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An Interview with Jack Sharpe from the Bethlehem Community

Podcast Episode 10

An interview with Jack Sharpe from the Bethlehem Community of Bathgate, ND. The Bethlehem Community publishes children’s literature as Bethlehem Books.

The History of the Bethlehem Community

The Beginnings in Portland

Jack tells the fascinating story of the Bethlehem community’s development over time. It started as a Charismatic young adult ministry associated with a Baptist church in Portland Oregon; at one point over 80 young adults lived in the 15 houses associated with the group. Over time, the commitment of the members to community life deepened, and they became an independent community, with the members living together and holding all property in common. They gave up their individual jobs and opened a bakery to support the community.

Joining the Catholic Church

As time went on, they felt the need to belong to something bigger than themselves; they studied the Early Church and monastic traditions. Eventually, this led the community to enter the Catholic Church in 1993.

At the same time, the bakery wasn’t working out for the community. They took a leap of faith by starting a publishing house, Bethlehem Books, dedicated to Christian children’s literature, even though they had no experience with this kind of work. To finance their first print run, they sold the bakery and apartment building. Then they waited for God to provide.

Publishing Books and Answering Phones as Benedictines

God provided through Fr. Fessio, who hired the community to answer the 800 number for Ignatius Press. This income gave them the freedom to run Bethlehem Books without worrying about turning a profit.

Through mutual friends, they found a permanent home at a former state school for the blind in Bathgate ND. They also found a permanent spiritual home as Benedictine Oblates; this allowed them to connect to a spirituality and way of life larger and older than their community.

Experience of Community Life

50 years of community experience has given Jack Sharpe a lot of wisdom about living with others. After he outlined the history of his community, we had a fascinating discussion of these more theoretic topics.

Authority

He outlined the proper relationship to authority, which is crucial to any successful community. Dysfunctional communities have a fearful relationship with authorities inside and outside the community, which manifests as abject submission to community leaders and total rejection of authorities outside the community.

Community not Clique

Communities can not be made up of people who are all alike. If that is what brings people together, the result will be a clique, not a community. The Grace of Christ working through the mystical body can bind together diverse human beings in love.

“The Humble Hear and are Glad”

We also discussed the importance of humility in community formation and communal life. Starting out with utopian ideals of perfection is unlikely to get a group very far. Even more importantly, the community has to make sure that the weaker members are able to “stay the pace.” Jack quoted psalm 34: the humble will hear and be glad. Is the message of a community making the humble and weak glad?

A Foundation of Love

We concluded by talking about the love of Christ and neighbor as the only true foundation for community life.

Listen to the episode to learn more about this fascinating community!

Header image: Casa Maria and “Rolf and the Viking Bow”, courtesy of Bethlehem Books

3 Comments

  • Zeb

    I loved this episode. I really appreciated getting to hear a person with long time positive experience talk at length. I would gladly listen to Jack talk in much more detail about their history, their discerning around major decisons, and the lessons they’ve learned.

  • Tim Keller

    I really enjoyed this episode, Jack has some great practical wisdom in community life. We have an expression for what he experienced: the “unfolding plan of God”. When he started down the path of radical abandonment, he had no idea where he would end up, but he trusted God and was faithful. Wonderful story.

  • Zeb

    A question for Jack: I would love to hear more about what experiences lead to the decision to not include families with children in your community, what the process of that transition was like, and how that change has affected the dynamics and future of the community.

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