Not Your Father's Commune
A group of young Methodists are putting their faith in 'co-housing'
BY: Tom Sine
While some North American congregations spend vast sums on expanding physical plants, their next generation is asking, "Is this all there is?" These young people are unwilling to let modernity arrange most of the furniture of life, while faith is reduced to a trivial diversion on the edges. They don't want to compartmentalize their faith--even if it's a large, well-furnished compartment with an indoor swimming pool and a food court. They want a church that is actually connected to the rest of lives--or better yet, a church that actually shapes their lives.
In Oakland, Calif., one young group of believers has taken that seriously--enough to start a very different kind of building program.
In 1985, the United Methodist Church assigned the Rev. David McKeithen to Rockridge United Methodist Church, a congregation that had voted to disband because of declining membership in a changing neighborhood. Instead, McKeithen gradually drew a handful of new members who effectively planted a new church in the same building....
One small group within the church began to explore the problem, familiar to many urban churches, of how to maintain a truly indigenous and creative presence within the church's neighborhood. In 1996, their search led these 11 members to covenant together to create one of the first Christian co-housing communities in the nation.
"Co-housing" doesn't mean "commune." Those of us who came of age before the '80s remember any number of experiments in the free-wheeling days of the Jesus Movement--communities of young, idealistic, and somewhat naive believers, often involving a lifetime commitment and a common purse. Most of these experiments died out, sometimes with disastrous results, though a few, like Chicago's legendary Jesus People USA and Reba Place, are still going strong. In retrospect, it's not surprising that this model of Christian community was beyond the reach of most of those who tried it. Joining a Christian commune is a little like getting married to a crowd for a lifetime....
Several dozen co-housing communities have been constructed around the country, and some estimate that 150 are on the drawing board. The movement has its own journal, CoHousing, and, naturally, a website (www.cohousing.org).
The Temescal Cohousing Project looks very different from the suburban communities that several of its new residents used to call home. Clusters of buildings are set on a quarter acre in one of Oakland's older neighborhoods. In the center is a large common green where kids can play and families gather. Next to the green is an old barn that the teens in the community have already made into their own space. On the other side of the green is a common dining room where the members share meals together twice a week....
These young urban pilgrims believe that being the church should mean more than showing up at a building once a week. For them, church means a living faith community within a neighborhood. Their vision for that community is three-dimensional: being present for one another's daily lives and formation in Christ, offering the presence of Christ to their neighbors, and being good stewards of the earth. Or, as their vision statement puts it, "We live in God's creation. We are to love God, each other, our neighbors and care for God's creation."
Prior to joining this group, Tom Prince felt that "the circles of my life were pulling me apart." He worked in one part of Oakland, lived in another part, and went to church in yet another part. The co-housing community was an answer to his prayers for a more integrated life--now he walks with his son to work every day as a reading specialist in the nearby Emerson Elementary School. The church is also within walking distance. The circles of life are now pulling together.