. . . and then there's the stuff we don’t believe . . .
We have people living together in 13 houses. People from extremely different backgrounds and cultures sharing, not only a house, but often a room. Some were street children with very little education, others have University degrees. There are Zulus, Sothos, Afrikaners, Indians . . . from South-Africa, Kenia, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique . . . living together for years (Echo is turning 16 this year). So, don’t tell me things like “oil and water don’t mix”, water and water does! Go read Col 3:11.
Diversity can be South Africa’s biggest blessing, but then we need a change of attitude - because, lets face it, no one’s going to change color.
People often think of inter-racial-community as an impossible dream. We find the opposite to be true - and many other intentional communities will tell you the same. What an adventure! We have the most to learn from those who are different from us.
think out of the box, speak out, criticize if necessary, dream . . .
but more important, create what you wish existed
A group of us spend a night with some homeless people in Sunnyside. We met a guy who had clearly lived on the street for a long time. I remember he had this weird look on his face and his eyes were strange - in a good kind of way, like someone who knows secrets. We started to chat.
He came from a cell group from one of the rich churches in the Eastern part of Pretoria. For a long time he felt a calling to help the homeless. He started to pray, asking God for direction. When the direction finally came, it came in the form of a wild idea. The idea that maybe the best way to reach the homeless would be to become homeless himself. So he did something that is very rare amongst Christians: he abandoned everything.
I don’t know if he is still there, but something he said really struck me. I asked him what he learned by following Jesus on the streets of Sunnyside and he said: "For many years I thought you need to be rich to help the poor, now I’m starting to think, maybe we've got it wrong, maybe we have to be poor to help the poor . . .
What a disturbing thought! But it had Jesus ring to it.
What made the Jesus way unique, was his example and his call to enter into someone else's world, to move into empathy, towards darkness and suffering rather than away from it. To be willing to endure pain so that others can experience grace.
Jesus didn't only send us stuff, he came himself. He joined us in our struggle.
Presence makes the difference.
We tend to give kids in need something, and often forget that their greatest need is someone. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, wrote a little book called “From brokenness to community” . The title says it all: brokenness is disconnectedness and healing is found in community.
One of our core strategies at ECHO Community is to find hurting people (these days they tend to find us) and invite them to come and live with us, to do life with us. We have found ourselves in some very interesting, complicated and even scary situations. It has been an up and down adventure for everyone involved.
Only recently I heard people calling this way of life, "intentional community”. It was quite liberating having two words describing the kind community we were part of.
"Intentional living" is not a new thing and happens in many ways. Mother Teresa did it by moving to Calcutta; Stephan De Beer intentionally lives in the chaos of the Inner City of Pretoria close to the need on the ground; many years ago I had the privilege to meet the Carpenters, a medical doctor and his wife who chose to live in a squatter-camp in the Winterveld; Justice Tsungu was a street kid in Heidelberg, the headmaster of the local school invited him to stay with them; there is an awesome group of students in Brooklyn who started some communes, inviting people to live with them - actually calling their project Intentional Living; while I was studying at Tuks I stayed in an orphanage with twelve very troubled boys that taught me a lot about life . . .
I’m sure there are many ways to interpret the philosophy of missional community and we have lots to learn, but in the context of our community at ECHO it comes down to two groups of people moving in under one roof: those who are seeking help and those who want to help. (In reality it’s a bit more mooshy, because let’s face it, we all are needy in some way and we all have something to give)
Community in itself is important, but the core intention of the "sharing-life-movement" should be empathy.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
"He who loves community destroys community, but he who loves the brethren builds community."
While trying to rediscover Christian-community we should discipline ourselves to remember the enormity of the human suffering in our country and the challenges it presents to us as church. In Tshwane alone there are an estimated 100 000+ orphans. Lots of young people who come out of child care systems finish school each year and have nowhere to go and no support system to guide them through this very crucial phase of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of people have to make a new beginning after being released from prison or finishing rehab programs each year. We sometimes have to show away more than 20 people a month at ECHO, simply because there are not enough space and resources.
About the two words:
David Bosch noted that even though there must be a missional dimension to everything we do, it is important that there will also be a very distinct element of a missional intention. He warned of the danger that if everything is missional then in practice we might end off with nothing being missional.
I love the so called "new emerging conversation", but it sometimes tends to lack urgency. It is as if everyone acknowledges the enormousness of the need and suffering "out there" and then plan the next discussion about in a coffee shop or Bible study group, because hey, everything is missions right.
If intentional community becomes less intentional it can very easily be a passive "chilling together for the sake of chilling together" way of living without bringing anything substantial to the party.
The intention of Jesus in establishing the kingdom of God on earth was very clear. He taught us through his words and example that there is something worth sacrificing ourselves for, that a human life is worth a human life.
He showed us a strange kind of love that boldly moves us towards darkness and into the world of the suffering.
He reminded us that this world wouldn’t change by itself.
Intentional community calls us to acknowledge that we are God’s body, his favourite instrument when bringing hope to the world. It is driven by a passion for Jesus and embraces the passion of Jesus.
Intention is all about our deepest passion and motivation.
We have a growing number of people that are immigrating to more comfortable, safe countries. Their motivation to leave South Africa is the high crime rate, joblessness, corruption, HIV and Aids, poverty and so on. On the other hand you have these weirdo’s that will tell you just the opposite. The moral crisis, poverty, high crime rate . . . are their main reasons for staying - and they might add that if things gets better they will be eager to seek out other dark places in the world to move to! Like a fire fighter who is intentionally seeking out fires, they are compelled to move to where there is suffering.
The important word here is "sharing". It is easy to say it is about sharing life, but it it also means sharing stuff. With new ECHO Communities starting all over the country, we had to put down some guidelines on paper for those moving in with the intention of helping: They will sometimes pay more for their own rooms in order to sponsor some of the other rooms, they can only move into the house if they are willing to share their cars, food, time, money, skills and so forth; and are willing to help in the other houses and be on 24 hour standby for a possible crises.
This might not sound like a good marketing strategy right? Amazingly, while writing this, in less than a week of planning a new house we have enough people interested to fill 2 houses!
In a certain sense, everyone in our community are just continuing with their way of doing life: going to work or school, studying, socializing, fighting with each other... you know, "normal house stuff". No real organizing or structure needed.
On the other hand we intentionally create community growth opportunities: every Monday everybody in all the houses and the rest of the community eat together, house meetings are held on a regular basis, one on one chats with the social workers, prayer meetings and fun events or helping with other community projects.
Doing life together like this can be a lot of fun, but it is far from the fairy tale it is sometimes made out to be. There’s a lot of conflict, tension, irritations and frustrations when you mix people from very different backgrounds together in one community. We thought of making T-shirts that says: "Trouble is our business" (moeilikheid is ons besigheid).
You get used to failure. There are often lies, people falling back into drugs, racism, fights, love triangles, snobbery, jealousy, theft, sexual stuff, health issues, suicide attempts, financial stress, problems with the neighbours, problems with pets(!), lots of late nights at the state hospital or the police office - just to name a few.
You can say a lot about this way of life, but it is not boring!
Community often brings out the worst in us, which creates wonderful opportunities for painful spiritual growth!
It’s not always fun, but we believe it is worth it. It’s chaos, but there is purpose, something bigger than ourselves, something worth living for.
Your first thought might be that this intentional moving in with people in need has great benefits for those who seek help. And you're right, but the wonderful thing is that it works both ways. We have lots to learn from each other. It seems like the guy or girl moving in with the motive to help and assist others have actually the most to gain in this kind of set-up.
In the words of Henri Nouwen:
"I did not leave the university - after twenty years - and move in with people with disabilities at L’arche because I wanted to help them, but because I needed better teachers . . .”
Jesus said that to give will bring more joy than to receive. But also hard lessons about the essence of life.
Making connections is supposed to be the expertise of God’s people. The whole Jesus movement is suppose to be about connecting people to each other, with their purpose in life, nature and ultimately with God. Seeking together and sharing our finds.
The number one place to go with connection problems is supposed to be the Church. We are in the networking business. Connecting people, discovering unity with one another in Christ across social, economical and cultural divides. Moving together from “from brokenness to community”.
Unfortunately many churches today comes across as isolated from the bare needs of those who are vulnerable in this world - the majority. They claim to be connected to God, and are clearly well connected to each other, but even though they talk the missional-talk and do a bit of charity on the side, they mostly function disconnected from the hard-core need on the ground. Somewhere between all the meetings, the theological chit chat and the ever so important business of maintaining huge buildings and running even bigger denominational structures, the Church lost her mojo and became an institution with a very limited grip of the reality of the suffering in this world.
There are a lot of new interest in the old idea of missional community these days though. It signals new hope. Most Christians have read the stories in Acts about the first church - where everyone shared everything and no one lacked anything - and have a deep longing to rediscover it in their world.
From Charity to Community
A lot of us give money and send stuff to “those in need” because we are touched by the stats we read in newspapers or the stories of human suffering we hear about in church. The problem is statistics and news stories don’t move us to love; at it’s best it leaves us with feelings of guilt, or even fear.
You need human contact to truly experience empathy and share a true sense of love.
There is a difference between charity and community - and in this context I mean the typical feel-good-hand-out type of charity versus compassionate caring community with those in need.
Charity is not unique to the church (everyone does charity, even the bowling club down the road). The church can do more, we can do community.
The alternative to "throwing crumbs to the poor" is not to throw loafs of bread, but to share a meal. To eat together.
The homeless, the lonely, the poor and the suffering needs more than a bit of charity, they need a presence - Gods people to connect and to at least try to understand.
Caring community has a way of making people feel human again, giving them back their dignity.
The number one negative emotion in most kids that come our way at our ECHO Community seems to be a deep sense of loneliness. Even after basic things like physical hunger has been addressed, a dark shadow of spiritual emptiness seems to prevail. You can often see it in their eyes.
A house isn’t necessarily a home and even the best meal doesn’t satisfy the deepest hunger. Kids need more than something, they need someone. Charity alone just doesn’t cut it. Presence makes the difference.
Handing out blankets on a cold night or canned food to the hungry isn’t wrong (it’s better than doing nothing), but while you’re putting in the effort, why not catch the whole compassion-bug. There would be more dignity if in the process of handing out charity, long-term relationships could be established.
5 Core differences between “Charity” and “Caring Community”:
· Something vs Someone: Jesus didn't send us stuff, He came himself (Phil 2:5-11). God didn’t only send us gifts and tools to sort out our mess, He gave us a Person to join us in our struggle - Presence. We should do the same.
· Short term vs Long term: There are sometimes great and often badly needed short-term benefits coming out of charity, but in the long term, charity without community tends to sustain dependency and poverty (often with the only long-term “positive” outcome: the rich feeling better about themselves). Don’t be surprised if short-term initiatives have only short-term outcomes.
· Guilt vs Love: My definition of charity is: “Giving a homeless guy a blanket on a cold winter night so that YOU can sleep better.” Community, on the other hand, allows for the pains of real empathy. Where charity is often guilt driven, community is driven by understanding and love.
· Handing-out vs Sharing: It’s not so much about having a soup kitchen or not, but there is a core difference between just handing out food and sharing a meal.
· From a position of power vs From a position of vulnerability: Charity often happens over a distance from a position of comfort and security. Community makes you vulnerable, it demands a certain level of intimacy with those in need. We are called to move into the world of others – as Jesus did.
Should individuals and businesses never send any food or money? No, they should, but there should be a greater emphasis on supporting projects with a community character and less on sponsoring feel good charity hand-outs. It also implies that if you follow Jesus you can no longer hide behind the charitable endeavours of your business or church, you have to get involved in some way with someone on a personal level. Something beautiful happens when a professor becomes the friend of a street child; when a business executive starts making friends in the squatter camp. Imagine what it would be like if every Christian in South Africa would make a long-term community type commitment with (even only) one person in need.
A lot of people are very passionate about Jesus. They wear Jesus merchandise, listen to Jesus music, have “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers . . . They have a passion FOR Jesus. Few though, share the passion OF Jesus. And as you may know, His passion was people - He gave His life for them.
We are called to do more than just remember what Jesus did and quote the words He said. Discipleship implies sharing his passion, especially with those who are vulnerable and marginalized.
While charity might have a place in society, we as followers of Christ are called to journey deeper. We are called as his body to carry His presence into the dark lonely spaces of human existence.
Not only to hand out, but to connect.
Not only to send a light, but to be the light.
Not only to give hope, but to be hope.