This is the third essay in our series on intentional communities, where we invite writers to reflect on what we can learn from this movement. In this essay, Rev. Rimes McElveen writes about costly forgiveness and his work with undergraduates and young graduates living together in intentional Christian community at Vista House in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, a ministry of the Mere Christianity Forum at Furman University. To read other essays in this series, click here.
“You did what!?” I exclaimed, glaring across the dining room table at one of the Vista House Resident Fellows.
We were in the middle of one of the weekly community meals that residents and staff share together as part of our rhythm of life. The resident had just disclosed that he had not wanted to pay the $50 to have his bed comforter dry-cleaned. He had decided instead to simply put his comforter back on his bed, neither washed nor dry-cleaned, after washing his sheets and clothes on hot. In that moment, I, and other members of the community, experienced his confession as an egregious violation. It took an immense amount of self-discipline and grace to even remain at the table with one another for the balance of our meal and prayers.
You might think I overreacted to a fairly trivial incident. But this news, a confession of sorts, came three months into a nearly six-month battle against the first, and hopefully last, outbreak of bedbugs at Vista House. The ordeal with bedbugs cost more than $3,000 and countless clothes, bedding sets, and hours—dear heavens the lost hours of our time. The community and our life together suffered through months of heated conversations, application of chemicals, temporary evacuations to other living quarters, and exasperating violations by particular members who failed to abide by the prescribed remedies given to us by the pest control companies (yes, that should be plural), such as dry-cleaning or throwing out bedding and clothing.
Living in community is hard. It’s also beautiful and deeply fulfilling and a true crucible for personal transformation and maturation. Even when people possess the humility, will, and grace to live well with one another, it is rarely enough to hold a community of housemates together when the inevitable challenges of shared life stretch and stress relationships. It takes a well-defined, pliable, and clearly delineated covenant to undergird, set boundaries around, and inspire life together. It also requires the discipline of self-reflection as well as revisiting and honoring the covenant with metronomic regularity.
To add some context, each semester at Vista House, a half dozen or so undergraduates covenant to live in intentional Christian community with one another. They share bedrooms, bathrooms, silverware, a garden, prayers, finances, clothes, occasionally toothbrushes, and responsibilities – lots of them. The house is a Christian hospitality house for the Furman and Greenville communities; home to the ministry of Mere Christianity Forum and the resident community; and a living witness to a vision of “hospitality, community, and the arts.” Part of the shared responsibility of living in intentional Christian community at Vista House is modeling an alternative to vacuous community-less dormitory life; debaucherous fraternity or sorority halls/houses that have become silos of privilege and exclusion; or autonomous, sometimes gated, suburbia-esque apartment living.
Obviously not all dormitories, “Greek” houses, and college apartments are community-less living experiences devoid of authentic friendships or Christian community as caricatured above, but many are. Vista House and hundreds of other university-related intentional Christian communities across the United States witness to an alternative Way. A Way marked by transformative friendships steeped in the rich fruits of Christian faithfulness, fortitude, and forgiveness. Central to this Way is the distinctly Christian experience of forgiveness made possible by God’s grace working in and through the hearts and lives of people who covenant to live together in Christian community. I’m not referring to the casual forgiveness offered here and there between housemates when dishes are left in the sink, some sarcastic remark stings more than intended, or you forget to show up for a lunch meeting. I mean the costly forgiveness sourced by a Grace beyond oneself that follows a deeply painful failure in a lasting friendship.
Each Vista House community co-creates their covenant—their intentions for life together in Christian community: daily communal prayer, chores, behavioral boundaries, meals – open table and closed table, hospitality, being salt and light in a tasteless culture, and so on. At our meals together we revisit that covenant and practice the ritual of naming for oneself the ways in which we failed to uphold the covenant and naming the ways we have witnessed others upholding the covenant. Then we share the Bread and the Cup; we give and receive forgiveness; we offer signs of Peace; we sing of God’s mercies; and we go further up, and further in, towards the heart of God. It’s not an easy Way. It is a Way marked by little cairns built of humility, delight, brokenness, vulnerability, sober self-assessment, forgiveness, celebration, and gentleness. On the path we discover within ourselves and our community the fruits of God-seeded fortitude that are reflected in the moments of personal and corporate maturation in Christ.
If you want to understand, empathize, and indeed move towards loving someone different from yourself, try living with them for a semester, a year, a few years. It is there, at the place of embodied relationality held together by covenantal intentionality, that authentic friendship across difference becomes reality. I see these types of friendships forming year after year in the fertile relational soil of collegiate-intentional Christian community. Black, white, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, liberal, male, female, intellectual, athletic, introverted, extroverted, sinner, and saint alike have called Vista House home.
At some point along the way all Vista House residents fail themselves, the covenant, and the One who calls us together and gives us the gift of community. But like each of the deserter disciples who Jesus restored, sooner or later, all of our residents have been brought together through the mysterious tie that binds us together – costly forgiveness. The resident I mentioned above shared his confession during our weekly community dinner when we re-member our covenant. Our God-given covenantal community of forgiveness was strong enough to hold us together amidst our collective brokenness and failures. By the end of the year we had learned the abiding value of holding fast to our vision of life together in intentional Christian community. We discovered a capacity for friendship, fortitude, and forgiveness none of us imagined possible just nine months before.
Forgiveness – even in battles with bedbugs – is indeed the best way forward toward nurturing authentic friendships that change the world for the better and close the gap between what is and what can be.