Before I moved into a community house I read a dozen books on community. Christians calling for radical love of neighbor and mending broken neighborhoods. Practically begging their brothers and sisters in Christ to abandon the idol of American individualism for a giant house on an organic farm or some urban street. But these are five things that none of those books warned me about.
Personality is more important than Ideology
Over the last 10 years of living in community I have spent WAY more time doing dishes than discussing the merits of Free Market Capitalism or the correct interpretation of the Apostle Paul. A lot community’s are bound together by a common cause: environmentalism, anarchy, progressive Christianity. But as I get into my late 20’s I realized that ideology isn’t enough to keep a community together. You have to actually like the people you live with. And frankly, I like people based on their personality, not their ideology. I’d rather live with a caring Atheist than an argumentative Christian. And I’m a minister.
Food is the glue that holds a house together…so don’t talk about Agro-politics at the table
First off, not everyone can afford fair-trade organic everything. Most of my housemates get paid an hourly wage in the mid-teens, and that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for expensive groceries. Regardless of how much they may want to save the planet. Secondly, if house food turns into a ethical contest then people stop eating together, and if people stop eating together, your community is in big trouble.
Communal Living does NOT mean that everyone lives in the same house.
Somewhere along the way the idea of a commune morphed into a giant house with a dozen people living basically on top of one another. Maybe it was the 60’s. But honestly living in one giant house can be the death of a community. After 2 months the introverts are ready to face jail time if it means getting the extraverts to shut up. And everyone wants to evict whoever’s Kombucha jar is sitting in the living room. But communal living can take many forms. Monks have lived in community for hundreds of years, each in their own little shack, basically alone for most of the day. Community is about showing up when you need each other, not listening to each other snore.
When you hear people having Sex…Don’t make fun of them about it
People make strange noises when they have sex. And if your house is anything like mine, you can hear people peeing three floors down. I have heard creaky bed frames rhythmically pounding against plaster walls, I have heard bearded men cry out like a cat in heat, and a woman (I think it was a woman) shout loud enough to wake me from a dead sleep. And while it’s a little weird to hear your friends have sex, I’ve gotten used to it. But when you hear people (and if you live in a community house…you definitely will) choose your words carefully the next morning, or better yet, just pretend like it never happened. Because, despite what you may have learned from bro-manitc comedies, people don’t tend to want a high five or a play by play the next morning. And while they’ll probably laugh it off, you might be planting tiny (or not so tiny) seeds of doubt or worse, shame. Most people already feel a little unsure of their sexual performance. No one can measure up to the immaculately sculpted celebrity bodies and perfectly controlled orgasms we watch in the movies. They are already concerned their partner is holding them to an unreachable standard. And they don’t need your two cents to boot.
Its Okay to Outgrow a Community.
Communities tend to be located in urban ghettos or on some kind of organic farm. Maybe it’s because most people I’ve met who are drawn to communal living are compensating for the sanitized isolationism of their suburban youth. And while the picture of growing old together is a nice idea, people change and communities change with them. I’ve had people leave our house for dozens of reasons and sometimes multiple reasons at once. “I’m getting married.” “My band needs a practice space.” “I’m going to grad school in California.” “I wanna raise my kids in a safe neighborhood.” And whatever the reason, I’ve had to remind myself that people are called to love their neighbors, not tie themselves to our community for all eternity. Jesus told 12 young men to “Come follow Me.” And after 4 years his disciples were spread out across the sandy lands and salty seas of Roman Empire. They were going where they were needed. Frankly, Jesus’ message wouldn’t have made it very far if the disciples would have kept living on a single block in Jerusalem.