Living Community: Call, Covenant and Change by Suzanne Shanley

In my prayer, I try to imagine Jesus speaking to me as he spoke to Saint Paul, saying “Take Courage.”  (Acts 23:11)  This visualization consoles and challenges simultaneously.  On the one hand, I know that I must live tenaciously and I will have God’s support; on the other, I have a command to risk, to stay focused and follow. We read in our morning prayer from the Interpreter’s Bible, that “Paul spoke from his own experience.  He did not set forth propositions of faith or belief.  He spun no theories or philosophies.  He told what had happened to himself. …he told it a hundred times before.”  And so, I attempt, not unlike Paul, to speak from my “own experience” and to tell what has happened to me, to us, as this Agape story unfolds. For the past five years, Brayton and I have been discerning with members of our Mission Council and of our extended community, about the future of Agape.  We have discussed issues of longevity, replacements for our co-leadership and the changed agenda at Agape that will, no doubt, ensue and to which we choose to remain open. This spiritual journey and the elements of leave-taking, have absorbed consciousness, as we search for long-term residents to shape a strong, solid community vision and praxis and make it their own.  Open to change and to words of wisdom from other community co-founders and extended Agape community members, we pray and discuss, move in and out of various moods and energy levels.  I find all of this a mix of poignant memories, and, at times, more looking back than looking forward.  The flinty edge of the daily then surprises and delights. Waiting for God to Speak I wait for God’s voice, or sudden appearance, as may have happened yesterday when, during prayer, a black bear clambered through our back woods, behind the chapel.  “Here comes Christ,” I thought, a foraging black bear, hungry and looking for sustenance on our land, from our bird seed.  I recalled Denise Levertov’s poem for St. Thomas Didymus, in which she refers to God as a lamb that “we must protect,” and “whose muzzle’s nudgings/suppose there is mild to be found in us?” Other voices intrude on these more elevated soundings, voices of fear and doubt–“This is too much,” like the nay-saying chorus in Dan Berrigan’s poem, “Some.”  Then, there is Brayton’s oft-repeated line:  “Will God desert us now because we are old?” I learn to depend on these God-sightings in the guise of bears, foxes and coyotes.  At least they provide some excitement metaphorically.  Often, I hear the all too human voices: “Let the planning go.  Whatever happens– happens.”  Then, “You can’t do that.  You have a responsibility to pass on the lineage.” Perhaps, what we are experiencing is not unlike religious orders as they fade, attempt new models, some not yet totally apparent.  Who will replace the dying priesthood?  Women religious?  Co-founders of small, lay intentional communities? In the beginning of April, we took these ongoing discernment questions with us as we journeyed to North Carolina for a week of speaking engagements at Wake Forest University.  Evidence of the scope and breadth of community is already in play with our invitation to Wake Forest.  Micah James, the son of our co-founders, Steve and Nancy James, is a graduating senior at Wake, who has been part of Agape since his birth.  He had paved the way, with his close friend, Hayden Abene, also a senior, for our arrival by introducing us to faculty and scheduling talks in classes. We prepared for and explored exciting themes for our talks– social entrepreneurship, eco-feminism, gender and white privilege.  Other classes such as radical community through the lens of Dorothy Day spoke to our grounding at Agape.  During my preparation, familiar voices surface:  “How much longer will I be able to do this kind of teaching?  At what point will these speaking tours become too much?” It seems, however, that we haven’t yet reached the “too much” stage.  Before this trip, we presented a workshop at and attended a Harvard Divinity School Conference on The Spirit of Sustainable Agriculture.  And right before that, Annual Stations of the Cross of Nonviolence at Boston’s State House; after that, Agape’s Easter Liturgy with Fred Enman SJ, accompanied by the inspired, out-of-your seat singing of Fran Reagan, Teresa Wheeler and other Agapeites.  Coinciding with Easter, we greeted 11 students and staff from Franklin College who drove from Indiana for an Agape Rural Immersion of four days.  Whew.  Rejoice!  Christ is Risen!  Community lives! Existential Realities But the fear and trembling, when they occur, emerge from an existential dread, born of the aging process and to what Quaker writer John Youngblut terms: “Honoring One’s Diminishment.”   Add to that, the unconventional underpinnings of an alternative lifestyle in community, and you have a different set of questions from the mainstream aging ones, different models, unfamiliar to the average younger person. Yet, when we were young, we staked our lives on a dream of communal living, and spent 40 years attempting to fulfill that dream.  Now that we feel the need to assess the future, I know that the question isn’t really one of the conventional “retirement,” but some kind of plan seems necessary. I will never leave this vowed community life, seeing life at Agape as an act of faith and fidelity.  Nevertheless, the questions of how we plan for old age and for advanced elder years (should we get there) when one has lived a life on donations, keep me preoccupied and not a little agitated. Co-founders or long-term people at Catholic Worker and other communities, with whom we are in dialogue, handle transition questions in a variety of ways, including “no planning.”  But none of us can escape the inevitable move into the final phase of our biological life and our life in community.  Who will succeed us long term? Detachment from Results? In spite of my preoccupations, community thrives on many levels (except often, the one we most want), volunteers appear, St. Francis Day gets planned, and programs for 2017 are on the calendar.  Dan Berrigan’s death brought us together with long-time friends and members of ALC, (The Atlantic Life Community) for re-charge and renewal of roots in the past and meeting families and individuals stepping into the future. Rich and energizing, but more difficult to sustain with the same energy level, we approach Agape’s 34th Anniversary and the real facts of the matter:  I turned 71 this spring; Brayton is 69. Agape is a high-functioning place, with increasing interest and requests given the impact of climate change and the issues of sustainability which Agape addresses in its very essence.  Attempting to balance all of these variables in our lives, with the countless other beloved community members who assist us, is compounded in intensity by the deaths of friends and family. In addition, we delight in our grandchildren, and this all takes time and energy, the latter of which, comes at a premium.  Ideally, detachment from results speaks to our nonviolent philosophy, but in the case of the “end of Agape” and our fading from the scene, “not so easy.”  Is too much detachment irresponsible?  Is God in charge?  How does God find a successor? The Future: Come Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit is hovering and flapping Her wings.  Edgar Hayes and Ann Rader, co-founders of Freedom Farm, modeled after Agape have committed to membership on our official non-profit board and to the Mission Council.  Bonding with Edgar and Ann and their two children, Josiah and Micah, is one of the uplifting aspects of our evolving journey. Edgar, and another young member of our Mission Council, Alicen Roberts, recently co-facilitated a retreat with Iona College with spectacular results, including drumming, singing, and creative prayer, with Brayton and me taking a back seat (somewhat). Exciting prospects abound for seekers of full-time residence at Agape, with all of the nourishing potential for training in the education ministry, activism and youth ministry outreach.  Agape’s significant 34 year history is still evolving as we proceed with a serious search for permanent Agape members who will enrich, enhance, and, no doubt, change aspects of the Agape vision. But, many of us in community have been asking this question:  What makes attracting young people so difficult?  We have observed over the years one clear answer through an Agape core group of graduates from area colleges who became known as “The Creatively Maladjusteds” (concept coined by Martin Luther King Jr.) and who met periodically at Agape for several years.  Ethically and morally strong, almost all, liberal Catholics, dedicated to peacemaking and simple living, three years of discerning their futures at Agape, never translated into long-term commitment. Many in the group have spoken regretfully and probingly about their generation being “risk averse,” not able to leap into alternative, sustainable lifestyles, perhaps at a “cost” to their souls, yearning for something more than pursuing professional careers. Millennials and Generation X er’s whose cultural  context is radically different from those of us among the “baby boomer” set who did not have to wrestle with college debt and felt free to follow bold, non-conformist directions. Succession Dilemmas One thing we do know is that our “succession” dilemmas are not unique; nevertheless, the founding of “community” grounded in the vision and goals of the 70’s and 80’s, when communities flourished and their spirited force-field attracted many of us in our 20’s and 30’s is.  Finding “takers” for the next generation of Agapeites, certainly rests in accepting the fact that frames of reference for young people today are totally unlike our context in the 60’s. The conundrum is that at Agape, as with our sister communities, we have the rich blessing of young adults volunteering or interning throughout the year, especially during the summer months.  But, as Frank Cadaro, co-founder of the Philip Berrigan and other Catholic Workers in Iowa, so succinctly confides: “They don’t stay.” The Beat Goes On We returned from Wake Forest to supervise two Rural Immersions–Brown University and Iona College.  The students were deep, probing, and profound.  Edgar and Alicen co-facilitated.  Dixon took care of the vegetarian meals.  It is happening.   Community is happening; the future is unfolding, but perhaps not the way my ego-driven expectations want it to. Waiting on God God please, give us more time to meet these creative, insightful young people, who are paving their own path, going their own way, who want and need our history, but who are not destined to replicate it.  Today, the silence is broken.  God’s voice breaks through in an email:  “I was so inspired by hearing about the community, that I spread the word and would like to offer some volunteers from my own faith community.  Could I reserve spots for 20?” Denise Levertov: “In the shadow of death, /our daily life, /and the dream still/of goodwill, of peace on earth./Praise/flow and change, night and the pulse of day.”  (St. Thomas Didymus)