North America: USA
|National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2007|
Getting deeper Getting smaller
Small Christian communities revitalize faith, strengthen parishes, participants say
By EMILIE LEMMONS
Two Friday nights a month, Tim and Trina Wurst meet up with four other young Indianapolis couples in one of their homes. They’re not there to unwind with a movie and a few drinks. Instead, they read scripture, pray, share their faith journeys and plan service projects.
It’s not an easy commitment, considering that the couples are busy parents who have 12 children among them. One night, they might arrange for babysitters. Another night, they take the kids along, and one of the adults skips the meeting to look after the youngsters in another room. A few times a year, the children join their parents in an intergenerational meeting.
“We’ve been doing it since before we had kids,” said Trina Wurst, a mother of three who joined the group in 1999. “We’ve just been very flexible and had to adapt. … The idea of us not staying together is harder to imagine than figuring out a way to stay together.”
Half a continent away, in suburban New Jersey, another small Christian community gathers every three to four weeks — more frequently in Lent and Advent. Composed of mostly middle-aged and retired Catholics, the group doesn’t worry about babysitters or school schedules; in fact, they don’t all have kids. They’ve bonded in different ways.
Longtime friends and occasional political activists, some had protested the Vietnam War together in the 1960s. Others had formed a food co-op in support of César Chávez and the Farm Workers movement. Even now, they tend to be politically active, although they’ve disagreed on issues ranging from immigration to the Iraq war.
“We’ve had conflict. We’re not all the same political persuasion,” said Mary Ann Jeselson, 68, who has been a member for 13 years with her husband, Stephen. “[But] I have such a deep respect for these people that I’ve got to believe that they have arrived at their decisions and their opinions in an honest way.”
Across the country and around the world, a small but fervent cross-section of Catholics have been meeting in small Christian communities, some for decades. While the majority of Catholics look to their parish as the center of their spiritual life, those in small communities say their groups add a level of support, intimacy and nurturing that are hard to find at the parish level.
Further, they say, reflecting on scripture and discussing its application to everyday living makes them feel more accountable for how they live out their faith in the world. Some proponents say small Christian communities have the power to revitalize the face of parish life and the larger church.
Stories and service
Small groups have long been gathering in parishes, but the groups of previous decades were usually connected to outside programs instead of rising from parish life organically.
“Those [programs] are invaluable experiences … but the thrust of small communities is to root the small communities in the parish instead of making them parallel to the parish,” said Marianist Br. Bob Moriarty, who leads the Office of Small Christian Communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese.
As many as 45,000 to 50,000 small Christian communities may exist in the United States today, and there are surely at least 37,000, according to “Small Christian Communities in the U.S. Catholic Church,” a study funded by the Lilly Endowment and conducted in the late 1990s. William V. D’Antonio of The Catholic University of America headed the research, which was then compiled in book form by Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee, vice president for mission and identity at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a fellow researcher on the project. Lee is a coauthor of the 2000 book The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press), in which researchers posit that Catholics’ thirst for sharing their faith at an intimate level goes back to the home-based gatherings of the early Christian church (see related story).
The communities have several defining elements that set them apart from prayer groups or Bible studies: meetings that focus on scripture, faith-sharing and prayer; service to the greater community; a long-term commitment to community building, and a support network that many members describe as being as tight as family. Most groups comprise fewer than a dozen members, often from the same parish.
“If you’re not in a small Christian community, how do you get to know what people are feeling with regard to their faith?” asked Jeselson. “It doesn’t come out in other ways that I know of,” such as the workplace or a cocktail party.
Jeselson’s group, whose members belong to the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, N.J., drew closer after one of their members, Rita Gillen, died in an accident while on vacation at the Grand Canyon six years ago. She was hit by a van while she and her husband were walking up a road on their way to breakfast.
“Instantly when we heard, we got together that night,” Jeselson said. They prayed and swapped stories about their bubbly, active, generous friend, whose husband, Jim, still is a member of the group. “That’s what people do in small Christian communities,” she said. “They share stories.”
For a while, the group lit a “Rita candle” whenever it met. “Rita is still a part of our group,” Jeselson said. “Woven in the group is her prayerfulness, her witness to what her life was like.”
In addition to scripture, faith-sharing and prayer, most small Christian communities incorporate a service element — efforts to reach out to the larger community. For some, this takes the form of participating in parish projects to help poor and homeless people around the holidays, working in a food pantry or volunteering in some way in the community.
Jeselson’s group in New Jersey, which calls itself Sojourners, cooks meals in their parish kitchen and delivers them to soup kitchens in New York City or Newark.
Wurst’s group of busy parents has volunteered at a St. Vincent de Paul warehouse and helped a local man run a food pantry. She admitted they don’t do as many service projects as they’d like. “We try to do something once a year, at least Advent and Lent,” she said. “But it doesn’t always happen.”
Finding the time to meet regularly can be difficult, especially for couples with growing children. Groups have met that challenge in different ways.
Wurst’s group, whose members belong to St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, picked Friday nights to meet.
“Most school activities are during the week,” Wurst said. “And if we go out of town for the weekend, we usually don’t leave until Saturday.”
Arranging for child care can be trickier. “We’ve tried a lot of different scenarios,” Wurst said. “None is perfect. Having them with us is a good option, but sometimes we need more grown-up time. We just try to find a balance.”
For Amy Sluss’ small Christian community in Pleasanton, Calif., the solution is a group that includes all members of the family.
Sluss, 49, a mother of three, had been involved in adult faith-sharing groups in the past. Her husband, Gene, was active in their church, and their children were in religious education classes. All that changed about 10 years ago.
“We were feeling very scattered,” she said. “And quite a number of our activities that took us away from each other were church-related.”
She started talking to people, gauging support for a family-based small Christian community. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the group started meeting in early 1998. Today, the group has seven families: 13 adults and 17 children, four of whom recently left for college but are still considered members. The youngest member is now 10, and the oldest is 53.
Creating programs that appeal to all ages poses its own challenges. Sluss’ group planned activities that balanced fun with community-building, Bible reading and discussion with experience-based learning. Families take turns designing each program. Kids might research information about saints or Internet faith sites to share with the group, which adds an extra element of learning, said Sluss, who has written a book, Family Faith Communities: Ten Ready-to-Use Gatherings (Good Ground Press).
A lot of planning goes into setting a yearly calendar in place. The parents have two adults-only meetings at the end of each summer, just to plan. “We get out our calendars,” she said. “It probably takes us two to three hours to schedule our gatherings for the year” — twice a month during the school year, usually on the weekends — “and we do it all at once.”
The other meeting is devoted to picking topics for the year. Each family comes up with ideas from both the parents and kids, and the adults slot them onto the calendar. Last year’s topics included Hinduism and Marian apparitions. The group also plans a yearly Seder meal around Holy Week.
Occasionally, the adults will meet without the kids if they feel the topic calls for it. In preparation for the meeting on Marian apparitions, the parents decided to hold an adults-only meeting ahead of time to talk about their perceptions of Mary, Sluss said.
“Our adults are all over the place in terms of our faith journey,” she explained. “Some of us saw Mary as very cold. Others saw Mary as this devotional figure. We wanted to explore it as adults first, in a forum where we could talk for hours. Where we could say, ‘What do you mean?’ We don’t do that in front of the kids.”
That’s not to say the group doesn’t challenge each other or express divergent opinions in front of their children.
“We have a lot of latitude in our group for people having different thoughts,” she said. “My eldest daughter reflected that she thought she had a better understanding of the Catholic church than her peers did because she was able to have these discussions.”
Conflicts and growth
As with any relationship, small Christian communities have their share of conflicts and growth.
When a group is new, there’s a “birth phase,” a honeymoon period during which members test the waters with a sense of optimism, said Rosemary Bleuher, who recently retired as director of adult faith formation and small church community development for the Joliet, Ill., diocese.
The birth phase typically leads to the “youth phase,” where personality differences and power and authority issues rear their heads. A group is in most danger of falling apart during these early phases if the members can’t work through the challenges, Bleuher said.
If they successfully navigate the early conflicts, they find themselves in a “midlife phase,” where they realize “it’s OK to disagree, and we don’t leave the table,” she said. Members begin to accept each others’ differences, “recognizing that diversity is our greatest strength.”
The final stage of a group’s development is the “maturity phase,” in which members have developed a sense of wisdom about their group and are able to let go of their egos — having “learned to belong so we can give ourselves away,” Bleuher said.
Karen Jensen, a human resources director in St. Petersburg, Fla., who is near retirement age, joined an existing small Christian community three years ago. As in any group, she says, there are conflicts: Two of the men, both converts, are “almost like oil and water.” They often disagree on interpreting scripture, for example. “They’re so adamant: ‘I must be right, you must be wrong.’ There’s no middle ground. Well, in the end, they just agree to disagree.”
In Jeselson’s New Jersey community, discussions over politics can become heated.
“Not all of us agree with the U.S. bishops’ statement on amnesty for immigrants,” she said. “They have come to that through prayer and discernment. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about immigration, but we’re very much aware of where people stand. So we wouldn’t take an action [as a group] on immigrant rights.”
Jeselson considers her ability to accept other members’ opposing views as one of the growing experiences she has taken from the group.
“When I see somebody that I really respect and love, and they express an opinion that’s different from mine … if you believe that these people are prayerful people, I don’t see how you can fault them, frankly,” she said.
Connecting the church
That sense of acceptance and nurturing is one of the predominant gifts of small Christian communities, say many members.
Wurst, who converted to Catholicism from a Quaker upbringing, said her small Christian community gave her the support she needed to decide to complete the catechumenate. She had begun the program one year and joined the small group on the invitation of her sponsor. But she was experiencing some reluctance about joining the Catholic church.
“I didn’t want to make that big of a commitment without being sure it was what I wanted to do,” she said. “Being with my small church community gave me a little extra time to think about it and voice some of my feelings and have [community members] be supportive.”
Jensen, in St. Petersburg, also found that being part of a small Christian community eased a transition. She was reentering the Catholic church after 10 years away.
“When I was growing up, you weren’t supposed to read scripture. Only the priest was supposed to read scripture,” she said. “When I started reading scripture and started paying attention to what it said, it … all started coming into place and into form, what happens at the banquet table.”
Certainly, small Christian communities have brought Catholics together in a church environment more intimate than traditional parish life can provide. But do the benefits reflect back to that parish? And do small Christian communities have the power to revitalize the larger church?
Yes, and yes, say those who belong to such groups. “In the early church, the house church was the only form,” Lee, the Marianist author, said. “There weren’t any parishes. Part of the attraction, both then and now, is that you really form a community. To be a community you have to have together some shared memories and shared hopes.”
At St. Monica in Indianapolis, where one pastor oversees as many as 3,000 households, the 35 to 40 small Christian communities play a significant role in the parish, said Wurst.
One person from each small group is designated to be a “pastoral facilitator,” and they meet as a group once a month with the pastor. “These monthly meetings give the people serving as facilitators ideas for resources, ideas for dealing with group dynamic issues, et cetera,” she said.
“I think it transforms the structure of the parish in that it connects people and connects the communities so they aren’t just these little entities floating out there,” she said. What’s more, parishioners feel empowered, unlike in parishes where leadership is obviously top-down, she said.
“If they begin to belong, then they feel responsible for it,” said Moriarty. “That’s the heart and soul of this. Building a more relational church for the sake of a more relational world.”
Jeselson said breaking open scripture with a small community challenges her to be more accountable for how she exhibits her faith in the larger world.
“You are listening to the Gospel every time you meet,” she said. “You are saying to one another that the story of Zacchaeus [for example] is your story. You are saying that when the Gospel is read on Sunday, that it means something. … Jesus comes by and tells me that he’s coming to my house tonight for dinner; that sort of humbles me.”
“We all may be saints sitting in that circle, but we are all sinners, too. And that’s what you learn in small Christian communities. That’s what you’re supposed to learn in church. But it doesn’t hit home as much as it does in small Christian communities.”
Emilie Lemmons is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn. Erin Ryan, NCR staff writer, contributed some reporting to this story.
National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2007
2. Measuring and moving ahead with faith groups
|When Fr. Bernard Lee, William V. D’Antonio and others were working on the research that led to the book The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities, they had to decide how they would measure the communities when they were making the count. “We’re sure of 37,000,” Lee said, but added that he thinks there are almost certainly more than that in the United States. “Any number would be a guess,” he said.
“One of the things we did at the very beginning was ask, ‘Do we define what a small Christian community is and only [consider] those who fit the definition? Or do we count every group whose self-perception is a small Christian community?’ ” They chose the latter idea — group self-perception — but they eliminated anybody who met less often than once a month and didn’t have prayer as part of what they did.
“What we did for example was pick out a concentrated region in seven different areas in the United States that seemed typical,” Lee said, explaining that these are standard sociologists’ techniques. “If these are typical, then the other areas are similar.”
In 2002, a gathering at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio brought together communities from across the United States plus a dozen other countries that were interested in the idea of small Christian communities. The 2002 conference discussed the findings of the study and was the predecessor to the 2007 conference in St. Paul.
Right now, three national organizations deal with separate aspects of the small Christian community world, according to Marianist Br. Bob Moriarty, who leads the Office of Small Christian Communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, and who was a main organizer of the 2007 conference. The National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities focuses on parishes. The North American Forum for Small Christian Communities, which has members from 70 to 80 dioceses in the United States and Canada, is for the diocesan overseers. The third, the Small Christian Community Connection — formerly called Buena Vista — takes a broader approach and is more about the individuals who are in small Christian communities themselves. The bilingual 2007 conference was sponsored by all three of these organizations, as well as two organizations that work with Hispanic Catholics. Representatives from the sponsoring organizations will sort through the material that was generated at the conference and put it into a plan of action for galvanizing the energies of these communities, Moriarty said.
While in Latin American countries, awakening the consciences of the poor allows them to challenge the power structures, in the United States, this role falls to the middle class.
“If the middle class gets conscientized, they can move,” Lee said, citing past examples of Vietnam protests and involvement with the civil rights movement. “That’s why I regret that the small Christian communities haven’t gotten organized” on a national level in the United States. If they were, he said, they could be a real force for change.
“We need to encourage people to walk on two feet of social action,” Moriarty said. People are to practice individual acts of mercy and work for systemic justice, work on their relationships and reach out to the world. It isn’t one or the other.
“To realize the potential systemic impact of small communities, we need to think of them not singly, but as connected multiples,” Moriarty said. “If we connect small Christian communities through already available parish, deanery and diocesan structures, we have a real chance for small communities to have a coordinated social impact.
“Small communities are not simply sitting there feeling good together,” he said. “They are not simply little support groups stroking each other’s psyches.”
— Erin Ryan
National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2007
3. To awaken the conscience
|Political activism is often an important part of Hispanic small Christian communities, said Fr. Bernard Lee.
“If you’re in Latin America, the majority of people in small Christian communities are people who are very poor,” he said. “If you want to find a power basis for change in Latin America, you have to conscientize the poor.”
Community service and political action are major activities in Marianne del Carmen Diaz’s small Christian community in El Paso, Texas. Diaz said she was hesitant about getting involved with small Christian communities when she first began. Though Mexican by heritage, she had been born and raised in the United States, where “politics and faith don’t meet.” She lived many years in Mexico with her Mexican husband before they moved back to the United States.
Diaz, 75, has been part of her seven-member community for 17 years, and she was in other groups during the years she lived in Mexico, where small Christian communities are known for working together on neighborhood projects and causes.
“For example, if a neighborhood needs water, the men will dig the ditch; the others will prepare food,” she said, speaking Spanish through an interpreter.
In her El Paso group, based at San Juan Diego Parish, each meeting includes scripture and faith-sharing, and then they ask the question: Is there a need in the community that the group needs to respond to? And they drum up imaginative ways to help.
Diaz’s level of community outreach has taken the form of political activism. In Mexico, her group once slept on a bridge for three nights during election season as a form of protest. The protest was a way of putting themselves in front of those who needed to cross and thus “getting [citizens] to recognize that they need to wake up and pick the candidates who are going to serve the people and not just themselves,” she explained. Soldiers came, but the group was singing and praying on the bridge, and they weren’t arrested.
“I had to arm myself with courage,” Diaz said. “Just living the Gospel puts you sometimes in conflict with the political realm. Jesus was a revolutionary.”
— Emilie Lemmons/Erin Ryan
National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2007