Intentional Community: A Reflection, My Journey, and Shalom House

PART 1. INVITATION AND REFLECTION

So, you have read about intentional community in Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution years ago and new monasticism has now become a part of your everyday vocabulary. Maybe you are nearing the end of your college career, or maybe you are facing another life transition and wondering how to integrate your values in to those exciting next steps. In other words, what now?

Or, perhaps you are someone who has been living “in community” for some time now, but the experience has increased your skepticism and cynicism rather than given you new life-giving perspective. Your expectations were not met, probably because you carried too many expectations with you. Your impression of “community” has officially been sobered. As Bonheoffer says in Life Together, the earlier a community can let go of its wish dream, the better for the community.

This post is for the excited college graduate, eager to combine faith and practice. It is also to the sobered young adult who has already faced some of the world’s harshest realities, and to anyone in between who is still somehow interested in this word community.

I have been reading Resistance and Contemplation by Jim Douglass; professor, author and activist. In this text Douglass weaves together a tapestry that just might illustrate how to blend faith and activism in an earnest and sincere way. In one section of the book Douglass is quoting some of Thomas Merton’s final sayings at the end of his life before his devastating death in 1968.

“Merton is describing one of the traditional representations of the Buddha, where in one hand he holds a begging bowl, and with the other he points to the earth. The Buddha’s pointing to the earth is said to be in response to an accusation by Mara (the tempter who represents illusion) that the Buddha cannot sit on the square of earth that belongs to Mara. Buddha responds by calling to witness that he had just attained enlightenment on it, so in fact it no longer belongs to Mara. Merton comments:

‘This is a very excellent statement, I think, about the relation of the monk to the world. The monk belongs to the world, but the world belongs to him insofar as he has dedicated himself totally to liberation from it, in order to liberate it. You can’t just immerse yourself in the world and get carried away with it. That is no salvation. If you want to pull a drowning man out of the water, you have to have some support yourself. (p.56)’”

Douglass uses Merton to assert that in a world of broken political and global systems, the contemplative is learning to stand with support. Because the contemplative has ‘a rock to stand on’, there is possibility for him or her to help pull others out of the water. In Resistance and Contemplation, Douglass tells the important story of the essential quiet life of faith that must undergird any outward action. If one is to enter a prophetic life of action, rather than just show up at the latest vigil or protest, one is necessarily entering a life of liberation from the self as well. In a palatable and very reasonable way, Douglass explains that our faith is essential.

PART 2. MY JOURNEY

Seeking authentic ways to come into a “prophetic life” has lead me a lot of different directions so far in my young adult life. I have lived in a rural farming community, trained with Christian Peacemaker Teams, pursued academia through graduate school, and currently am serving a stint at Shalom House in West Philadelphia as their Recruitment Coordinator.

I have learned that none of these experiences or settings can alone undergird the work of resistance. I have learned through hard and painful trials that Douglass and Merton are right. The true work of faith is the liberation of the self, often carried on alone, with great discipline, and often in the dark. This is the essential counter-part of resistance work; “the Yin and Yang of the Nonviolent Life”, as Douglass puts it. I cannot always have the sunshine of communal banner waving; I must also endure long solitary walks in the rain of contemplation.

I have found that while a particular community cannot meet all of my needs; it can be helpful to come alongside others also seeking their own liberation, and in so doing, together seek liberation for the larger world. One such place is a little home called Shalom House, a peacemaking ministry of Circle of Hope Church in West Philadelphia.

PART 3. SHALOM HOUSE

As stated in the house rule, “Shalom House is a tool for proactive peacemakers to use to grow in their faith, to express the gospel of peace, to provide the option of reconciliation for people in Philadelphia, and to secure a place for Circle of Hope among God’s worldwide peace movement.”

Shalom House is overseen by a Guidance Team of the larger church that carries its mission in times of transition and gives support to members living in the house. I have seen Shalom House thoughtfully and strategically work on issues of gun violence in Philadelphia, join national efforts to be welcoming to the immigrant and refugee, and be a powerful voice for peace in the city.

Shalom House is not your run-of-the-mill community of young idealists. Its structure has been thoughtfully discerned for over a decade. Everyone living at the house has built-in spiritual retreats and a spiritual director. The house shares rhythms of meals and prayer, and individuals come knowing that their income is limited by the mission of the house. Projects are spurred on by the creativity and interests of house members, and are supported by the larger church community. There is structure midst flexibility, vision midst groundedness.

Currently Shalom House is seeking new members to join the work and adventure of combining contemplation and action in West Philadelphia. Will it be you? Check out Shalom House’s website, join the list serv there, and/or email us at peace@shalomhouse.us.

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