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“Other Ways of Doing Life”: Exploring Christian Intentional Communities
Having grown up in Churches of Christ, the author valued the vision of the church portrayed in the second chapter of Acts. Though such community was lacking in the life of the local church, other experiences of community set her in search of a new direction. Upon discovering the movement described as new monasticism, she set out to explore these alternative ways of life. This article describes experiences from her two-year journey around the US observing and participating in a variety of intentional communities.
All my life, I’ve been attracted to the community that forms when people live and work together. I found it attending the small, close-knit Columbia Christian College in Portland, Oregon, and its short-lived successor, Cascade College. I found it as a kid at church camp, and again as an adult, counseling at Wisconsin Christian Youth Camp. And I found it in secular places, too: in university dorms and crewing tall ships on the Pacific coast.
Where I didn’t find it was the church I grew up in. I was told so many times that the Churches of Christ were the direct descendants of the communitarian, resource-sharing collective described in the second chapter of Acts, but the differences seemed quite obvious to me: we didn’t meet together daily or share our homes and resources in the way that book describes. I’m sure someone at some point did sell their valuables to help those in need, but it certainly wasn’t common practice. I didn’t know whether to wish for that level of connectedness or not; I certainly didn’t want to see anyone drop dead because, like Ananias and Sapphira, they’d held back some resources. For better or worse, it seemed like my congregation emulated the early church to the degree that it was practical and comfortable to do so.
At a low point in my adult life, while praying for new direction, I read Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. I was touched and inspired by what he wrote about his community in the chapter titled, “Another Way of Doing Life.” He and his friends had purchased a house in a run-down neighborhood of Philadelphia and set out to share the gospel with their neighbors—not by preaching to them and giving them money, but by opening their lives to them. They mowed lawns, set up after-school programs, organized street parades, and found ways to look after their neighbors like good Samaritans. They chose to forego practical, comfortable, middle-class lives in order to live and work side by side with those in poverty. They struggled and laughed and prayed together, and Claiborne was honest about the challenges of life in community, confessing that he and his companions “never learned the secret to not hurting each other.” They called their home “The Simple Way.”
Claiborne invited his readers to come and witness the work for themselves, which I thought sounded wonderful. But when I investigated the possibility, I found the Simple Way deluged with requests to visit. Claiborne’s book had become a bestseller in the evangelical world, and the response to his invitation to “come and see” had overwhelmed the small community. However, The Irresistible Revolution included an appendix listing several other communities who were doing something similar, living out this “new monasticism” in different ways. My search for more information turned up hundreds of communities in dozens of categories: communes and collectives, co-housing and housing co-ops, monasteries and ashrams, ecovillages, punk houses, sanctuaries, retreat centers, and more. I was astounded. How had these alternative ways of life, some just across town, escaped my attention all this time?
I had my new direction. I spent the next two years traveling around the country, visiting many different kinds of communities, religious and secular, to observe and participate in the different ways people were working, sharing, and living together. It was an impractical and uncomfortable journey which challenged me to see the world in new ways, and it left me wanting to share what I’d found with others. Here, I’ll describe the communities I visited that were shaped and inspired by the mission of the gospel.
Jesus People USA
Born out of the Jesus Movement in 1972, Jesus People USA is an intentional community of over 150 members, cheerfully crammed into one-room apartments in a Chicago high-rise. They share their building with elderly low-income retirees, providing them with three hot meals a day. JPUSA is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church and recently renovated a separate building to accommodate greater attendance at worship services.
In its heyday, JPUSA had over 450 members, published Cornerstone magazine, and organized the annual Cornerstone Festival of Christian rock music. It is still home to Christian rock label Grrr Records, though it gets most of its income from a roofing supply company operated by its members. It is the only religious community I visited that did not rely upon donations or support from an organized denomination to survive. Its members operate a large and much-needed homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
In the months I spent at JPUSA, I met people of diverse ages, races, abilities, and personalities who were excited about doing God’s work in the world, and I was enthusiastically welcomed to join them in these efforts: serving meals to elderly residents of the building, staffing the reception desk, helping in the kitchen, and organizing clothing donations at their vast free store for the homeless.
The Catholic Worker Movement
Despite the name, Catholic Worker houses have no official affiliation to the Roman Catholic church, though they often include Catholic members. Founded by social activists Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker movement () emphasizes hospitality to those in need, while living in solidarity with the poor rather than accumulating wealth. Catholic Workers practice activism for peace and justice in a multitude of ways. The United States is home to over 200 independent Catholic Worker houses, each uniquely adapted to the needs of its community.
One such place I visited was the Open Door Community in Atlanta, a large house that offered essential services such as meals, health care, and clothing to many homeless people. Working side by side with community members, I helped serve meals, hand out clothing, and even give pedicures to those in need. I listened as a young black man, a member of the community, spoke tearfully about how it would be an honor to be arrested for activism in a just cause, and I was challenged to reconsider my own assumptions about the law and justice. After decades of service, the Open Door is, sadly, now closed; its leadership was ready to retire, and no one stepped forward to replace them.
In Indiana, I stayed briefly at the Bloomington Catholic Worker (), comprised of a group of young families in three small adjacent houses. Each house has its own room reserved for hospitality, and these rooms are primarily occupied by people transitioning out of homelessness. Members work outside jobs and share about half their income with the community. I joined them in morning worship, organic gardening projects, and conversing with people at the local homeless shelter, and I was impressed by how they wove sustainability into their plans and processes.
In Salinas, California, I visited the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, a former Catholic Worker that is now interfaith. Its small membership—Christian, Buddhist, Vedic (Hindu), and agnostic—operates an organization known as Dorothy’s Place (). This facility includes a daytime shelter, a women’s night shelter, and a halfway house for formerly homeless women called The House of Peace. In this place, when I was mistaken for a homeless person, I realized for the first time how illusionary the line between myself and “the poor” really is.
Christian retreat centers can be found scattered across the continent (and globe). They frequently rely on volunteer labor, which makes it easy to set up a low-cost working visit. I volunteered at two Christian retreat centers in the scenic Cascade range of central Washington: Holden Village and the Grünewald Guild.
Holden Village () is notable for its remoteness: it can only be reached by a boat journey up Lake Chelan or by hiking in over the mountains. A former mining outpost, it’s now owned by the Lutheran church (ELCA) and operates year-round as a popular family retreat. Its isolation from cellular, television, and radio signals leaves it to create its own culture, which is homespun, participatory, and laced with “holy hilarity.” The entire village—hundreds in summer, dozens in winter—meets daily for worship and benefits from frequent visits by guest lecturers, teachers, and artists in residence. I was amazed and humbled by the natural beauty of this place and the warmth of the welcome I received there; staff gather to applaud the arrival of every bus-load of guests.
About 30 miles away as the crow flies, Holden’s sister community, the Grünewald Guild (), perches on the banks of the tumultuous Wenatchee River. This ecumenical retreat center is sometimes described as “a school for art and faith.” The Guild offers a rich summer program of classes in a wide array of artist media, from watercolor and enamel to digital art and songwriting. Its five to eight full-time members host group retreats in its beautiful facilities during the remainder of the year. Volunteers, interns, and artists in residence share the burden of cleaning, cooking, and garden tending. The community gathers over morning and evening prayer services, as well as shared meals. For myself and so many others, the Grünewald Guild is a place of creative expression and sacred self-discovery.
I couldn’t pursue the “new monasticism” without a look at the old monasticism. While not all monasteries accept curious visitors, I found the Benedictine monastic tradition (), with its emphasis on hospitality, to be very approachable. At Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, North Dakota, I found a small group of nuns who had been practicing The Rule of St. Benedict for many decades. This 1500-year-old text provides very specific guidance for living together in a monastic setting: in other words, in an intentional community of faith. While organizing their library, I enjoyed learning about the lives of these women, many of whom had been schoolteachers before retiring. All of them still kept quite busy caring for one another and maintaining the expansive facility that was their home. They were part of an older, dwindling generation of monasteries, but thriving centers of monasticism still remain.
. . . And So Many More
There are so many other communities, large and small, that I haven’t visited yet. A few worth noting here:
L’Arche International () is an ecumenical network focusing on the needs of members with intellectual disabilities, as they live and work in community with neurotypical members. L’Arche grew out of a decision by its founder, Jean Vanier, to invite two men with developmental disabilities to live in his house. His book Community and Growth: Our Pilgrimage Together has inspired and guided many communities. Today, 145 L’Arche communities span 35 countries on five continents.
The Bruderhof () is a network of Anabaptist communities in the US, UK, Australia, Germany, and Paraguay; its members practice simplicity and nonviolence, share all resources, and hold hospitality among their core values.
Koinonia Farm (), founded in 1942 in rural Georgia as a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God,” became the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity. Its mission today includes hospitality, teaching, and demonstrating sustainable farming practices. Its sister community, Jubilee Partners (), offers hospitality and education to refugees.
This list barely scratches the surface of the world of Christian intentional communities. Each one represents a different approach to living out the gospel in partnership with others. If you are curious and have the ability, I urge you to seek out some communities and experience these “other ways of doing life” for yourself. You may find them impractical and uncomfortable, and you may be challenged to see the world in new, transformative ways.
Lindsey Hoffman was part of the first graduating class of Cascade College and served as Librarian there for eight and a half years. She lives and works at Twin Oaks Community, a secular egalitarian commune in rural Virginia, and is taking a sabbatical in order to complete a book about intentional communities. You can read more of her work at http://foreverarriving.blogspot.com.
1 Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 79.