I was 19 and had nowhere to go. I had been couch surfing for nearly a year and was running out of options. A friend and I had talked about going out to Chicago to check out a Christian community known for its ministry to lost hippies and punks and the homeless, as well as its contribution to art and music in the Christian subculture.
I took a train from Pennsylvania to Chicago. I was going to visit for 2 months and ended up staying eleven years. I found hope and a future in actual, real-life, exasperating, infuriating, soul-filling, heart-healing, intentional community.
I live with over 200 people in a ten-story building on the North Side of Chicago. We have been doing this for over 42 years. (I’ve only been doing it for half of that). We call it a miracle on the edge of disaster. It’s funny because it’s true.
We have had our share of betrayal, loss, grief, and pain. We have also had incredible times of joy and celebration, huge parties we have invited thousands of people to called Cornerstone Festival. We have created amazing works of art together. We have witnessed intense bouts of spiritual warfare, long seasons of financial hardship, and conflict with neighbors we call friends who call us enemies.
It hurts. But it’s worth it.
Even though it may take years to acknowledge. It’s worth it because in the midst of all the difficulty, we are daily saying, “I choose you.”
Even though you cut in front of me in the dinner line, or took my laundry slot, or didn’t return the car keys on time, or slam your door a hundred times a night, or never return my movies, or ruined dinner for the second time that week, or chastised my kid in the side yard, or left the kitchen a colossal mess, or gave my son a concussion playing dodgeball, or stole my ice cream from the freezer, I still choose you. Every day.
For each of those annoying habits and irritating personality traits, there are ten times as many opportunities for kindness, sharing, support, comfort, undeserving love, and patience. Because they choose you, too.
Community has been a buzzword for years in faith circles, social justice movements, and local politics. It works because it’s a shared felt-need by most people, regardless of race, socio-economic standing, and religion. It’s a longing and a remedy as old as Adam. Man wasn’t meant to be alone, God thought he needed a wife, and even one other person is the seed of community.
Authentic, faithful community is so necessary to developing and maintaining mental health that the lack of connection causes severe deficits, and even death, in children. The revoking of community is considered a harsh punishment in the prison system. It is that important.
The insatiable need for connection not only draws us together but at times is a desperation that drives people to addiction, infidelity, domestic violence, promiscuity, and even suicide.
David Clark wrote in Yes to Life that “without a strong sense of community human beings will wilt and begin to die. Community is the foundation of human society, the zenith of interdependence, the epitome of wholeness; in fact, the end of our journeying.”
Marriages are grounded in community, friendship grows out of it, families are supported through it, and every one of us has been fed by it or wounded by it at one time or another.
Jean Vanier, the man who founded the L’Arche communities for disabled people, wrote a book called Community and Growth. Although it mostly addresses groups of people who have intentionally chosen to live together, the larger implications are that it applies to any and all of us who want to broaden and deepen our concept of community as well as our experience of it:
Community is the place where our limitations, our fears, and our egoism are revealed to us. We discover our poverty and our weaknesses, our inability to get along with some people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective or sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies.
So community life brings a painful revelation of our limitations, weaknesses and darkness; the unexpected discovery of the monsters within us.
As all the inner pains surface, we can discover too that community is a safe place. At last some people really listen to us; we can; little by little, reveal to them all of those terrible monsters within us, all those guilt feelings hidden in the tomb of our being. They stand at the door of our wounded heart. Community life with all its pain is the revelation of that deep wound. And we can only begin to look at it and accept it as we discover that we are loved by God in an incredible way. We are broken, but we are loved. We can grow to greater openness and compassion; we have a mission. Community becomes the place of liberation and growth.
The wound in all of us can become the place of meeting with God and with brothers and sisters; it can become the place of ecstasy and of the eternal wedding feast. The loneliness and feelings of inferiority which we are running away from become the place of liberation and salvation.
Growth. Liberation. Salvation. All of these can be found in relationship with God and each other, in the closeness and craziness of community.
This month we will be exploring “Connection, Community and Couplehood” in The Mudroom. You will read accounts of the finding and losing of community, the longing for connection and the challenge of maintaining it, and the building of marriage and the threat to its survival. All of these ways of relating have one thing in common: a choice is made, choosing to pursue and choosing to remain.
Who do you need to choose today?
Community and Growth by JeanVanier
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Compassion by Henri Nouwen