Few models of communal life
I often imagined in my decade of discerning a vocation that if I chose to marry and begin a family, thus “settling down,” my days of radical, idealistic, communal living would be over. I did not see models of families living in the way that I wanted to as a young, zealous, twenty-something who embraced simple living and adventurous sacrificing. I did know some families, who had formed a kind of “intentional neighborhood” in a poorer part of town, and they inspired me, but I wanted more.
Thankfully, my now husband was also a rather adventurous and faithful seeker who wanted many of the same things that I did. He too had lived in a Catholic Worker and wanted to make his life among the downtrodden. He too valued community and was not afraid of balking at convention. So we forged a path I hadn’t thought possible.
After we married, we moved into (and currently live) in a large, historic home that is far from its prime. It sits just across the street from the Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Indiana, where my husband and I were previously staff members. It is subdivided into four separate apartments, none of which are in pristine condition, but which we have beautified considerably as my husband is the property manager.
There are three families and four single people who share this home, all of whom are friends of the Catholic Worker.
As we prepared to have our first child, my best friend from college and her husband, who were also expecting their first child, chose to live downstairs in another of the apartments. And thus launched the wonderful dream-turned-reality of sharing a home with another family.
Sharing a life
Our setup is such that we have privacy and collectivity all at once. With our separate apartments, we maintain a sense of individual family life while living very much in proximity to other families of similar values and place in life. There are three families and four single people who share this home, all of whom are friends of the Catholic Worker.
Some major benefits of this model: shared childcare, shared vegetable garden, shared baked goods, shared prayer (on occasion), and many, many chances to bump into one another and keep a lively friendship going.
Some disadvantages: space is quite limited and we share Internet and laundry among fifteen people, which can be cumbersome. There is also a sense, because we are renting and sharing many parts of our life, that we are not putting down roots in a home that we can make our own for many years.
We have taken this dream a step further by recently purchasing a huge, old, abandoned house across the street, where we and our friends downstairs, will move in a month. This decision was made after a great deal of prayer and excited visioning about the possibilities of eight-bedrooms and much more living space between two families who believe in simple living, hospitality and shared life. It was not made without some definite misgivings about losing our privacy, but I am greatly looking forward to an increased communal life that will challenge our marriage and family to be more open, more generous and more free.
The Tradition of Hospitality
The early Christian Church practiced a similar kind of intentional, communal living that has been passed down through the tradition and taken up by many religious orders, families, and movements such as the Catholic Worker. As it says in Acts 2:44-45, “All who believed were together and held everything in common, and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need.”
Catholic Social Teaching provides a more modern interpretation of the responsibilities of the Christian to give preferential option to the poor, to live in solidarity with those in need, and to practice subsidiarity, that is doing things at the smallest and most personal level possible. Dorothy Day lived out this kind of personalism by opening a home of hospitality in downtown New York. While we as families may not be able to take in each homeless person that comes to us, Dorothy did encourage families to have a Christ room in their home for the stranger and the sufferer. We feel that we will be able to practice a more generous hospitality by sharing our home with another family and becoming a community that can practice the Works of Mercy together.
If you are considering a way to make your family life more shared with other families of similar values, I urge you to consider the following:
-It matters where you live. A neighborhood where people know each other and help one another and share the daily joys and hardships of life is very different than a neighborhood where people enter and exit their cars/houses/garages without any relationship to their neighbors.
-Are you already living in a neighborhood that holds the capacity for increased community living? In other words, are there other families within walking distance who share your desire for doing more of life together? If you’re unsure, get out there and meet your neighbors!
-If so, have you considered a meal share? This simply involves each family cooking for themselves and the other families involved once a week (or more) and then swapping on other nights.
-Do you have a community garden that you could get more involved with?
-Do you attend your neighborhood meetings? Or meetings at your church?
-If you would like to explore the idea of shared living with another family, does the idea of a duplex or apartment complex appeal to you and the other families considering this?
-If you are looking to share a large home with another family, I will have many thoughts on this soon, but for now, I encourage you to look into this option with prayer and open communication with the other family, knowing that there will be many challenges as well as delights in sharing life more fully together.