Vol 13, Num 5 :: 2014.03.07 — 2014.03.20
During my senior year of high school, the assignment was to write a research paper on a topic that interested me. I liked school for the most part, and I liked the teacher who assigned the paper, so I took him at his word and chose to write about artist communes. I was interested in adults who were choosing to live together with a purpose, though I didn’t yet have the term “intentional community” in my vocabulary. I was also dabbling with artistic identities as a writer and an actor, so the intersection of these topics seemed to suit me.
It’s interesting to look back and compare how closely the seed resembles what has sprouted from it over the years. I’m tempted to say that I have delved into the community side of things more than the art side, but when I think about the nature of our work in the small, rural city of Three Rivers, I begin to remember again the artfulness of community development. In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block refers to leaders in building community as “social architects” — “not leader as special person, but leader as a citizen willing to do those things that have the capacity to initiate something new in the world. In this way, leader belongs right up there with cook, carpenter, artist, and landscape designer.” Block goes on to write,
Community building requires a concept of the leader as one who creates experiences for others — experiences that in themselves are examples of our desired future. The experiences we create need to be designed in such a way that relatedness, accountability, and commitment are every moment available, experienced and demonstrated.
Like making art, community development involves listening and waiting for inspiration, using what’s available and creating something new to engage an audience — except here in Three Rivers, the canvas is a big, old building and the audience is not a passive consumer or critic, but an active player in the creation of the thing. Artful community development requires both humility and audacity, both joy and lament. It requires paying close attention to the stories of the past and the complex interplay of the present, with a willingness to dedicate one’s entire life to the future evolution of a single masterpiece.
And what is the alternative to an artful model? Community development flowing out of a scientific model values verifiable, statistical outcomes above all else. Following a traditional business model suggests a top-down vision, the success of which is measured in terms of profitability. While measurable outcomes, leadership and economic sustainability all have their places in the course of community development, the artful side of it suggests something bigger than these individual pieces, something that holds them all inside in a certain kind of way. As an alternative model, our friends at the nearby Apple Farm Community talk about holding the farm as a business, as a community and as a mystery in balance, with each facet requiring a unique sort of tending.
In Walking on Water, her classic reflection on faith and art, the late Madeleine L’Engle writes that
to paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.
What the folks at Apple Farm seem to understand by counting mystery among the categories of their stewardship is that obedience is not predicated on understanding what it is we’re committing to; in fact, it can be quite the opposite. L’Engle continues:
Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding — that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of — there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.
But how do we develop this kind of knowing as individuals and communities? That question brings me back to art in the traditional sense, and back to Block’s wisdom:
There can be no transformation without art. Art in the form of theatre, poetry, music, dance, literature, painting, and sculpture. Communities by and large know this and invest heavily in the arts. Those who want to heal the wounds of a fragmented community initiate hundreds of art projects for those living on the margin. Art brings these voices into the mainstream. Most communities are proud of their arts tradition and rightly so.
To foster transformation from a fragmented community to one of belonging, Block recommends incorporating art — a song, a recitation, an opportunity to create — into every gathering, whatever its purpose. He also recommends being attentive to the aesthetic dimensions of the gathering space itself, which communicates to its inhabitants through symbols like art on the walls and spatial layout (for example, consider the symbolic differences between a ruling body on a platform facing an audience and a flat floor with a circle of chairs). When we begin to think in these terms, we can discern the practical value of what I might call “holy extravagance.” Again, Block is prophetically articulate, and worth quoting at length:
The argument against great design is always cost and speed. The discussion about cost and speed is not really about cost and speed. It is an agenda that declares that human experience is a low priority. The argument against the importance of the aesthetic is an argument against human freedom. Low-cost and quickly constructed buildings and spaces become warehouses designed to keep under one roof and under control those people whom we do not value. We measure their value in dollars and economy. We have too often seen the construction of ugly spaces and buildings in the name of cost, or of saving taxpayers’ dollars. It is not about the money. When a hallowed institution like a sports franchise or a large employer threatens to move out of town, we have all the money that is needed.
Don’t ever take the argument about no funds and no time at face value. Our stance about cost and speed is simply a measure of our commitment. In every case, low cost and fast action are really an argument against the dignity of citizens and a more democratic and humanly inclusive process.
If there is artistry in community development, this is the kind of artist I hope to become: one who takes to heart the inherent value of every individual, especially those whom the dominant culture has pushed to the edges; one who listens, and listens some more, before speaking; one who remembers to “waste” time and money, both for the Sabbath that nourishes my own self and for the playfulness that allows friendship to grow in wild and wonderful new ways; one who perceives and practices the connection between a beautiful space for creativity and a child’s sense of self-worth and potential; and one who submits again and again to the great Mystery that is the beginning and end of all things, obedient to a mystical, creative call I cannot understand in the trust that it comes from one whose name is Love.