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It’s a God Thing: b y M eg E . C o x P H O T O G R A P HY B Y T H O M A S W R A Y

A look at the challenges of sustaining community across four decades plenty of electronic devices to share.The parents’ own friends live only a few steps away, readily available to help out or hang out. Perhaps best of all, though her husband works for JPUSA’s nonprofit shelter program and she works only part time (helping to coordinate the Cornerstone music festival, held annually in Bushnell, Ill.), Winter isn’t going into debt or struggling to make ends meet. The residents of JPUSA may not have easy access to chocolate chips, but they have everything they need. But this isn’t just community for community’s sake. If it were, says community pastor John Herrin, JPUSA wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. Successful community is “a God thing,” he explains,“an outgrowth of mission.” And there is no

Genesis Winter is collecting recipes for a community cookbook, and she’s asking her neighbors to avoid submitting recipes that include chocolate chips. Chocolate chips are a luxury item, not a staple, in the shared kitchen at Jesus People USA. Though they sometimes have to do without chocolate because excess funds are plowed into ministry to poor neighbors, Winter and the other parents at JPUSA (pronounced Japooza) enjoy luxuries that parents who don’t live in a 400member commune can only dream of. If they work outside the home, dinner is already made when they return, and someone else always does the dishes. Their children’s friends live in the same “house,” a 10-story renovated hotel in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, and are just as lacking in the latest fashions as they are — though between them the kids have

PRISM 2009


Jesus People USA blueprint, no book that explains how to create it or sustain it. The mission of JPUSA’s founders was evangelism — traveling evangelism at first. Setting out from Jesus People Milwaukee in 1972 in a bright red school bus with “Jesus” painted on the side in large block letters, they traveled around the Midwest and Southeast, playing music and holding rallies, supported by churches along the way. By the time the bus broke down in Chicago in 1973, Jesus People Milwaukee had dissolved, and the traveling team had no home to return to, so they took up residence at a church called Faith Tabernacle and added a discipleship training school to their usual routine of evangelistic rallies and street witnessing.They supported themselves with whatever donations came their way. A crisis in leadership during the first year in Chicago led JPUSA to embrace plural leadership — by a pastoral counsel rather than a single pastor — an arrangement that Herrin says has been key to the community’s longevity. Over the years the council has debated long and hard about whether to switch to a more democratic style of governance, Herrin says, but when they consider the politicization of every decision that would likely occur if the entire community voted on major decisions, they remain persuaded that leadership by a pastoral council that makes decisions by consensus is best for the community. JPUSA grew quickly, from 30 to 90 members in the two years at Faith Tabernacle — “We didn’t turn people down who wanted to come live with us,” Herrin says. Many of the new arrivals had serious problems with drugs or sexuality and needed the structure that community living could provide; in turn, JPUSA needed a home and a more secure source of income. So in 1975 they bought their first house, a six-flat apartment building, and began the first of their mission businesses. JPUSA’s businesses developed organically as JPUSA members responded to needs around them. When an elderly neighbor who had been evicted needed help removing furniture from her apartment, a few members went over with a van to pick up a dresser. Police charged them for operating

without a mover’s license. So they acquired a license, and JP Movers was born. Gradually the workers developed new skills and started additional businesses. They have built porches, painted houses, and repaired roofs; silk-screened T-shirts, sold used clothing, and published books—all to support the community and help fund its service to poor people. JPUSA’s direct ministry and involvement in neighborhood politics have grown organically just as its businesses have. When people without a home came looking for a place to sleep, JPUSA invited them in.Word got out and more people came, so JPUSA bought more property. Cornerstone Community Outreach (CCO) now houses some 400 men, women, and children in temporary and transitional shelters. When JPUSA purchased its present home, about 100 senior citizens were already living there in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Rather than evicting the seniors while they renovated the former hotel, JPUSA helped them move to the floors that were in the best condition, and so began Friendly Towers, an assisted living community that occupies the top three floors. Some JPUSA families have developed relationships with senior residents, drawing them into their extended communal family. “The seniors had lived in fear, with doors closed,” recalls Pastor Neil Taylor, “and now they have community.” Their involvement with their poorer neighbors has pulled JPUSA into neighborhood politics, too — in ways that have made them unpopular with real estate developers as well as

Opposite: An arm wrestling competition attracts attention at a community birthday party. Araceley Bock (center) instructs kitchen volunteers preparing for a community wedding celebration. PRISM 2009


Jackson explains, but at the beginning members were caught up in the apocalyptic zeal of the Jesus Movement and didn’t generally think far enough ahead to consider whether one day they might like to leave the community.These couples “wanted to move on,” Taylor says, “but couldn’t figure out how.” Trott describes some of the limitations on individual choice that may have grated on the dissatisfied members — limitations that he says often seem strange to people outside the community but that JPUSA’s leaders have found necessary to the community’s health. By way of example,Trott explains, “God says don’t have sex outside of marriage; JPUSA says don’t have make-out sessions unless you’re married.The latter is a house rule, and not a rule for all Christians. It’s how we do things, and we think we have good reasons for doing it in our context. … We told some individuals that we could not support their marrying within JPUSA. It is the equivalent of a house rule. A couple who did not marry at JPUSA could (and sometimes did) marry elsewhere. More often yet, couples whom leadership foresaw having major problems if they married were persistent, and married within JPUSA anyway.” Similar limitations pertain to employment. From the start, JPUSA has been like a Bruderhof community: Members work for the community — in one of its businesses, in an outreach ministry, at the community’s school, around the house or kitchen, or on maintenance duty. The council of pastors and the work group leaders match people’s skills and interests to the community’s needs. Herrin explains that for many years, JPUSA’s leaders encouraged members with an entrepreneurial bent to try out their ideas. The ethic was “Dream what you want, and we’ll support your vision.” But this approach caused JPUSA to become overextended, and eventually the council had to close unprofitable businesses and turn down

some of their neighbors. CCO Volunteer Coordinator Lyda Jackson, a longtime JPUSA member and a board member of the Communal Studies Association, remembers when JPUSA first took a public stand against gentrification. When JPUSA was helping refugee families who were settling in Uptown in the 1980s, condo development began to displace Cambodian and Lao immigrants.The residents of one building decided to launch a demonstration when they received their eviction notices, and they asked JPUSA to join them. Jackson recalls that neighbors who normally spoke well of the neighborhood’s diversity thought nothing of opening their windows and throwing tomatoes at the Cambodian marchers. JPUSA later participated in the construction of a tent city to house people who had lost their homes; longtime JPUSA member Jon Trott was arrested at the demonstration (and quickly released). When the community bought the old Chelsea Hotel, they could live in one place again instead of being scattered among several buildings in the neighborhood. It happened in 1989, the same year JPUSA became part of the Evangelical Covenant Church after a long search for a denomination that would provide oversight and be a source of accountability. JPUSA was the same age some of its founders had been when the community was started. Around this time several couples who had been longtime members were becoming dissatisfied with community life. People had always been free to leave JPUSA,

Above: JPUSA members pray before sharing Communion. JPUSA member Stewart Brown cuts a rug with Helen, a new Friendly Towers senior resident, at an in-house dance party. PRISM 2009


Mike Phippin teaches a neighborhood boy how to build a bike as a part of Bruthas and Sistas United, JPUSA’s homegrown boys and girls club. Below: JPUSA members join with their neighbors in supporting community actions, like this anti-violence march. lishing a term commitments policy. In it the pastors acknowledged that for many longtime members, time had proven that the idea of “lifetime commitment was rooted in youthful idealism rather than in reality.”Through the years, it had “become apparent that a conviction of ministering at JPUSA as one’s lifetime work is a specific and unique call that God places on some but not all of us.” The council now requires everyone to periodically reevaluate their commitment to living in the community, which involves supporting its mission and submitting to its leadership structure, and to sign a commitment of two or five more years if they intend to stay.This does not prevent people from leaving before their term of commitment is up, but it does formalize a practice of reevaluation that Jackson says she and her husband fell into naturally after the upheavals of the mid-1990s. While developing “a more loving response” to people who are moving on, Taylor says, JPUSA has created a discipleship training program called Project 12 to “focus on and care for the new person coming in the door.” Interest in the community is so consistent that there’s sometimes a waiting list for incoming families, and membership continues to hover around 400, as it has for nearly 20 years. JPUSA is in Uptown for the long haul. People who would like to see gentrification advance more quickly in Uptown wish it were otherwise. “As long as Jesus People are in the area,” some neighbors have been heard to complain, “you’re always going to have the poor.” That’s true. And ultimately that’s the point. n

some new ideas. The leaders were gravitating toward a new ethic, Herrin said:“This is a baseball team. If you want to play football, join a football team.” They were becoming “more secure about people leaving to follow their dreams.” After leaving the community, some of the disgruntled couples came into contact with sociology professor Ronald Enroth, who was writing a book called Recovering from Churches That Abuse. Their stories and the stories of other former members became a chapter in the book. During the controversy that ensued, JPUSA had the unwavering support of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Reflecting on this difficult period, Trott compares intentional community to marriage: “Community life is all about human beings in a relationship. Like marriage. But marriage in practice is not the marriage of our dreams. Marriage can be tough! No community that’s lasted for any amount of time manages to avoid having some who leave disappointed and even angry. Like an observer of a marriage, we might be tempted to come up with simple answers to something which in truth isn’t so easily explained. Love, hope, dreams shared— or no longer shared: that’s glorious stuff sometimes, and terribly painful other times. Sometimes someone is to blame. Other times blame is a foolish endeavor which only gets in the way of making space for two different interpretations of what has happened.” It was becoming clear that JPUSA needed to formalize a process for people who were transitioning out of the community. In 1998 JPUSA’s new Transitions Committee issued a document that addressed timelines for departure, policies regarding an interim period when departing members can earn and save outside income while staying at JPUSA, and details of settling in a new home, church, and community. Most striking in this document is its discussion of financial matters. People leave JPUSA with no debt and usually with a parting gift of several thousand dollars, but if they’ve lived their whole adult life in the community, they may have little experience with managing their own finances. The Transitions Committee recommends that they sit down with one of JPUSA’s financial managers for a primer. Later the pastoral council issued another document estab-

Meg E. Cox is a freelance writer in Chicago and is on the staff of the Christian Century.

PRISM 2009


It's a God Thing  

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