My husband Rob grew up in the shadow of a cottonwood tree. Tucked between a major thoroughfare and I-94 in the south suburbs of Chicago, his family’s home was dwarfed by the tree’s massive arms, which reached out over the house like a preacher, praying over the congregation of two-stories, split levels, and ranches. His parents could remember when the cottonwood was just a little guy, a fast-grower planted to spruce up the new construction. They remember the summer “snowstorms” that would cover the grass with a layer of white fuzz. The kids were all out of the house by the time when, during a violent thunderstorm, the tree shot one of its huge limbs right through the garage roof. There was no obituary in the paper, but they all mourned a little as their friendly, messy giant came down, branch by branch, until all that was left was a huge, humiliated stump.
The first home Rob and I lived in together as a married couple also happened to be in the generous shade of an old cottonwood, one that was likely planted by my great-grandparents who had built the home that sheltered our young marriage. Being the kind to look for meaning in plant patterns, I’m tempted by the cottonwood coincidence, and yet I find myself fighting against it. Cottonwoods are gorgeous trees with deeply ridged bark, as though God created them in proportion to humans three times our size, and yet they’re brittle—dangerous, even. They grow so fast and send a rain of bony sticks down every year, as if to portend the constant risk of a crushing blow, should the wind whip up in just the right way.
By the time my sister and brother-in-law, now living in the great-grandparents’ house, finally made the decision to bring down the old cottonwood before it decided for them, Rob and I had moved to Three Rivers, Michigan, where we were delving into the question of how to be good neighbours and co-labourers in a small, rural town. Yes, there was yet another cottonwood in the back yard of the home that first sheltered us here. And yet, in the land of metaphors, even though the cottonwood is not a model to aspire to, it’s too often descriptive of how we humans go about things—a lesson we’re still trying to learn ten years into our Three Rivers lives.
The work we do in Three Rivers is taking the form of an intentional community, a fair trade store, events around art and food and efforts to build a community centre in an underresourced neighbourhood. We perform these various activities under the broad umbrella of “community development,” not necessarily in the professional sense of that term, but in the general sense of cultivating a group of people working together for a common cause, which happens in all manner of communities: families, churches, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and so on. Wherever community development takes place, it’s necessary to learn how to listen, persuade, negotiate, compromise, and reconcile. Otherwise, we are less like a developed community and more like an undeveloped assortment. There are many models for community development, but the term I’ve been toying with lately is “slow organizing.” Slow organizing requires reordering our assumptions in many ways, including our understanding of time, success, and friendship.
A Slow Take On Time
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we are doing with this hour and with that one is what we are doing.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
How we understand time has a huge impact on the mode and measure of our persuasion in community development, broadly defined. Having grown up in an environment that values efficiency and achievement, often to the extent of making idols of these good things, I have been slow to embrace the idea of an eternal kingdom. The long legacies of such constructs as the church year and living a rule of life have been helpful in teaching me that we do not live outside of time, but that our minutes, hours, days, years and lives are part of a much larger story. Within the church year, the body of believers creates space for the expectation of Advent and the lament of Lent, as well as the celebration of Easter. Within a rule of life, individuals and communities create space for activities of formation, which might include eating, working, praying, playing, celebrating, and just sitting still for a while.
Such rhythms are not just for the sake of variety, but for cultivating a centredness that can weather the sometimes violent shifts of the present (including deadlines!) with joy and gratitude, while anticipating the promises of eternity with hope. Catholic social activist Dorothy Day writes in her autobiography The Long Loneliness about how her community, which included French philosopher Peter Maurin, sought such centredness in their present reality of post-Depression New York City:
As Peter always dealt with the things of this world, so Father Roy always dealt with the things of the next, but the two were interwoven; time and eternity were one. As St. Catherine said, “All the way to heaven is heaven,” because He had said, “I am the way.” We were like workers for a Utopia already living in their Utopia. We were dying and yet we lived. We were in sorrow yet rejoicing.
This already-but-not-yet place is neither escapist nor overly optimistic about the human capacity to change the present. The success of the Catholic Worker movement was not predicated on reaching a particular goal within Day’s lifetime, but on a mutually cultivated passion for change that included gratitude and contentment in the present moment. What we do in ordinary moments, what we do routinely, forms us to respond to both the exceptional moments of the present and the ordinary moments of eternity. “We must live this life now,” writes Day. “Death changes nothing. If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will. If we do not learn to praise Him and thank Him and rejoice in Him now, we never will.”
In Transforming Violence, Duane Friesen and Glen Stassen elaborate on what this belief looks like for those committed to social change in the present:
Peacemakers . . . need to be sustained by a willingness to suffer if necessary, to endure abuse without retaliation, to overcome hatred of the enemy, and to keep hope and patience alive during a long period of struggle. The church can sustain trust in the possibility of the miracle of transformation when the evidence for change appears bleak, and joy even amid suffering and pain.
Christians aim to live in a place of paradox, characterized by lament and joy, struggle and surrender, longing and contentment, urgency and patience. A reordered view of time helps us on our way, but we also do well to examine our definition of success.
A Slow Take On Success
“How you get there is where you’ll arrive.”
—The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland
This past summer, our group in Three Rivers launched a program called Family Fun Nights at the old, vacant elementary school we’re working to turn into a community centre. For a couple of hours every Thursday night, we set up outdoor games, crafts, and snacks and invited our neighbours to come hang out and get to know each other. At the first Family Fun Night in June, we had two kids show up. For part of the time. The second week, a few more adults showed up, but it was not the massive turnout we’d been hoping for. By the third week, we were feeling pretty discouraged about our low numbers, and I came to our Friday workday at the site with a pretty bad attitude. However, as I swept the floor in one of the rooms in the school, I noticed a couple of little heads bobbing around outside the window. Going outside to greet the family that had appeared on the front lawn, I learned that this mother and her children had come over to wait for the police to arrive and take a report on domestic violence. The kids, still in their pajamas, lit up when I came outside with a playground ball, bubbles and sidewalk chalk from Family Fun Night, drifting toward the toys and away from their mom’s passionate recounting of abuse to the officer. Watching their transformation from fear to chatter, I realized that if this moment was all that a summer full of Family Fun Nights achieved, it would be worth the effort.
This work at times has felt like trying to carve a giant boulder with a toothpick, but our community’s ongoing conversation about the relationship between faithfulness and effectiveness helps keep me grounded in hope. And it’s not just our community that’s navigating this tension. In Friendship at the Margins, Christopher Heurtz and Christine Pohl lift up Christ’s example of “success” in the upside-down Kingdom:
Was Jesus “successful” in his calling, mentoring, training and sending of the twelve disciples? When do we take the measurements? What do we measure? Perhaps “success” is the wrong category. Jesus was faithful. Even to the end of Judas’ life, Jesus loved him.
Success doesn’t make sense of a selfgiving love that is offered even to those who betray, deny, abandon and doubt us. But according to Scripture, faithfulness in loving our friends—whether or not we see immediate results—does yield a harvest of fruit. And together we are drawn closer to the heart of God.
Heurtz and Pohl remind us of Jesus’s spin on success, but also his spin on time. It’s easy to get caught up in being effective according to our measurable goals and timelines, when what we’re ultimately called to is faithfulness. Sometimes, those things go together, and sometimes they’re at odds, especially when we become obsessed with measuring our work using quantitative terms of success, like “inputs” and “outputs.” It’s not always a one-to-one ratio. God moves in mysterious ways. The patient persuasion of community requires a belief in eternity, as well as in the work of the Holy Spirit, which redefines the markers of success. When we get caught up in goals and timelines, we risk missing the real work that’s emerging, not on a Thursday night between the hours of 5:00 and 7:00, for example, but on a random Friday morning.
A Slow Take On Friendship
“The nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.,
“The Power of Nonviolence”
In October, 2012, the New York Times Magazine ran a story on the Greek island of Ikaria—“the island where people forget to die,” the headline proclaimed. Along with a handful of other relatively isolated places in the world, Ikaria is notable for the exceptionally long lives of its inhabitants. As researchers dug through the layers of mythology for scientific evidence, they discovered a lifestyle that includes waking naturally, working outdoors, taking naps, and eating a limited variety of fresh, local food. But the quality of Ikaria that could never be quantified or perhaps even duplicated was the quality of its community. Dan Buetner, who’s studied those who live long lives for nearly a decade, writes,
For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses. The power of such an environment lies in the mutually reinforcing relationships among lots of small nudges and default choices.
I was struck by Ikaria’s stunning example of the ways in which community, for better or worse, shapes us to be certain kinds of people. It’s why parents of teenagers are so concerned about their kids’ friends: committing to a way of life together, whether intentionally or accidentally, tends to reinforce that way of life. Likewise, the long-term commitment of a community dedicated to faithful living persuades those around them of the goodness of their life together.
In the realm of community development, there are a number of different lenses through which we can view each other, many of which designate some as the professionals, servers, or helpers, while others are the clients, the needy, the served. The model that takes a longer view, and swims upstream against current tides, is that of friendship. Christian communities the world over, from the international Catholic organization San’t Egidio to the Reformed Heartside Ministry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are exploring what it looks like to meet each other as equals in relationships of mutual help and generosity.
But pushing beyond “us and them” requires time. I think of Randall, who comes into our downtown fair trade store for free coffee each day. He’s chatted for endless hours with numerous store volunteers about the women who have jilted him and his beliefs about Sasquatch and aliens. He’s phobic about being perceived as a “charity case,” but in creating space for all of us to be whole and broken people together, he’s been willing to seek help, even if it’s something as small as writing a medical claim number a bit larger so that he’s able to read it. I think of Terry, who also comes in for free coffee, and barely says a word besides a growled, “Thanks for the coffee.” After a few months, he started bringing in candy occasionally, not as a payment or a trade, but as a reciprocal expression of sharing. No one is programmatically setting out to save Randall or Terry from disease or injury or mental illness or poverty—in fact, many of us are dealing with similar issues ourselves—but in sharing our lives in friendship, we all save each other from loneliness.
There are certainly environments in which the boundaries between professional and client are good and necessary, but I would argue that, especially in our neighbourhoods and churches, friendship tends to be pot-bound by our fears and insecurities. Given more space and time to grow, I believe friendship has the capacity to surprise and delight us with its unexpected fruits.
Trading Cottonwoods For Walnuts
Within many of the barns that dot the landscape around Three Rivers, in various states of use and repair, even the most casual explorer can discover black gold—not oil, that is, but black walnut beams. Prized for their pungent, edible nuts that require superhuman strength to crack, black walnut trees are also revered for their beautiful, workable wood.
Two large walnut trees frame the backyard of the property where we do much of our work in Three Rivers, standing as living, growing reminders of the appeal of slow organizing. Within our neighbourhood, within our city, we are not seeking to grow ideas fast and big, but to grow a faithful, attractive vision for the good life—a vision that appeals to the deep desire that Love planted in our souls at the creation of the world. We hope for the patience to watch it grow into something beautiful and useful.
In Reconciling All Things, Emmanual Katongole and Chris Rice emphasize how the pursuit of friendship brings us back to a long view of time and a reordered view of success:
Transformation as the deeper vision of enemies and strangers becoming friends—and of all becoming God’s companions—takes time. A long time. More time than we have. The work is never done in our lifetime. . . . Here and now, in the meantime, we take the time to do it well. In the meantime, we go into the gaps and lay down our lives. We choose to go far and not fast, taking the time to travel with companions. We do what we can by giving what we have, with love and excellence, even if our best is given to those things that seem small. For we have learned the significance of washing the feet of the one who will betray us and of going out of our way for the stranger by the side of the road.
In the end, I don’t know if slow organizing is about persuading others after all, as much as it’s about allowing ourselves to be persuaded of the movement of the Spirit by cultivating eternal habits in the present, by taking the long view of success and by listening patiently to our neighbours as acquaintances deepen in to friendships. In this kind of soil, perhaps even the shell of the walnut will soften enough to sprout, taking its place in a forest none of us will live to harvest, that is lovely all the same.