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About fifteen years ago, I had a dream. In my dream I saw a green hill with several people silhouetted against a cloudy sky. These figures were engaged together in various activities, some speaking, some playing or dancing, and some resting. The clouds in the sky moved quickly by, like in a fast-motion movie, which I understood to signify the passage of time. Then I woke up.
Although the dream was brief, its images — the people, the hill, and the sky — have stayed with me. The attitude shared by the figures on the hill was one of deep peace and joy. Finding no greater happiness than in the company of my family and friends, I have been working to make the community of the green hill a literal gathering in my life.
I am apparently not alone in my desire to live in a rewarding, purposeful community. Eco-friendly groups and religious fundamentalists have achieved a dramatic increase in intentional communities over the past two decades. A quick look at the Northwest Intentional Communities Association directory shows over 200 communities just here in my beloved Pacific northwest. However, I am struck by the absence of an LDS presence in the intentional community movement — this really seems like the sort of thing Mormons would do very well. What influences have acted to discourage the saints from building their own communities?
First, we are looking forward to the future Zion of the New Jerusalem. The expectation of a New Jerusalem saps the zion-building impulse in two ways: it implies that the work will be done for us, and it instills a vague fear that building a zion is the responsibility of church leadership and would be an inappropriate pursuit for the membership.
Second, intentional communities carry a lot of cultural baggage. They conjure images of hippie communes, nudist colonies, and fundamentalist compounds, among others. Mainstream members eschew these strange lifestyles and situate themselves comfortably and firmly in middle-class suburbia.
Third, and related to number two, the principles of individualism and private ownership are highly prized among church members. I recall a talk given in my ward a while back where the speaker listed “ten principles the saints should strive to follow”. The first nine principles were fine and predicatable — honesty, scripture reading, temple attendance, etc. — but the tenth principle was, I kid you not, “home ownership”. More surprising than the sentiment expressed, however, was that it was accepted without comment. By idealizing [suburban] home ownership, we create a culture of isolation and self-sufficiency that is at odds with the community gathering impulse.
Fourth, diversity. Communities are made of people, and people come in a wide variety. Can we accept the fact that building a community eventually means that we will be associating with people who look/think/act differently from ourselves?
Fifth, community building is a skill that we’ve lost. Once you’ve gathered the people together, what do you do with them? How do you unite and direct them? How do you create a community infrastructure that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a diverse humanity while being effective enough to respond to and resolve problems? What kinds of core activities and events work well in bringing people together, transforming a “neighborhood” into a “community”?
These are some of the questions I hope to explore in more detail during my time as a guest of Times and Seasons. I take Joseph Smith at his word when he says, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us [in the next life]”. Do we engage in fulfilling community relationships which make that a desirable proposition? If salvation is, at some level, a community transformation, then perhaps it is our responsibility to build the communities and friendships in which we could happily be engaged for eternity.
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