My first three visits took place in what seemed to be the “temple” of each community: the meditation hall at the Cambridge Zen Center, the soup kitchen at Haley House, the gardens of the Sirius Ecovillage. Each place has a particular focus and while each was starkly different from the one before, I felt the familiar energy of people coming together around a shared value or mission.
Community doesn’t happen because folks simply choose to live in the same place with like-minded people. Community happens because people want connection, they want to be in relationship with other like-minded people.
There are five relationships I've seen communities come together around - relationship to Self, to Others, to the Collective, to the Earth, to Spirit/God. Some communities give attention to two or more of those, but I've hardly seen any weave all five. I wonder, is it possible that BCSA could do it? I think so; in fact, it seems that we have no choice but to do so.
Haley House is a vibrant Catholic Worker (CW) house that runs a daily soup line, manages an urban farm, provides housing through the city of Boston for dozens of homeless folks, and has a busy bakery/cafe. I had the privilege of joining the weekly community meeting for the ten people living and working at Haley House. We sat in the un-airconditioned cafeteria where these volunteers take turns making meals for hundreds of guests every week, sometimes waking up at 4am to get breakfast ready in time. We spent an hour with each person checking in, sharing what was on their hearts. And then we had a rich conversation about sacred activism, community, and the question of “who’s healing who?” when engaging in service. Some of the volunteers were working at Haley House while they’re off of school for the summer, some are discerning their next steps and what’s calling them forward come fall, some came to work there because they needed a change in lives that felt empty.
I also got to volunteer in the lunchtime Elder Meal. Other people who had been scheduled to work didn’t show up, so my newbie help was welcome even though it was my first time in their kitchen! I had a blast chopping and sauteing veggies in a host, busy cafeteria while Catholic Workers who weren’t scheduled for a shift showed up to lend a hand to that day’s lead cook, a young college grad from Long Island. Everyone’s can-do spirit enlivened and inspired me. And, even though the Workers were busy plating food and washing dishes, I saw many of them take a moment to connect with guests, mostly elderly men, taking a respite from the day’s heat. At one point, my shift lead called me over and said, “Chelsea! Jerry wants to talk to you!” I walked over to this man with white hair, crystal-blue eyes, and a heavy Bawston accent. He was so excited to meet someone from New York and wanted to tell me about his days as a student at NYU, when he volunteered with the Catholic Worker. This was the ‘60s and Dorothy Day was an important figure in his life, especially at a time when a revolutionary spirit filled the air.
That anarchist, get-things-done-with-no-permission-from-nobody attitude is what I like about the Catholic Worker. I feel like they live(d) on faith and grit alone. I wonder how we can bring that spirit into Brooklyn Center for Sacred Activism (BCSA), as sometimes it seems the only way to operate is as a nonprofit that relies on grants and donors. The NYC Catholic Worker never incorporated as a nonprofit, though many CWs across the country - including Haley House - have. BCSA is still exploring our options of entity-hood as none of us are, as of yet, convinced that nonprofit-dom is the way to go (though it looks more and more inevitable!).
Cambridge Zen Center
The Cambridge Zen Center (CZC) felt totally different from Haley House. Of course there’s not really a fair comparison, but seeing one right after the other made some aspects of each place stand out.
The CZC is a residential zen training center. People come to deepen their spiritual practice and to do that in a community of about 30 other practitioners in a beautiful Victorian house (two combined houses). It’s an oasis of calm in a fairly busy area of Boston. Everything felt quiet and still; in our 90-minute conversation, the abbot spoke very calmly and very softly. As we sat in a small meditation room just off of the main dharma hall, I asked her lots of questions about the structures and systems that hold together the house and community. Everything is codified. There are staff meetings and house meetings and nightly meal shifts. There are workdays and monthly retreats. You don’t have to be a Buddhist, but residents are expected to attend meditation practices daily and there’s a point system for accountability.
Many people are long-term residents, but a lot of people discover that waking up at 5:30 every morning to meditate isn’t their cup of tea. So, the organization is looking at how to attract more serious practitioners. On a (seemingly) unrelated note, the abbot mentioned how the center doesn’t really engage as a group in social justice matters and that they’ve had social justice folks live at the center, but the intensity of an activist’s life and the rigors of spiritual training aren’t always compatible.
This leaves me wondering about the tension between living a life of engaged spirituality. Is there a perfect balance that can be struck between spiritual practice and working toward justice in the world, on top of the time and energy is takes to sustain a vibrant community?
Sirius Ecovillage is a beautiful permaculture community near Amherst, MA. I arrived just in time for their weekly meditation practice; usually, they meet in their indoor sacred space, but on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon, we sat in one of the many gardens. The woman leading the silent (as silent as the birds and buzzing things can be!) sit with prayers of light to the world.
Sirius was founded in the ‘70s by former members of Findhorn, a community in Scotland (too far for this pilgrimage!). Their way of life revolves around the land, which is the source of their spirituality. Before chopping down trees to build their energy-efficient structures, they talk to the trees and ask permission and they use permaculture practices to nourish and regenerate the land while growing food all year round with the use of a greenhouse.
After meditation, we ate a lunch full of delicious veggies from the garden where I had a chance to talk with other visitors and some residents. I quickly befriended a few women my age who had come from Boston, all of whom expressed a yearning for community and to get out of the craziness of the city. One in particular talked about how she felt that living in community would take pressure off of her marriage because they would have other people around to provide connection and support and not have all of that hang on just one other person.
I didn’t get a strong sense of what community life is like at Sirius from the brief walking tour I went on. There’s seems to be a mixture of long- and short-term residents. Sirius is a nonprofit, so people pay to stay and take part. I’ve been told it’s hard to stay there long-term unless you have money or have remote work that can enable you to live, as the small towns nearby don’t offer a lot of jobs. The folks I did meet felt very familiar, like the New Age/hippie kind of crowd that I love and yet...
As I reflect on the BCSA community, I sense that we are living a spirituality that is evolving beyond that sort of “anything goes” mentality. We want something that feels deeply rooted in and engaged with something beyond ourselves. I know this sounds vague, as I don’t really have the words yet to articulate it all, but it’s something that we are living into.