We Had Meant To Make A Covenant

My car was in the shop. It was a nuisance, a financial hardship, but a chance to see my world. The sidewalks were just as ruinous as in memory. The house where I used to live was a little less decrepit; new door, new windows. Porch still covered in chairs, though the one chair I had dumpster-dived a few years ago was gone now.

We had thrown out everything else long before: the fellowship, the failure, even the facing of it. We had soared too high. The atmosphere had proved too thin, or else the bullet had found the perfect spot.

I first came to this house as a young college student still living at home. I had heard that they shared everything here, even their food. They were a family bound together not by blood relation but by a signed commitment, a covenant. And they did this voluntarily. I was a little afraid the first time, standing on the back porch knocking.

The place was run by a campus ministry organization. Partnering with the landlord, the organization filled the house with eight students every year, some of whom were leaders within the ministry and directors at the house. The idea was simple, but radical: throw a bunch of college kids under the same roof and ask them to commit to intentional Christian community. No drugs, alcohol, or sex. Regular meetings, meals together, prayer, and Bible study.

Curiosity blossomed in my fear. What was it like? How would it change me? How would I handle the conflicts? How dare I think I wanted to do it? When the time came, I had made it onto the recruitment list. My favorite answer was something between “I don’t know” and “no.” But my friends were persistent, and they took turns. Suddenly, inexplicably, my answer changed to “yes.”

That first year was all discovery. The discipline of our regular meetings called out shadowy feelings higher than the desire to be left alone after a long day. The sense of pure creation hovered in every breath, around every corner: we were doing something new. We were holding all things in common. Surely this thing was contagious. If people could just experience the power of community, they would turn away from fear and individualism and start to live. We had to spread the love.

The neighbors on one side needed it so much. They were foster parents (as evidenced by the age disparity between them and the kids); but it didn’t sound like a loving home. The mom yelled at the kids every morning when she took them to school and every afternoon when she brought them home. I didn’t know what to do. One moment I asked myself whether I had any right to do anything at all, and the next moment I asked how I dared remain silent. One evening, in an overflow of anger, I opened the window of my attic bedroom and shouted “stop yelling at those kids!” Of course, she had a retort for me: I had no idea what it was like to deal with them all day. No, I didn’t; but I had plenty of idea what it was like to deal with her. I didn’t say that, though.

The yelling stopped for a while. Maybe I had put the fear of child services into her, or maybe I had only told her that I hated her, just as everyone else did. But at least I had been an influence, salt and light, man. We were all doing this. We were building this. Of course, the yelling started up again a few months later; and, unwittingly, I had spoken for our whole house in breaking social code and rebuking her from on high. Thenceforth, relations with the neighbors remained polite at best. But, that and other failures aside, I still believed in community. I was ready for a second year.

Then we got the bad news.

Due to a restructuring, the campus ministry directing the community house would have to let the project go after the end of the school year. But several of us, enthused with our experience of a cultural shift away from the American dream toward something like a network of real love, petitioned the owner to let us rent the house again. In leaderless democracy, we would continue the ardent and dire attempt at holding all things in common. (Minus the no alcohol rule, of course.) The owner liked the idea. We got enough people, and we all moved in.

When the honeymoon of late summer dinners and new beers together was over, an obnoxious roadblock appeared: we could not agree on our covenant, the signed statement by which we would all abide and which we had allowed to go unsettled in our rush to get the rental established. Furthermore, we could not even agree on how to work towards agreeing on the covenant; one time, having met specifically to resolve the issue, we spent four hours sitting in abject silence under an apple tree in an orchard. Before long, the old glowing community house had become a hollow place with an outward appearance of peace, love and countercultural sharing, but an inward structure of personal avoidance and even spite. Community living, we called it.

For a while we trundled along, gently working to avoid some of the conflict: trying to clean up gracefully after ourselves and each other, trying to share groceries, and trying to find a time when we could all sit down for that pesky covenant talk. But things just didn’t work out. The mess of mine and my brother’s musical gear in the basement accumulated, wiping out what was once a weightlifting space for others. Some people could only be found coming in or going out or staying behind a closed bedroom door. Dishes accumulated as statements of agitation, and proposed systems for dealing with them led to fights. We could have shrugged and said roomie wars, as it’s nothing new. But the thought just wouldn’t go away: we had meant to make a covenant.

The sad thing was that we never tried to talk about it or apologize or forgive. We just stuck out the lease, stretched out our diverging paths, and moved out on schedule. The malaise in the air had quieted to decomposition. I was not, am not bitter; but it’s still hard for me to see these people when I run into them now and then. It’s even harder to live with the fact that I really don’t see them at all. I still love each one of them.

Two years earlier, my confrontation with our neighbor failed to accomplish anything. Determined to be less harsh and more accepting, I didn’t confront anybody this time. But now I realize that that too was a failure. All right, what were we supposed to do?

That’s not to say that I regret having lived there. That experience still structures my thoughts, from my conversational instincts to the dynamics of my novels. But the riptide of striving together toward a great wholeness has not picked me up since, except perhaps in glimpses at a family holiday or an arts discussion group meeting; and without that sense of collective unity, love, and purpose, life has at times seemed like a dull and endless reciprocation of personal paycheck and personal spending. How I miss that tight and intimate giving, that all-eclipsing net of interdependence.

I’ve had some opportunity to practice that love again. Dating and engagement have shown me a new kind of community that is smaller and more desperately important. The loss of friends, both to death and drifting, has shown me how deep and unbreakable the ties within my family are. Living now at a boarding house with strangers (without a covenant), I’ve listened to people when they’re at their lowest and given them rides to school when they’re too sick to walk. I’ve written about this kind of community in my novels and seen it honored in the naming of our band after that house. But that time of life and all its dreadful seasick learning are just a memory now. And though the failure of that attempt is perhaps less heinous than the verbal abuse next door to it, the reverberations of its dysfunction are surely no less present and no less difficult to circumscribe.

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