By Marranda Major
Intentional Community. It’s one of the core components of the Young Adult Volunteer program, and by far the most challenging aspect and the most rewarding. The five Washington, DC YAVs (and one Lilly Fellow) share a 3 bedroom/2 bathroom row-house in Brightwood Park; but intentional community means more than just cohabitating the same space.
For us, intentional community means:
- Weekly community meals that meet everyone’s dietary needs (and rejoicing together in the discovery that vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes are delicious!)
- Choosing a new spiritual discipline to practice each week as a community (and taking advantage of the city’s diversity to explore our new home and meet people at Taizé services, Buddhist meditation, and yoga classes.)
- When someone’s glass of milk gets left on the counter overnight, we must have a house meeting to talk about our feelings.
In fact, we spend a lot of time talking about how we feel. And oftentimes, those conversations make me feel like I’d rather rip out my hair than continue to share feelings with the group.
All of the feelings and processing of feelings began on our third day when we began creating our community life covenant. We settled into a shady patch of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden to begin hashing out house rules. With all six parties deeply invested in the community we would create, it was a very serious and deliberate discussion.
We shared our beliefs about what our household should look like:
- We believe our home should be a space in which all of our community members would feel safe.
- We believe that living in community means that burdens—like chores—are shared.
- We believe that everyone should feel welcomed, valued, and a sense of belonging within our community.
We then created rules for our behavior that we felt would support that kind of environment:
- A chore chart that rotates responsibility for keeping our house clean
- An agreement to keep shared stories confidential and to respect one another’s need for privacy
- Policies for dealing with conflict, guests, and alcohol
We hoped that by sharing these beliefs and committing to behave in this way, we would create a sense of belonging.
In Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass explains that for the past few generations, Western Christianity has relied a progression of first believing, then behaving, and ultimately belonging:
- First you find a tradition whose doctrines and creeds align with your individual beliefs.
- Next, you reshape your lifestyle to match that tradition’s prescribed pattern of behavior.
- And finally, you gain membership—a sense of belonging—to that community.
The author claims that this process no longer works for contemporary society where people crave belonging above almost everything else, and are more likely to connect their unique set of beliefs with spirituality than religion.
As it turns out, this progression of believe-behave-belong has also failed us in creating a sense of belonging within our intentional community:
- Believing that our home should be welcoming is not the same as agreeing that a standard of cleanliness is what makes the space welcoming.
- An abandoned glass of milk infringes on those rules governing behavior and the promise that each community member will clean up after herself.
- The consequent argument about who will clean up the curdled remains creates so much hostility that the forgetful milk-drinker would not dare own up to abandoning the glass, let alone want to belong to a community that gets so heated over a simple mistake.
It’s a lot of fuss over a single dish to be cleaned, but it’s just one example of how quickly community can sour.
Diana Butler Bass calls for a “Great Reversal” to begin the process of growing in faith with relational community (belonging), then develop intentional practice (behaving), and ultimately lead to experiential belief (believing).
And so, the DC YAVs are working on belonging. It’s a struggle.
And it’s humbling: If the six of us chose to dedicate this year to living in intentional community and are struggling to make it work, what does that mean for our larger faith communities where folks may be less committed to making these communal relationships work? What does God see in us as we squabble and struggle to love the neighbor who looks and acts and believes like us, let alone the neighbors who are different?
It’s a reminder that we are flawed humans. We are imperfect in our ability to love. Sometimes we make mistakes. But we care for one another, and we care about each other’s feelings. We even care enough to clean up someone else’s curdled milk with minimal gagging.
The Washington DC YAVs are still learning how to be in community, but we take the deliciousness of vegan gluten-free chocolate chip pancakes as a sign that there is hope for us all to be nourished and enriched by belonging to one another.
Marranda is a second-year Young Adult Volunteer working with NEXT Church. Born and raised in Charleston, WV, Marranda graduated from Wellesley College in May 2013 with degrees in Music and Peace and Justice Studies. After serving in Northern Ireland last year, Marranda is excited to explore DC and welcomes any gluten-free vegan recipe suggestions to share with her housemates!