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

Living together based on ideals

Values-based, shared living communities like Agape are not new in America.

A major wave of such intentional communities occurred just before the Civil War. Brook Farm, founded by transcendentalist and former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, attracted such luminaries as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who described the farm in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

Another wave happened in the late 1800s, most notably a rise in “single tax colonies” based on the economic philosophy of Henry George. Another wave occurred in the 1930s. The last surge came out of the counterculture in the 1960s and continues today.

New intentional communities are on the increase, particularly those focused on ecological living. In the past 20 years, the number of such communities has risen nearly tenfold nationwide, according to registrations with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. In 1985, there were some 65 communities registered; by 2005, that number was more than 600.

Diverse in philosophies and lifestyles, each of these communities “places a high priority on fostering a sense of community -- a feeling of belonging and mutual support that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream Western society,” according to Geoph Kozeny of the Community Catalyst Project in San Francisco.

Such communities are centered on a range of values across the ideological spectrum. Some are inspired by a particular spirituality or religion. Leading centers for the study of meditation and yoga have been established by intentional communities. Others have been organized around dismay at falling literacy rates or lack of Christian religious content in public schools, opting to establish alternative schools and an extended family environment for raising children. Some have been organized around ideals of egalitarianism, “separatist feminism” or the behaviorist principles of psychologist B.F. Skinner.

The most notable Catholic example of intentional community is found in the Catholic Worker Movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933. Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities exist nationwide, committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the poor, hungry and homeless.

“Our rule is the works of mercy,” said Dorothy Day. “It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence.” Beyond hospitality, Catholic Worker communities are known for activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives and the development of a nonviolent culture.

Those active in the Catholic Worker are often pacifists, people seeking to live an unarmed, nonviolent life. During periods of military conscription, Catholic Workers have been conscientious objectors to military service.

Most intentional communities are in rural areas though some are located in big cities.

Typically members say the “community” aspect takes on key importance as support for daily living out the particular values the commune espouses. “When you live with people consciously, you build deeper levels of friendship,” said Douglas Stevenson, a member of one of the country’s most famous intentional communities, The Farm in Summertown, Tenn. It started out in 1971 as a nonviolent commune.

“Being part of a community gives you tremendous leverage to live your ideals and put them into practice,” said Stevenson.

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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