Cover story -- Agape community
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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

-- Skip Scheil

Suzanne and Brayton Shanley (center) and a longtime friend sit on the grass at Agape community in Massachusetts.
A radical call

Lay Catholic community Agape lives off the land, following gospel of nonviolence with no compromise

Hardwick, Mass.

Amid the hum of crickets and tree frogs, at the end of a rocky lane deep in the New England countryside, more than 200 people are gathered on folding chairs on the knobby grass on a surprisingly warm October Saturday. The crowd is a mix of gray-haired grandparents and tattooed college students, full-time peace activists and middle-class homeowners who believe Christ’s central message was a radical call to nonviolence.

They all trekked into the woods of Hardwick, Mass., Oct. 6 to mark the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Agape, a lay Catholic community committed to living and teaching a philosophy of radical Christian nonviolence. The community lives off the land, growing its own food and generating most of its own electricity in a conscious rejection of what it considers the life-destroying values of modern American society.

-- Skip Schiel

Arun Ghandi, peace activist and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, speaks at the Agape gathering.

Agape -- it means selfless love in Greek -- is a mixture of lay monastery, retreat center and commune. In the course of the day Agape’s sup- porters will hear Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, lecture on the meaning of nonviolence; discuss the best forms of resistance to a violent culture; tour Agape’s environmentally friendly houses; perform a meditative Native American dance to heal the Earth; and pray for healing with an Iraqi boy grievously burned by an American bomb.

Christianity has always hosted a tension between withdrawal from the unholy world and engagement with it: John the Baptist eating honey and wearing animal skins in the desert or Christ breaking bread around a crowded table in the city; cloistered monks making jam in silence or Jesuits educating the elites in the corridors of power; the yearly retreat or the daily grind. Agape lives in that tension. It is deep in the woods, 20 minutes from a small town, but it is sustained by and performs service for the madding crowd.

Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a Byzantine-Melkite rite Catholic priest who founded the Program for the Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution at the University of Notre Dame and a cofounder of the Agape Community, praised the faithfulness of the community as he welcomed supporters to the anniversary. “We are celebrating the fidelity to the struggle to magnify God, to bring peace to the world. Agape is an experiment in making the truth of God visible in the human world,” he said. “There is no choice but to keep trying in the face of failure. But look at what we’re struggling for: We are striving to bring God into the world. We are striving to bring peace. We are striving to bring the intimate God into every person in a way that they will know they are loved.”

-- Courtesy of Agape Community

Cofounders Suzanne and Brayton Shanley

Agape was founded in 1982 when Brayton and Suzanne Shanley and a few friends decided they needed to live their Catholicism according to the uncompromising dictates they understood from the Gospels.

“We had a strong conviction that we didn’t want to go the mainstream American way. We had a deepening understanding that we had to be voluntarily displaced, you need to live differently to really follow Christ,” recalled Suzanne Shanley, former teacher and now a hearty woman in her early 60s with a wise bearing. “I didn’t know how that would become concrete until I started studying my Catholicism through Daniel Berrigan,” she said, referring to the Jesuit priest, poet and longtime antiwar activist. “What did it mean to be a Catholic teacher, to be a Catholic person? It was a series of movements and revelations about what my faith really is. It was reading scripture in a true and unvarnished way to find my faith.”

The Shanleys and cofounder McCarthy believed Christ preached an end to war. But being American taxpayers made them complicit in the military actions of the United States, their dollars paid for contra weapons in Central America and for the nuclear arms race that was imperiling the planet. So they decided to stop paying taxes.

Some tax resisters refuse to pay the government what they owe and instead redirect the same amount of earnings to nonmilitary causes they support. The nascent Agape community instead decided to live below the taxable income, currently a household income of about $20,000 a year.

“We were reducing our lifestyle. If you are going to live under taxable income, well, food is very expensive,” Suzanne Shanley said with a laugh. So they looked for land where they could grow their own food.

Back to the land

The search led them to Hardwick, a tiny central Massachusetts village in the Worchester diocese, just up the road from Ware, a faded mill town. On 32 acres of land they set up camp, planted vegetables, built a hermitage and began offering hospitality to anyone who wanted to join in their study of nonviolence.

-- Courtesy of Agape Community

The community in early May, the start of the growing season

“It’s a model of living. What are the dimensions of this life? Serving humanity, resistance to war and evil and violence,” said Brayton Shanley, a wiry 60-year-old with a shock of coarse white hair and an impish manner. “If you look at Jesus’ message, that’s where it takes you.”

That resistance to war means the community, which has had dozens of members over the years with the Shanleys as the sole permanent members in residence, engages as little as possible with what it considers a toxic American culture. They grow their own food, rather than support agribusiness; use solar power to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and minimize their contributions to energy companies; drive a vegetable grease-powered car so as not to feed Americans’ lust for oil, which they believe leads the country to war. The children who grew up at Agape certainly weren’t exposed to the violence and commercialism of television.

-- Courtesy of Agape Community

There are two houses on the property, a rustic, hand-built two story cabin called St. Francis House and a straw bale house named for Ireland’s St. Brigid. Straw bale homes use bales of hay for insulation. After the house is framed and insulated, plaster is applied to the interior and exterior walls, creating a cozy and environmentally kind structure that bears an uncanny resemblance to an Irish cottage. Agape uses St. Brigid House to host college interns and other visitors. The Shanleys and longer-term community members live a few yards away at St. Francis house. Everyone shares meals. In addition to the two residences, which were built with volunteer labor, there is a hermitage in the woods, hiking trails and plenty of quiet.

-- Courtesy of Agape Community

Life at Agape is deeply connected to place, the piece of woods where members have put their feet. Growing their own food, cutting lumber for wood-burning stoves and maintaining the residences are demanding but meditative tasks, like the work of a monastery. The community observes a schedule of thrice daily prayer, fasting, spiritual direction and retreats. They don’t do any work on Sunday. “There is a contemplative aspect. Prayer has always been a central aspect,” Suzanne Shanley said, as she greeted a near constant stream of visitors who came to congratulate and reminisce. “The other aspect of being rural is being steeped in silence.”

Witness to peace

While Agape can be defined by what it doesn’t do, just as important is what it does do, how it engages. Community members seek the Jesuit mantle of “contemplatives in action” and members are anything but recluses or malcontents. The community embraces the world they left, offering “lifelines to the cities,” Brayton Shanley said. “If you want to live the life of the Gospel, you need people and you need a place,” he said during a break in the anniversary program. “You stay in contact with the world, but following Christ doesn’t mean going down with the ship,” he said. That ship would be mainstream society.

Members lead workshops and retreats on nonviolence, teaching the lives of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day to college students and parish groups.

-- Skip Schiel

Sabah Kader, an Iraqi, and his son, Omar, attend the St. Francis Day event. Omar, 4, was burned over most of his body when the car he and his mother were riding in was fired upon by American soldiers. The mother died.

“We do a real fundamental introduction to the spirituality of nonviolence. It’s learning that God loves us unconditionally. We introduce silence, contemplation, meditative practice. The nonviolence is grounded in this contemplative aspect,” Suzanne said. “The talks have to do with alternative lifestyle and sustainability. We give an introduction to the teachings of nonviolence in the different faith traditions.”

The community is a constant presence at peace demonstrations and protests against torture, the death penalty and mass imprisonment. In 2003 it spearheaded the Catholic Call to Peace, a nationwide petition drive that sought to galvanize Catholics against the impending war on Iraq. Over the years Agape has hosted people recently released from prison, established internships for homeless people and hosted women fleeing abuse. The community holds prayer services and days of reflection for people like those gathered on the folding chairs. But there is no massive campaign. In the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement and St. Francis of Assisi, whom they count as a patron, Agape makes few plans, has no budget and concentrates little on institution-building. All the works are heartfelt and small.

They are maintained financially and spiritually by a broad base of supporters who live more conventional lives in suburbs and cities, but value Agape’s radical message.

“That might be one of the most important aspects. We have hundreds of people who said, ‘We are going to support this,’ ” Suzanne mused as she sat in St. Brigid House.

Outside on the lawn between St. Brigid House and St. Francis House, those supporters are ambling back to their seats after sharing a potluck lunch on picnic tables. They are teachers and guidance counselors, psychologists, nurses, parish religious education staff, social workers and attorneys, students and administrators.

The program had the air of a movement meeting or a support group at times as a panel of middle-aged and young peace activists traded stories on how they became committed to the philosophy of nonviolence and the ways they structured their lives around it.

But as the crowd gathered again under the tent after an afternoon break, the focus returned to Agape’s central tenet: prayer. Led by a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim and several Catholics, the assembled prayed for peace.

Eileen Markey is a freelance writer living in the New York area.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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