Transcript of the Jack Sharpe Interview

(All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability)

Malcolm: This is your host, Malcolm Schluenderfritz; our guest for today is Jack Sharpe. He is the leader of the Bethlehem community from North Dakota. That’s the people behind Bethlehem Books, so this is very interesting for me; I read a lot of Bethlehem Books titles when I was growing up. It is great to have Jack joining us.

Jack: 00:39 Thanks, Malcolm!

Malcolm: 00:40 How are you doing, Jack?

Jack:00:42 Alright. I just caught three large crappies just before this broadcast, so I’m very happy. We’re actually down in Texas; my wife and I have been here for three months, and we’re getting ready to go home. A lot of adventures.

Malcolm: 01:02 I know, Jack, you said this year is the 50th year anniversary of the founding of the Bethlehem community; that’s a long history and a lot of time to learn about what makes community work. Can you tell us a little about the origins and history of the Bethlehem community up to this point?

Jack: 01:19 Well, in the late 1960s there was a thing called the Charismatic renewal. It affected quite a few churches, certainly affected the Catholics, and the little Baptist church in Portland Oregon became charismatic, one of the few Baptist churches I’ve ever heard actually that was full-blown charismatic. My mother and father-in-law had run a young adult ministry for a number of years before this happened, but there was a sense . . . community was quite the buzzword in the 1960s, and so they decided that  . . . the church sponsored them to run a house where young college-age adults (though they weren’t going to college, they were all working people) would try to figure out some way to have Christianity that was much more than just the Sunday meeting and the Wednesday night prayer meeting. So they started this house of young adults, it quickly grew; in about a year’s time there were 80 young adults living in 15 houses connected with this one church; men’s houses and women’s houses, and the people were sharing their income, were trying to be discipled, trying to figure out how to live Christianity 24-7

Malcolm: 02:50 Jack, how did the group afford to purchase or rent the houses and get this set up?

Jack: 02:58 Well, when you have five or six working adults in their early 20s, they are making a fairly sizable income, if you are just thinking about it for a single person. If you join that together, you won’t have any trouble renting houses. And that’s what we did. Actually, one of our single women owned a house, so that was just a matter of combining their money to pay off the mortgage on the house. That actually lasted for a number of years, like that.
We had a six-month commitment, people needed to come in for six months; of course, they were part of Bethlehem Church, but we also had our own meetings, our own evening meetings, Bible studies, different kinds of outreach. The young adults themselves were just on fire for the Lord.
What happened as the years went on, frictions within the Church developed; just imagine a young adult ministry where you have 80 20-year-olds, almost all singles, living together; they become quite a force in the Church. It is not exactly like having a young adult ministry!
At this point, we were looking into how other communities worked. (We weren’t necessarily calling ourselves a community at this point, that took about ten years of this kind of living, where people would come and go for six months; we hit a point where we decided that we needed several years of commitment, so there were about 25 young adults that made a five year competent to the ministry.)

Malcolm: 05:03 Was that around 1980, at the point where you are making the longer commitment?

Jack: 05:12 Right, around 1980, that’s where we are at. We’re still all going to the same Baptist church, the church moved out to a much larger facility, there’s still a lot of  . . . one of the commitments that people made was a commitment to change and grow. So that meant that there was an inner healing ministry that was going on, there was a giving up of addictions and lifestyles. Eventually, there were five of us, my father and mother in law, my self, and my wife, and one single woman who felt that the commitment that we were living wasn’t enough and that the Lord was calling us to live out Acts 2; let’s just make it common everything. It took us quite a while to come to that decision, and when we did, we said, well, if we’re going to do that, we’re going to need to incorporate as a nonprofit because that’s a much bigger commitment than just sharing income when you don’t have any private property anymore. At that point, we said to all the people who were still involved in house ministries; “You all made these commitments, but we’re just putting them on the table, nobody is going to be held to anything if you can’t go this way with us.” Well, most people left at that point. They just couldn’t see how they were called to that kind of commitment. And that was just fine with the five of us. But there were other people who wanted to stick around and see how this was going to develop. In the midst of that, our Baptist Church said, no, we’re not going to support this anymore. This is too crazy. So we appealed to the American Baptists to be a separate entity, but they couldn’t go with us. As one man in the hierarchy of the American Baptists memorably put it “Well, you guys, it is just a big tax dodge, isn’t it?” And we had to say, well, you don’t really do all this just for a tax dodge!

Malcolm 07:33 So once you decided to go full out and live like Acts, how many people stuck around? Was it just the five of you, or were there more of you at that point?

Jack: 07:43 Well, there were five of us and there must have been eight or nine other people who decided that they were going to hang in there and see . . . We knew it had taken us over a decade to come to this commitment, and so we were not going to ask people to make this same commitment unless they’d been with us at least six or seven years, at least. When you think about it; at this juncture, I was doing studies on the early Church fathers, and also on monastic movements, and you could see the wisdom that was flowing there; they didn’t allow somebody to become a full-blown member in a week or a year. So we just adopted that motif, because it seemed like a lot of wisdom.
So that would have been 1984; like good Baptists, we just founded our own church, became Bethlehem Church!
We were all downtown at this point now, and we ended up starting to buy an apartment building in downtown Portland. We actually had some families that started getting interested in living community like we were living it. This raised a certain temperature in figuring out how to do this, because it had been pretty much a singles ministry up to this point; now we’ve got some families that are interested. So things developed in Downtown Portland until about 1990 we really realized that we needed to belong to something bigger than ourselves, because over time we’d seen all kinds of little community groups dry up or blow up. Blowing up is really something! By that, I mean that the guy turns into a cult leader and all kinds of crazy things happen and everybody splits. Or they dry up, people just lose interest and they fold.

Malcolm: 09:52 Yeah, it isn’t even confined to religious groups; I think they say that the average life of one of the hippie communities started in the 70s was a little less than four years or something like that. Communities tend not to have a long lifespan.

Jack: 10:08 That makes sense. I do know that The Farm down in Tennesse is still going, and that’s a long run there, it has to be over 50 years. They were really into natural stuff, natural planting and nursing and all that kind of stuff; they were a very pro-life crowd down there, though I don’t think they are religious in any way, they are all secular.

Malcolm: 10:35 Yeah, they are an interesting group; I did a little bit of reading on them, not a whole lot.

Jack: 10:42 I think we were really impressed, ourselves, as we were becoming a communal community, with the Bruderhof folks on the East Coast. They are the folks who came out of Germany before WWII and they live a very communal life, common clothes, common education. We saw ourselves as very much like them, but we felt that we had a special . . . we were talking to them at one point, all these small communities in Oregon were actually joining them, but they kind of melded into the Bruderhof and were no longer their own thing, and even though we just loved the folks there we realized that we have our own particular anointing to do something in the Lord.
At this point, the other thing that had happened with us: one of the commitments giving up our jobs, giving up our professions, and trying to find some sort of common work. It took us several years to figure that out; we tried all kinds of things that didn’t work. It was suggested that we bake bread. Since only our ladies knew how to bake bread, I jumped into it, my father-in-law jumped into trying to sell it, and we ended up having a Swedish bakery that baked Scandinavian bread for ten years.

Malcolm: 11:58 And that was still in Portland?

Jack: 12:04 Eventually, the bakery moved into Vancouver, Washington right across the river. We did have an outreach though at Portland State University at the coffee house and we ran a breakfast/lunch deal for a couple of years. The bakery was definitely common work, but there was not much vision in it, especially our young people who were growing up at this time; they just didn’t see . . . They weren’t interested in becoming bakers, I guess that’s how I could put it. And of course, we were just doing it because we thought the Lord wanted us to do it. It was a great way to become poor! We went from lower middle class to low low middle class, because the profit margin is really small unless you are huge. And that actually helped us, because as we became poor, we moved out downtown Portland to a flophouse in Vancouver Washington where the bakery was. So we said, “OK, we’d better find out who we belong to, because the way we are going, we’re really going to have to be connected to something bigger than ourselves.” As I said, the young people didn’t have a vision for the bakery.
We said, “who do we belong to.” And part of that came with a crisis in leadership. We said, “Well, maybe we belong to the Catholics.” I had been doing studies in the early Church Fathers. I realized that the Catholic Church was still the same . . . protestants basically think that Christianity stopped in about 300 A.D. and started up again at the Reformation. And in my studies, I realized that that wasn’t true. I remember reading St. Augustine as a full-blown Evangelical Protestant, and in one of his letters, he says that he has to stop and go find my miter and crosier. And I remembered pondering that; and all of a sudden, it popped into my brain that this guy was a Catholic bishop! And you may say, well wasn’t that obvious? And the answer was no, it wasn’t obvious! A lot of evangelicals read the Church fathers, and they don’t see Catholicism. But at that moment I saw Catholicism. And I thought, O, that’s all because he is a Catholic!
So at that point, our group (we were still in Vancouver Washington) decided that we needed to explore the Catholic Church, and that’s when we lost my father and mother-in-law. They just couldn’t go there. We spent a year bringing different priests in; we had a good friend, Michael O’Brien the author, in Vancouver, and he sent a priest he knew, Fr. Joseph, who really nurtured us along. We spent a year looking at the Catholic teachings and seeing how they coincided with the Bible. And after that year was over, we went to the local Catholic priest in Vancouver and said “There’s about twenty of us, maybe 28 counting the kids, we all want to join; how do we do it?” And he said the famous words: I’ll get back to you! 15:54 He was a little overwhelmed. By that time, our ladies had decided to do their own clothing; they were so tired of going to thrift stores and trying to buy enough clothes to look good, so they just decided that they were going to do their own thing. And so they decided to make their own clothing that was a pro-life thing so that if the ones with families got pregnant they could keep wearing the dresses. They decided they needed to wear head coverings, which was kind of wild to us, trying to be as Biblically orientated as they could get. All of a sudden we started looking like Hutterites! The young men said, “boy when we go outside, we feel like we’re visiting this group! What are we going to do?” And I said, “well I don’t know, guys, what are we going to do?” So they said, “why don’t we wear black suspenders!” Now I had never worn suspenders in my life! But we had adopted black suspenders for the men, which now 35 years later I’m still wearing!
Anyway, we went to RCIA, the priest gave us a book on community, we said: “Father, we don’t really think we need a book on community, why don’t you give us a book on the teachings of the Church or something.” And he did. So in 1993, we came into the Church, 20-some of us at that point, and it was a very joyful time for most of us, the kids really loved it. Many of our friends thought we’d gone really nuts, they really thought we had lost it. In fact, we had one couple that came to the Easter service and they just cried in the pews, because we were going over the Tiber, and how were we going to relate from here on out?
But, I think one of the reasons we’re still around is because we became Catholic! It was a big enough grape arbor to hang onto, you know?

Malcolm: 17:46 Right, you weren’t just trying to run something by yourselves.

Jack: 17:051 That’s the interesting thing. We had this big community idea that we did everything by consensus.

(The rest of the transcript will be added as we have time.)