I chose this picture not only because What-A-Ball is a lot of fun and something I enjoyed at the Jazz Festival my first month into L’Arche, but also because I think this is a pretty accurate description of what I am talking about in this article. Being in one of these balls is literally being in a bubble that builds up around you. You are in the water with other participants but you stick to your own ball – never communicating with them. You may as well be oblivious that they are there.
The day I discovered that I did not have a single non-Christian friend and that the majority of my friends came from the exact same (or almost the exact same) philosophical, moral, ethical, political, and cultural background that I do was the day that I began to feel uncomfortable. It was the day that I began to realize that I was a whole lot more polarizing than I thought I was, and it was the day that I realized that despite the fact that I am involved in social justice and want to make the world a more equal place that in reality, I am not really able to remove myself from a culture which makes whites somehow better and which says that education buys your way into heaven (or something like that). After all, didn’t Jesus say “Blessed are the educated for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven?” “Blessed are you, whites, for you will be filled?” And “Blessed are you heterosexuals for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”
I am being more than a bit facetious here, but seriously, it does bother me that I am somehow going about my daily life in community without really being a part of the community. The thought first came to me when I was at Tyndale. It bothered me that I was living in the “rich” part of Toronto and ignoring my brothers and sisters who were in the downtown core who were homeless and it bothered me that I stayed as far away from “Boys’ Town” (the section of Toronto where male prostitutes and homosexuals hang out) as possible because it made me feel uncomfortable. It was incredibly easy to live the Christian life at Tyndale where anyone who got smashed was frowned upon, where no one would admit to struggling with sins like lust because that was the most evil of all of them, where it was assumed that homosexuality was something you could just “turn off”, and where the dorm rules were so stringent that the idea of having sex on campus was virtually nil… I’m sure it has happened in the past, I’m just saying, they made that pretty hard compared to the secular campuses. Don’t get me wrong, I am forever indebted to the wonderful friends I made at Tyndale who have always held me in prayer before God and who hold me accountable for watching my alcohol consumption and encouraging my on-going desire to maintain purity. And I also don’t necessarily think that there was anything wrong with anything they were doing… but it did concern me, just a bit, that we were in a secluded bubble – not letting the world in.
We might not have spoken in these terms, but there definitely was an “us” vs. “them” mentality that the majority of us lived out on a daily basis… myself included. WE were the ones who were saved by God and just like shining knights we were to blaze into the field of sinners and convert every single one of them. WE were the ones who were to set an example for those same sinners to lead them to Christ at any necessary cost. WE were the ones who were supposed to worship for hours and once filled with the Holy Spirit to fall down on the ground, roll over, and speak in tongues. THEY were the ones on the outside. The ones who were sinners and who needed Christ. Sure, we should reach out to them, but we should never truly befriend them. After all the Bible says something about not being unequally yoked, right? And there is that verse about bad company corrupting good character or something like that… so that means that our REAL friends have to be Christian. Those other people on the outside, they are just there for us to evangelize to. Only once we have truly witnessed to them are we to actually spend time with them getting to know them for who they are.
I definitely feel that as a Christian it is so important to have strong Christian friends, but I feel that this Us vs. Them mentality really makes us lose out on the diversity that life can bring us. More than that, I have noticed that the same types of people tend to gravitate and hang out in these bubbles. They are predominantly white, male, and a higher income bracket. They tend to be theologically and politically conservative, and they tend to be straight and want nothing to do with the LGBTQ thing unless it is to bash the other party. So, that explains why, when I look at who my best friends currently are I notice a common thread among them… and there is nothing wrong with that thread… but it is still a thread nonetheless.
Fast forward to my first year in seminary, once again I was confronted with a whole school full of only Christians and once again I was living in a bubble, except that this time it was worse. Unlike Tyndale where I made a conscious effort to really get outside and volunteer once a week (through hospice, through nursing homes, and through local churches) so that I could at least meet others outside of Tyndale who had different ethnicities and different religious traditions, at AMBS I basically stayed in the school. The whole time. I didn’t own a car and the bussing system in Indiana was not good, plus seminary was a lot more academically rigorous than I had bargained for, so it didn’t seem to be something I really wanted to invest a whole lot of energy into. Which in hindsight is a shame because there were so many organizations in Elkhart that I really could have poured myself in to. Once again, my affinity with people who are just like me became a black hole sucking all those Mennonite Christians into and keep everyone else pushed to the edges.
Finally, I came to L’Arche and this is where the new story both begins and ends. My roomate just came to visit me at L’Arche yesterday and while she was here she started reading a poster that we have on the property that talks about how to build community. This poster suggested ideas such as inviting someone over for dinner, planting a garden, and starting up a conversation with a stranger. My roomate shared with me that it is sometimes very hard to build community if other people don’t want to help in that cause. Through our conversation I could hear in her voice a longing to be part of something bigger than just the daily 9-5 grind. I can hear that same exasperation in many young adults that I talk to. They want a community, but they are not quite ready yet to plant roots in one geographical location nor are they married (family being a community in itself). This is part of the reason why, in my opinion, young adults are so drawn towards living in intentional communities. They want to be with other likeminded Christians who are roughly their age and they want to make a difference by reaching out to their neighbours with the help and support of their community. This trend is so popular that I even took a full semester course about it in seminary where we ate breakfast together once a week and shared in communal life through prayers and potlucks.
I am living in an intentional community myself and I daily discover both the joys and frustrations that it can bring. I think that the relationships I have made at L’Arche (especially with our core members) oftentimes have the potential to be much deeper than the superficial ones I have sometimes held on the outside. I believe that the daily rhythms in community of prayer, rest, solitude, and the Eucharist are ones that make the community a safe place to be and a haven in a tempestuous world. At the same time, I believe that there can be danger in living in community.
When I live in community I become very focused on only a small core group of people, namely the 4 core members who live in my house and the assistants who have come to share life with them for a season. I am not looking out for anyone outside of the community nor is it really feasible for me to place a lot of effort into something other than L’Arche because of our intense schedule. Also, living in community I have found that people who are drawn to a certain type of community often share in the same life philosophies and so my mind is not always being expanded. For sure, we have assistants from around the world who bring with them their own rich cultural heritage, but the fact remains that if you are going to dedicate a year of your life to working with people whom society deems to be “less than we are” or even “worthless” than you must have similar interests and visions.
The fact that L’Arche is a haven is definitely it’s biggest blessing as well as the most difficult thing about it. It is a blessing because I feel that at L’Arche I can truly be myself in ways that I have never been able to before. It is an ideal place of growing and learning about yourself as well as experiencing the world around you. It is a very forgiving place where you do not have to be strong and where when someone asks you how you are doing they patiently wait to hear the real answer, not just the superficial one. It is also its greatest difficulty because it conditions you to be a sensitive person who is truly willing to go the extra mile for others. Oftentimes I have heard from people who have left L’Arche that after leaving this bubble they feel that they feel a bit disillusioned by life and they realize that outside of L’Arche bosses and supervisors do not really care about your personal wellbeing all that much. Many of them only care about the fact that your job is done and done well. It can be a very difficult thing for people who have spent extensive time in community to transition back to the “real world”.
So what am I suggesting here? Should we do away with all intentional communities? I don’t think we should. I think there is a lot of good that comes out of move-in patches and living among the least of these. I think there is definitely a place for groups of likeminded individuals to be stretched to think in new ways within a supportive environment. But I think that even more important than this is a strong desire to live intentionally WITHIN the community rather than apart from it as one’s own entity. I think it’s about intentionally choosing to honour God through our food choices, our economics, the way we choose to vote (or to abstain from voting), the causes that we choose to protest or support, and the way that we interact with one another. It’s about opening doors for people at the supermarket, offering that nice parking spot to someone else, and not always racing to get to the top.
As I was describing my daily rhythm of L’Arche to my roomate she said to me, “You know, what you are doing might not sound like a lot, but if more people did this we would have more stable families.” Here at L’Arche dinner time is a sacred time for us. It’s an opportunity to gather the whole house together, to make sure that the television, the radio, and any other electronic gadgets are off. We do not answer the house phone or cell phones if they ring during the dinner hour regardless of how important the call might be, and we do not come with an agenda. During dinner hour we do not bring grudges or business to the table. It is not the place to address disputes that are taking place in the house or other interpersonal conflicts. It is meant to be an enjoyable evening without upsetting or hurting one another. Our dinner always ends in a time of prayer where each core member and assistant shares the most valuable and most vulnerable things in their heart with each other and then we end in the Lord’s Prayer. The meals are always carefully prepared – healthy alternatives and always home cooked. After dinner, we are expected to help clean up.
The statistics increasingly show that this is not what happens in most families. Oftentimes, children come home to instructions for a make it yourself meal or grab something from the freezer which they will just pop into the microwave and watch while on the computer or watching TV. Texting and Facebook status updates often happen at the dinner table. How often have you been out at a restaurant where someone can’t even go the entire dinner without checking their phone once? These types of behaviours can make people feel that they are unwanted, unappreciated, or that the opinions and ideas that they wish to discuss do not truly matter. By eating dinner together we are making a positive step in building the first community that we are responsible for – our own homes and families.
The bubble can often be a problem, but if we choose to make it into a scenario of blowing bubbles…. where there is not just one bubble but many co-existing together in sky, then I think that we are on to something. It’s when we truly care about the people in front of us rather than just their online persona and when we are attempting to meet people who are strangely not like us that we are actually being intentional about the community that we are so hung up on. This, then, is the challenge – we are called to be living in the world but not of it. It’s up to us to decide what form and shape this will take, but first, let’s start by branching out and making a friend who is not a believer. Perhaps even one who has no intentions of ever becoming one.