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 Christians (such as the “new monastics”) is a clear sign that people still long to connect with others, despite society’s discouragement of such efforts.
The principles of intentional community have been a part of Sojourners since we began in the early 1970s as group of justice-minded Christians living together in Washington, D.C. Editorial assistant Amy Barger, a member of the Sojourners intern community, sat down with Bob Sabath, a founding member of the Sojourners community, and Sondra Shepley, a 20-something who helped start a Christian community in D.C. in 2007, to talk about the purpose, pain, and pleasures of a common 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 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 told me that a community of people was going to be living in Anacostia. I jumped at the opportunity more out of necessity than 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 comes 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 that was the place where I was finding the 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 at church I find 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 the 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 against, 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.
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 to 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. So that is still in process for us.
Bob: In the early days of Sojourners, we were a white enclave surrounded by 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 that liturgy tended to divide the cultures. What fed some of us—the music, the conduct of worship—would be boring to others, or just not familiar.
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.
Does the type of community you need 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.
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 or so.
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.