Posted by: Dan | April 23, 2009

Interview: Abe and the Commonists

[My brother, Abe, recently converted his family home into an intentional Christian community, modeled after the example of some other ‘new monastic’ communities.  So far, their community consists of Abe, his wife Melissa, their two boys Ben and Chris, and two of their friends, Alexis and Nate.  They are also exploring adding at least one more person to their community.  Broadly, they have taken to referring to their community as “The Common Place” and to their house as “The Red House” (as it is made of red brick).  This, then, has led them to refer to themselves as ‘Commonists’ — a title I quite like.  I decided to interview Abe about this transition because I think there may be others who are interested in pursuing this lifestyle, but wo are unsure of how to proceed.  Hopefully the example of Abe and the Commonists will help to inspire and encourage others to explore alternatives ways to love one another and share life together.]

Here is the exchange I had with Abe.

Dan: How has your Christian faith developed in such a way that living in community has become important to you?  Were there significant moments or paradigm shifts along the way?  Particular voices that you found especially convincing or convicting?

Abe: My Christian faith has gone through much transition over the years, from being raised in an ultra-conservative home, to now pushing on the boundaries of a liberal Christianity.  Some of the major experiences that have facilitated this shift include: (a) chatting with [a close mutual friend]; (b) working at a health clinic for homeless persons; (c) taking Master’s and Doctoral studies in Nursing; (d) reading books by authors such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Ralston Saul, N. T. Wright, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and others; and (e) meeting some like-minded people through a bible study connected to my current church.  The tipping point was when we watched the video “Ordinary Radicals” and found out about many alternative Christian lifestyles.  I joked that we should do this, a friend replied quite seriously that we should.  That got the ball rolling.

Dan: What were the practical/actual steps that you took in order to bring this about?

Abe: There were a lot of logistics as we started with myself, my wife, our two young children, and 3 single friends (one who has now graciously stepped out and we are now ‘courting’ 2 other people).  My wife and I are financially tied to our house courtesy of a large mortgage and plummeting house prices, and some other debts.  So, although we all dreamed of getting a big property in the east end [the poorer part of the city] and setting up a drop-in centre for persons in poverty/curch(/bar?), we realized that we would have to just start where we were at.  So, what actually happened is we decided to met on a Saturday following the discusion mentioned in the question above.  We just chatted about the idea of intentional community, what we knew, what we dream about.  We then gave it a week to think, study, read, pray, ask people like you about it, etc.  I spent a lot of time talking to my wife, and researching intentional communities online and in books.

When we came together again the following Saturday we unanimously agreed we wanted to try it, and that we would just start with everyone moving into or (rather modestly sized) house.  This has meant some ongoing renovations to add a couple of bedrooms.  We have also spent a lot of time refining our mission, vision and principle statements and continuing to study and dialogue with others.

We have also decided to connect this to our local church, and so have been in dialogue with the Board there.

Another thing we did was purge a tone of stuff, we took 3-4 full truck-loads to Goodwill, as well as putting lots of stuff out at the curb.

We have also figured out the money stuff, where we all pay into a common account that pays the house bills, calculated to the reality that at the end of the day my wife and I still own the house.  For more on the logistics you can look us up at our blog at http://thecommonplace.blog.ca/.

Dan: So it sounds like this whole process has moved quite quickly for you.  How long did it take you to go from your first (joking) discussion of this topic to actually having people move into your house?

Abe: It was only three months, which does seem rather fast.  However, we did spend a lot of time together within that three months.  Also, it has taken much longer than that to find and work with other people, other than the core four to move in.

Dan: What is it that excites you about life in community?

Abe: Man, tons of stuff.  The idea of being forced to be in intimate relationships with a broader community than your own family (we have a 1 year mandatory stay contract for the founders, so no ducking out if relationships get dicey), the idea of being scrutinized and supported by others who inspire you, the idea of living simply and consuming less, the idea of our kids being exposed to more parental figures, the idea of beginning a journey of living an alternative lifestyle to our horrible culture, and honestly, the attention of doing something this outside of the ordinary garners.  There’s probably a lot of other things that don’t come to mind immediately.  I have been quite elated about the whole process as my wife has mentioned.  The idea of finally living the valuse I espouse is soul-soothing.

Dan: What scares you about life in community?

Abe: Honestly, the primary fear is telling other people about what we are doing, and worrying about misconceptions or poor opinions.  There are still some people (who are quite close to me) who I haven’t told about this because I am afraid of what it will do to our relationship.  Another thing that scares me is raising my kids up to either be weird or think we are weird, as this was a painful aspect of my own childhood, both rooted in and contributing to my own low self-esteem.  I’m a pretty open person anyway, so the scrutiny of my personal life isn’t disconcerting at all.

Dan: What are some of the “misconceptions or poor opinions” that you anticipate encountering?  What would you say in response to those things?

Abe: Actually, the one that we have gotten a lot is, “what about the kids?”, to which I usually reply, “what about the kids?”.  People seem concerned somehow that the kids won’t have enough of their own space, or will be not as well raised with other non-relatives around.  Our perspective is absolutely opposite to this; we believe that having other loving non-related adults in their lives is very healthy for them.  As well, we believe that having our kids see us living out our values is very healthy for them.  Lastly, having more people around will allow them to receive the personal attention that I feel sometimes Melissa and I are unable to provide them with.

Anwering this questions has been insightful for me.  The more I think about it, the more I can’t see having trouble answering any particular questions.  I guess it’s just a general impression that I’m worried about.  A lot of my acquaintances admire my achievements and rive, and I’m worried their admiration would decrease if they saw me doing something that might limit my worldly success.  I’m also a bit worried about telling the neighbours, who have a bit more of a vested interest in this.

Dan: What are the vision and/or goals y’all have established four yourselves at this point (if any)?

Abe: You can find some of this in our mission/vision and principles statements on our blog [see here], but really at this point we wanted to just dive in there and start living it.  We have dreams of connecting with our community, including those in poverty, those who are socially excluded, youth, and our immediate neighbours.  We have dreams of being inspirationally different.  In the long run, we have dreams of doing this way bigger like the Simple Way community.  For now, like I said, we want to get used to living together in such an intentional way.

Dan: So for now will you be focusing on developing relationships amongst those living in the house, or do you already have plans to include others from outside into your activities?

Abe: The main focus is the internal relationships.  However, it is quickly becoming clear that we will have a lot of external outreach as well.  A large part of this is the number of people we have lined-up to invite over for a meal.  These include neighbours, people from our church, friends, people we want to move-in, famil, etc.  So, that will be a part of developing relationships — showing others what we are doing and hoping to excite them with our work.

The second one is that through Nate’s work at the church, we are now planning on hosting a weekly meal at a local subsidized housing complex.  We are actually starting this Saturday, which should be a great experience.  Everything else is pending.

Dan: What suggestions would you give to others who are interested in this sort of lifestyle but are unsure how to progress?

Abe: Honestly, just start where you are.  Start in the neighbourhood you’re in, in the building you’re in, with the people you love.  It doesn’t have to be as awesome as some of the other communities that are out there, these have taken 10, 15, 20 years to grow to what they are.  Do lots of research, there a good books, a good lecture series from Charles Ringma at Regent [see here], lots of resources on the internet, and people you can talk to who are doing this or have done it before.  Spend a lot of time discussing with each other to make sure everyone is absolutely on the samepage as much as possible, which includes considering writing up a contract to limit the pain involved in a potential community breakdown.

Dan: Anything else you want to say about all of this?

Abe: That pretty much covers it, though I’m sure that people might have more questions, and I would be happy to keep answering them.

Dan: Thanks for you openness and willingness to engage in this interview, Abe!  I’m excited to see how this grows and develops in the life of you and the other Commonists.  Much love.

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Responses

  1. I live in an intentional community that formed after Shane came and spoke at our university three years ago. We (seven of us) are relocating to Chicago this summer.

    That’s very exciting for your brother his community. I am always encouraged when I hear of others who choose to live in community. I wish them well in their experiment. What city will their community be in? I love meeting/hearing about what others are doing.

  2. I’m very proud of Abe & Mel for these big decisions, but also for how great they are as parents and people. Viva la Commonists!

    cheers,
    jude

  3. Dan,

    Thanks for posting this. My wife and I have discussed this kind of communal living before, so it’s good to be able to have a tangible reference point. Apart from the merits of this kind of living for children, I’m wondering about the pros and cons in terms of the husband / wife relationship. Did your brother mention anything about that?

    Ian

  4. Thanks for the feedback so far everyone. We are located in London, Ontario, Canada…not exactly a bastion of alternative lifestyles.

    In terms of the husband/wife relationship, so far it has been fantastic for a number of reasons: 1) It’s change, and change has been good for our relationship as it gives us new energy, 2) having other adults around that we respect and that respect us helps keep us honest…ie. helps us treat each other the way we should, 3) living the lifestyle that we feel called to live has given us much joy that has enhanced our relationship.

    One of the things that we talked about with our housemates is the fact that they will have to put up with a husband and wife, possibly bickering, possibly flirting. They were quite open to allowing us to be real, and have put up with our nattering thus far.

    We also have a decision making process of unanimous -1 (ie. 1 person can’t veto a decision of the house). This means that my wife and I have a veto as 2 votes, which we have joked about; an unanticipated benefit that I doubt we will ever use.

  5. Thanks for that response, Abe. That is helpful stuff.

  6. Abe:

    (1) I’m interested in hearing more about this veto power… sounds kind of like the UN Security Council (which, as you know, hasn’t worked out all that great).

    (2) Also, I was wondering if you could say more about your decision to go through your church with this. What sort of control does the board of your church have over your community? What are the advantages of working through your church?

    (3) Finally, I question the decision to have people sign contracts. Maybe this seems like a good practical step but it seems contrary to the desire to actually living an alternative Christian lifestyle (wherein, for example, we don’t sue each other because we take 1 Cor 6 seriously). Suing one another (or taken legal action against each other… or engaging in the activity that leads to legal action against each other) is completely contrary to the Christian way of living which is defined by humble service and gift-giving. Therefore, having semi-legal contracts to counter the legal risks strikes me as a step in the wrong direction. Thoughts?

    (I didn’t include these questions in the interview, as I thought the post was already long enough.)

  7. […] Dan Oudshoorn has a great blog post up right now about intentional Christian community. Very […]

    • do you have link to the Oudshoorn post? can’t seem to find it, thanks.

  8. Hey thanks for posting this. My wife and I have also been giving much thought to this sort of thing lately.

    A couple of sporadic thoughts:

    1) I like that you have a connection with the local church. That seems like a good thing to me.

    2) What is the real purpose of this sort of communal living other than to reduce living costs (assuming that’s a reason)?

    3) To piggyback on that last thought, is communal living restricted to actually inhabiting the same dwelling? This sort of thing seems to find much of its grounding in passages like Acts 2 but that doesn’t seem to necessarily suggest people shared housing (not that I’m opposed, just curious).

    Cool!

    JT

  9. Dan:

    1) This is really just a joke, Melissa is as likely to vote against me as with me. After 7 years of marriage we are happy to take our own stands on issues without offending each other. Alexis and Nate are also very good friends, so they could veto as easy as we would, or me and Nate, or Alexis and Melissa. So this isn’t an issue any of us are actually concerned about.

    2) The Board has no control over our community, basically they just decide whether this counts as a mission of the church or not. I think I mentioned some of the reasons already on my own blog, gives us a chance to get some input from people that have been around a lot longer than us, lets us demonstrate this to the members of the church as an alternative way of being a Christian, and allows us to request donations to offset renovation costs.

    3) The thing is, when people are really, really pissed off (which happens best in the context of intimate relationships) it doesn’t matter what beliefs they espouse. Having things in writing just gives people a bit more of a pause. If someone wants to leave the house, it’s not like we’re going to physically restrain them, but hopefully the contract will make them stop and think long enough to decide to find reconciliation.

    JT:
    2) I’m thinking that the real purpose shows up in our mission/vision and principles. In a nutshell, we want to be inspired by those we respect, we want to live simply and consume less resources, we want to be forced to live in relationship with the body, and we want to inspire others with alternative forms of being Christian.

    3) Definitely not restricted to co-habiting, another community that we are connected with involves owning a number of units within a townhouse complex. Many eco-villages include fully detached units. I’m not sure that there is any model that is particularly better than the other, this is purely pragmatic for us at the time. Our dream of having a big space that allows us to bring in the vulnerable and marginalized will include some kind of separation to ensure safety of our children.

    Keep the questions coming, it helps us work out our thoughts as well, since we are still new at this.

  10. hey Abe i just wanted to speak to your concern about how this might affect your children. Our children (now, 28, 32, 34) were raised in community with other adults for most of their childhood and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for them. Indeed, they still have very close relationships with most all of these adults and still think of them as extended family (as do my wife and i). blessings to you all in your new lives together, daniel dn on whidbey.

  11. Thanks Dan and Abe for this conversation – I’m finding it really helpful.

    Abe, you mentioned above that your dream of having a big space allowing you to bring in the marginalized and vulnerable will need to include some kind of separation to ensure safety for the children. Can you expand on this thought for me?

  12. In working with people who are experiencing homelessness, I have encountered a number who have become marginalized and homeless based on their sexual abuse of children. As I can’t always keep an eye on my children, I would like to have a place in the building where they could be left unattended to play.


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