinking this is going to be my lifelong experience. I don’t know how long we will persist as a community together, but I have to remain committed while I still feel called to it.
Bob: We started [the Sojourners Community] when we moved to Washington, D.C., in 1975. I still feel totally connected to 30 of those people. I almost feel like a freak when I see how many people are still in my life that have 35 years of history. We’ve watched ourselves get married, we’ve raised our kids together, kids have grown, gone off to college. It cannot be replaced. Where does that ever happen anymore?
You’ve suggested we learn about community from experiencing it for ourselves. Is it all experiential learning, or can communities offer wisdom to each other?
Bob: The wisdom that grows out of failure, brokenness, and the willingness to be vulnerable can be passed on. If it’s success stories, it won’t be helpful.
Sondra: I think elders can persist with people who are beginning that journey, if only to provide companionship. Often the best mentors and guides are not people who tell you what to do, but [who] know the right questions to ask.
Bob: In the early days of Sojourners, we did seek the advice of communities that had been around longer. Their advice was—don’t do it. You’re not mature enough to engage this process, and you’re going to gobble each other up. And that is what happened: from 1970 to 1975, we had this attempt at community and it basically crashed. But what wasn’t anticipated was the reconciliation and healing and forgiveness, and the birth of [another community] that had a viable life for the next 20 years.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a failed experiment. All intentional, conscious acts of deepening endure in us even if the external community falls apart.
If people feel called in whatever way to tour this deepening process, then yea be to them. We have few places to be enriched and grow. Community is one of the places it does happen. And that’s a permanent change.
Amy Barger is the editorial assistant at Sojourners.