In this episode, I interview Joshua Hearne from the Grace and Main Fellowship, an intentional and ecumenical Christian community located in Danville, Virginia. We discuss what it means to be a community for the poor and marginalized, rather than being a community that merely serves the poor and marginalized. We also talk about community life, organic growth, Asset Based Community Development, urban farming, and hospitality.
The History of the Community
The Grace and Main fellowship started as a bible study group in Danville, Virginia. It was very simple; just five people meeting once a week to discuss Scripture. They had no real intention of doing anything more than that.
Over time, however, the members started eating with one another, praying together, and generally spending time together. They started to discuss the possibility of reshaping their lives around a more radical commitment to the Gospel. As Joshua put it, they eventually stopped and said “Maybe this isn’t a Bible Study like we thought it was! Maybe God is trying to do something more here…Maybe we’re one of those intentional community things we’ve heard about…Or maybe we could be one, anyway.”
From this small beginning, the community has grown and evolved and changed over time. But the members are still eating, praying, and working with one another, and are still committed to living life in solidarity with the marginalized.
Ecumenism in The Grace and Main Fellowship
The Grace and Main Fellowship is an ecumenical community. Joshua said that in one sense, that’s just a statement of fact; the community has included members from many different Christian backgrounds. At the same time, it is also an aspirational statement. The community is united by some basic commitments and tries to focus on that unity regardless of the diversity of thought on other subjects.
It is important to keep in mind that when Christ portrayed the Last Judgement, he didn’t describe it as a theology quiz! Instead, he described the judgment as being focused on a basic question: how did you treat the least of these? While searching for the truth is important, it is even more important to seek unity with fellow Christians and to give one’s life to Jesus without reservations.
A Spectrum of Participation
There is a wide spectrum of commitment among those who participate in the Grace and Main Fellowship. At the center, there are those who have discerned membership as a vocational way of life, and who have committed to sharing resources and leading an intentionally simple way of life. At the other end of the spectrum are those who occasionally drop in for events. Between these two extremes, there is a whole range of different commitment levels. These levels are fluid; they can change over time, depending on individual availability.
This forms a porous barrier between the “inside” and the “outside”. Such a porous barrier can help to keep a community healthy and integrated into the wider local community.
Commitments and Formative Influences
Despite this range of participation, the core members do share a set of commitments; they hold the Apostle Creed as a basic statement of belief and are committed to non-violence, solidarity with the marginalized, sharing life, and practicing radical hospitality.
Some of the most important formative influences for Grace and Main are the Catholic Worker movement and the writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Koinonia Farm, Rutba House, the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Asset Based Community Development.
A Shared Life
The core members of the community live in a network of houses, all within walking distance of one another. Some of these houses are owned by the community, others by individual members, and others are rented by the community.
The community also maintains a common fund to make sure that all the members have a place to stay and enough to eat. Core members are expected to donate to this fund in a sacrificial way.
The members of Grace and Main are committed to practicing radical hospitality, opening their homes and lives to others. They open their homes to others for meals and community building, and take in those who need a place to stay. They try to provide true hospitality; not just a bedroom, but a family for those who need one.
Joshua said that hospitality is sometimes seen as merely providing physical shelter. Too often, institutions “care for” the poor by providing for their material needs, but in a cold and mechanical way. Dorothy Day condemned this kind of bureaucratic “charity”.
On the other hand, hospitality is sometimes seen as a sort of exaggerated politeness; but neither of these things represents true hospitality. Hospitality happens whenever we open ourselves to another and provide a place for them: in our lives, our thoughts, our prayers, but also in and among our possessions. It is taking what God has given to us and making it available to others who need it.
In the deepest sense, hospitality is a commitment to sharing life with others. It is a way of life grounded in the Sermon on the Mount: an expression of fully loving God and neighbor. Such love entails pursuing the good of the other, rather than attempting to cast the other into our own mold. This is difficult, overwhelming, and heartbreaking, and yet very good.
To truly practice hospitality, we need to exercise solidarity. We can’t love the poor without living with them in solidarity.
Asset Based Community Development
Practitioners of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) have a particular approach to community renewal. Too often, when an individual or institution sets out to renew a neighborhood, they focus on the negatives, what the neighborhood does not have.
But this is a mistake. If you focus on negatives, you will be focusing on a void, on something that is not there. This void will not provide a firm foundation, and so whatever is built will fail.
Instead, the ABCD model focuses on the positive. What does the neighborhood have? Who are the people of the neighborhood? What do the people care about? What are they already doing? Then, one should build on that, on what is working. Negatives are more obvious; we’re all more likely to complain about what is going wrong than to give thanks for what is going well! By focusing on the positives, you will eventually address the negatives, but in an organic way that may not look anything like what you initially envisioned.
The Urban Farm
The Grace and Main Fellowship maintain a large community garden. Like many of their other projects, it started very simply. They were planting gardens in their own yards, and other people in the neighborhood were interested. So they ended up planting gardens for others, and these gardeners started sharing the produce. The neighborhood started to come together around this network of gardens.
Eventually, a local organization offered the group the use of an acre and a half of vacant land. It had been being used as an illegal construction waste dump. But the community cleared away the junk, cut down trees, and built garden beds. Half of the space is maintained by the whole group, and half is divided up into plots for individual gardeners.
Their tool library was started by a man who had experienced homelessness and addiction. He had worked as a carpenter before he fell on hard times; after the community helped him get his life back on track they helped him to get some tools and find work. Working with these tools was so beneficial for him that he wanted to make them available to others. He opened their first tool library in an old shed that he had slept in while he was homeless.
Now they’ve moved the tool library into a much larger building, and they offer a wide range of tools. People can borrow them to improve their houses and the neighborhood or use them to make some money.
A Community of and for the Marginalized
There is all the difference in the world between being a community that serves the poor and being a community of and for the poor and marginalized. Joshua said that Grace and Main would not continue to exist if it was merely a community that “cared for” the poor. By now, half the community members have direct experience with poverty; the formerly marginalized become leaders within the community.
Joshua explained that it isn’t just that his friend Bruce needs a place to stay; rather, it is that he needs Bruce in his life! Being able to receive something back from the marginalized is important, or the relationship becomes one-sided and patronizing.
Be a Cilantro Plant!
Every community will be different. Those trying to form a new community shouldn’t try to replicate existing ones. Large, long-lasting and highly structured communities tend to receive all the attention, but small informal communities are always more numerous. You don’t have to change the world; maybe that is not your calling! As Joshua said, God created all sorts of plants. There are redwoods, which are huge and impressive and long-lived; and everyone wants to be a redwood! But God also made rose bushes—and cilantro plants. You should be happy to be a cilantro plant if that’s what God is calling you to be!
This highlights one of the inherent tensions of the Happy Are You Poor project. We’re trying to provide inspiration for those seeking community. By necessity, however, we have to focus on communities that are organized and formalized enough to have a web presence. Just because I have to focus on the more formal communities shouldn’t obscure the importance of informal, organic community among neighbors and friends!
For more about The Grace and Main Fellowship, visit their website.
Header photo: the Grace and Main neighborhood, by Joshua Hearne