By Ashleigh Bugg
In various faith circles, the term “living in intentional community” is a buzz phrase akin to “being missional” or “doing life together.”
But what does the practice actually entail? And are Christians called to do it?
For many in the United States, the idea of living with intention in the communities they serve can be an intimidating concept.
“Believe me, life together scares me too,” said Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field
personnel Joshua Hearne, who serves alongside his wife, Jessica, as part of the leadership team at Grace and Main, an “intentional and ecumenical Christian community” located in Danville, Va.
“First and foremost, we are a gathering of folks who believe it is our calling to be living with and among those experiencing things like homelessness, addiction, poverty, hunger, housing insecurity and other marginalizing forces,” Hearne said. “We believe the foundation of all good work is relationships.”
The community at Grace and Main began as an “accident” after Jessica and Joshua
Hearne joined a Bible study to make friends in November 2009.
“Honestly, I went because I was trying to find friends,” Hearne said. “My wife and I had been in Danville for a little over a year and had good jobs, but we needed friends.”
The group became closer, sharing meals and prayers, beginning to talk about what it would look like to “go where God was leading even if it was hard or scary — even if it meant giving up other things,” Hearne said. “God used that, baby step-by-baby step, to cultivate this baby community.”
Today the community comprises a “network of hospitality houses” in Danville, a city of nearly 43,000. People who need a place to stay may live in a house for days, weeks or months at a time, depending on their situation. Neighbors knock on each other’s doors and join each other for meals, and the full community gathers a few times each week for evening prayer. The community is made up of mostly “lay people” but, according to Hearne, “there are a couple of ordained folk.”
In the world of intentional community, this group is what you would call a “dispersed community,” Hearne explained. “We are multiple houses spread over a couple of neighborhoods.”
The community currently has six homes that have taken up a “commitment to hospitality,” meaning they each have one or more guest bedrooms set up as a place for someone to stay. “We are slowly turning our life into mission,” said Hearne. “Oftentimes we think of mission as something we do — we think of mission as a program. I think that, in reality, mission is a lifestyle. Often, Christians are tempted to think of mission as something they fit into the spaces of their lives, but we want to bend our lives around mission.”
In the Grace and Main community, this includes opening their homes so people can have a place to stay, use the bathroom or share a meal; it also means working with local shelters, food pantries and nonprofit organizations.
“It is also being in real reciprocal relationships with folks who are experiencing things like homelessness, poverty, hunger and addiction,” said Hearne, emphasizing the importance of living in the neighborhoods where he serves.
“Our wellness is wrapped up in each other,” he said. “It’s not just the person of means or resources caring for the person whoexperiences a lack; it’s building communities that support everyone.”
The community has come a long way since its initial stages as a Bible study and prayer group.
“We did that and after a while, we said: ‘What if we did all that plus invite people to come eat dinner with us?’” Hearne said. “And then it was: ‘What if we did all that, plus we had a common fund?’ So we kept a common fund where we all contributed resources to help provide for each other and those with whom we were learning to share our lives — one of the first things we bought from that fund was diapers for a single mother who joined us at a meal.”
The small Bible study continued to grow, and every few weeks or months the group would take a new baby step until it evolved beyond just a Bible study. The group started having serious conversations about what they were creating.
“We began talking about it for weeks at a time,” Hearne said. “And eventually settling on ‘this looks a lot like one of those intentional community things.’”
The group looked to different communities in the United States for guidance.We had great examples like Koinonia Farm in Georgia, the Catholic Worker houses and Rutba House in Durham” Hearne said. “We had a lot of wonderful and beautiful examples, and we were astonished that all of these things were called intentional communities, but looked so different from each other.”
Despite their distinctions, each place had commonalities. “We were exposed to this idea of intentional community by mindset,” Hearne said. “Principles by which we practiced common vocation in community.”
In Danville, 13 people have made a formal commitment to this way of life, but the number of people who identify with being a part of Grace and Main is much greater. Around 40 to 50 people show up with some regularity to prayers and meals.
The community puts an emphasis on incorporating directly affected community members into their leadership. A significant number of people who are leaders know what it’s like to be hungry or without shelter.
“One of our favorite stories is how we started offering hospitality in our homes in the first place,” Hearne said. “We would do something called the ‘roving feast,’ where we walked around asking people if they wanted to share lunch with us.”
Hearne said they encouraged dignity and agency. If someone said they were not interested, they immediately backed off. “We went up to this guy and asked him if he wanted to share a meal, and he put up his hand and said, ‘you can go,’” Hearne said. The members moved on, but checked on him occasionally until one day, when the man, Roland,* told them he’d lived without housing for 18 years.
Eventually Roland befriended the community, and they were able to work together so he could receive housing. After Roland’s first night of living in his own place, Hearne visited him and was surprised to find someone sleeping on his couch. Hearne was worried the person had taken advantage of Roland and asked him what happened.
Roland looked at him and said, “Josh, folks need a place to stay.”
This was a turning point for the group.
“After experiencing homelessness for 18 years, Roland in his first night in his own home, thought it was ludicrous that he would have an empty couch when he knew there were people who didn’t have a place to stay,” Hearne said.
Roland’s declaration changed the way that Hearne and his community interacted with the city.
“What hit me right between the eyes was I had never had that thought. Not once had I ever been moved beyond a vague bad feeling that I had an empty couch, an empty bed,” Hearne said. “That was the time when as a community, we all kind of stopped and thought, ‘Roland is right. How do we live in light of our brother’s faith?’”
Hearne said community members continually share their faith with him. “When we pray the Lord’s prayer with folks, and they say, ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ there are people in that circle for whom that is not a metaphor,” Hearne said. “That is not some devotional moment. That is a genuine and honest petition. People who every day have to put their faith into practice, who have to trust God to come through.”
The community has forced Hearne to ask difficult questions and to change his lifestyle, committed to living with the full belief that God will come through and God will transform lives. The community in turn has transformed Hearne.
“I don’t believe in the resurrection because I need to believe in it in order to avoid hell,” Hearne said, “but because I’ve had the privileged opportunity to see people changed.”
Today, Roland is still a part of the Grace and Main community and its leaders, serving as a “minister of prayer.” He blesses mission teams who visit the community.
“We always try to invert this idea of ‘mission teams’ and emphasize that groups consider it a visit rather than a mission trip,” Hearne said. “You’re coming to visit and participate in the life of the community for a few days.”
Some who hear about Grace and Main and its commitments to hospitality, simplicity and presence may be apprehensive.
“People always say, ‘Oh well, I just think that’s so scary,’ and I say, ‘I do too, but I also find my life is distinctly blessed by these commitments.”
The Hearnes are adamant that their way of life is not required for everyone.
“I want everyone to understand very clearly that not everyone is called to intentional community,” he said. “We believe the practice of joining or starting an intentional community is the calling of some people, not all people.”
Although not everyone is called to intentional community, Hearne affirms that all people are called to something.
“For us, it’s not so much, ‘Hey we found the solution, it’s intentional community, go out and join or start one,’” Hearne said. “For us, we found the solution, and it’s a life of careful baby step discipleship. It’s giving our lives to the will of God, whatever that may be.”
Hearne offers advice for Christians who may be considering joining or starting an intentional community: “It may be you and a few people you love or trust sitting together and reading Scripture and asking, ‘God, what do you want us to do?’ I think if we have the audacity to say to God, ‘God, what would you have me do?’ God will tell us.”