This is the fourth and final essay in our series on intentional communities, where we invite writers to reflect on what we can learn from this movement. In this essay, Josina Cooper Guess writes about the challenges of long-term commitment to community. To read other essays in this series, click here.
Five years ago my husband, Michael, and I moved with our four young children from our home in southwest Philadelphia to Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian service community in rural northeast Georgia. Intentional communities were sprouting up all around us, and we felt an insatiable tug to bind ourselves to people who, on an intimate level and in a specific place, shared work, worship, and a ministry rooted in following Jesus and loving our neighbors. We had weathered various crises in our home church including pastoral misconduct, good friends divorcing and moving away from faith and community, and a neighbor’s suicide. We had no illusions that an intentional community would solve all our problems, and yet I longed for more stability and support as I struggled to raise my four kids in the city.
We considered starting our own intentional community, but during our discernment a friend of ours gave us the book School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, put out by the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina. After reading that book, we decided that rather than starting our own new thing, we would learn from earlier generations by grafting ourselves on to something that already had solid roots. This felt like a good choice, because while we dreamed about living on a farm in the country, we lacked the knowledge or discipline to manage animals and a garden alone. We set our sights on a community called Jubilee Partners.
In 1979 Koinonia Farm, the intentional community in Americus, Georgia that birthed Habitat for Humanity, sent three families to start Jubilee Partners, another Georgia-based community that was to be rooted in direct service to others. It was the wild persimmon and the great blue herons on the ponds that confirmed for those first families that these 260 acres that had once been cotton plantation and cattle land would be a good place to plant community. They decided to build houses and an English school, to welcome refugees, and to dedicate time to visiting people in prison, especially men on death row.
Since then, over 3,000 refugees from 33 different countries have come to Jubilee for a few weeks or a few years, depending on the circumstances. Usually there are about 25 refugees living at Jubilee at any given time. Up to a dozen volunteers come every season to teach English and help with the daily garden, maintenance, and cleaning work. Sometimes volunteers request to become “apprentices” who commit to live and work here for one to three years while others may become “novices” who are discerning with the community whether or not to be a resident “partner.” Michael and I arrived as volunteers and are now among the 16 “partners” who live here “for the long haul” and carry out most of the administrative and leadership roles as well as daily care of the land, buildings, and one another. A growing circle of neighbors, many of whom are former volunteers and refugees, live near Jubilee and join in Sunday evening worship, English classes, and help tend the garden plots. We also host a constant stream of visitors from down the road and around the world who are interested in intentional Christian community, organic gardening, or work with refugees and prisoners.
There is loveliness and confusion within and between each of these circles of our community. Our proximity and common work allow people from varied educational, ethnic, theological and social backgrounds to eat, work, play, and connect in ways that rarely happen elsewhere in our fragmented society. I’ve learned from people who have walked through deserts, run from gunfire, buried children, been forced away from all they knew and loved and still find strength to extend mercy and hospitality beyond explanation. They have given me courage to truly believe that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and embrace the spiritual change that my marriage, my family and I need in order to be healthy in the midst of temptations, struggle and conflict.
Meanwhile, unspoken power dynamics, false assumptions, cultural misunderstanding, compassion fatigue, and unhealthy patterns of over-assertiveness or avoidance can sometimes make it feel like Jubilee is more an in-“tension”-al than a beloved community. Add to this parental, marital, and sibling dynamics in our families of origin as well as working through other issues such as physical and mental illness, and it’s a wonder that we keep going. The fact that the flip side of the beautiful tapestry is all knots and snarls doesn’t negate that something remarkable is happening at Jubilee in spite of, and even because of, our differences and challenges.
Ironically, the name of our community, “Jubilee,” is based on a Biblical vision of rest and celebration in the Lord, and the restoration of personal liberty and forfeited property (Leviticus 25) that never actually occurred in ancient Israel. Was the vision for rest and restoration too radical? Certainly we at Jubilee daily live in the gap between ideals of reconciliation and unity and the reality of our community made up of real people—both broken and beautiful. Denial or silence around our problems only makes them worse. Confessing, forgiving, and working on conflicts allows opportunities for light to break through.
As much as I have delighted in the beauty of this place called Jubilee where blueberries grow by the gallon and sweet potatoes by the ton, where great blue herons roost and refugee families find rest, where I have met new people who have challenged, loved and shaped me and my family – it has been painful to reconcile my fantasy of intentional community life with its reality. Even in Eden, with a community of two, sin slithered in. My old anxieties and frustrations have been replaced with new ones. Relationships in this place can be just as fraught with conflict and dysfunction as any church, organization or family.
Deciding to join an intentional community does not in and of itself bring health and healing. Deciding to receive healing and to work on getting better as an individual, however, does, and healthier people make for healthier community. Recently I’ve been feeling the familiar itch to leave this community because things are harder here than I would have imagined. I’m not sure if we were called to live here for a season or a lifetime, but for now I am resisting the temptation to flee. Instead I am working on sitting with the imperfection and seeing what it might be like to live more fully in grace toward myself and others. Prayer, scripture and moments of solitude are becoming the food that nourish me even more than bushels of kale and vine ripe tomatoes. Could I have learned all of this without moving here? Probably. Perhaps for our family, being transplanted as strangers in a strange land has helped us to walk in the direction of home, finding peace with God and one another.
There are no shortcuts for creating beloved community. We are called to step into that gap through the daring, bridge-building work of forgiveness that was shown to us through Jesus. The most simple and challenging way to live in intentional community is the same simple challenge that applies to any human relationship: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” A friend from Philly visited us recently and noted the way that Michael and I spoke with each other and our kids. “It seems like you are getting better,” she said. We pray so, and believe that we are getting a quality education in this school for conversion, one interaction at a time.