I feel a deep sense of community with the twenty other young adults seated around me in our urban neighborhood’s lone coffee shop. We’re discussing the destructive images of God that plague our cultures and families—images that legitimize slavery, violence and oppression. Through the lens of Christianity we ask profound questions about race, colonization, justice, and poverty. At the same time, I find myself approaching conversations carefully, stumbling through some of the language and assumptions of my peers. Some words and phrases make me squirm, like “believers,” “if the Lord allows me,” and “we are all dirt.” I am a Catholic navigating what has always been a foreign and even taboo world: evangelical Christianity. I am not only navigating this world in coffee shop conversations, I have signed a covenant and joined an intentional community founded on evangelical norms.
When I first learned about intentional communities in the U.S. – from new monasticism to the intentional community I subsequently, and recently, joined – I naively assumed they were mostly Roman Catholic. How could it be any other way? Catholics carry the monastic tradition. Catholics live in community. Catholics practically invented social justice. All of it reeked of Catholicism like incense on holy days. But of course, that’s not the case. The majority of the intentional communities sprouting up throughout the United States are not Catholic but Protestant, and more specifically, evangelical.
At the Collegeville Institute, we continually ask ourselves what ecumenism means today and tomorrow, if it means anything at all. In one of our recent board meetings, some members noted the growing number of youth and young adults coming together for service and justice events, even committing substantial amounts of time to such endeavors—while simultaneously decreasing their involvement in worship and other formal church activities. We wondered together about the connection between this pattern of non-affiliated service and the Institute’s commitment to ecumenism.
I can’t help but think that my friends and I are living out that question and fumbling around for the connections. What does ecumenism look like in our coffee shops, in our intentional communities, and on our city streets? My friends and I, rarely, if ever, discuss doctrinal differences – in fact, I’m not sure many of us could even name them. Yet differences, unspoken and unnamed, inform our conversations, color our language, and influence our motivations to live in community and work for justice. What do these often unstated, largely unnamed, differences mean for the work of ecumenism today? What is happening at all those irregular, but increasingly regular, places where young religiously committed people gather? Is anyone taking notice? We may not resemble those grand denominationally oriented ecumenical assemblies of the past, but the work they began is alive, well, and far from over. With latté in hand, a new generation of ecumenists carries on.
Image: Ensor, David. Coffee Shop. Available from: Flickr Commons.