By Holly Baldwin
“Friends, Our life is love and peace and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand if there has been any slip or fall.” — Isaac Penington
When I think about the struggle and blessings of being in community, I think of an experience I had in a Friends meeting years ago. Someone in the meeting drove me crazy; she would ramble on in business meeting or committee meetings, taking us off topic with sto- ries we’d heard before. It would have been easy to dismiss the Friend, or even leave the meeting because of my frustrations. But there was something compelling about both the Friend and the meeting, and so I stayed.
As I stayed, I learned that this Friend left her mark on the meeting. Her stories became part of our identity, part of the fabric of the meeting I grew to love. Her messages in worship and her stories outside of worship were part of her dedication to our meeting. Without her, the meeting would have been bland. As I grew to love the meeting, I grew to love her and her stories. Her love for the meeting and my love for the meeting met and formed part of the whole that was our meeting community.
At Beacon Hill Friends House, where I live in community with 21 others, we have a variety of personalities, ages and interests represented in the house. If we run away from what bothers us, we lose opportunities – the opportunity to learn about what bothers us, as well as the opportunity to stay in community.
Beacon Hill Friends House is a Quaker center in downtown Boston, Massachusetts, and a cooperative residential commu- nity. Community members share meals, chores and committee work. Through living in this Quaker community, residents from diverse spiritual backgrounds learn experientially the values and practices of the Quaker way. Wayfaring Friends may visit the community by staying in one of our two guestrooms.
In a faith community, or an intentional community, we can- not handpick our companions on the journey. We encounter people we may find challenging. We are asked to do more than tolerate differences. We are asked to really get to know one another and learn to respect, appreciate and even love people we might not have otherwise chosen. We are committing to stick together, support and be supported by each other, despite our differences.
Learning to be in community with people we might not have otherwise chosen stretches our hearts. We open the door wider, and create space at the table for people we don’t usually sit with. The more we do this, the more radical our welcome can become. As we learn to become friends with people different than us, we begin to create an increasingly inclusive community that contains the love and diversity that God created and loves.
I would like to share two stories about challenges I’ve faced in creating increasingly inclusive community — one from a community I was part of in Maine,”The Carpenter’s Boatshop,” and another from Beacon Hill Friends House.
“The Boatshop,” as we called it, is a Christian-based in- structional, intentional community, where participants learn to build small wooden boats, while also learning experientially about living in community. Apprentices come for a school year, living and working together.
Part-way through my year, one apprentice departed, and so we filled a vacancy in January, well after our sense of com- munity had been formed. It was really difficult for us to open up a spot for the newcomer. He lived off-campus. He was wildly extroverted, while the rest of us were introverts. He was loud and large and affectionate, and that was hard for us.
I don’t think we realized that we were making it hard for him to be part of our community — his jovial manner was so convincing. One day he told us how out of place and unwelcome he felt among us quiet types. I was shocked and disappointed that we had let our petty annoyance with one person get in the way of his feeling part of the group. How could we let that happen in a place that practiced radical hospitality? I redoubled my efforts to find a way to be friends with him. Eleven years later and miles apart, this friend is still part of my community of friends, and I am richer for having his love in my life.
The story from Beacon Hill Friends House is about working tenderly with one another as we examined the charged issue of smoking on the premises.
Some residents were frustrated that their rooms were affected by outside smoke more than other rooms in the house. We worked to find a solution that dealt compassionately with a variety of needs — both smokers and non-smokers.
It was very tempting to ban smoking outright, without considering the smokers’ perspective on the issue. It would have been easy to say or think, “Everyone knows smoking is a terrible idea. Why do we even bother accommodating smokers’ needs? They should just quit.”
But a few residents braved the anti-smoking sentiment and spoke passionately in defense of smokers’ rights, as well as about different health choices and lifestyle choices we all make. Some people, for example, eat ice cream every day, but we don’t criticize or judge them for this choice every time we see them doing it.
I came to understand that smokers are tired of being preached at all the time — I don’t have anything new to tell them. And if I want to engage them in a conversation about smoking, I had better make sure I’m not condescending or hypocritical. Just as residents need to know that we will try to limit smoke coming into their room, smokers need to know what the policies are so that they can feed their habit while affecting others as little as possible, and without having to worry about breaking any rules.
Through both of these examples, I learned to curb my judgment and listen to the experience of those around me. I learned to recognize the needs of people whose lifestyles are different from my own. I find this is the kind of loosening up I am asked to do continually at Beacon Hill — there are all manner of ways that prejudice impedes my relationship with others: homophobia, classism, racism, able-ism and gender bias, as well as subtler personality differences that are more difficult to pinpoint. Letting go of assumptions is difficult and ongoing, but opening your heart and mind to the difficult or different members of your community gives your heart and mind good exercise in this kind of loving compassion.
And here’s the thing: when we learn to truly accept people as they are, with their weaknesses as well as their strengths, we create a community that accepts us as we are, with our weaknesses and strengths. Whether your community is centered on worship, home, work or something else, being accepted as whole people is a remarkable gift. We can stop trying to pretend to be perfect, and be who we are. We can ask for help and forgiveness in our community, and even learn to improve our own shortcomings. When we are free to acknowledge our whole selves, we are better able to work on what we want to improve — and grow ever closer into God’s vision for our lives.
Holly Baldwin is director of Beacon Hill Friends House. She has been living and working at BHFH since 2006. She delights in the joy and the dirty work of community life and relishes the opportunity to share our spiritual tradition with other seekers. She quickly found a home among Friends upon attending a Friends meeting in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1993, and has been part of meetings in New England ever since. She is a member of Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts.