Pulling into the neighbourhood was a familiar feeling. Slightly tatty wooden houses, with cars in a similar state of disrepair, a populace very visible on the streets. Much like the majority of communities we’ve visited, QC Family Tree is located on the edge of empire, an area that once comprised a stable, well-off neighbourhood, now far less economically and socially prosperous.
It was immediately apparent to us we had arrived at the right house: normal residential houses don’t have two swings in the front garden, a free library on the porch, or a sign advertising a free summer school. Greg and Helms welcomed us into their home, and we slotted comfortably into our attic bedroom, just across the hall from their new Summer interns.
The defining characteristic of our trip has been shared themes. As Greg pointed out on telling us that we once again found ourselves in “demographically one of the poorest areas” of a city; “its because there’s intention”.
“When we were thinking of moving out here, we stayed with someone who had lived in Charlotte for years. He started warning us – ‘Don’t go to these places, you’ll be killed!’ Those were the places we started looking at first.”
Intentionality. Vegetarianism. Care for the poor, and for the earth. Indie board games. Common prayer times together, a rhythm of spiritual sensitivity. Ethical coffee. Lament for division, be that racial, economic or political. We’ve had such similar conversations that we could easily let Helms stop halfway and let John, or Anton, or Ben pick up.
Meeting daily for morning prayers, for midday prayers, meeting to building a common soul foundation is a key focus that pins the community together. I especially enjoyed the short blessing they share together at all meals:
“God bless to us our bread.
Give bread to those who are hungry.
And a hunger for justice to those who are fed.
God bless to us our bread.”
Not every tradition has been able to be maintained for the 9 years they’ve been putting down roots in Enderly Park. As their community has changed over time, they have had to adjust the way they operate. With many long term residents and members of the Family Tree, but only two core committed adults, their leadership model has been set by necessity:
We feel like our cherished flat leadership model has been taken away from us; it’s almost like we are Abbott and Abbess now. At the same time, it wouldn’t be practical for us to run any other way.
And, similarities aside, our numerous hosts these last two weeks have not been identical. It turns out that Greg is a keen saxophonist. I wrote part of this post in a late night jazz cafe jam in the Double Door Inn, watching Greg pour out the alto sax part to a Miles Davis classic. No one was wearing dark glasses, and no one was smoking cigars: aside from that, it was pretty much the authentic experience of jazz one would hope for in the smooth South.
Our experience of QC Family Tree was much the same: authentic. No matter how many exciting, enthusiastic books one reads about intentional community, a simple fact remains: real people have real relationships, and those are rarely as shiny and perfect as my hopeful idealism predicts.
During our time at QC, the core couple at the heart of the Family tree had to:
- Deal with new people constantly leaving stuff lying around. (Mostly me)
- Deal with new people leaving the doors open whilst the air conditioning was on. (Okay, okay, me again)
- Deal with new people constantly cracking terrible jokes about jazz in an awful Southern accent. (this was mostly Katherine).
- Evict a long term resident.
- Spend time with friends who had reduced their interest in community.
- See people who used to be their closest friends, but could no longer be described as that.
In our long chats about community over the last two weeks, many people have stressed the difficult realities of community living. We know it ourselves: we lived in ‘intentional community’ for two years in our early marriage, and nothing shows you just how much of a small minded, easily irritated fascist you are than sharing a bathroom with your friends.
Sometimes I wish we could just shut the doors for say, 6 weeks, and be significantly more normal. But, ultimately, we need others. And hospitality is how that is expressed.
I almost feel like its selfish, because we gain so much from it: but it is also very much orientated towards other people. Sometimes its draining. Sometimes its life giving.
One of the benefits of visiting tons of people trying to live out similar visions is the oodles of wisdom and life experience they have to share. Katherine sat in on an early morning briefing of the new QCFT interns: the topic was on “how to live with others“, and she listened to well road tested advice, built on a foundation of prior mistakes, experience and reflection.
I’m not sure I have any specific answers on how to avoid conflict after visiting QC Family Tree – but we didn’t come to America for those. We are here to learn what sorts of questions we should be asking.
Some of those questions are forming, and I’m confident they will continue to roll out, long after we return to sunny England. Currently, I have one:
Something drives people to carry on with living in intentional community.
When there have been broken hearts, broken relationships, broken homes;
What makes this lifestyle worth it?
One chap was in the house on Monday. He’d been a loose associate of the Family Tree for years, so I asked him; “What’s your opinion of intentional community?”
He answered me immediately:
“Its terrible. Everyone just ends up hating each other, and nothing ever recovers from it.“
I was a little taken aback, but before I could respond, he carried on.
“And yet… I can’t help believing that there’s something in it that is vital for all of us. There’s an incredibly powerful societal force pulling us apart, and without choosing to come together, we will all be swept away.“
We are halfway through our crazy North American trip, and we are keener than ever to work out how to avoid being swept away. Here at QC Family Tree, they are figuring that one out together.
Just in case you were worried, Greg and Helms got to read this before it went live: they are happy for us to share our reflections with the world.