Our friends in Danville

After our fantastic time with the guys at QC Family Tree, we drove a few more hours North, and arrived at Grace & Main Fellowship in Danville, Virginia.

IMGP7712Grace & Main is an intentional community that values hospitality highly. Starting around 5 years ago in response to a dangerously challenging book club, they now have several community houses spread across the city, and a community garden large enough to be thought of as an urban farm.

A small group of friends, they moved from book study to a practice they referred to as “Roving Feasts”, making tens of packed lunches and walking through town making friends in bad neighbourhoods and bad situations…

“We would wander through all those areas your mother told you not to go to”

This lasted for several years, but they started to hit a major bottleneck on time – they had so many great relationships that focusing on meeting new people meant they couldn’t prioritise those they already knew.

We’ve changed numerous times in five and a half years, even things that were deeply important to us, we now don’t do.

IMGP7707Another habit they began was weekly open meals in their homes. Again, they’ve had to evolve this over time, after over 100 people started coming to each meal. They now have regular meals in a local church hall, which also allows that church to practice their own gift of hospitality.

Unlike the cost-aware approach of many soup kitchens, G&M model Jesus’ treatment of the woman who used expensive perfume on his feet:

“We have proper meals, with proper plates, something you actually want to eat!”

IMGP7684One of their members is a trained chef, and Joshua admitted they are always keen to encourage him to provide more of his top-notch meals. The effect of having home cooked meals is that those invited feel that they are part of the family.

One of the core members, formerly homeless and recovering addict, Bruce Hopson, shares of when he first attended a meal. Over time, his life became transformed, directly through his relationship with the community: and he attributes much of the change to his experience at those meals:

“At the time I didn’t realise that you loved me. But I could see that you loved each other, and it was nice to be near that.”
Bruce Hopson

These days, Bruce is one of the most committed members of the community, and is also employed as a missionary to the north side of town. His experience is mirrored by many others in the Grace & Main family. Joshua feels there’s a reason for this:

I feel it could be a motto for intentional community: You can build a fire and people can come warm themselves with you. You don’t need to go out with torches into the dark.

That’s not to say you don’t need to go for the away games – you likely need to build your fire in uncomfortable places – but people will be attracted to the relational warmth of heartfelt community.

IMGP7717Grace & Main also helped mobilise a block of 30 people with mental health issues raise concerns about their housing. Working alongside the residents, they helped them to get legal help, work together and ultimately saw the building condemned, with appropriate housing provided to all residents. Whilst not a 100% success, it is a sign of how those on the margins can be victimised, and how loving relationship can lead to transformation.

Unsurprisingly, we experienced many of the same shared values and actions that we’ve been seeing our whole trip. Whereas QC Family Tree manage to have morning and midday prayer times together – using the excellent “Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals” – Grace & Main try to come together in the evening:

Part of the challenge in having different houses in different neighbourhoods is getting a regular prayer slot. I’d love to just have a big bell we ring [a reference to our visit to Koinonia Farm], but with different work schedules, different committments, we often try (and fail) at morning prayer.

We generally succeed in Compline – the whole house is there, and we can see out the end of the day together.

IMGP7695Over the last year, Katherine and I have been feeling more called to gardening, to producing our own food, to “practicing resurrection in our flowerbeds”, as Helms from QC Family Tree would word it. The challenge has truly been laid down by G&M, with their new acreage of urban farm.

IMGP7688They are trying to plant in a sustainable manner, learning permaculture, and slowly shaping the land in a way that uses its weaknesses as advantages, enriching soil and breathing life into a tired landscape. The art of growing that is being unveiled there was a challenge to us both: we’ve already signed up for a family permaculture in the UK next month!

IMGP7720Our final evening was spent having a pizza party with Denny, proudly sober for 7 months now, and Kathy, sober for 12 days so far. 20 people came over to one of the community homes, and vegan, vegetarian and meat eater celebrated together, before going bowling that evening: Katherine succesfully not finishing in bottom position in every game!

But the striking (get it, “strike”, bowling?) point of the evening for how encouraging everyone is to each other. Any period of sobriety is a cause for celebration, but the heartfelt support for so real it was practically palpable. It is that integrity of caring that makes Grace & Main so special.

All too soon, time to move on arrived. Make no mistake, travelling and changing places so often has been tiring! As a raging extrovert, I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people, and new social contexts are right up my alley. Even so, constantly processing new environments is still an exhausting experience.

Equally frustrating is the feeling that we are so ready to get stuck in. I want to pick up a spade, and start helping make Danville’s urban farm a reality! I’ve made lifelong friends over the last 2 weeks, but that doesn’t mean that my place is here with them. We are ready to be radicals: but without knowing exactly what situation we are being called to throw ourselves into, we must instead look forward to a period of my least favourite virtue: patience.

Patience, I hope, will give us an idea of how to start asking and answering all the questions we have about community. As we say goodbye to the lovely folks at Grace & Main, I’ll leave you with a final question from Joshua:

I know how to be a core member of a community; but how do we welcome new people in?

How do we welcome those having the same ideas, wanting to explore more?

How do we make way for people when they see the way we are living and they say ‘I want in!'”

Given that each experience of common life has made us feel “I want in!”, I suspect God has an answer for us: we just need the patience to hear it.

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