Our family interned in the Indianapolis House in 1971. We were committed to the mission of the Ecumenical Institute and in the process, we discovered community. The communal style of living we experienced was not imaged as an end in itself, but rather a vehicle to more effectively enable the mission to be actualized. It became increasingly evident, as the mission unfolded, that sustaining the integrity of the community was foundational to accomplishing the mission. In retrospect, a primary legacy of the Order Ecumenical is the experience of living together in intentional community. It was a community of individuals whose lives were transformed and who continue to catalyze social change across the world.
Leaving the home we had built for us in a suburban development in West Lafayette, Indiana to move into a communal setting in the inner city of Indianapolis was not an easy transition. Our three children, ages 4, 8, and 10, would tell you it was very difficult. They were the only Caucasian children in their class. The teacher of our blonde-haired son Bruce called him her “little dandelion”. As the minority kids, they experienced some understandable reluctance and fear of going to school.
One of the difficult transitions for us as adults was leaving our secure lifestyles and being faced with the daunting task of finding jobs to help support the community. As we were often re-assigned from one city to another, the task of finding new jobs and re-locating the children in new schools was a re-occurring dilemma. When our assignments took us into third-world countries and the children reached an age when they were not with us, the difficulties intensified. What sustained us in these settings were the intentional community patterns that established a strong cultural context and practices that gave meaning to everything we did. Nancy and I have carried these patterns with us as we participate in creating community in the work place and in our residential community.
The community patterns were designed to provide a sense of balance to our lives. There was time set aside for family and discontinuity as well as time for study and work. Rituals, or rehearsing the context, the why of what we were doing, was foundational to the community patterns that sustained us. Singing was another daily activity that nurtured us as a community. There were occasions to honor the individuals in the community as on their birthdays and at other times of transition or rites of passage.
At the core of our life together was a willingness to trust. We relied on each other, whether that was in taking responsibility for our various tasks in mission or in taking care of each other’s children. Nancy and I had the honor and challenge of being legal guardians and directors of the youth program with 30-35 adolescents. We were very clear of the trust that had been placed in us by the parents of the youth, just as we had entrusted others to care for our own children. This was not a “blind” or naive trust. It recognized our human propensities, our vulnerabilities, and then acted in ways that took this into account, such as assigning individuals with compensating strengths to balance the weaknesses of others.
As important as trust was the willingness to forgive. We were confronted daily with the reality that our community consisted of individuals with many imperfections. No matter how well intended we were, each of us contributed our dysfunctional patterns into the daily life of the community. Some were subtle, others stretched our capacity to forgive.
There was a bit of fear and trepidation whenever we took on a new assignment and found ourselves living together with individuals and families with different lifestyles and perspectives. In India, we were often the only Westerners living with 15 to 20 young Indian village staff. Yet what we discovered was, that not only did we have the ability to flex and adapt, but we came to trust and deeply appreciate our colleagues and their children. They became our extended family. We ate together, sang and celebrated together, shared stories about our lives with each other, as we engaged in our common mission of caring for the villages of India.
After 17 years of being with the Order Ecumenical we re-entered the mainstream and began forging our own life patterns and sense of mission. In returning to the states in 1989 we wanted to continue living in community. I began to realize that creating community had become my life’s work. This calling is in response to the sense of disconnectedness that has emerged out of the individualism of the latter part of the 20th Century. Community is about establishing meaningful relationships and authentic connections of self, family, friends and colleagues.
Community in the Work Place: Creating community in the work place has been a challenging and meaningful task. In 1989, we left our last Order assignment in India and came to Seattle where we began searching for jobs. I was fortunate to secure a position as the CEO in an acupuncture school. When the clinic receptionist position opened two weeks after I started work, Nancy took it and became an integral part of a 10-year journey of creating community where we both worked.
The central purpose of the school was the academic training it provided, but the heart of the institution was the community clinic and the caring service it offered to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. As the school grew and was able to expand its clinical services it established clinics to serve refugees, addicts, homeless youth, elderly, low-income groups, and inmates of a minimum-security jail. There was a clear sense of mission and significant opportunities for all of us to act out our care.
Maintaining a sense of community was not easy. We established a participatory style of management with a consensual form of decision-making as a core dynamic. In the initial years, financial constraints and individualistic patterns were major challenges. As the institute began to flourish, the stress of rapid growth and development became the central challenge. In addition to the strong sense of mission, there were other dynamics put in place that were crucial to sustaining the community.
Developing a culture that enhanced relationships was crucial. Even as our student body tripled and our patients were over a thousand at any one time, we worked at greeting each person by name. We incorporated rituals and practices that honored the significance of each individual, not only in the work place, but in their personal lives. Birthday celebrations included asking “Order” questions of significant events of the past year and challenges for the coming year, followed by affirmations. Graduation also incorporated affirmations of each graduate, initially done by Nancy, but in later years the students did it themselves.
Establishing a culture that balanced the needs of the individual with the needs of the larger community was the fundamental challenge. Core values centered around trust, expecting the best of each employee and doing whatever was necessary to empower personal responsibility. These expectations were informed by participatory strategic planning resulting in clear objectives for each of us. Accountability, accompanied by appropriate affirmation and practical forgiveness when necessary, helped keep us on course.
Undergirding all of this was a focus on spirit. Creating and telling the story of who we were and what we were about as a healing and learning community was key. Creating meaningful symbols and surrounding ourselves with art reminded us of our Asian cultural connections. Publications conveyed an image consistent with our uniqueness. All of this was about building a sustainable community culture.
Residential Community: Creating intentional community in our home place has been equally meaningful. When we were looking for a place to live after India, the one requirement we would not compromise was living in community. We would only locate where there was an intentional community of which we could become members. The opportunity to be a part of the Residential Learning Center (RLC) in Bothell, WA was accepted with delight. The mission of the RLC was a continuation of the youth program known as the Student House we had been affiliated with in 1980. However, it became clear after about one year that this was no longer a viable program and a new vision for the community was required.
The following year was a time for study, exploration of other models and lots of planning. The vision that grew out of this was a multi-generational cohousing community with a biocentric focus, which in practice looks like “living lightly on the land”. We wrote our values, which became our mission statement, and then began inviting others to join us. The cohousing model of community was different than we had experienced in the Order. It offered a helpful balance between the need for privacy and community as each family has its own private dwelling and the common house becomes the place for all to gather.
Creating a sustainable community culture has been the primary consideration. We spent six months deciding a name that would capture the spirit of who we are. It was one of those “aha” occasions when the name “Songaia” was suggested. It captures our relation to the earth through the Greek goddess Gaia and the fact that we are a community that sings. Songaia, “song of the living earth”, has been a very sustaining symbol for us. Singing itself is an ongoing healing dynamic. It signifies our sense of connection and willingness to engage in common activities, while symbolizing our collective harmony.
Giving form to our values is a continuing challenge. Gardening, bulk purchasing of food, and sharing of resources, e.g. laundry, mower, tools, are practical ways we embody our values. Sharing Circles, planning meetings, workdays, child-care, and community celebrations are a few of the ways we organize and order our lives. Establishing structures and individually working at building relationships that instill trust and cooperation are the “glue” that sustains us. It is not unlike the dynamics of family life. In fact, we consider our community to be like an extended family of choice.
Recovering community is not just a dream, it is a necessary context for life. The legacy of creating and sustaining community is the purpose for making Order spirit methods accessible to all.
-- 09 Mar 2010
A little addendum to the above. Years ago, Fred also played a major role in the design of the Order residential community in Litibu, Mexico. More recently, he was asked by Salvatore Caruso to help create a memorial garden there that drew on the local ecology and the spirit wisdom of our global cultures and pluriform religious traditions. When in Litibu this January, I videotaped for Fred a walking tour through that garden and how it has developed, narrated by Salvatore. A portion of that video can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlR-tyc2Bho
- 16 Mar 2010