it was while i was in grad school that i first heard the phrase “living in community.” and i will readily admit that i thought this was just another pithy duke-appropriate buzz-phrase that a good moderate-to-liberal christian would toss about in conversation when talking about the Church and being a good
this belief quickly turned to rolling my eyes every time i heard the phrase “living in community” or “intentional community.” while a part of me agreed with the underlying theology and belief of Being a part of a Community and engaging meaningfully with one’s community, many of the people i knew expounding upon these things were kind of cult-ish about intentional communities. it was much easier to write all of them off as far too crazy and, if nothing else, fairly detached from reality/the real world.
then i found myself spending a summer living with J, someone who not only was a part of one of these intentional communities (houses) but would become one of my very dear friends [sister]. in her, i began noticing the difference of what life is like when one is “intentional” about their engagement with those they live with. there was no saul/paul moment that summer, i was still fairly skeptical of all this and was still prone to rolling my eyes at what i thought to be overzealous affirmation of intentional communities† at duke. however, i did allow myself to explore what these over-used buzz words could mean for me and my theology beyond how i felt duke was shoving them down my throat.
throughout that year (my final year of the m.div program at duke) i spent more time with J, in and around her intentional community–listening and watching what this was all about “on the ground” and in reality rather than simply dismissing the pie-in-the-sky-perfection i had heard tale of. slowly i came around and found myself saying things like “i really need my community.” and doing things like turning to “my community” to help me to make decisions or hold me accountable to and for things that i would typically attempt to take on by myself.*
i was bringing these learnings and new patterns of living with me to uganda.
but there was another component to this community living that i was taking on in signing up with mennonite central committee–and that was an affirmation of a commitment (calling?) of living simply. to be more kind and gentle to the earth, to remember “its not my money, it’s god’s money” (something else i can truly attribute to J for not only saying to me over and over, but showing me what that can faithfully look like.) to carefully and prayerfully consider the impact on individuals, communities, relationships, the earth etc when acquiring Things.
for the bulk of my “adult life” i have been in school (university and grad school) and in many ways was forced to live within a certain type of simplicity. however, for me, that type of simplicity was not a chosen one-and i found myself pushing beyond my means for whatever reason. but it has been such a journey and so life-giving to turn towards a life of chosen simplicity.
choosing to do my best to only purchase what i need, live within and even below my means and seek god’s guidance on what to do with the remainder. and at the same time learning how to balance simplicity with remaining happy and healthy. not pushing the simplicity argument too far that i felt like i was depriving myself of necessities and splurging sometimes on something silly or extraneous and not feeling bad about that.
many of these lessons have come from living in and working within the embraced theology of mcc and the anabaptist tradition. but many of these lessons have also come from living in kotido. don’t worry friends, i am not about go bounce down the rabbit trail of how “poor africans” who “have so little” can still be “so very happy”. that is not where this is going. feel free to peel yourself off the ceiling now.
these lessons in simplicity learned in kotido have had more to do with attempting to explain to my friends and acquaintances here why i would choose to live so simply. why we would not push for things that we found to be over the top extravagant, or unnecessary. sometimes this meant defending my (and mcc’s) stance on simplicity. people think that some of the choices we make to be irrational and counterintuitive to people “of [my] stature” (seemingly having access to money).
having had embraced the theology of intentional community my job upon entering this corner of my community in kotido was to figure out how i was going to translate what i already knew to what i was learning. how was i going to translate living theologically intentionally in a community into this new place and this new culture that i was trying to be a part of. where i quickly learned what is mentioned above of explaining choosing simplicity when it looked like i could have had nearly anything i wanted or that people thought i should want because of my level of education, perceived monetary status (i have far less money than most assume i do), my skin color or my position in the diocese.
i have learned that group-think, living in and making decisions in community can be deeply faithful and fruitful. from participating in wedding committees at church (where we pretty much planned the entire thing with some input from the bride and groom, including fundraising and carpooling to the wedding) to inquiring of the community how to truly be helpful and culturally appropriate to those coming to my gate, asking.
hopefully this means that i have a better understanding of giving and receiving grace within my community (and, of course, beyond). and that i have become more firm in the creation of healthy boundaries and not feeling guilty about sometimes needing my space–and on the other hand of that equation having a deeper understanding of receiving and giving hospitality. knowing that in receiving hospitality well the one receiving will sometimes be uncomfortable physically, mentally and spiritually. but to be a true member of community being willing to stretch and lean into those growing edges.
living intentionally simply and in community are two gifts that i hope to continue to cultivate and grow into as i transition back to the united states, “home.” it is exciting to wonder where the similarities between my “home culture” in the u.s. and my “adopted culture” in karamoja will overlap. where they will differ, and how in those differences those two cultures may embrace in ways they never have before. and, if nothing else, i pray these lessons in simplicity and communal living help to make my life a more faithful reflection of the love of christ.
† my main argument was that just because i wasn’t living in an intentional-community, or throwing myself into “new monasticism” didn’t mean that i wasn’t intentional about my engagement with my community and the Church at large. in some ways, i think my reaction was my way of pushing back against what i saw as a group of people trying to make me feel bad that i didn’t live in intentional community, that i locked my door and that my house didn’t have weekly prayer or meal times together with my housemates regularly. now, later, i realize that the majority of these people were not trying to make me feel bad, or to force me into an intentional community but perhaps their…hero-worship…of those in these houses made me to feel as if i wasn’t a “good christian” or “good duke christian”. i digress.
* “pilgrimage as a way of life” was a concept that had also recently captured my attention and heart and had begun to change how i engaged with the world and those around me as well. this has also played a huge and significant role in shaping me. i will not touch on that so much here as i am really still unable to concisely discuss this. do, however, ask me about pilgrimage. it would be my honor and delight to share with you.
other related lessons that i will not expound on at the moment:
• speaking in a different culture/the language of a different culture (and i don’t necessarily mean a different language)
• choosing to try to be culturally appropriate is generally better/more respectful than being comfortable/getting what you want.
• relationships are sometimes more important than buying the best tomatoes in the market
• just drink the tea/soda (could also be called: just eat the meat.) [to be filed under hospitality/receiving]
• what looks like “doing nothing” can really be doing deep and real “work”