In July 2011, right after my husband and I were married, we moved into a cute row home in a small city in Pennsylvania, in a low-income neighborhood. Some, particularly my parents, questioned this choice in location.
While this neighborhood has a negative reputation (high crime, low performing school, etc.), we also see its many strengths, and wanted to live here for a couple of reasons. First, for about five years, we had both been involved in ministry with kids in this inner-city neighborhood and wanted to be close to the kids and families we had formed relationships with. Second, two groups of friends had already bought row homes on either side of a house that “coincidentally” became available right when we were looking for a place we could move into after we were married. This was a great opportunity to live in community with friends.
Why was it important for us to live close to these friends?
Well, the short answer is that we felt it was something God was calling us to do. After meeting for close to two years with these friends for prayer and spiritual practices, we decided to commit more deeply to sharing our lives with one another. There were several reasons that we felt this was important. We wanted to become a family to one another, to support and encourage each other, living in close proximity. We wanted to live more simply and be able to share meals, tools, everyday interactions, joys, and concerns. While we looked at other options, such as a large house to live in together, when these three houses opened up in a row, it and ended up being the best option for all of us. It seemed a very clear answer from God.
What is intentional community?
At my college, Messiah, a small liberal arts Christian school, the word “community” was often tossed around, integrated within each class, within the resident halls, within our chapel services. I guess after four years of hearing it enough, it became a part of me, and a part of how I wanted to live my life.
The word community has many meanings. A simple search on Dictionary.com turns out five different definitions. This includes: “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage,” and interestingly, definition Number Five: “Ecclesiastical. A group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.”
My understanding of the word, community, in the way I try to live it out, is probably somewhere in between these two definitions. “Intentional communities” can come in many forms. Our living in such close proximity to one another is just one expression of this concept.
Our Place on Derry
Our community is called, “Our Place on Derry.” We chose a name that included our location, as well as an acknowledgement that while we currently have seven members, we want it to be a place where the larger community can feel welcome as well. During our time as a community, almost two years now, we have had as many as 13 members, based on who is living in the row houses at the time. Each of us is committed to hospitality, and has welcomed friends, family members, and sometimes even strangers to stay with us as needs arose. Currently, we meet for a meal weekly and rotate cooking and hosting so that each house gets a turn. We end our meal with a conversation about community, a Bible study, a spiritual practice, or an update on one another’s lives. And we always close in prayer. We often sing together as well!
Who We Are
As I mentioned before, we all feel connected to the neighborhood we live in, and being present here is important to us. While none of us come from this area, and we all come from very different backgrounds from most of our neighbors, we want to form relationships with those who are different from us. We want to form mutual relationships in which we can learn from one another. We want to be “salt and light” to a neighborhood that has a bad reputation but much diversity and many strengths. We all have jobs locally, contributing to the larger community in some way. Our group includes a school therapist (that’s me!), an urban farmer (my husband), a racial justice coordinator at a non-profit, two youth workers, and several who support adults with disabilities.
How We Live
In the past, we have had cookouts where we’ve hosted our neighbors and we have had gatherings with other intentional communities in the city. We have tithed together to local organizations, we have put together baskets of food for friends in need. We have spent lots of time talking through our vision, mission, and the way we want to live them out practically.
Outside of structured times with one another, we also try to be intentional about being part of one another’s lives. We share the proverbial “cup of sugar,” or tablespoon of curry, can of coconut milk, stick of butter. We share a lawnmower and various tools, even vacuum cleaners. In a culture of materialism, our arrangement allows us to share more and buy less. And in an age of individualism, it allows us to be closely connected to others. One of the first things we did when we moved in was to take down our fences so that we could walk easily and freely from one house to another.
In some ways, living in community has been very hard work. Living with people who have different backgrounds, views, and styles of communicating is hard. But it is worth it as well . Our burdens are lighter because we shoulder them together, and our celebrations are even more joyful for the same reason. Through deaths of family members, job losses, engagements, new jobs, weddings, and trips far away, we have journeyed alongside one another. We learn so much from one another, how to love each other more, and new ways of seeing God in and around us.
We are constantly learning about how to be better neighbors to one another and those around us. This is one way that my friends and I live out our faith in Christ. We are constantly adapting what we do and how we do it to meet one another’s needs at a given time. As we are changing, our community changes as well.
We try to learn from those who have come before us. Some great resources on living in community that have inspired us include:
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Community and Growth, Jean Vanier
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne
Journey Inward, Journey Outward, Elizabeth O’Connor (and any other book by O’Connor!)
Micalagh Beckwith Moritz is a social worker, a writer, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a community member...continually learning how to do a better job at each of these roles. She is newly married (if under 2 years still counts as "new"!) and currently working as a school-based clinical therapist. She is always contemplating how to love others better and to enjoy the small things of life; to see God in everything...and everyone. Also important to note- she loves cheese, speaking French, and experiencing different cultures (whether in or out of the United States)! Micalagh blogs at Only Small Things.