“Intentional Community”- Rev. Tracy Johnson



Some forty or so years ago when your minister was running with a rather left leaning crowd in Southern CT – a child of the sixties at heart but born a decade too late – she lived among a larger group of likeminded folks, all of us in smaller communal households. We shared the expenses, the work of making a home – preparing meals and cleaning. We supported one another in our living, working, growing and being in a world that looked to us like it needed our counter cultural message. We formed a food buying cooperative, met monthly to share meals, distribution and purchasing responsibilities. And we met monthly also to think about this alternative way of being we had chosen, what shape it would take in the next period of time, how we might share what we had discovered, how it could be a source of positive change in our world.


Fast forward now, about thirty years and I find myself in seminary with a cluster of twenty something would-be ministerial colleagues who are embarking on a new and exciting venture – intentional community, they called it and they were quite serious about it – this new idea that had burst into their minds and hearts. I smiled a gentle, perhaps nostalgic smile and listened to their plans! They would eventually purchase an eleven-bedroom home in Boston, living much like I did those many years ago. The Lucy Stone Cooperative was born in 2012. Distinctly Unitarian Universalist in values, they were what has come to be known in UU circles as a “covenanting community,” an alternative to a church-based faith community that shows up as small meeting groups, missional communities, intentional living cooperatives, and national networks. They are part of growing range of emerging ministries that differ from the traditional form of church with a building and the style of Sunday morning worship we are accustomed to.


I didn’t know a thing about Unitarian Universalism two score ago and church was the farthest thing from my mind, but I got a taste of community, of what it means to be promised to a circle of people whose intention is to live in a way less focused on the individual and more so on the good of the whole, be it my immediate interconnected whole or that of the larger society and maybe even the world if I wanted to dream really big. And I would venture a guess that this experience whet my appetite for ministry as a means of service to the whole that we can all be a part of, rooted in common values whether they line up with those of the current culture or are a hoped for thing that we can live into and by example of our sincerity foster change.


I read this week about The Phoenix Settlement comprised of 100 acres of land purchased by Gandhi in 1904. It was on this Settlement that he started his personal transformative journey with a passion for liberation, nonviolence and spirituality. Here on this land Gandhi began his experiments with communal living, non-possession, interfaith harmony, simplicity, environmental protection, conservation, manual labor, social and economic justice, nonviolent action, and principles of education and truth. The three important functions of the settlement were communal living and self-sufficiency, working in the press to publish the newspaper-Indian Opinion and offering accommodation, meals and education to the families of those participating in various campaigns.


There truly is nothing new under the sun! It was Gandhi’s belief that in sharing what we have we minimize our needs and thus the injustices between us; that economics could ultimately be an expression of human goodness and create an awareness of our interconnectedness and our capacity to serve one another. It was his intention to bring these practices to fruition and by example make a statement to the wider world. There is enough to go around. It is a matter of distribution and letting go of the selfishness that hoards more than enough in pockets of extreme affluence and wealth, making it appear that supply is limited; a scarcity mentality.


The theme this year at the Center for Action and Contemplation, a Franciscan based nonprofit in Albuquerque, NM whose blog I sometimes peruse, their theme is “Nothing Stands Alone.” While their language is somewhat ableist in nature, they are focusing on the relational aspects of our humanity, that we are always operating in relation to something or someone, no matter how determined we are to be self-sufficient, to go it alone, to do it ourselves. We know this to be true here at UUMH. We need one another to make it through our personal and collective lives. And one of the hallmarks of this place that I have remarked upon before but want to continue to hold up is the great care we have for each other, our penchant for acting on that care in times of distress and our willingness to offer what I would call a “ministry of presence” to our siblings in faith here on the hill. For the most part we seem to understand community as a beacon of love and care to which we are drawn and that we can offer to the wider world. And while we all want to be helpers, I have noticed that sometimes we are reluctant to say when we need help. We are not unusual in this; it is a product of our individualistic culture. Poet David Whyte reminds us that we are born needing help to survive and that that attendant need never truly leaves us – “a writer needs a reader . . . a candidate a voter,” he says. We do not journey alone. I wonder if we can live into this idea of community enough to say when we are in need; to not allow that societal shame to be imposed upon us, making us less than if we ask; to admit to our humanity with all of its relational aspects laid bare; to be the ‘helpee’ instead of the helper. It is the alternative way to be in the world we inhabit!


I want to talk a little about the intentional piece of this message! An intention is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action in the future. It’s a plan. And with a plan – an intention – we are much more likely to follow through with some idea that has captivated us. According to the “Theory of Planned Behavior” there are three things that make us more apt to move with our intentions. First, we need to see them in a positive light. Secondly, it helps if we think others will approve of the idea. And finally, if we think we will have some success with them based on prior experiences, we are better prepared to go for it.


The founders of the Lucy Stone Cooperative saw some benefit to their call to justice making in living out this alternative approach based on UU Principles, on shared values that could create a culture shift which supports “abundance and generosity over greed and scarcity, spiritual groundedness over rushed decision-making; grace and compassion over anger and separation; and imagination and faithful risk-taking over restraint.” They gathered together a group of likeminded folks of all ages and a concentric circle of supporters who believed in the prospects of it. And they had the benefit of knowing that others had come before them paving a way and making progress, bit by bit, each in their own time.


In the past year we spent some time honing our ideas about intention as we grappled with words and meaning in order to create a mission statement. I love that it’s focus is emblazoned on our Wayside Pulpit for all the wider community to see – Inclusive Community – Equity and Justice – Free Minds and Spirits. You can’t pull up to the light heading out of town without noticing that something is going on in this place! So, if this is the intention of our community here, how do we go about making it be so? In what ways is it forward looking as opposed to just a statement about what already is? How can we be more inclusive – in our words, in our building space, in the things we choose to support? How many of us know what our Social Justice Committee is up to or are giving input into ways to create a more just and equitable world? When we let our minds and spirits freely explore, what are we finding and are we sharing it? Our opening words this morning ask us “to be about the work.” Are we employing this mission as the guidepost it is meant to be when we make decisions about our community? Clearly these are counter-cultural aspirations we have set forth! How does our example, lived boldly in each of our lives and in that of the whole, serve to make a difference in our world – to be part of creating a different world?


Unitarian minister, the Rev. A. Powell Davies, suggests that our intentions would fall by the wayside were it not for our faith community. We gather to be goaded, he says, to have our conscience poked a bit, so that we come away believing in our capacity to make a better world a reality; to be loved into being and to be strengthened, so as to love our world into being all it can be. It is that second piece of what turns intention into action – a body of believers.


In our prayer this morning we heard Francis of Assisi seeking to be a sower of seeds that may, if sown in sufficient quantity, cause a tipping point in the trajectory of our days. Were there specific lines that spoke to you? Forgiveness where there is wrong or truth where there is error or hope where there is despair? It will be different for each of us, and different again for us as a community. But what could our intention be – the thing that breathes life into our mission making it active instead of passive in nature? Perhaps for now, while we have some more time for pondering as we wait for the ship of our world to right itself, our intention may simply be to come up with ways to make our dream a reality, to make a list, to turn our values into tangible efforts that we can pour ourselves into once the opening appears on the horizon.


This is the work of an intentional community. To know what it is grounded in and to have that spark come to life before it. To trust it enough to engage in faithful risk-taking as we join together in building the kind of world our Principles, our vision and our mission call us to be. In the traditional sense we, too, are a covenanting community; the notion passed down through our forebears since the days when the Puritans set foot on our soil escaping religious persecution and determined to make a new way. Some of us will gather this afternoon to begin a conversation about the UUA Commission on Appraisal’s study of the power of covenant in our faith tradition. It is an exploration of our history and of an alternative way of doing community that has been at the heart of Unitarian Universalism all along.


My invitation this morning is to enter into community with intention; to think about what each of those things are separately – intention and community, and together – intentional community; and to be in conversation with one another about where we are headed. May this quiet winter season be a time of discernment and sharing; that the love we possess may grow and deepen and be a blessing to our community and the wider world.


May it be so and Amen.


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Celebrating 25 Years: Rising on the Hill 1996-2021

​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

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