I spent Monday trying to figure out where to live. Somewhere in the midst of the phone calls, meetings, credit checks, and applications I realized I was really making decisions about who I will be.
Several years ago, before the word community became sexy, I had this idea that I'd move back to Marshall, buy an old house, fix it up and have several people live together. We'd be friends and we'd be Christians and somehow we'd try to figure out how to be like Jesus together. There would be meals and we would read the bible together and do a good amount of praying. We would hold each other accountable, because that was something we talked a lot about in the late 90's. God's light would shine upon us-- not to put too fine a point on it.
I ended up in Waco and found out there was a church in town that did just these things. They took it a bit further, though, choosing to pool a lot of their money together for food and other household expenses. They are a little more stringent than I would have chosen with the amount of time they require of the housemates. In addition to that they fast. A lot. They fast when they are praying for something and they fast when they feel God telling them to. From what I've heard, (reliable sources,) they also fast when one among them, well, um,... when someone enjoys their time alone a bit too much. Yeah, they fast a lot.
It's a mixed bag, this choosing to live lives in close proximity, both physically and personally, to others. How much is too much? When does "submitting to one another out of love" become nothing more than allowing the strongest personalities in a group to walk on the weakest? Where is the balance between group unity and individual liberty? Community is a pretty word to look at, and a fun one to talk about, but a hard one to live.
A few weeks ago there was a fascinating series of articles in the Waco Tribune Herald about Homestead Heritage, a religious community north of town that takes living in community seriously. Blending elements of Anabaptist (read: Amish, Mennonite) and Pentecostal theology and practice, Homesteaders, as the are called around town, home school their children, attempt to limit the amount of control modern technology has on their lives, and dress in a simple manner reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie. Most live in houses on land owned by the group, drawing obvious comparisons to another well known religious group that Waco has become synonymous with. But Homesteaders are not Davidians by any stretch of the imagination. Their lifestyle, though puritanical by contemporary standards, doesn't appear to reach the level of dangerous fanaticism that Koresh's followers embodied.
There are former members, however, empowered by the internet and an organization that seeks to locate and expose cultic activity, who are raising their voices, trying to alert the community that Homestead Heritage is not all it appears to be. They claim that the idyllic image the group presents to those on the outside is a facade that belies the real truth. The real Homestead, they claim, is a place marked by grueling work standards, angry tirades by the elders of the church at behavior that doesn't meet the high standards they have set, and a poor environment for children, who often lose their parents to meetings and preparations for the annual Holiday Celebrations that bring thousands of people from the outside every year. Even the worse critics don't believe there is anything illegal or dangerous going on, but they claim all sorts of spiritual and emotional abuse occurs.
With all the information and accusations, you are left with the obvious dilemma-- Who do you believe?
With this, I have to remain neutral. Most of us know what it's like to not be understood. Our beliefs and experiences lead us to live a certain way that others may see as strange, but which we are convinced is the best way for us. We ask others to withhold judgement, because without walking in our boots, they could never know everything that goes into how we choose to be and act.
On the other hand, I've seen firsthand the dangers that occur when churches paint a pretty picture about what it means to be a part of their group, then, after reeling converts in, treat them as nothing more than cogs in the wheel of the ego-centric machines of the leaders.
I suppose, as in all things, we are left trying to create an ideal situation out of less-than-ideal circumstances. I've been learning to never be surprised. Groups of people, especially religious people, should never be surprised, or even upset, when others (including ex-members) try to draw them in a bad light because of differences with the mainstream. This is what people do. They try to understand, and in trying they will always miss something key about what really makes the group tick.
In the same way, those seeking to be a part of a community should never be surprised when what they saw on the front end never lives up to the filth that comes out of the other. I've been a part of a lot of churches, and every last one of them has very well meaning people, trying the best they can to lead, but at the same time using every weapon in their self-preservation arsenal to keep important decisions and ideas in the hands of the smallest amount of people possible.
It may seem that I've lowered my expectations, but I don't see it this way. Years reveal reality, and the best I've learned to hope for is to live in a place, near a group of people, who believe, more or less, the same things I do about the world and God and where we are heading. Who, by virtue of their affection for one another, wake up and wade through the muck of work, disease, conflict, and the general state of our human condition, and decide at the end of the day that it's all worth it just for a few moments of laughter, beer, and maybe even a slice of apple pie. I suppose that is a pretty good thing to hope for.
** Thanks, Amy, for the suggestion.
*** You can read the Trib articles HERE. About midway down is a window called "A Homestead Divided," and you can read each ot the three parter. I think you'll find it interesting. Big time props to Cindy Culp for wonderful reporting.