I didn’t know much about this community before visiting, apart from a short video clip. What drew me was their evident love for Jesus and others, but I was completely blown away by what I discovered in person… and I have a strong feeling that Mike and I will be back one day – two days just wasn’t enough.
Rose and Andy’s house in Bendigo is colourful and cosy, brimming with Mexican art and pottery (Rose’s heritage). I loved it the moment we stepped in! But as we started chatting with Rose I could see the real reason why people love being here – it’s a place where you are offered genuine hospitality and friendship, a place where you can ask searching questions without fear of judgement, a place where you are accepted as you are. And I discovered that this loving environment is a reflection of their whole intentional community.
What started as a few families trying to immerse themselves in the local neighbourhood has grown into a vibrant, thriving community of people engaging in all sorts of activities involving the young, the old, single mums, families, uni students, refugees and many others. There seems to be a place for everyone, in fact I could definitely see myself getting dirty in the community garden or getting involved in some “yarn bombing”* with the craft group if I lived here!
What impresses me though is not simply the scope of activities that have popped up, but rather the way in which these activities have organically grown and taken on a life of their own. Rose, Andy and their friends seem to have learnt the art of connecting with individuals, getting to know their needs or desires, and then helping them to connect with others who are in a similar place or share similar interests. It seems to be working – people are taking ownership.
Two days doesn’t sound long enough to get a true taste of a place (and probably isn’t), but as we were shown around the neighbourhood, shared evenings with different hosts and heard many, many stories, I really sensed that this is a pretty special place.
Cornerstone, Bendigo started 8 years ago when several families belonging to the broader Cornerstone network were looking for a place to live and get involved. Their desire was to extend themselves into the life of the local community, establish friendships and help bring about positive change, particularly amongst the marginalised. Initially, all signs seemed to point to Geelong as their new home – it met their basic criteria and everything was falling into place, with financial and housing support being offered, as well as the blessing of the local churches. They had almost decided that Geelong was it when they arrived in Bendigo to take a look. In contrast, things didn’t fall into place straight away and Bendigo didn’t quite tick all the boxes, but gradually, through what Rose describes as a series of “small miracles”, they all felt this is where they were meant to be.
One aspect of this story that I really admire is their letting go of financial and material security. Even though one family held property in another regional city and it was very difficult to find rental properties in Bendigo at the time, they trusted God and where they felt he was leading them. And it seems he hasn’t let them down.
The Committed Company (core group) of the Cornerstone community in Bendigo currently consists of two families, a retired couple and a single dad. This core group are deeply committed to each other and their values of simplicity, authenticity and community. Part of this commitment involves a common purse whereby everyone works part-time and what they earn goes into a common bank account from which rent and utilities are paid. (The common purse doesn’t include assets that people may come with). Rose said that it’s working well for their group. It helps them to remain true to their purpose of building relationships and community, as opposed to being tempted to take on more work and go the way of the dominant culture. Although challenging (and no doubt imperfect), this commitment to each other and lifestyle choice really appeals to me.
Over the years a wider Missional Community who share Cornerstone’s ethos has grown. This consists of about 40 people. All core members and some of the Missional members deliberately live within 1km walking distance of one another. This proximity enables them to share daily life with each other and their neighbours. Being local and available is important.
The Old Church on the Hill
With a primary focus on building relationships within the community, Cornerstone knew they wouldn’t have time to become involved in a local church. They also knew their association with a local church (and the stigma attached to Christianity) could undermine the work they were trying to do, so it seems somewhat ironic and amusing that many of their activities ended up being run from an old disused Uniting Church just a few blocks away. The story of how this space became available for them to rent at an affordable price is inspiring in itself – many little miracles, as Rose puts it, took place. But what I love is the fact that God seems to be redeeming the old and making it new – bringing life to a community in fresh ways.
We got to spend a little time at The Old Church and fall in love with its character – not only it’s charming wooden interior, but the way members of the community have lovingly decked it out in old couches flung with crocheted rugs and doily bunting hanging from the ceiling. Groups meet, musicians play and many activities take place here. Is the gospel preached? Perhaps not in the traditional way, but I’m pretty sure many individuals are experiencing the love of Jesus in The Old Church without even realising that they’re actually in a church. I love it.
The community surrounding The Old Church is now in the process of developing their “feast space” and adjoining community kitchen. I enjoyed going along to a gathering of women and nutting out what this kitchen might look like (I’m not sure why the men weren’t also invited but I reckon we did pretty well on our own!). Some of these women are part of the missional community, others aren’t and don’t consider themselves followers of Jesus. But it’s friendship and a common love for this community life that unites them. I also enjoyed seeing the community garden just out the back of the church. Rose has had a large part to play in this and many of her stories involve the sharing of food. Yep, time and time again I’m reminded that food has a central roll to play in building community.
Wasting time together
The more Rose and Andy shared about their community, the more their approach resonated with me. They’re not about trying to attract people to programs and control the outcomes. They’re simply about engaging with people and genuinely loving them where they’re at. Rose said with a smile, it’s about wasting time together, doing what you love to do and inviting others to join you. It’s about sharing life together. I can see that Rose and her friends deeply love Jesus and desire other people to find the same freedom and life in him, but they don’t push this agenda. However after several years of friendship, people are coming to them and saying “we want to have a conversation with you about Jesus”!
There’s so much more I could say about this amazing little community. Every time we had a conversation with Rose or Andy I was inspired again by who they are and the lives they are leading… whether it’s befriending a grumpy old woman and helping her to reconnect with her estranged daughters, learning permaculture to implement in their community garden, practising good ethics when it comes to food and shopping, or offering hospitality towards strangers and travelers like ourselves. These guys seem to consider every aspect of their lives and strive to follow Jesus and usher in his kingdom in a holistic way. But they don’t come across as legalistic or preachy, rather, their ethical practices flow out of their celebration of life. And their love for others trumps all.
Finally, I just want to mention two things that I believe keep this community flourishing: 1) prayer, which is an essential ingredient to the lives of the Committed Company in particular, and 2) a missional focus. Rose mentioned that “intentional” and “missional” communities are two different things. Their’s is a missional one – it doesn’t just exist for the wellbeing of it’s members. For a long time I have believed that an outward focus is what keeps a community thriving – Cornerstone seem to be proving it.
Despite all the positive stuff I’ve shared, this little community does have it’s challenges and hardships. Still, they seem to be on the right track. I don’t use the word awesome very often, but in this case of this community I’d definitely say it applies!
* beautifying the neighbourhood by knitting cosies on trees, sign posts, trams and the like! (Usually done at night as it’s technically illegal, but everyone loves it.)
If you’d like to Mike’s perspective on this experience, go to: clevercreatures.wordpress.com/cornerstone-community-101/