The Challenge of Community

A year of voluntary service has become a rite of passage for thousands of socially conscious young Christians. Hundreds of programs in the United States and worldwide provide opportunities for new college graduates searching for what to do next and people in mid-life career changes, on sabbatical, or newly retired who want to serve communities and challenge their faith. Since 1985, Sojourners has been the temporary home for more than 130 such people. Sojourners interns serve for a year on the magazine staff, with Call to Renewal, or at Sojourners Neighborhood Center. Most describe their intern year as an intense time of spiritual growth through learning, volunteering, living simply, living in community, and discipleship. Here is a glimpse inside the volunteer year by recent intern Susannah Hunter.

For 16 years, fresh faces-young and not so young-have traveled from all over the world to Sojourners with a desire to wrestle with questions about Christian community, social justice, and spiritual growth. Job experiences and individual struggles make this year different for each intern, but struggling with life in community was common to us all. Were we a community only when we all agreed? Were we a community if some people were closer with some than others? Were we a community even when we didn't always feel like one? Intern Brian Hill thought back on his expectations. "I initially expected the broader community to be more of a challenge and the household community to be more a place where I could feel at peace," Hill said. "As it turned out, I felt that the household community was much more challenging than my work in the community at large."

That larger community has changed tremendously since the first class of interns arrived at Sojourners in 1985. The "inner-city D.C." neighborhood of 10 years ago has been gentrified with the opening of the Columbia Heights metro stop in 1999. Like the neighborhood, the intern program has changed too. The yearlong program provides interns with marketable job skills in a number of areas-but it is much more than a job. We learned to live more simply and be better stewards of our resources. We held each other accountable and had arguments, but were able to laugh together hours later. "It's in those moments of loving, forgiving, and listening (as opposed to lecturing and trying to change each other) that we strengthened our community," explained Matt Krueger.

Our experience was different than most group houses. We didn't choose each other as individuals, but we all chose to live together in a way that would value the whole community. Our Sojourners community experience wasn't limited to the nine of us who sweated it out together in our non-air-conditioned house in Columbia Heights. Supervisors, office mates, and past interns came to our house parties, played pool with us after work hours, and prayed for (and with) us.

As our year came to an end, we realized what we had been to each other. Intern Kim Priore helped us begin the grieving process, saying, "I started out wondering how on earth I was going to live with these people. Now I find myself wondering how I'll ever live without them."

We moved out of our inner-circle of community, but moved into the larger circle of fellowship that surrounds and comforts us. Cynthia Ranke, an intern in 1999-2000, insists, "There is life after the intern year. I'm just not sure what it is yet."

Life goes on, but we have all been changed in this past year. We have been through something unique. We're more assertive, but better listeners. We're more confident, but also more humble. We'll hold the others in a special place in our hearts, knowing that we'll always be connected to this ever-growing Sojourners family. New interns will arrive to take over our bedrooms, our offices, and our household chores.

They too will be community-and maybe it won't take them a year to figure out what Matt and the rest of us started figuring out as our time together came to a close: "Community is not some mystical state to be achieved; rather it's something we just are."

Susannah Hunter was a Sojourners intern in 2000-01.

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