The Value of Community – Mennonite Perspective

From a distance, I have admired Amish and Mennonite communities. Our Friday project tradition is loosely borrowed from the iconic Amish barn raising. I have admired them when they occasionally hit the news with a story where the community has pulled together to publicly forgive the perpetrator of some horrific crime against them.

In Paul Born’s article, Deepening Community: The Joy of Togetherness, I was interested to read the perspective of one Mennonite leader on the importance of community, what it is, how it benefits us, and how it is built. I was drawn into the article by his description of how difficult community can be and why a part of us finds community inconvenient, invasive and unwelcome. Life is often about finding a balance and that balance point is dynamic and different for everyone. That’s why, in building the Village, I have tried to attract people who have a desire for close community. We cultivate that desire through our traditions of regular social and shared work events, but avoid any and all coercion to participate. This establishes a baseline culture of voluntary community and cooperation, but allows each person the freedom to seek their own balance without social pressure. We govern ourselves by broad principles, but few rules. While consensus is desireable, there is room for differences because of the importance we place on private ownership and control of private property.

Recently the topic of “like-mindedness” was raised again in our community bulletin board. Some of us acknowledged our discomfort with the term. But an underlying set of shared values is fundamental to a cohesive community. In many “intentional communities” those values are provided by religious faith in a codified set of doctrines provided by a charismatic leader. My observation is that when broad principles are distilled into ever finer sets of rules by which members are expected to live, the overwhelming social tendency is to judge one another harshly. Rules meant to perfect us, chafe and bind. Soon, the burden is more than we are willing to bear. The ties that bind, bind us down into socially unbearable servitude. One of the central messages of the New Testament is about Jesus’ struggle against the Pharisees and Saducees who had reduced the law of Moses to a state of hypocrisy and judgementalism based on rules for virtually every action, every choice. We see the same impulses in today’s freedom movement, rejecting “nanny state” government’s exponentially growing body of law that attempts to regulate everything.

Over time, a culture of the Village on Sewanee Creek has emerged with identifiable characteristics. I will attempt to describe what I see. People who “fit” in the Village, have a strong sense of self but are unselfish. They desire to give unselfishly, but expect others to reciprocate in kind. Because they want to be generous, they are long-suffering and forgiving. But over the long term, if generosity is not reciprocated, they do not feel an obligation to give disproportionately. Takers are not encouraged. They gradually find themselves isolated by their choices. All must give in proportion to what they receive. This is a principle of human nature, perhaps a part of natural law.

Villagers have an independent streak and enjoy their private space. They enjoy the company of others, but they are not offended or feel excluded if not invited to participate in a private dinner or a project initiated by other members of the community.

Villagers are interested in being creative. They like to make and build things. Often, we start out lacking the skills or esthetic sense necessary to build masterpieces, but we want to become better.

A sense of humility seems to be a necessary characteristic. Working in community affords each of us an opportunity to learn from others and improve our practical skills. In our Friday projects, I have observed a great deal of patience for those who have little in the way of practical skills, but humbly seek to learn and improve. Patience stretches thin for people who are self-centered, arrogant, pushy or argumentative. It is most obvious when one who lacks skills arrogantly refuses to accept advice from those who have mastered those skills. It is a path that can lead to isolation even within communities with the best intentions. But, our approach provides flexibility and openness to natural resolution. If the owner/leader of a project finds it difficult to work with a particular volunteer, (s)he is ok to invite that individual to spend their time more productively on other, more satisfying work. If that happens with a lot of people, that leader may realize that they need to work on their leadership skills. It is the same freedom that is exercised by individuals to not participate in any given project.

But all benefit from mutual service. All desire to be part of our community traditions. It’s the reason we are here. Because each choice brings it’s natural consequences, people are motivated to follow scriptural counsel to repent, change, improve. To the extent that the majority of people in the community focus on humbly recognizing and improving their own weaknesses based on the true principles taught by Jesus, unwelcome behaviors are self-correcting. Individuals improve personal competence and self-reliance. The community grows in strength and cohesiveness.

I began writing this post as a short introduction to Born’s article for our Village Bulletin Board, but it grew into something more. An online discussion, internal to “Friends of Sewanee Creek” followed. Please feel free to share your own perspectives on this blog.

If you are interested in access to our more private community discussions or think you might fit in our community, send me a request Request FOSC Membership. Our process of inclusion starts with a friendly phone chat, so be sure to include your phone number.

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