The Church of the Sojourners – some reflections on my visit 20th to 22nd May
We arrived early at the Church of the Sojourners in the Mission District of San Francisco. We had had lunch in a small Mexican diner with Mark Scandrette from Reimagine, an emerging church community in San Francisco (more about that separately). While we were there we were approached by an elderly black man asking for money – we were both reminded of India. We walked through colourful streets of murals and graffiti with the sound of Spanish in our ears. The community has been here for 25 years. When they first arrived this was a poor area dominated by refugees from El Salvador. These days it still has that run down feel but it is beginning to be gentrified – roof-top wine bars, trendy food shops in amongst the abundance of Pawn, Thrift and $1 shops
We were welcomed in by Jon and Jo-low to a large spacious community house – one of four that the community live in. What great hospitality! In our room there was a vase of fresh flowers from the garden, a basket with snacks and toiletries, a home made card with a message of blessing (I later found out it was made by a woman with mental health difficulties who was supported by the community). And most exciting of all a desk with internet access!
Hospitality weekends are when the community offer the opportunity for visitors to share in community life and get a flavour of what the Sojourners are all about. There were two other guests staying, Eta and Philip, an older couple from the Bruderhof community. It was fascinating learning about the Bruderhof and I found myself to be both inspired and appalled in equal measure.
The Bruderhof were started in Switzerland about 80 years ago and German remains their main language. They then had to move from Switzerland around the time of World War 2. First they came to the UK for a while and then later went to Paraguay in South America. Finally their main community settled in Pennsylvania. It was interesting that they both had strong German accents and seemed as new to American culture as we were, despite their many years in the country!
It was fascinating over the weekend to have a glimpse into that much older community and have the sense of the way that, throughout the ages, Christians have been trying to live out in community what it means to follow Jesus. I was reminded that the new communities that are popping up are, in a sense, nothing new! It is about living counter-culturally, and how, through the distinctive way of life of the community, people will see the power of Jesus and God at work.
Tim Lockie welcomed us and spoke very powerfully about the Sojourners community. He compared the community to the Innkeeper in the story of the Good Samaritan and suggested that too often when we consider that famous parable we focus on the Samaritan, but there needed to be an Innkeeper to whom the person could be brought to for healing to take place. He suggested that the Sojourners are like the Innkeeper; the place that people are brought to, to be cared for, the place of real community and transformation. He also used the image of the ‘stay at home mum’ – undervalued but crucial in the growth and development of children. Sojourners, he felt, and communities like it, are undervalued and yet crucial to the development and growth of the Christian Church.
As we spent time with the Sojourners I reflected on Mark from Reimagine’s comment about the Sojourners – it’s all about the community – and in many ways he was right. That is their focus, that is where they see God’s transforming power at work as they commit to each other in a relationship of covenant. There is such an emphasis on how the community live together – time together in meals, in bible study, in worship, in work. There is a strong belief that God calls us as a people; we are herd animals (Tim’s phrase), we are to make this journey together and God’s saving power is only made in real in community as we live out the reality of love together.
At the heart of the community are the members who commit themselves in covenant to each other. In our individualistic age this is a very challenging way to live – the communal over the individual – yet it was lived out in a gentle and flexible way. Reading the covenant through before I arrived it seemed daunting and demanding but experienced in the context of a community that is so clearly based on love, there was greater sense of flexibility and ‘grace’, as if to say – this is our aspiration as a community together, what we are aiming for, but we know and understand that frequently we will fail and that is OK.
I had an interesting debate with Tim over the need for clear boundaries in Church and community. He believes that it is important to have clear boundaries as a community (he would argue that is true of the Christian Church as well). I suggested that more fluid boundaries enabled people to become involved and gradually move on the journey of faith whereas Tim contested that it was more important to offer people the real challenge of the gospel, to offer a really good welcome to people but at the same time to be clear who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. While that was how Tim saw Sojourners functioning I sensed that there was actually greater openness and fluidity at the edges than his picture would suggest. I felt this was a strength of the community rather than a draw back.
I was told the story of a man who lived in one of the community houses who had come to them in his sixties having been a heroin addict for 40 years. During his time with them he had come to faith but he was struggling with the enormity of full covenant commitment and had been stalling. So rather than pushing him he had been ‘released’ of all expectations so that he could make the journey at his own pace – but he still lived in a community house and was clearly part of the community.
There were others who were also clearly welcomed and part of the community in, what certainly seemed, a real sense, but were not covenanted members. The woman who had made the welcome card for me who is bipolar, an alcoholic and currently lives in some sort of institution for those with mental health difficulties, but is welcomed at the Sojourners as part of their community at meal times, worship times and social times. This to me suggested an important ‘fuzziness’ at the edges.
There was also flexibility in the last phrase of the covenant ‘for as long as I am able’. In other words this is not a life-time commitment (although it maybe for some). This is a commitment for this time and if in the future we together discern that it is time to move on then that is fine. This was not a ‘cult’ trying to hold on to people. And it was clear that people did come and go – Jon and Jo-low had been there for a few years but were moving on this summer. There were also times when people moved on because, for what ever reason, things had not worked out. Tim was clear that there had been difficult times in recent years and speaking to some people involved it had obviously been very painful. Communities are not immune to hurt and betrayal.
The Sojourners was very broad based in terms of age and background, a contrast in that sense to the Church of the Apostles in Seattle which had been far more homogeneous. There were around 30 people including lots of children, young adults, families, the elderly, those with extra needs (health wise, socially etc). It was impressively broad and there was a real sense of care and support of each other. For instance Edith, who can no longer cope with the large groups because of neurological problems, has people who specifically come and share a meal with her when the rest of the community are eating together. Lily, from El Salvador (I assumed) and a member of the community for 15 years but who speaks and understands little English, has a translator for the bible studies and sermon. An outside babysitter is employed to come and care for the children during the Friday evening bible study so that everyone can participate and there is a rota to look after the children during the sermon at the Sunday worship. This was a broad community that took account of the varied needs of their members.
While making an early morning cup of tea I found myself in conversation with Edith one of the founding community members nearly 25 years ago. It had started with 3 couples involved in mission plus 5 young people setting up the house together as a Christian presence in an area of social deprivation. Ten years into the communities life there was an influx of people (around 15) that doubled their numbers. This created a number of issues and involved the purchase of new community houses and a more structured communal life. You can have a lot more flexibility with 12 people than you can with nearly 30!
Edith spoke about how tough it had been 8 years ago when the two key figures/leaders in the community had died within a year of each other. Many other people spoke of how difficult that time had been. One of the leaders was the charismatic force behind the community, the other had been the heart of its pastoral care. For many there had been a real sense of ‘will we survive this?’ A number of people left during that period; those who had been there because of the particular care of this one man, others who had been there because of the force and dynamism of the other leader. The community itself had been in grief.
From that difficult period a more structured and broad based, system of leadership grew. There was a sense that the community never wanted to face the same heart ache again and therefore they needed to structurally diversify their leadership. Now they have three overseers. (Who they were I never found out, how ever often I asked different people in different ways. Was it policy not to identify the leaders to protect the community from our cultural focus on individuals? Or was it pure chance I could not find out?) They also have a pastoral team (which the overseers are on), a teaching team (to lead the bible studies, preach the sermons) and a worship/music team (not sure if this was one or two teams but they were responsible for the Worship Gathering). Somewhere in it all there was also someone who sorted the finances out, but I am not sure where that fitted in. Women were as equally represented in leadership roles and Tim spoke very forcefully about his own personal support of women’s leadership.
On a brief visit to the Sojourners, such as this, what clearly came across was the corporate shared nature of leadership. Things happened: work-days were organised (I helped build a fence!), visitors welcomed, the bible taught, worship led, but through it all there was a fluidity of leadership. I was never quite clear who was responsible for what – but stuff happened! While some may miss the draw of a charismatic leader it seems to me that the long-term sustainability and health of a community is much better served by shared, but well delegated, leadership.
The finances were fascinating (aren’t they always!) There was a combination of sharing resources and personal responsibility that was impressive. This is my reading of how they worked, although I may be wrong on some of the details. I think all members either worked outside the Community or had some source of income. Everyone paid into the community for housing and bills. Each person was also expected to tithe 10% of their income and that also went to the community. In each of the houses there was a pooling of resources in some way or other for food. In addition to all the above, each person was then allowed to spend up to a certain amount annually on ‘discretionary’ items (computers, holidays, clothes, what ever your choice/weakness was!) It was also possible if you wished to spend over the discretionary amount to apply to the community for ‘dispensation’ but this would be for exceptional expenses. If you earned more than the sum of essentials, tithe and discretionary then that went into the community ‘pool’. The idea was that there was some individual motivation for work as well as some individual choice regarding spending, but there was also a community ‘cap’ on excessive spending and a communal pooling of resources.
I found the contrast with the Bruderhof, which ran on a common purse, marked. At the Bruderhof every single item of expenditure from toothpaste to new socks had to be requested from the steward. It seemed to me that the individuals in the community were left in a child-like state with no personal responsibility at all. Even Philip said that it was a problem that they had no sense of what money was worth or what things cost because everything was provided for them. I felt the Sojourners seemed to hold the balance well between corporate and individual financial responsibility.
One other comment that Mark (from Reimagine) made regarding the Sojourners was that the secret to their success was that they were able to buy four large community houses before the housing prices rose in the Mission District and that therefore the members of the community had a practical incentive to make community living work – good cheap housing in a now desirable part of town. Slightly cynical, but I am sure that owning the houses is a huge asset to the community in many, many ways.
To an extent, the houses are mini communities; they organise themselves in terms of who buys the food, who cooks, cleaning etc. Each house meets for meals together a few times a week and some (maybe all?) of the houses meet for prayer each day. To guard against fragmentation in the community the houses are moved around every year. That does not mean that everyone moves every year but there is usually some movement. I imagine the families generally remain in the same place and individual’s health needs are taken into account. There is community, but distinctiveness. I was struck by one of the children during the service saying thank you for going over for a sleep-over to another child’s house. Yes, you were part of one community, but a sleep-over was still some thing!
In terms of the whole community gathering, they would meet on a Tuesday evening (not quite sure what for), a Friday evening for a meal together and bible study and then on Sunday afternoon for the Worship Gathering which included a meal together. While these were the times when everyone was expected to be present I again sensed a lightness of touch. I don’t think everyone was there on either of the occasions that we were present and I didn’t get the sense that people had to ‘send their apologies’. Everyone knew the commitment they had made when joining the community and there was trust that if they weren’t there it was for a good reason.
Our weekend (and stay in the US!) finished with worship on the Sunday afternoon. It was a gathering that involved music, sharing, food and communion in a wonderful and inspiring way. I enjoyed the contrast with COTA which had appealed to my more liturgical leanings (influenced by too long in an ecumenical setting!) but at the Sojourners I felt I got back to my Reformed and Congregational roots!
We gathered in the upstairs room (how appropriate), the community members and their families were there along with friends of the community who came to join them. We began with music: guitar, violin, piano, djemba and great communal singing! It was folky but modern, rhythmic and funky with good words as well. Afterwards I had a chat with Katie, who was leading the music, and discovered that she had written much of it. Yet again a community with a talented musician – what a gift.
The music was followed by a short film introduction to the theme, aimed (I guess) primarily at the kids. We then shared bread together (the first part of the communion, the wine followed an hour or so later!) The bread, once again, was gluten free so all could share it. This was followed by a shared meal together (a continuation of communion in a very real sense) and there was the usual hub-hub of people queuing for food, chatting and sharing. I had a long conversation with someone who had just come back from a week in Taize. The washing-up was done and we gathered again for more singing.
This was then followed by something called ‘affirmation’ when people spoke of where they had seen God at work in each other’s lives. This began with the children and then later in the worship time was extended to the adults. I found this a very moving time in the worship, although interestingly Emily was less keen. This made me wonder whether it appealed to, and was more helpful for, the extrovert members of the community, but that it worked less well if you were an introvert. The children then disappeared with their helpers from the rota and we moved into a ‘teaching’ time.
The community are currently working their way through Exodus and the bible-study (Friday night) and sermon were both on the same passage. I presume that this is how they usually do it connecting the teaching on both days. It was solid teaching based on biblical study and reminded me of my Reformed roots. We finished with the adult affirmations, a time of prayer, sharing the wine and singing. No one ‘presided’ at communion in any liturgical sense, the person who was leading simply introduced the sharing of both the bread and wine The chalice was a beautiful hand carved wooden goblet and people were invited to kiss the chalice if they were unable to drink the wine (a simple and moving way of getting round the issue of alcohol for the alcoholics in their midst).
It was an inspiring and challenging weekend. I was grateful for the openness with which so many people shared their experiences of their life at the Sojourners. Many of those who lived there were individually involved in work in the community of San Francisco in which they were set but the Sojourners themselves did not corporately ‘act’ in the community. They weren’t interested in ‘promoting’ themselves and gaining members, rather they were interested in living authentic lives in the way of Jesus. In that sense this was not a community that offered a new way of connecting with the post-modern generation: that was not their mission. What they did model was a real and dynamic community that took the call of Jesus seriously.