I have never lived in an intentional community. The closest I have come was when I lived in a drug and alcohol rehab house, in a neighborhood where several staff and volunteers of a church and related ministry also lived. Even though we did not share a common purse (combining our incomes), there was a great deal of material sharing and a fantastic sense of family. The geographical proximity, a shared mission of serving the city's poor, and common desire to faithfully follow Jesus' teachings made this tight-knit group a true community. It was the greatest spiritual and social period of my life.
Reading Christopher Heuertz's new book, Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community, gave me a sense of nostalgia and longing for those times. Heuertz is executive directer of Word Made Flesh, an organization committed to "serving Jesus among the poorest of the poor." Unexpected Gifts tells a little bit of the story of Word Made Flesh, but I could only infer a little from the book. Apparently WMF is made up of communities around the world who live intentionally (and, presumably, communally) in very poor areas, ministering among the residents.
Unexpected Gifts will appeal most to those who are, or are considering, living communally. Heuertz presents an honest picture, not glossing over some of the difficulties of community living, especially when the community has chosen to live in a slum or other marginal setting. He starts out by saying the book is "about the cost of community, not positive spin. In community, there will always be a series of losses, giving something up to gain something more. But in the giving up, we find better versions of ourselves." Community life is "far worse than you expect it to be; but in the end, it's far better than you could ever imagine."
With that ringing endorsement of community life, Heuertz endeavors to reveal the "unexpected gifts" that we can find in community. Although most of us will never live the way Heuertz and his Word Made Flesh community members live, Unexpected Gifts can still be a valuable read. One major weakness of the church, and churches, in the U.S. is the lack of real community. Very few of us would consider communal living, but we are called to bear one another's burdens and live life together. We find ourselves in communities of people who are "a group of coworkers trying to be friends" rather than "friends who chose to work together." We attempt to build inclusive communities without confessing "the poverty of our friendships." We are called to build authentic relationships, with true friends who know that "we're not as bad as our worst moments and often worse than our best."
If you live or work in a communal setting, especially as in a ministry or mission station, add Unexpected Gifts to your required reading list. For the rest of us, read it and long for the kind of authentic community Heuertz describes and ask yourself what's missing from your community and the relationships in your life.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!
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