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February 2014

Making Community Space "Homey"

The weather outside is frightful, at least by Maryland standards.  I'm writing this wrapped in a fleece blanket, sitting in front of a fire.  A couple of years ago, as the leaves started to fall and we could sense winter approaching, my daughter Rosa and I went on a campaign we called "Operation Cozy".  I got the fireplace in our family room fixed and we painted the walls a warm beige.  We bought a carpet to cover most of the hideous laminate flooring and an enormous, super-soft fleece blanket.  For the final touch, we adopted a very sweet cat with a nice loud purr.  The combined affect was just what we were hoping for--our house felt more like a place where you would want to spend a cold winter day.  It felt homey.

I just got back from a week-long visit with my parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  A couple of months ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved into Becketwood Cooperative, a senior co-op in Minneapolis.  I wasn't upset by their move (since I haven't lived in the area since high school my sense of attachment to any particular place there has gotten pretty thin) but I did wonder what it would feel like to visit them in a condominium complex with 210 units.  Could a building with that many people and lots of "common" space really feel like a home?  Or would it feel like a hotel or an office building--tasteful, comfortable but definitely not homey.

Happily, the place where my parents now live doesn't have this "corporate" feel.  It feels like it belongs to the people who live there--which is does, in fact, since it is a cooperative.  I found myself wondering what things in particular made the common spaces warm and welcoming.  Design helped, of course, with lots of little nooks and a fireplace right at the entrance.  But the art in the hallways helped too.  Instead of generic reproductions of the sort one sees in hospitals, there were clusters of prints and paintings, each unique and well-chosen.  My mom told me that all the art was donated by past or current residents and selected by a group of residents who knew a few things about art.  The pictures belonged to people who loved them and wanted to share them, just like the art hanging in a person's home.

I have more than a personal interest in what makes communal space "homey".  I convene, curate and celebrate community for a living, and for the past 19 years, part of that work has been tending to the spaces where those communities gather.  The first congregation I served met in a aging building that wasn't handicapped accessible and was in need of tens of thousands of dollars of maintenance.  The building dragged us down like an ill-fitting shoe and a I frequently fantasized about moving out and just renting space to meet.  Then, the second congregation I served met in rented space.  Despite banners and signs we brought in every week, it was hard to feel like we were gathering in anything other than a middle school lunchroom.

By the time I arrived at the Kittamaqundi Community, I was pretty wary of buildings.  I mostly was looking for the congregation's building to "do no harm".  The building shouldn't get in the way of what a community wants to do.  But KC doesn't just meet in a building--it has a home.  About 35 years ago now, the community purchased a dilapidated historic barn in the center of Columbia.  Over the next several years, they renovated the building with a lot of sweat and a lot of love (and some professional help too).  It is a very simple space but it has a wonderful, warm feeling that even weekday visitors can sense.

Clearly, Oliver's Carriage House is one of the things that enables the Kittamaqundi Community to be a warm and welcoming spiritual home.  But what makes the Carriage House feel homey?  There is a lot of art on the walls, much of it silk screens by Wes Yamaka, an early member of the community.  There is a huge fireplace in our main gathering room and we keep a fire burning there throughout the cold months.  But I think there's more to it than just these two factors.  

What do you think makes our building--or any public building--feel personal and warm?  What makes comunity space feel like home?


The Movement That Made Mandela

After neglecting this blog for over a year, I've resolved to get it up and running again in 2014.  I need to develop a more disciplined writing practice in preparation for my sabbatical this year.  For three months this fall (September, October and November) I will be stepping back from my regular work with the Kittamaqundi Community so that I can focus on research, reading and writing about "A Spirituality of Us", a topic that has long been of interest to me.  I look forward to those three month, but I am also dreading them a bit.  Will I really be able to spend a significant portion of each day for three months writing?  Right now, my writing is limited to weekly sermons and an occasional magazine article.  I feel like I've signed up to run a marathon at the end of the year even though I can barely run a mile now.

With running, it is often possible to acheive a huge goal by training.  If I were to start small and build up bit by bit, I probably could run a marathon.  Perhaps the same is true with writing?  I have a hunch that if I develop a practice of daily writing early in the year, I'll be in much better shape for the big push this fall.  This blog has served in the past as both an outlet for some of my "extra" writing and a way to create some accountability around my writing practice.  And while this blog belongs to the Kittamaqundi Community as a whole and will continue to reflect that community's values and interests, I hope to make use of it to try out some of the ideas that will become the focus of my sabbatical in the fall.

As I mentioned, the title of my sabbatical project is, "A Spirituality of Us".  I plan to reflect theologically about community--and to develop methods that help communities reflect about their experience of God in their life together.  More about that in the weeks and months to come, but for now suffice it to say that I've been thinking about the power and importance of community for a while now.  So it is probably not a complete coincidence that each of the three movies I've seen in the past month have a lot to say about this topic:  "The Hobbit", "American Hustle" and most recently, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" which we saw last night.

"Mandela" is a classic bio-pic, and to my mind a fairly successful one.  In about two and a half hours, it traces the life of Nelson Mandela from his childhood through to his election in 1994 at the age of 76, so by necessity it paints with a broad brush.  Even so, several compelling themes are developed over the course of the movie, most especially Nelson's complex relationship with his wife, Winnie.  There is also an on-going conversation about the necessity and the limitations of violence when seeking social change.  (I wish more attention had been paid to this topic--I left wanting to know more about why Mandela supported violent actions early in his life but did not support them after his release from prison.  What this a change in his ideology, or did it merely reflect changes in the parties he opposed?)

A third theme in the movie is a bit more subtle--the necessity of both communal action and individual leadership when making change.  Early on in the movie, the power of community is at the forefront.  Mandela is initiated into manhood in a tribal ceremony along with a group of boys and is intiatiated into political action by another group once he is an adult.  When he finally decides to act against Apartheid, he joins a group.  He later defends his activism by explaining that while each person, like each finger on a hand, is not particularly powerful on his own, they become powerful when they come together, just as the fingers together form a fist.  The raised fist becomes a symbol of the ANC, the party that continues to rule South Africa today.

Mandela is imprisoned along with a number of other ANC activists, and as the movie speeds through his 27 years of imprisonment it shows these men working together, joking together and growing old together.  In one particularly touching scene, a guard allows one of Mandela's fellow prisoners to visit him after Mandela receives news that his oldest son has died.  It is clear that while Mandela has amazing emotional fortitude, he draws strength from the group he identifies with so strongly.

But as apartheid starts to crumble, Mandela is invited to engage in talks with leaders in the white South African government.  The other 5 men with whom he has spent his imprisonment are not happy that he is undertaking these negotiations as an individual.  They even take a vote.  All five agree that Mandela should not negotiate independently but Mandela disagrees and continues the talks.  Ultimately, Mandela and his friends are released from prison and the movie never revisits their relationship with each other.  But when violence begins to escalate prior to the national elections, Mandela goes on television and says something to the effect of, "I know you believe that violence will make a difference, but you are wrong.  I am your leader and I'm telling you that there is only one way forward.  We cannot win a war but we can win an election."  As it turned out, he was right.

Clearly, Mandela's strong leadership was an essential piece of South Africa's transition to a non-racial democracy.  There was plenty of violence in the mix of this transition, but there certainly would have been much more without Mandela's passionate advocacy for power-sharing and democratic processes.  But what about the negotiations while he was still in prison?  What would have happened if Mandela had insisted that the government negotiate with several representatives of the ANC and not with him alone?  Would that have been less successful?  When does an individual leader need to step away from the group, the party, the movement that has trained, sustained and supported him?  

The movie raises these questions, but doesn't answer them.  By the end of the movie, the movement has dropped back from view and Mandela is more often than not depicted alone--sitting on his bed, eating at a long empty table or walking up a long path in the grass as children trail far behind him.  But history tells a different story.  Mandela's long walk was not a solitary one.  The movement made Mandela. Mandela-enemies-quote