I’ve been thinking a lot about this peach tree we planted in front of The Yellow House the Spring before we first moved in. Before, when the walls were mostly white and the kitchen was bare. Before, when that old blue lean-to was dilapidating out back and there were nails covering the parking area, busting at least one tire a week. Before the long nights in the living room and the fights in the kitchen when we were growing. It’s been needing pruning for a while now.
Most of my twenties have been tied up in the same story as that little peach tree, and I’m just now realizing it in this moment.
I’m writing to share how we are coming to an end of our current manifestation of the intentional Christian community that we’ve been living in and amongst and for these last six years, how we’ve learned God in this place, and how we’re moving forward.
I, and a couple of friends, were reading a lot of books nearing the end of college written from the experiences of people experimenting with different practices of the Christian faith. The one I was most drawn to was the idea of Intentional Christian Community along the lines of New Monasticism. Pulling from fresh and ancient practices, New Monasticism attempts to apply the shared life and values of old monasticism in the marginalized places of our current world. I was thankful for prompts and a structure for my faith to take action.
New Monasticism was suggesting that my faith in this resurrected Christ had something to say about how I actively fight against racism, how what we plant and grow and eat and recycle matters to God, how covenants to people and place become the anchors that purge us of our desperate self-preservation, how hospitality to the stranger at my door is essential to the Christian story, how contemplation and resistance are the tools we use to fight the evils within and without, how confession and prayer are our paths to freedom, how Matthew 18’s teaching of conflict management is the way we heal, how our money can a should be shared between the needs of the people that we have deliberately relocated to be near, and so much more. I had been offered modern practical applications for my theologically theoretical life.
No longer was my understanding of and connection to God merely personal. I was beginning to be made aware of how significantly wrapped up my liberation was in my neighbor’s; and how “Lord” was an acknowledgement of God’s story influencing and directing all parts of my life. A veil lifted in a way that I could see the possibility of every act, every decision, every practice being sacred—no longer bound to this dichotomy of “spiritual” and “secular.”Love of God and love of people now had a chance to be holistic within the fertile ground of community.
This reading and conversation began to be our reading and conversation which began to be our dreaming together. A few friends from college and I were traveling back and forth to Haiti fairly frequently at the time, talking about our futures after school, and wondering how communal living could play out in our own greater lives. Experiencing a small, cross-section of shared life through foreign travel together, we saw the possible fullness and freedom in close living. A bit idealistic, to be sure, but in good ways I think.
If and as you’ve been following our story since those Haiti trips, you’ll know that it wasn’t long after graduation that we moved into Highland to start the type of intentional community that we’d been reading about. It makes me somewhat nauseous thinking about it now, though maybe nauseous is the wrong word? It makes me weepy. We had zero clue how to do anything, and we learned everything the hard way.
We didn’t know that these intentional communities frequently experience a bitter-sweet cycle of, as Clarence Jordan puts it, “…forever dying and forever living” in this agonizing “half-born condition.”
We didn’t know that the things we wanted to learn and the ways we wanted to live would not be natural, nor would they be fast, nor would everyone with whom we began learning still be close when the lessons became normal practices.
We didn’t know that we were trying to force and/or expect stability during one of the most highly transitional times of adult life—our early twenties.
We didn’t know how to meet our neighbors, or handle conflict, or not consistently kill gardens.
We didn’t know that what we wanted was a lifestyle and what we were creating was a nonprofit. We didn’t know that nonprofits were expensive and hard to sustain. Or that money is sneaky in its ability to bend our hearts toward the ever-consuming program-speak of how do we keep the lights on.
We didn’t know how far we’d come in such a short time, or that we’d ever actually figure a few things out.
That peach tree stayed bare for exactly three years while I suppose it did the unseen work of root-growing below—amazing that it ever had a chance in this rock hard Louisiana clay. Fruit trees are funny that way, in that there’s no certainty in the waiting. All we could do is check the branches for that slick green inside and monitor the leaves—the small signs of life that let us know even in the hard days, it wasn’t dying. Then one day during morning prayer, we looked out to see our very first deep red peach tucked away into the leaves of this teenaged plant.
Friends of ours had bought us a house in the neighborhood for which we’d been paying rent for about two years. Two years worth of renovations. Two years of transitioning people in and out as they found jobs, found partners, found themselves. Two years of trial and error programming where we were attempting to take our already-rolling-lives and get them to link up into something that looked shared…block parties, house meetings, living gardens, dying gardens, neighbor cookie drops, letting anyone though the front door who remotely seemed interested in being there. I think looking back now, what I remember of that time is that it was raw, and sweet, and awkward. That it was complex emotionally, simple economically, and that we laughed and cried a lot.
Once we realized that the transitional nature of a young adult residency wasn’t going to offer the stable nature that an intentional community needs, we decided to create an internship through the Yellow House.
A couple of us had moved into the surrounding neighborhood and could offer the experience as learning teachers to young adults interns who moved in to follow the curriculum we were creating on the fly. Early twenty-somethings were ripe for this type of opportunity since they were likely to be in transition but still seeking purpose and some sort of new family. We felt that through a covenantal house agreement, 9-months of New Monastic teaching and practice, and heavy mentoring during a time in life that is so full of doubt and often shame and fear, we could offer something meaningful while creating the Body for which we’d moved here.
By this point, we had joined forces with Community Renewal International who willingly offered their guidance, influence in the neighborhood, and nonprofit status/payroll to Sarah and me (and then eventually Kyle, Chris, and Alex). The enfolding into CRI and the partnership to their Friendship Houses provided us a transformational education that we could have gotten through few other ways. CRI showed us how to become a part of the neighborhood, grafted into its soil and its people.
What a time of grace these last three years of internship have been. Patience and understanding were offered to our staff as we created by trial and error only. What steep learning curves we survived after covenant breakings and schedule shiftings and program re-directings. What incredible things we were able to have the time and resources to experience in regards to seeing Good News at work in this world. The reality that I am an entirely different person now, largely because of the life that has developed and poured out of 410 Dalzell Street is not, by any stretch, lost on me.
- Planting gardens with our hands, fingers in the dirt where our own food grew.
- Marching against gun-violence in our neighborhood.
- Crossing the Mexico border for an immigration immersion experience.
- Standing in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech location at the Lincoln Memorial.
- Writing humanizing letters to people on death row.
- Cooking for each other.
- Working on neighbors’ homes.
- Visiting with the elderly shut-ins for hours at a time, laughing at their crude jokes.
- Learning about and being changed by nonviolence.
- Making art.
- Painting peace murals.
- Traveling to Selma and Montgomery and Koinonia Farms in the name of racial reconciliation.
- Watching the minds turn and the hearts feel again in young adults who have felt hurt by the institutional church.
- Hosting block parties, outdoor movies, and house shows.
- Worshiping and praying together.
- Seeing fear melt as a 20-something learns that they can trust the good in people, not hate themselves, and add to the beauty of the world through meaningful work.
- Asking for forgiveness.
- Receiving forgiveness.
- Becoming a part of the house and the neighborhood.
What a rich, rich existence.
That sweet tree is taller now, stronger now; and it drops ten to twenty peaches a year. It is a harvest we weren’t always sure would be possible; and yet here we are.
But fruitful as it is, the leaves and peaches stop about halfway up that skinny spry trunk because it’s sprawling branches have needed a different type of care than we’ve been offering. Stewardship is the next part of the story for this ole girl.
I’m not sure that I can outline all of the turns that got us to the point where we had to ask if the fruit from our current method of intentional community (the internship) outweighed the cost of it; but we did get there about six months ago. Where we once merely had appreciation for the value of stability in the communal lifestyle, we now recognize our great need for it. And it has become obvious how many levels we have been functioning without stability and therefore without sustainability. In the expenses and finances, in the culture of nonprofit start-up, in the emotional depth of working with multiple young adults, in the physical state of our old and precarious house, in the volatile nature of the neighborhood we’ve chosen to live in and love…we have been wanting for energy for a while with so many things perpetually unpredictable.
We spent a few months attempting to solve some of these instabilities and concerns in one way or another, only to find our ideas for getting out from under the weight of it all too large, met with resistance, misdirected, or ineffective. It became evident how much was getting lost in the internship because of our sustainability efforts. Furthermore, it became evident how far we had drifted from personally living out the lifestyle of intentional living due to the stress of money and programs. We had become solid teachers and below average practitioners.
It feels strange and somewhat wrong to cut back a plant when it’s making fruit. Counterproductive and confusing even. But it is necessary for growth of full potential.
Sarah and I have largely carried the decisions for the Yellow House ever since the rest of our original housemates moved out after that first year and a half. That became official when we were made staff over its internship. This has been one of the most joyful privileges of my life while simultaneously being one of the heaviest pressures, as each direction we discern and choice we make has felt as if it is on behalf of every person that has found home in that place over the last six years. We have been highly attuned to the ripple effect of our discernment processes at all points along the way, knowing that high-schoolers, and coordinators, and former interns, and former residents, and donors, and more have invested in this journey—as goes the interconnected web of building community.
Because of this wide spread connectedness and the buy-in that has been shared by so many over such a short amount of time, it was never an option to close the doors on the Yellow House’s ministry. This meant that Sarah and I (and our small counsel around us) were constantly attempting to determine option As and option Bs that were leaving us with no peace and ample amounts of anxiety. It did not feel like we could continue doing things as we had been, nor did it feel like we had choices for moving forward that did not do more damage than good.
Through great amounts of prayer, and over many weeks, it became apparent to us separately and then collectively that maybe the direction we were to follow was in closing down the Yellow House and seeking community in a way that is more integrated into our own homes and lifestyles—as we’d hoped to do when we began looking for a house in Highland back in 2010. We made the decision in early January, with approval from CRI, to finish out this current internship as our final round and close the doors in May 2016.
We are confident in the peace that we have received and the encouragement/affirmation we have been offered by former housemates and wise counsel. And whereas we cannot count the number of aspects of this program that we will miss with tremendous depth, we are excited about the possibilities of renewed energy and personal practice of intentional living that lay ahead. It is nothing short of a punch in the gut when we think about saying goodbye to the large cold sage green living room, the creaky wooden staircase, and the big welcoming kitchen that have been our village-center for what feels like a lifetime. But whereas once we had a house, we now have multiple homes that can offer the same sort of connectivity and hospitality as this place has for so many.
Once the Yellow House’s doors have closed, our current interns will relocate (some into our neighborhood), and we will find new employment. We hope to continue having morning prayer in our homes together as well as press on in our learning and applying of new monastic values and covenantal living with the community around us. We ask for your prayers as we work with so many moving parts in the thick of this transition.
After finding out that the internship would be coming to a close, a current intern shared that he felt like the Yellow House has been like a greenhouse. It has been a place of nurture and growth because so many variables could be controlled in this environment; but greenhouses are to grow seedlings for planting—they are to be temporary. He shared his gratitude for the time he’s had here and his excitement (albeit nervous excitement) in the opportunity to get to plant now. In the opportunity to fully live out what he’s been learning. I thought about how bare the peach tree would look this summer once it’s been pruned, and how extra bare it will look beside a big empty house. But his words gave me hope as I remembered the strange forward, backward, forward rhythm of growing things. This is not the end of that tree’s producing.
To any of you, all of you, who have had a part in our little experiment in shared life over these last few years, thank you. The residents, the interns, the neighbors, the co-workers, the parents, the churches, the gardeners, the visitors, the other communities, the kids—you’ve been wildly trusting, encouraging, and hopeful friends. We have learned what it means to belong to each other, and that has transformed us in the faith and in our world. We go out differently now; and we stay differently now. Body, family, home, forgiveness, humanity, mercy, vows, community, grace, healing, Church, resurrection, beauty, God…they all have new meaning, more meaning than when we started. There are no words sufficient enough to share the gratitude we have in looking back or the hope we have in looking forward.
It feels like cutting back and letting breathe all at the same time. I’m hopeful to see what shape this old peach tree—and all the other things planted in this soil on Dalzell—takes in the years ahead.
-Britney Winn Lee