03 March 2007

Community: Choosing It.

Rod Dreher looks in on an amazing community of Orthodox Christians in Anchorage, Alaska:

The parish community is unlike anything in my admittedly limited experience. It started out as an Evangelical experiment in communal living in the 1970s. A group of committed Evangelicals with roots in Campus Crusade for Christ moved out to this town to raise their families within walking distance of each other, and to combine their worship with their everyday lives. Eventually they began searching for the roots of the early church -- this is a story that Father Peter Gillquist, who was a key participant in that movement, tells well in his book "Becoming Orthodox" -- and were received en masse into the Antiochian branch of Orthodoxy in the 1987. Today, two-thirds of the parishioners live within a mile of the cathedral. Living in intentional community is part of the deal here. There is a small parish school, and a study house for visiting pilgrims, scholars and others. I'd heard from an outsider who lives in Eagle River that this community has done a good job of being separate but not exclusive -- of being consciously set apart from the outside world, but still open to it.

Yesterday I got to sit in the living room of the St. James House next to the cathedral and talk to Fr. Marc Dunaway and other members of the parish community about all this. I asked them about the separateness. They said that they have long been aware of the need to live apart in a real sense, but also not to seal themselves off and isolate themselves from the world. Isolation breeds delusion, they said, as well as authoritarianism. These cathedral folks are so ... normal, which shouldn't have to be said, except that like Wendell Berry once put it, anybody who has the nerve to separate from the mainstream sets himself up for ridicule and suspicion.

We spoke at length about the need we all have today for life in some sort of community, and how physical proximity is key to fostering community. The biggest threat facing them in this regard is economic. According to what they said to me, the founding members are going to be hard-pressed to pass their houses on to their children. Because land is scarce in the Anchorage area (most of it belongs to the federal government), housing costs are surprisingly expensive. Their average-sized houses are valued at several hundred thousand dollars. Their adult children can't afford to live in the area, which was rural when the community was founded, and they all struggle to pay property taxes. They are trying to figure out a creative way to use 50 acres of undeveloped land they own to make housing possible for the next generation, to keep the community alive.

An extraordinary place. I left wishing that my family and I could be part of a place like that. One of the founding members told me that given the scarcity and cost of land now, they couldn't replicate this community again, not here. It occurred to me, though, that it could be done elsewhere, in a place where there is inexpensive land, or, like Rachel Balducci's Catholic community (which I talk about in my book), where a group of like-minded people go into an economically downtrodden neighborhood, buy up housing and rehabilitate it for their own use. We all talked for a bit about the Benedictine monks and their vow of stability, and how the only way any community can keep itself going is through stability. Given the mobility upon which our globalized economy increasingly depends, and the rootlessness it expects of its workers, there's real concern over how viable a community like this can be -- even as we can tell how important they are to human thriving.



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