People who feel called to dedicate their lives to loving and serving God in radical ways have often found it necessary to live together. Roman Catholics created monasteries and convents for celibate renunciates, while the first Quakers demonstrated a way to live God-focused lives while maintaining a family and carrying on occupations in the world. They supported those called to ministry through extensive home hospitality for travelers and by raising funds. Our society is not nearly as communal as theirs was, and today most people live in isolated family units. Young people still share houses while engaging in studies or beginning their professional lives, but most Quakers in our time maintain the individualistic norms of the culture regarding living arrangements. Some Friends, however, have continued to explore alternatives.
Quakers in the Philadelphia area established Bryn Gweled and Tanguy Homesteads in 1939 and 1945 as housing communities where people of “different backgrounds and heritage” could live together cooperatively. In 1971, a group of Quakers with an even more radical aim established Movement for a New Society (MNS), “a nationwide network of groups working for fundamental social change through nonviolent action.” They created a cluster of communal households in a low-income neighborhood in West Philadelphia.
When I moved to the same neighborhood in 1989, however, MNS had mostly dispersed. I came seeking a way to live that would allow me to follow a spiritual calling. It had become clear to me that I must take only part-time paid work and learn to live frugally. I saw a clear relationship between my lifestyle choices and the amount of work I had to do to pay for each choice. For many years, I lived in small apartments in low-income neighborhoods. I chose not to own a car and did not buy health insurance. In my free time, I engaged in study and practice to eventually become a teacher of Quaker spirituality. Along with other Friends, I became convinced that many treasures of Quaker faith and corporate practice are gifts that the world urgently needs, and that in order to fully give our gifts, Quaker meetings need to deepen spiritually.
Fired with a sense of being called to teach and write, in 1996 I experienced an inner call to give up even my very modest but regular income from teaching college classes, in order to dedicate more of my time and energy to teaching and writing about the spiritual life. To release myself for ministry, I needed to give up my own apartment and find a less expensive way to live. This would require support from others. Embarrassed to ask for help, I wrestled for months before finally giving notice that I was leaving my job. Although not having this job has not always been easy, in the past two decades I have experienced God’s providence in many ways, and in particular through the generous community of Friends. I am one of an increasing number of Friends who have heard a call to release ourselves and be released by our community for God’s service, in the myriad forms that service takes.
The communal living arrangements I’ve experienced have fallen into three general categories. The first is shared households located in low-income neighborhoods. Dividing up the modest living expenses in such places has enabled members of the household to free themselves and each other from much or most of their salaried work in order to follow leadings or carry a ministry. At times, some Friends have felt called to invite me and others into a second kind of living arrangement: sharing their homes and offering a spare bedroom. In such situations, the homeowner does not expect to receive an equal share of housing and utility costs. Sometimes no rent is charged at all. At other times, the one following a leading or carrying a ministry pays a modest rent. A third alternative has been to live as a house-sitter in someone’s home while the owners are away for an extended period of time. House-sitters pay for the utilities they use, and sometimes also a modest rent.
In 1997 I moved to Casa Amistad/Friendship House in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood called Fairhill. Jorge Arauz had bought a house facing a small park that was the turf of drug dealers. He felt led to what he called “a ministry of presence” to the neighbors. As one of them, he nurtured the community to reclaim the park as a safe place for children. A Quaker committee called Fairhill Friends Ministry met twice a month to provide spiritual and practical support, and they called for other Friends to live in the house. I was the second Friend to respond to the invitation, and soon, in addition to teaching and writing, I was helping to organize community events and efforts to make Fairhill Square beautiful and safe again. At Casa Amistad, three of us shared household expenses, including the mortgage and utilities. Jorge and I also shared food expenses and cooked together. On the weekends, we were joined by the young daughters of my two housemates.
After two and a half years, for health reasons, I needed another place to live, and Hollister Knowlton invited me to live in her house for a time. At first, she charged me no rent. Then she began to acknowledge that she, too, was called to reduce her full-time employment and devote more time to her leadings, which were related to protecting the environment. As her financial situation changed, I took part-time jobs to contribute more to household costs. Then she sold the house to move to a smaller one down the block. When another Friend bought the house, I stayed on for a while. After I left, other Friends needing to be released from ministry and for witness followed me in this house of hospitality, a center of community sometimes referred to as Angels Landing.
For seven years, I was the summer house-sitter for two Quaker schoolteachers. In June they went to their summer home in Vermont, and I moved into their old stone house. I lived alone and did research and writing six days a week. I paid for the utilities, mowed the lawn, watered the plants, and gave attention to occasional maintenance needs.
After four years of full-time employment as a teacher of Quaker spirituality, I wanted to stretch my savings as long as possible so I could finish a book. I entered another house-sitting arrangement, staying in the apartment of a couple who had taken a one-year appointment to work in another city. They came home a few weekends a month. I used their guest bedroom and paid them a modest rent.
Next I moved to Richmond, Indiana. For three years, I lived in a rich community of people knowledgeable about Quaker faith and practice, with access to the Earlham College library’s Quaker collection. I audited some courses at Earlham School of Religion and received support there for my research and writing project. Housing costs in Richmond are about 30 percent cheaper than housing in the Philadelphia area. Through several different living arrangements and by taking a part-time job, I was able to make my savings last longer in Richmond.
In addition to financial and communal benefits, there are equally important spiritual benefits to living with others who are also seeking to be faithful. Conversations at meals, while doing chores, and during leisure time can be rich opportunities for mutual spiritual sharing, learning, encouragement, and inspiration. Being led into such household arrangements, in whatever role, can provide a new lens for the challenges that inevitably arise in every sort of living arrangement. Understanding that we are together in service to God’s work in the world can help ease the challenges of living together. Such frictions can become part of the spiritual process of becoming a more faithful instrument of God’s love.
From the beginning of my journey as a Quaker, Pendle Hill retreat and study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, was a crucial hub for experiencing and learning about Quaker spirituality. As soon as I discovered it, I began signing up for weekend workshops and an occasional five-day course. Pendle Hill had a policy of matching any scholarship given by meetings, which made their programs affordable to me. I lived near enough to attend the free lectures and enroll in some resident student classes. I loved the daily morning meetings for worship; lasting just 30 minutes, they often had a charged, holy quality that was rare at the Quaker meeting I attended on Sunday mornings. I learned experientially that a meeting for worship can be about something even more powerful and transforming than the quiet centering, wise spoken messages, and loving community I experienced on Sunday mornings.
At its creation, Pendle Hill borrowed from the Benedictine monastic model to create a rhythm of community life conducive to a deeper immersion in the experience of God and supportive of those called to live in a radically faithful way. In addition to the morning meeting for worship, the resident community of staff and students also shared a rhythm of shared work, study, and leisure. Pendle Hill was created, in part, to allow those called to some form of spiritual nurture or teaching ministry to deeply explore their spiritual life and Quaker faith. It was also created to provide preparation and spiritual renewal for those called to lives of service or social action. Those who came as resident students for one or more ten-week terms ranged in age from 18 to 85. Their experience was often life altering.
In 2005, I enrolled for two terms as a resident student. Later I returned to serve for four years as the resident Quaker studies teacher. At Pendle Hill, I witnessed how community can encourage deep acquaintance with the presence of God and with divine guidance. A community can also support its members in making faithful lifestyle choices that are different from the culture, offering encouragement to take risks and step out in faith.
For me and for many others, the way of life there inspired efforts to create spiritual community elsewhere. Before living at Pendle Hill, I spent a year in a group house in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania with two other women, recent Pendle Hill staff members called to write books. The three of us gathered for a half-hour meeting for worship each morning, and then we went to our separate rooms to write. We shared some of the cooking and household chores. A small insurance settlement from a car accident provided enough money for me to write for a year without paid employment; my housemates each took local part-time work. On Sunday mornings, we gathered with two others who had recently lived at Pendle Hill. An hour-long meeting for worship was followed by a time of spiritual sharing and reflection, then brunch. We were joined occasionally by Friends who came to partake of the community experience and the fresh country air.
Years later, I participated in another effort to create daily community rhythms of spiritual practice. In the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, five Quakers lived on a street called Evergreen Avenue. We often shared meals in each others’ homes, had occasional meetings for worship in a backyard or living room, stood together in peace vigils, and participated together on committees. After Laura Melly bought a house on the street, with the intention to foster spiritual community, we began to hold daily weekday morning meetings for worship. A half hour of worship was followed either by a half hour of study of scripture or other readings, or else half an hour of spiritual sharing and prayer requests. We called ourselves the Evergreens and took turns meeting in each others’ houses. Soon we were joined by Friends from other streets and neighborhoods, and also by neighbors who were not Quaker. Eventually a large community formed, out of which a group of three to ten people—on average—might meet for worship each morning. Those whose work schedules made it difficult to participate in the morning began to hold an evening meeting for worship one day each week, followed by a potluck dinner. The community held special events to celebrate holidays and birthdays; helped meet each other’s practical life needs; prayed for each other; and came out in support of one another’s ministries, creative projects, and witness. Several peer groups were formed to meet on a regular basis for mutual spiritual support and accountability. Some participants moved away, but other people joined. More than a decade later, the Evergreens are still meeting regularly.
A few years ago, I married Terry Hauger, a retired social worker. In order for me to continue to follow my leadings, we needed to find an economical way to live. We were led to buy a duplex on the edge of Chester, a city southwest of Philadelphia. We live in a multiracial neighborhood near a beautiful park and midway between some leafy, affluent suburbs and the struggling inner city of Chester. Our house is a 12 minute drive from Pendle Hill, and the same distance from Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting.
There are several Quaker households in our neighborhood. After the recent presidential election, a multiracial community group was formed of local Quakers and other neighbors concerned about caring for the least advantaged in our society. The group has focused its efforts on supporting refugees who are being settled in Chester. In addition, some local Quakers, from both Chester and Swarthmore, have been holding a monthly meeting for prayer and healing at Chester Meeting. When I see houses for sale on my street, I dream of community forming here, a community of Friends sharing one another’s inner lives and practical needs, and engaging together in the community, in spiritual nurture, and in social action. If those who live in more affluent neighborhoods sold their homes and bought a house on our street, they could free up hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their real estate.
My dream is not only for my own community but a vision of faithful communities blossoming all over the world. Wherever Friends live, if we seek communal ways to support and release each other, we can free up time, money, and resources for greater faithfulness, service, witness, social action, and ministry. We can learn to know and support each other more intimately and become more radical in dedicating ourselves to God’s work of healing and transforming the world.