Goodbye to the north!

I realise I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog… well this is just a short-ish post to catch you up on recent events.

After spending six weeks in Queensland (just a tad longer than we expected, but well worth it!) we’ve started heading south again and are nearing the end of our second road trip visiting intentional communities. Whilst up north we’ve had the privilege of spending time with numerous individuals, couples, families and groups to chat about living a different way, as well as catch up with old friends. It’s been a great time of work and play which has helped shape what our future might look like. I want to thank numerous people for making the time to hang out with us and especially those who have provided a roof over our heads…

Ralph on the Gold Coast

We greatly appreciated your warm, relaxed hospitality for a few days. Thanks for the conversations about living in a share house and dealing with different personality types, your insight and feedback as to how Mike and I differ, and the suggestion to each write down our ‘non-negotiables’ and ‘desirables’ when it comes to living in community – all very helpful. Thanks also for helping us to connect with others in Brisbane.

Andy and the folks at Dorothy Day House

It was wonderful to meet you, hear your stories and witness your lives of simplicity and non-violence. Thanks for giving me the unexpected opportunity to share about our road trip at your event. I was humbled by your interest and your questions, especially as many of you already know what it’s like to live in intentional community.

Wendy in Caboolture

Thanks for showing us around your just-about-finished house and sharing with us your vision to provide short-term accommodation to those in need… or whomever comes across your path! I really respect your desire to follow Jesus in this way, whilst recognising your need for boundaries to ensure the venture is sustainable.

Greg in Woolloongabba

Thanks for a chilled afternoon, chatting in your backyard. I loved hearing about your life experiences and art. Thanks for opening my mind to conversations to be had about language, history, a sense of identity and community and how all these intersect with each other.

Cathy and Mark and their friends in the West End

Thanks for welcoming us into your four-story community house and giving us a glimpse of your relatively new shared life. Thanks Cathy and Mark in particular for the rich conversation and your brilliant listening skills. You helped Mike and I to voice some things that we hadn’t already, and greatly affirmed us in the process. I also appreciated your positive outlook and humour – great assets. Thanks to all of you for your humbling and tempting invitation to join in the fun!

Aaron and Christy, Christel and Scott and their friends in the West End

Thanks for the fantastic time of gathering and hearing about your exciting prospect of purchasing land together. Your desire to live off the land, raise your kids where they can explore and climb trees, and perhaps even provide a home for the elderly or infirmed is wonderful. You seem well on the way and we look forward to visiting your intentional community one day!

Catherine and Andrew in Maleny

Thanks for showing us around your beautiful, shared property, chatting with us and making us the best home-brewed coffee ever! I especially appreciated hearing about the very active neighbourhood house in Maleny and your involvement in discussions about creative solutions for homeless people. We are very attracted to your area for various reasons and were touched by the invitation to become your neighbours!

Cara at Manduka intentional community

Thanks for taking the time to chat with two complete strangers about life in your little haven. We greatly appreciate your openness and honestly towards us – the challenges you face and what makes it all worth it.

Various individuals at Crystal Waters

Thanks for your friendly welcome and conversations about life in one of most famous intentional communities in Australia. I was impressed by the beauty of your permaculture village, tucked away amongst the hills and trees, as well as your community hub. Not surprisingly, your members seem pretty happy here.

Brooke&I.cropped2Brooke in Redcliffe

Ah Brooke, what a joy it’s been to do “pop-up” intentional community with you for five weeks! Thank you, thank you, thank you for having us. I had a great time with you and truly value all that you’ve taught me about first peoples. Thank you for answering my questions (and forgiving my ignorance). And let it be said, if there’s anyone who knows the importance of relationship and community, it’s your mob. Much respect to you, sister.

Matt and Ashlee in Sydney

Thanks for accommodating us during a very busy time in your lives. It’s so fantastic what you’re planing to do with your property in the Blue Mountains; create what sounds like a very holistic, wholesome, in-harmony-with-nature home for your family as well as others who come to stay. We look forward to visiting your little community one day too!

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Thanks again to every person we met with – we are extremely grateful for your time and each piece of wisdom you shared with us. This quick recap doesn’t do you justice! And finally, a big thanks to friends who put us up for a night or two – you all made this trip so much more doable and enjoyable.

After four months on the road, I’m ready to be returning to Adelaide to reconnect with friends and unpack my suitcase for a while. Excitingly, we’ll be living in Christie Walk (Adelaide’s urban intentional community) for a few months, which means the adventure and learning continues. Yay! Watch this space!

 

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A truly radical and authentic community

Danthonia – a Bruderhof community, Elsmore NSW

We almost didn’t visit Danthonia. Ashamedly, I admit I was initially put-off by images of women in headscarfs and long skirts. I envisaged a closed community, steeped in religious tradition and conservative values. But our brief stay in Danthonia has touched me deeply – more than I could have imagined – and I wonder if I will ever find another community more committed to Jesus and each other.

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It was after dark when we turned off the highway and drove down the long driveway. Our hosts, Bill and Grace Anna, greeted us in the carpark. I immediately noticed the pervading peace – stars above and the sound of crickets. Sigh.

From then on, we experienced incredible welcome and friendship from the members of this 200 person community. Each day, as we walked the paths Danthonia, individuals went out of their way to shake hands and introduce themselves. And we received invitations to join a different family for almost every breakfast, lunch and dinner we were there!

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A brief history

The history of the Bruderhof movement as well as individuals’ stories has been so fascinating and inspiring to me.

The movement began in 1920 in Germany when Protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold, his wife and her sister, appalled by mounting social injustice and the horrors of World War I, sought answers in Jesus’ teachings, especially his Sermon on the Mount. Through this search they felt a call to radical discipleship: to give up everything for Christ. A small community of like-minded seekers joined them.*

Since then the movement has grown to over 2700 people world-wide with communities in Germany, the United Kingdom, Paraguay, the United States and Australia. The community in Australia, known as Danthonia, was started 16 years ago.

Many people came to the Bruderhof as war veterans or conscientious objectors, searching for a different, more peaceful and authentic way to live. I highly regard the Bruderhof’s pacifist principles. And now, when I read the gospels, I wonder how Christians can come to any other conclusion.

So many members told me a very similar story: they / their parents / their grandparents were atheists, searching for something real, came across the Bruderhof and immediately knew they were home.

Fun fact: due to their heritage, almost every adult at Danthonia has been born overseas and speaks with an American accent! (Sometimes there’s a bit of English or German mixed in too.)

*Source: www.bruderhof.com

Daily life

IMG_8539_newThe day starts at 6am with each family gathered around the table for breakfast. The Bruderhof love to sing and know several hundred spiritual and folk songs off by heart. It was a little strange at first, but also lovely to hear beautiful harmonies emanating from numerous households at the crack of dawn.

Every house contains two or three families, each of whom have a couple of rooms to themselves, plus a kitchen and bathrooms shared amongst all. Singles – young and old – are placed with families.

After breakfast, members go off to their various tasks, whether it be in the sign shop, school (children and teenagers are home-schooled), kitchen, laundry, community garden, or out in the paddocks.

The Bruderhof don’t have church services but regularly meet for bodily and spiritual nourishment. Twice a day we all gathered – once during lunch or dinner, and again to sing, share words of encouragement and pray. Being outdoors is their preferred option and I loved being gathered in a circle, sitting in the shade of large trees, or under the stars around beautiful hand-made lanterns. It was real and meaningful.

Everything in common

As Bill said, how can we love one another if we only see each other for a couple of hours, one day a week and most of that time is spent listening to a sermon?! When we live and work together we get to really see what each other is like and practice true love which forgives, is patient and kind (you know the rest!).

The Bruderhof take Jesus’ command to “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” very seriously. They believe in living in the spirit of the first Christians who “were united and shared everything with one another.” Therefore they renounce private ownership and share everything in common. What really stood out to me, and has stuck with me, is what they have gained through this life of sacrifice…

They have given up private ownership and financial independence, but gained freedom from greed, materialism and debt.

They have given up a life of independence, but gained enormous benefits from living in close-knit, committed-for-life community. They experience deep relationships, share each others burdens, and remain cared for in-community when they get old.

They have largely given up the opportunity to pursue personal dreams and goals, but gained reward in working together for the greater good.

The business that sustains their common life

The business that sustains their common life

They have given up self-expression in the form of uniform, modest clothing, but gained liberty from fashion slavery, competition, superficiality and objectification. The more time I spent with members, the more their individual personalities shone through and clothing became irrelevant – as with any friends I have.

Read an excellent blog post by one of the members here where she joyfully explains the freedom she finds in dressing as her and her sisters do.

As we chatted with various members of Danthonia they admitted this life isn’t easy. They have different personalities and opinions which often clash, requiring regular forgiveness. But facing and overcoming these challenges only draws them closer.

I think the important thing to know is that each member has freely chosen to live in joyful submission to Jesus and each other – their commitment is not done under duress. Nor is their life a legalistic one, for example, if there is something you’d particularly like to have or do, you simply put in a request.

As they are guided by love, the only real “rule” they have is not to gossip. If you have a problem with someone you go directly to them and only seek the advice of another if necessary. Gossip will quickly tear a community apart, several people told us. It makes sense.

Taking the vow

As you can imagine, joining the Bruderhof is not to be taken lightly. It requires complete surrender to Jesus and certainty that this is the life you have been called to.

Children born into community aren’t automatically members, they have to make the decision for themselves once they have matured and reached 21. They are then free to leave and seek a life of meaning in the wider world, or commit to community for life.

The life-long vow that members make seems somewhat daunting, but I appreciate that without such a commitment people would leave when the going gets tough and the community would fall apart – just like marriage really!

Involvement in the world

There are many opportunities to engage with the wider community, both before and after becoming a member. The community is by no means cut-off nor closed.

Justice and acts of mercy are an important part of their calling. They support various marginalised groups and other organisations working for social change, including many that I have connections with. I found this really encouraging.

Their authentic expression of community, as well as their respect for the land, is having an impact. They’ve established a significant connection with local Aboriginals who have said to them, “you are permanently welcome here.”

They also run a business that specialises in creating hand-carved signs as a means of sustaining themselves financially. “The shop”, located on site, buzzes with activity from design and sales, to carving, painting, finishing and more. I was really impressed with the quality and professionalism. And I love how men and women, young and old, work side by side. It was a real highlight to participate in this work and learn about the lives of my co-workers at the same time.

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Treading lightly on the earth

Stemming from their desire to see God’s kingdom come, Danthonia are working to restore and protect the earth through tree planting, cutting-edge sustainable farming, organic gardening, seed saving and other activities. One outcome is a 27% increase in bird species!

I found it interesting that they didn’t really draw attention to their environmental practices. Clearly, the community’s primary focus is to love and serve others, but obviously you can’t genuinely care for people if you aren’t also caring for the planet on which they depend.

Aspects I would struggle with

The Bruderhof seem to hold some fairy traditional views which I don’t necessarily agree with, particularly regarding women in leadership, gender roles and homosexuality. I would probably struggle with these as equality is an important value of mine, but I respect their convictions. What’s more, they greatly value the wisdom of their founder Eberhard who said they must always seek Christ and be willing to change should the Spirit guide them to.

To finish

Members of the Bruderhof are the first to acknowledge that their lifestyle is not the only way to follow Jesus. They are well aware of others who are doing great things for the kingdom and are eager to build relationships with them. They can also recognise God working through those who don’t profess any faith – were there is love there is God. I love their humility and grace. I have to say though, it doesn’t surprise me that individuals find Jesus here – their authenticity is very tangible and attractive.

I almost envy those who have been born into this way of life, surely it comes more naturally and easily to them. However, no doubt if the Spirit moves you to join them, you will also be given the strength to overcome the hurdles.

One thing left ringing in my ears is: don’t search for community, just seek Jesus and the kingdom of God and the rest will fall into place.

It was an amazing experience to be with our brothers and sisters at Danthonia. I’m so so glad we went and I hope to see them again one day!

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PS. If you plan to visit Danthonia you will be welcomed with open arms. Our time with them was quite brief (four and a half days) and intense so I recommend staying longer and spacing out your invitations to meet with couples and families. And be prepared to delve into conversations of faith numerous times – their favourite topic it seems!

Check out the Bruderhof’s excellent website: www.bruderhof.com
Read Mike’s perspective on our time with this community

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Another way to live

The Hewsons, Cudgee

What a great way to wrap up our intentional communities roadtrip with a visit to Greg and Elvira Hewson’s place in the little hamlet of Cudgee, just east of Warrnambool on the south coast of Victoria. Greg and Elvira, along with their children Patrick and Mairead, belong to a small group of families who live next door to each other and seek to live a different way. Due to the loose structure of their shared life, they’re reluctant to call themselves an intentional community (they don’t have a name), but I think they qualify. In any case, what they’re doing is worth writing about!

Our hosts: Elvira, Greg, Patrick and Mairead

Our hosts: Elvira, Greg, Patrick and Mairead

Common faith

It all started about 20 years ago when a visionary couple purchased 14 acres of land in Cudgee with the view to starting an intentional community. But it took another 10 years for others to become interested. Eventually the land was sub-divided and four families, including the Hewsons, each bought a 1 acre block along Manna Lane.

These families already had something in common which continues to be an important part of their lives today: their faith, and in particular, their commitment to the Common Rule. The Common Rule is a Christian response to the unprecedented challenges of our time. It is a simple rule of life for people who are seeking spiritual renewal, and who recognize their need for personal discipline and the support and solidarity of others. (The Common Rule leaflet.) The Common Rule unites Christians from all different denominations across Victoria. Individuals who are living by the Rule commit to daily prayer and reflection as well as acts of worship, service and justice.

Even though the Hewsons are part of a local church, the Common Rule has been an important means for them to connect with others who understand what it is like to have lived in an intentional community (Greg and Elvira began their journey as Urban Seed residents in the heart of Melbourne), or for others who have been missionaries overseas, for example. These unique experiences forever change your perspective on life and faith, and the Common Rule can support those who might otherwise feel isolated and alone.

But it’s not just faith and friendship that unites these families in Manna Lane, it’s also their commitment to live more sustainably and invest in the broader community – values which are informed by their faith.

Sustainable living

After being greeted by Elvira and Jindi (the family dog), and allowing the two canines to get acquainted (our dog Kito was with us), we stepped into the warmth of the Hewson’s passive solar home. I was immediately struck by the simple beauty and functionality of this home; it’s wall of north-facing windows, polished concrete and wooden floors, central mud brick wall, corrugated tin ceilings, reclaimed doors and other character details – quite possibly my favourite passive solar home so far! I was further impressed to learn that Greg had done most of the work himself and built the house in only ten months, about 8 years ago. It’s amazing what you can do when you find a budget passive solar home designer who will also guide you in construction. Maybe there’s still hope for us!

The Hewson's home from the south side

The Hewson’s home from the south side

A big reason the Hewsons moved to the country was to have space to grow their own food. And can I just say here, I really respect them for taking the plunge to leave the city, which is all they had ever known, to pursue something really important to them… even if it does still feel a bit weird at times!

The Hewson's pretty girls

The Hewson’s pretty girls

Greg near one of the garlic beds

Greg near one of the garlic beds

As Elvira showed us around the garden I enjoyed picking up some more tips. I hadn’t realised that keeping ducks was a natural way to control pests, or that putting chooks on end-of-season veggie plots was one way to fertilise the soil and help prepare it for the next crop! One little enterprise that supplements the Hewson’s income is growing garlic for sale at local markets. It requires little work and grows well in their contrasting climate of very wet winters and hot, dry summers. The Hewsons also belong to a dry foods co-op which is a great way to strengthen community and make food more affordable.

Beyond a personal desire for better quality, affordable food, is Greg and Elvira’s interest in food security within wider society. Elvira has just finished a thesis on this topic. She had been researching the agricultural and food industries in south-west Victoria and in the process discovering that most of the food grown in this area is destined for export. People who live in here are increasingly finding it difficult to feed themselves, with requests for food through welfare programs dramatically increasing during the last 12 months. Clearly something needs to change.

On our walk

On our walk

The Hopkins River

The Hopkins River

In the afternoon, we went for a lovely walk to a place where two rivers meet in the green and gently rolling landscape. If it wasn’t for the heavily cleared land, right up to the water’s edge, this pretty spot would be even more beautiful. It was sad to hear about the degradation of the land and contamination of natural water sources due to intensive farming. The Hewsons have been part of a revegetation project at a nearby waterfall, but many more volunteers are needed for such projects.

Finally on the subject of living sustainably, once again I have to mention the loo! The Hewsons use a wet compost system. All grey water and waste from the toilet goes to a compost bin outside where worms break it down and eventually turn it into fertiliser for the fruit trees. I had never heard of this system before – I had only ever come across dry compost systems (the long-drop approach). Not a bad way of doing things, I reckon, if you can’t bear to part with your flushing loo!

Common life

Timshell and Shelly's beautiful straw bale home

Timshell and Shelly’s beautiful straw bale home

Inside Timshell and Shelly's home

Inside Timshell and Shelly’s home

Every Wednesday, the Hewsons and their friends gather together for a time of prayer and a shared lunch. During our stay, it was a privilege to participate in this weekly rhythm and meet another lovely couple who live just across the road. For a couple of hours we had the pleasure of getting to know Timshell and Shelly a little, and at our request, learn about the construction of their beautiful straw bale home. Shelly has a delightful bubbly nature and I found myself resonating with her in a number of ways, including her concern for refugees as well as her creative talent.

Other shared activities in Manna Lane include Thursday night bible study, baby-sitting, and in the early days, taking turns to prepare an evening meal for another household as well as your own. I love these small examples of lightening the load and sharing life together.

Within this circle of friends, community rhythms appear more organic and less predictable than a more structured intentional community, but their commitment to each other seems strong. I’m sure their solid faith and unique set of values – which aren’t common in general society – is what holds them together.

Beyond themselves

On our last evening with the Hewsons, Greg and Elvira shared with us their commitment to the broader community. One of their values is to work part-time and exist on a low income in order to have time to build relationships and support activities within the local community. I really admire their integrity.

Elvira talked about helping people find work (paid or unpaid) that is meaningful for them. From what she shared, it seems she desires to see people not just survive through any work or living arrangements, but really thrive and find real purpose to their lives.

The idea of living simply or voluntary poverty is not new to me. For a long time I’ve aspired to live with less in order to free up resources for those in need. And I’ve thought about how this can be an example to others. But somehow Elvira’s words caused me to see things in a slightly different light. She talked about their desire to live at a level that would be accessible for the marginalised of society. I realised that choosing to live simply is not just about redistributing wealth, it’s also about identifying with those who don’t have the choice and discovering together that life can still be lived to the full.

Thank you

During our time with the Hewsons and their friends, I was really impressed by their humility, wisdom and authenticity. I admire their values and how they are living them out – from their environmentally sensitive homes and gardens, to their care and concern for those in the wider community.

Following Jesus – bringing heaven to earth – is a very narrow and difficult path, so it’s always wonderful when you stumble across like-minded souls with whom you can share and receive encouragement for at least part of the journey. Thank you, new friends, for opening your hearts and homes to us.

Cudgee

The rawness of humanity and the richness of community

The Longroom Community, Norlane

Geelong, in the few times that I’ve passed through, has always struck me as rather industrial and bleak. So this time I was looking forward to lingering a bit longer and having my perception redeemed. Destination: Norlane. Hmm, perhaps not the first place you’d think of exploring if you want to experience the city’s cultural and natural beauty. However, down a pretty ordinary suburban street lies an extraordinary little community which is bringing forth life and beauty in all sorts of small yet significant ways.

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The Longroom Community is based at Norlane Baptist Church. It is a project of Urban Seed whose vision is to create communities of hope, healing, and justice – in this case, within a suburban setting. (See also my post about Credo Community in Melbourne City’s laneways: A place to call home.) Community life is centred around various weekly activities where those needing a nutritious meal, purposeful work or simply connection with others can come and be involved.

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

Apart from the sign near the entrance, you wouldn’t necessarily know this is a church. Veggie plots, outdoor seating areas, chooks and space set aside for a future food forest surround the small carpark. A charming, converted chapel houses residents. Inside this building, a door leads directly to The Longroom and kitchen where community meals are prepared and enjoyed. Connected to this, the church makes a very welcoming and homely space with its couches and artwork. I love how this place seems to be naturally evolving and growing over time, and how individuals have left their mark.

Essential to the life of the Longroom Community is a group of residents living at the church and in the surrounding streets. Sarah, Dave, Cherie, Steve and two year old Charlie live in the chapel and are committed to spending at least 1–2 years being part of this neighbourhood. They were our wonderful hosts for a few days.

The Urban Seed residents who are humbly helping to bring about positive change

Some of the Urban Seed residents who are  helping to bring about positive change

Brokenness and hope

On the first afternoon, Sarah and Dave took us on a walking tour of the local area and shared some sobering information with us. In the 1970s, the demise of the nearby Ford factory caused hundreds of residents to lose their jobs. As a result, many people in Norlane now experience long-term unemployment and generational poverty (www.urbanseed.org/norlane). No doubt this also contributes to the high incidents of crime and drug use in Norlane.

Cherie and Steve, as well as Sarah, have all experienced the frustration of having their cars stolen by teenagers, often just for hooning around. But they’ve also come to appreciate the boredom and disadvantage these teenagers face. Sarah, who is wise beyond her years, said that their response must be to “fight fire with water – that’s the only way to break the cycle”. Responding with unexpected words and acts of grace are one way these folk are helping to bring about positive change in the streets.

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

Later, as we were weeding the garden together, Sarah told me about some of the individuals who’ve become part of the Longroom Community. I heard stories of accidents and physical suffering, theft and homelessness, and incredible challenges such as raising 6 kids on your own. I could tell as she spoke that the brokenness and needs are often overwhelming. “What can you do but pray” she said, and then added, “What’s required is for the church to walk alongside them, hear their stories and love them.” And that’s exactly what these followers of Jesus are doing – nothing fancy, simply offering their presence. One man in particular has found welcome, love and Jesus after stumbling across Urban Seed in Norlane. He now has such a positive outlook on life and is very quick to compliment and encourage others. I loved how Sarah summed things up: “There’s darkness here, but there’s light too; you see the rawness of humanity, but you also see the richness of community.” So true.

Sarah’s stories and reflections got me thinking… if each one of us opened our hearts to one broken individual or family, and walked alongside them, admitting that we’re not that different from each other in terms of our mutual needs for understanding, love and companionship, this world would soon become a very different place.

A hive of activity

Wednesdays are a busy day for the Longroom Community. People come together to cook, garden, eat, hang out and participate in The People’s Pantry.

Simon

Simon

That day, amidst the hive of activity, it was great to sit down with Simon who along with his wife Kaylene heads the Urban Seed community in Norlane. He told us about the history of the Longroom Community, as well as the exciting future possibilities and connections with the broader community they are working towards.

Simon also graciously shared with us his previous experience of establishing an intentional community. He sounded somewhat regretful about the mistakes they had made, but it was clear those mistakes brought with them very valuable lessons. He said “Don’t start an intentional community on your own. Establish a partnership first, whether it’s with a church or a community organisation, because when things get tough you need accountability partners, mentors, and support”. Very good advice.

A spirit of generosity

A spirit of generosity

Community lunch that day was a lovely experience. Autumn sunlight streamed in through the windows at one end of The Longroom, warming our bodies, and good conversation with local characters warmed our hearts. Any left over food from community meals goes in the Share Corner where people can take whatever they need, no questions asked. People are also invited to drop other items in the corner, such as clothing. I rather like their motto: Share what you can, take only what you need. But The People’s Pantry seemed to be the main event of the day…

The People’s Pantry redistributes food from Foodbank Victoria and SecondBite, enabling local families on low incomes to access nutritious food. In exchange for a regular supply of quality food, individuals are simply required to pay a $10 membership fee and volunteer a few times every 6 months. Sounds great! And it was. People cheerfully took charge; setting up tables, displaying goods and carrying out other tasks. Individuals waited patiently for their number to be called and then made their selections from the tables. The place had a very positive buzz to it.

The People's Pantry

The People’s Pantry

Working together towards food security

The veggie plots

The veggie plots

The last fruits of the summer crops

The last fruits of the summer crops

Much of the Longroom Community’s activities revolve around food and nutrition, in line with the needs of the local community. This is not only seen in the number of shared meals provided each week, but also in the growing of veggies, keeping of chooks and plans for a food forest. Steve took us for a tour of the community garden and outdoor area. It’s not a huge space to work with, but is being used really well. And ideas for further development are in the works with a course in permaculture being next on the list. It was great to hear of the broader community getting involved too, such as a local school group who donated some soil and their time.

A vision of the kingdom of God

the Longroom CommunityThe community at Norlane Baptist Church gave me a vision of how other churches and faith communities could look: a place where people can truly experience the unconditional love and acceptance of God, without any judgement or feeling like a misfit due to their appearance, education, background or beliefs; a place where Christ-like love is not only discussed, it’s also demonstrated.

It was a delight to stay with the Longroom Community for a few days and be able to witness a bunch of people who are humbly going about their lives, quietly ushering in the kingdom of God. I was reminded that the kingdom of God is often hidden, and can be found in very ordinary and unexpected places, like in the graffitied laneways of Melbourne’s CBD or the rough streets of Norlane. It’s not showy and triumphant, but slowly works it’s way into hearts and lives, eventually transforming whole communities.

Read about Mike’s experience of the Longroom Community here.

More please!

Moora Moora, Healesville

Moora Moora is set high above the rolling green landscape of Healesville and Badger Creek on Mt Toolebewong, about an hour east of Melbourne. Tall gums shedding their skins and lush ferns line the winding road that takes you up. Eventually this opens out to a plateau of several small farms and the Moora Moora cooperative community. It was misty, cold and wet as we approached the cluster of homes in which our hosts live. So a well-stoked wood fire, hot cuppa and warm welcome from Sandra was just the ticket.

Peter and Sandra, along with Mark who boards with them, are some of the original founders of Moora Moora. They’re also some of the most knowledgeable people regarding intentional communities that we’ve met so far. Peter, who is a professor of sociology and environmentalism, and his wife Sandra traveled extensively both home and abroad visiting approximately 50 intentional communities before starting their own. Mark is an expert on cooperative communities. He has also served as a local councillor and understands the complexities and legalities surrounding the purchasing of land and setting up such communities. It was both a privilege and a pleasure to stay with these folk for a few days and glean as much wisdom from them as we can.

Our hosts, Peter and Sandra

Our fantastic hosts, Peter and Sandra

 

The dream

Moora Moora began 40 years ago with the shared dream of 12 adults to provide a positive alternative to the highly pressurised urban lifestyle; a place where you had time to enjoy life; a place that enabled self-determination. The co-op was formed and 245 hectares of picturesque land was purchased. Houses were owner-built in six hamlets – or clusters as they’re known – with the whole community sharing the load by working on one house for one day on a rotational basis. Sandra describes the early years as very busy and intense, but the members were young, idealistic, passionate and full of energy. No doubt their naivety regarding all the work involved also helped!

Life in Moora Moora today

Each cluster now consists of 4 to 5 homes, with approximately 45 adults and 20 children making up the whole community. The common buildings, The Lodge and The Octagon, sit in the center of Moora Moora with three clusters on either side. They provide a space for community get-togethers and meetings, as well as courses and workshops relevant to sustainable community living.

As Peter drove us around the whole community, I was inspired by the creativity shown in the diverse range house styles – everything from whimsical to Swiss chalet! – and materials from which they were built. But I was surprised by the distance between each cluster of homes (approximately 1km) and the community buildings. I expected them to be closer and Peter said this is probably something they would do differently if they had their time again.

Peter and Sandra's cluster name

Peter and Sandra’s cluster name

The solar panels belonging to Nyora

The solar panels belonging to Nyora

Something I admire is the whole community’s commitment to remain off-grid. Most homes have their own solar panels, but Peter and Sandra’s cluster, known as Nyora, have chosen to share energy by drawing from a bank of cluster-owned panels. Naturally, good communication is required between households when energy supply gets low.

It’s up to each cluster to decide how much of their lives they share, whether it’s the practical such as energy and equipment, or the more social such as weekly dinners. Often a cluster will have its own “member dues” which enable the cluster to purchase and share equipment. There are also “community dues” which are compulsory. I like the autonomy of cluster agreements as well as the security of community agreements that this system of governance offers members.

Moora Moora’s on-site CSA – community-supported agriculture – provides subscribers with regular shares in produce. The annual subscription fees pays for two members of the community to run the CSA as their full time job. Sandra thinks this arrangement works better than a community garden. In the latter, the work is meant to be equally shared but all too often it seems to fall on the shoulders of one or two individuals. From what I’ve discovered and generally speaking, CSA seems to operate with quite a degree of involvement between consumers and producers, but I still like the strong social aspect that community gardens can offer.

Not what you can gain, but rather what you can give

Like any cooperative community, when an individual or family expresses interest in becoming a member of Moora Moora, a screening or trial period takes place first. It’s not just a matter of paying the membership fee and being automatically accepted – you need to show that you have an understanding of the community’s philosophy, share their vision and have the willingness and capacity to participate in community life. It shouldn’t be just about what you can gain, but also what you can give.

Having said that, I also observed an attitude of grace and compassion. If someone falls sick, is facing a crisis, or even if a potential new member show signs of neediness and may not have the ability to contribute to the community for a long time, the existing members will try hard to accommodate them.

At Moora Moora, it currently costs about $17.5K to purchase a share of the co-op and officially become a member. Ideally, a member will then buy one of the homes up for sale or build their own. Even though there are currently renters in the community, this isn’t preferable as it creates an unequal society, with home owners and renters having different responsibilities. I respect their desire for an egalitarian community, and I appreciate that the cost of buying into this community is far cheaper than buying property in typical suburbia – in fact, it’s only 1 twentieth – but these purchasing costs can still exclude low income earners who can only afford to rent (like ourselves!).

Peter and Sandra's mountain-top home

Peter and Sandra’s mountain-top home

The challenges

Moora Moora has had a long time, at least as far as intentional communities go, to work through conflict, refine their processes and improve their practices. But of course like any group of relational beings, there are constant challenges to work through in order to sustain the community into the future.

Some of the hardest things for Peter have been the inequality between members’ contributions (some members keep to themselves and rarely participate in community life) and the lack of appreciation for Moora Moora’s ideology (some members don’t seem to share the community’s vision and are simply living there because they think it’s a nice place to live). Naturally, these two challenges are linked. And I imagine these particular challenges to be quite common throughout intentional communities.

Another challenge for Peter and Sandra (and others in the community) is the practicality of staying on the mountain as they approach their twilight years. Their dream is for Moora Moora to be a place where members can grow old and not have to leave due to the lack of support and services. With this is mind, Peter and Sandra are currently renovating part of their house to make it more suitable for them as they get older as well as possibly accommodate a live-in carer.

All too short

Peter and I, gathering the firewood

Peter and I, gathering the firewood

Being outdoors was quite invigorating. For a couple of cold and misty days we carted, split and stacked wood. It was very satisfying to see the ground cleared of logs and wood stacked neatly in piles, ready for coming winters. It was also a great way to keep warm! During a brief moment, as I looked up at the wind-tossed treetops and low-passing clouds, with the biting cold on my face, I appreciated what a wild and “thin”* place nature can be.

Our time in Moora Moora was all too short though – it didn’t really allow us much opportunity to interact with others in the community. And as I’ve mentioned, it was rather wintery. I’d love to come back in spring or summer to participate in different activities and get a more rounded picture of the place. More of Moora Moora please! But I did appreciate what we were able to experience and learn, as well as the warmth, wisdom and humour of our hosts. (I found Peter’s intelligence and tendency to poke fun particularly delightful!)

One question our experience in Moora Moora raised was: would we ever create an intentional community from scratch as Peter and Sandra did, particularly given the age that we are and the amount of dedication and work required. Hmm… that’s a good question!

 

*There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. In a thin place I vividly experience the Divine presence.

 

If you haven’t already done so, have a read of Mike’s version of our time in this community.

A cooperative approach

Commonground, Seymour

Here we are in Healesville, holed up in a little cottage on a wild, wet and windy day. The sudden change of weather – we’ve had nothing but glorious sunshine for the last week – along with our first trip to the supermarket after a week of picking fresh fruit and veg straight from the orchard and veggie patch at Commonground, has left me feeling a little forlorn, yet grateful too.

If you’ve been reading my previous posts I know you might want to roll your eyes when I tell you about another amazing community we’ve just visited, but seriously, there’s something really special going on here. In fact, in many ways, Commonground is the type of community I’ve been dreaming of.

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Having spent the second half of my life living in the city, I’ve become pretty used to city life; access to great cafes, pubs, galleries, festivals and more. But what I really love is the proximity of friends, most of whom only live a few suburbs away. The country, as much as it refreshes my soul during visits, seems a little too lonely in which to live long-term.

But what if there was a place that satisfied my yearning to be immersed in nature as well as fulfilled my desire for regular interaction with people; where the frequent comings and goings of different individuals caused me to feel truly connected and alive? What if there was a place where I could contribute to a better world in all sorts of creative ways, using skills I already have and finding opportunities to learn new ones? I’m not saying I’ve found my new home, but I am saying I’ve found something deeply inspirational and hopeful.

A view of The Wedge, the main building at Commonground

A view of The Wedge, the main building at Commonground

Founded on social change

Before visiting, I had read that Commonground was an intentional community founded on the value of social change. This set it apart from others and greatly attracted me. I was also intrigued by the notion of community members living under the one roof – could this actually work? I was excited to find out.

One of the regular guests

One of the regular guests

Commonground is nestled between rolling hills on 95 acres of land, not far from the township of Seymour, about an hour north of Melbourne. There are a couple of buildings for common use, several private dwellings, two large veggie gardens, an orchard and a dam on the property. Open patches of grass and surrounding bush provide the perfect home for dozens of kangaroos and other wildlife, or an ideal spot for one to sit, contemplate and recharge.

When we arrived, Phil, who is one of the founding members, gave us a tour of the main building known as The Wedge and began to provide us with a brief history of the community.

In 1980, a small group of social activists recognised a need: various organisations and groups working for social change were poorly resourced and struggling to reach their potential. So a resource centre and support services were established. At the same time, the need to live more cooperatively and sustainably became apparent so resources were pooled, land was bought and the intentional community known as Commonground began. [www.groupwork.com.au/commonground]

The Wedge from above

The Wedge from above

The hallway and inner courtyard

The hallway and inner courtyard

The dining room for groups who hire the venue

The dining room for groups who hire the venue

The Wedge itself is an interesting building. It gradually climbs up the hillside, containing several split levels, winding hallways and odd shaped rooms. It has a lovely rambling and organic feel about it, especially as it’s comprised of recycled and on-site materials. The building was designed by an architect and built by the founding members themselves – men, women and children all getting their hands dirty – a great way to deepen relationships, strengthen community and establish a sense of shared ownership.

Half of The Wedge is used by the Commonground community. It contains their bedrooms and common living spaces. The other half is used by outside groups who hire the venue to run training, workshops and retreats. Commonground only takes in groups who are aligned to their philosophy of social change. These are often minority groups such as Aboriginals or refugees. Sometimes groups can’t afford to pay, but it’s important that they don’t miss out, so Commonground operates on a on a principal of “cross subsidy” whereby groups who can secure funding help to pay for others who can’t. For Commonground, managing funds in this way and meeting expenses can often be tricky (and no doubt stressful), but I think it is a beautiful model of compassionate and generous living.

I love Commonground’s unique history; that they are founded on the outward vision of supporting and equipping others, particularly marginalised and community based groups and organisations who are working for positive, nonviolent social change. And I love that they are still carrying out this vision today, 35 years later. As Kate (Phil’s partner and founding member) said, they are more than simply a “lifestyle community”.

The shared life

There were many things about Commonground that impressed me, including the lush, organic vegetable gardens, full of so much variety. Most of the produce goes to Commonground’s kitchen, but sometimes excess is sold to groups hiring the venue, at farmers’ markets, or to local pubs and restaurants. Equally impressive were the surrounding activities and enterprises: several worm farms, bee hives, and flowers for market. It was great to see and appreciate some of the virtues to practising permaculture (of which I still have SO much to learn!).

Emily and Jessica harvesting basil leaves

Emily and Jessica harvesting basil leaves

About 9 adults currently live at Commonground full time, but there are always others popping in for the day or staying over, including non-resident members, visitors and volunteers like ourselves. I love the dynamic this creates – things are always fresh and happening. Approximately 20 non-resident members live close by or further afield in places such as Melbourne. Occasional “all in” gatherings bring resident and non-resident members together and help to strengthen community spirit.

Currently, it costs only $100 to become a member of Commonground. A resident member also pays a base amount of $30 a week for food (maybe more depending on their income level) and contributes at least 10 hours of work to cover other expenses. This makes Commonground very accessible to everyone, including those on a low income, which is an important value of the community.

Being that Commonground is a cooperative and nothing is privately owned, if an individual chooses to build a dwelling on the property, they can’t sell it or rent it out when they leave. Obviously, this contrasts hugely with our western way of life – the need to privately own everything. Most of us are likely to see this shared lifestyle as too challenging and undesirable. But I think it’s one we each need to seriously consider, for the sake of the planet as well as our own wellbeing. It’s certainly got me thinking again about what’s important and where I find my identity.

I’m really attracted to the accessibility and generosity of the co-op structure. It makes sense on so many levels: economically, environmentally and socially. And it reminds me of the first followers of Jesus who “met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” (Acts 2:44–45)

Of course living together like this isn’t easy and I asked Kate whether she had ever experienced moments when she wanted to give up and leave. “Oh yeah” was her immediate response. “Conflict is unavoidable and can be very difficult, but if you have a common purpose (beyond simply creating a lovely place to live), you have a reason to push through. It’s the “glue” that holds everyone and everything together.”

Part of the family

During our week stay, Mike and I contributed wherever there was need. Apart from pruning a very unruly vine which was taking over the outside compost toilet (quite a satisfying job actually!), most of our time involved dealing with an abundance of produce needing attention, especially apples and cantaloupe (rock melon). I loved the opportunity and freedom we were given to be creative and find as many uses for the fruit as possible. Their overarching philosophy: “it’s all an experiment!” (Note: I’m proud to say that our sorbet, juice, and fruit-pulp loaf did work out.)

Kasia and I preparing our couch grass beer!

Kasia and I preparing our couch grass beer!

But for me, as always, the best part of our stay at Commonground was the people. The first time we sat down to the evening meal, I felt like I was entering an intimate family space. We all held hands while words of thanks and gratitude were given for the good work being done and the blessings in our lives. Then we enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by one of the members. This beautiful gathering occurred every evening and I was humbled by the gracious hospitality shown to every stranger – quick to become friend – who arrived at Commonground.

Kate and Phil, two of Commonground's founding members

Kate and Phil, two of Commonground’s founding members

Some of the unique individuals I enjoyed getting to know a little were: Phil, whom I’ll remember for his wealth of knowledge, heart for the disadvantaged, and great laugh; Kate, whom I’ll remember for her nurture, kindness and love; and Kasia, whom I’ll remember for her creativity (couch grass beer – why not?!), sweetness and companionship.

I was curious to know whether the members of Commonground shared a common spirituality. Ed, one of the founding members who joined us one evening said, “we simply believe we are connected to each other and to the earth. It’s all about love – love for each other and for the earth.”

On our last evening, just before dinner, Mike and I went for a walk in the moonlight. As we stood by the dam, looking up at the glowing lights and warmth emanating from The Wedge, reflecting on our time in this wonderful community, I said it is absolutely evident to me that true Light and Love resides in this place. No. Doubt. About. It.

Twilight at Commonground

Twilight at Commonground

 

Make sure you also have a read of Mike’s reflection on our time at Commonground.

A place to call home

Urban Seed, Melbourne

It must have been nearly 15 years ago when I first heard about Urban Seed. I remember Tim Costello talking at a conference I was attending, and being inspired as he told us about a place in the centre of Melbourne where both business executives and homeless people can sit down to a free lunch; a place where they can get to know each other and begin to see each other as equals. Since then Urban Seed has grown into several communities within Victoria, centred around food, recreation and art. Their ethos is to “foster a sense of home – especially for those of us experiencing homelessness, addiction, mental illness and isolation.” This week, Mike and I had the privilege of doing a ‘live-in’ experience with the city team, where it all began.

Credo Café

Tucked down an ordinary lane, just off Little Collins St, is Credo Café. It’s the hub for community life here. As we waited outside for our host Tim to arrive and take us inside, we observed the street art around us… a fresh interpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are depicted as modern-day people who look like they live on the street, poetic reflections about the enslavement of heroin, images of syringes, Aboriginal art… to me the surrounding walls reflected a safe place where individuals are free to express both pain and hope.

Laneway artwork just outside Credo Café

Laneway artwork just outside Credo Café

Credo Café is in the basement of a tall building owned by and adjoined to Collins Street Baptist Church. Most of this nine story building consists of church offices and meeting rooms, including those used by Urban Seed. The top three floors have become home to a bunch of residents choosing to spend 1–2 years living in the heart of the CBD where they can be readily available to anyone in need. There are currently 8 adults and a newborn living here. Each of the residents are expected to volunteer 3 days a week in exchange for free accommodation. On the other days they may study or work part-time.

Urban Seed was birthed in the early 1990s, when churchgoers at Collins Street Baptist Church were literally stepping over people sleeping rough. Three young people moved into the church and met people living on the streets, creating belonging by sharing meals. Today, this commitment to creating home for those who have none is the basis of our community development work. People are not seen as ‘problems’ but rather gifted individuals who, like everyone, need support to reach their potential. (www.urbanseed.org/about-us)

Getting to work

After dropping our bags on the 7th floor, we entered the café and briefly admired it’s charm and friendliness before launching into food preparation for the day’s free lunch. I love getting to know people as you work on a task together and it was wonderful chatting with Rachel, Kate, Jono and Woodsy while we chopped veggies. I also enjoyed witnessing Woodsy – a steadfast member of the community who’s been coming to Credo for 16 years – express his sense of ownership by telling us what to do, even though he wasn’t in charge! It’s great when those being served become the servers; when lines become blurred as people feel valued and empowered.

Lunchtime! (Woodsy is the one standing up)

Lunchtime! (Woodsy is the one standing up)

Just before the twice-weekly lunch takes place, the Credo team and anyone who would like to, gathers in a corner of the café to sing a few songs, share what’s happening, and light a few candles as they pray for each other, the community and beyond. I found the experience to be casual, authentic and meaningful – just beautiful.

The community lunch that day attracted about 30–40 people, and I thoroughly enjoyed the quality food (some of the best vegetarian “butter chicken” I’ve tasted!) and wonderful company – men and women of different economic and cultural backgrounds.

A walk in their shoes

A particularly informative experience was when we tagged behind a bunch of year 9 students on an Urban Issues Walk. As Evan led us onto Collins St, through arcades and down laneways, he caused us to question our preconceived ideas surrounding issues of homelessness, drug use, safety and social exclusion.

Rethinking my perspective on being homeless as we go on an Urban Issues Walk

Rethinking my perspective on being homeless as we go on an Urban Issues Walk

It was humbling to imagine what it would be like to be driven from your home after experiencing domestic violence (a large cause of homelessness) and hop from one friend’s place to another until you had out-stayed your welcome. From there you might end up sheltering in a shopping arcade, only to soon feel unwelcome and have to move on until you found yourself in a dodgy laneway – the only place left. People don’t choose to live in such a dirty, uncomfortable space. They don’t want to live there any more than you or I would, but they’ve been pushed to the margins.

We also tend to have the perception that people who sleep rough could be dangerous, but actually, they’re scared too, wondering if we will be the next person forcing them to move on. They’re just looking for a sense of safety and security like the rest of us.

Not having work and access to the usual forms of recreation that we do, people become bored. They also want to dull the pain in their lives, so drugs, which are easy to obtain and meet immediate needs, often become the solution.

In the late 1990s, during the heroin crisis in Melbourne, the laneway behind Collins St Baptist Church was a popular spot for hitting up. Urban Seed discussed putting up a fence to keep people from using drugs in that space, but knowing users would simply go elsewhere, they decided instead to be available for people in their hour of need. If someone overdosed, this would involve staying by their side to make sure they didn’t fall asleep, or calling an ambulance. The danger with heroin addicts is that their breathing slows right down and actually stops if they fall asleep. But the biggest killer is isolation – without any friends around there’s no one to look after them.

Creativity and connection

Credo Art Space, which happens every Wednesday afternoon, is a brilliant way of helping to heal the brokenness in people’s lives through creative means. During our stay, we had the pleasure of participating in some creative writing. The effervescent and encouraging Bridget taught us some great techniques for getting started and avoiding a ‘blank page’. As we shared our first lines and opening paragraphs I was greatly impressed by the talent in the group. I wish I could be there when they celebrate, perform and showcase their work at the end of next month!

Some of the other activities which offer friendship and support include Women’s Space, Men’s Group, laneway cricket, day trips, weekends away and outreach runs to connect with people who may not otherwise come to Credo Café. If we had been able to stay longer at Urban Seed, I’m sure I’d have filled many more pages with stories about the fantastic things happening here!

Sustaining the life

One of the weekly rhythms at Urban Seed is the team meeting where they reflect on how they are serving others. I appreciated being able to hear a little of what goes on behind the scenes and gain a sense of the challenges they face. For example, several individuals had set up camp in the laneway during the week which was beginning to cause problems in terms of access to the cafe kitchen. The team were discussing how they can be hospitable to these folk and show concern for their needs, without doing this at the expense of others. I appreciated the fragile nature of the situation and the challenge of trying to communicate the idea of ‘shared space’.

At the end of our time with Urban Seed, it was a privilege to participate in Formation – a fortnightly get-together of the city team or once a month get-together of all Urban Seed crew – where they check in with one another and workshop community development practices. I can see how these times give them the strength and energy to keep going as they encourage one another and are reminded of the grace of God. During this day I was able to hang with some of the city residents in particular (who we’d been spending the most time with) and get to know these amazing individuals better.

Jono, Michael, Tim and Rachel

Jono, Michael, Tim and Rachel – some of the current residents

No doubt the residents and Urban Seed community lead pretty full and tiring lives, with visitors regularly passing through, so I greatly appreciated their warm welcome, interest in our lives, and hospitality throughout the duration of our stay. And I wont forget their generosity in opening up their homes and serving us delicious vegan dinners on both evenings!

Finally, I am greatly inspired by these folk who have chosen to befriend those whom most of society ignores. Their love, humility, servant-heartedness and joy is an incredible witness.

 

Click here for Mike’s unique perspective on our time with Urban Seed.

If you’d like to know more about Urban Seed, take a look at their excellent website: http://www.urbanseed.org