Changing the world through ‘being community’. Or not?
It started off so well. Two of us had read the Irresistible Revolution and, being those who prefer big picture to detail, enthusiastically recruited others to change the world with us through a half-formed vision of community living.
After the discouragement of futile house searches, we asked really hard and God gave us a house. It was a bit shabby round the edges but had all the features we’d longed for: a huge sitting room, a dining room and a spare room, even the attic bedroom that my friend had so hoped to get. It was a sure sign that we were on the right path, so off we went.
We filled its bare rooms with freecycled furniture, invited people over, hosted groups, made the spare room pretty, had randoms to stay, did our neighbour’s garden, prayed together, did joint food shops, shared meals, ate lots of pulses, and had some good parties. Not only did we boycott TV, but we even went to Whitby Abbey to celebrate Celtic Easter with a bunch of Greenbelty types. We probably even contemplated getting chickens for the garden.
It was gloriously intentional and missional and all that. It was fun and it felt like there was really something in it.
But it was also exhausting. And stressful. And after a while the cracks appeared.
The beautiful concept of sharing food became contentious. Should someone pay less if they didn’t drink coffee or wine, even if they consumed way more milk and bread than the others? Was it reasonable to expect me to pay for someone else’s friends to come over for dinner? Sometimes I just wanted to cook a nice (meat-based) meal for two without making a bean casserole for ten.
The idea of an open home started to wear us out. Why should I be hospitable after a long day at work? Who invited that guest anyway? We were so busy having strangers over that sometimes we forgot to be friends with our friends and, having bickered over whose turn it was to do the recycling, suddenly we were all sitting in our own rooms watching i-player on our laptops. So much for community.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. I don’t think we changed the world after all but we came through the joys and the tears having developed some deep friendships and learnt a lot through the process.
I discovered that words and concepts mean different things to different people. Is ‘home’ a place of refreshment and sanctuary, or of mission and hospitality, or both? What does it mean to be ‘intentional’ and ‘missional’ when I’d always imagined filling our front room with destitute asylum seekers while the others had quite different ideas in mind? And what commitment to/expectation of ‘community’ is reasonable when you’re not exactly family, or in a relationship, yet are pursuing some kind of shared objective?
At the heart of these clashing definitions was the simple fact that we were all different. Through a personality test, I was shocked to discover that the attributes I liked in myself, such as a compassionate willingness to reassess situations and to change course if needed, were perceived as fickle and flakey by a housemate whose refusal to budge stemmed not from infuriatingly inexplicable pedantry but from an unswerving, loyal and good desire to stand by his commitments. Apparently we saw the world in completely different ways. It was a revelation to find out that one of my housemates lived with permanent stress and guilt because she was a completer/finisher who still thought we were supposed to be striving for our aspirations of fixing the neighbourhood in its entirety. She was the only one still weeding the garden.
Giles Fraser recently pointed out that we all project our personality types onto Jesus and I expect that’s what we’d done when we embarked on the whole communal living thing. Our ‘community’ didn’t pan out quite as we’d visualised it (probably because none of us was Shane Claibourne either), but it did turn out to be one of the most character-building, challenging, satisfying, enjoyable, stretching (and humorous anecdote-supplying) seasons so far. So maybe we didn’t change the world, but I think that’s probably ok…