Presented November 14th, 2021 Rev. Fiona Heath
Research suggests that the failure rate for new start-up companies is about 90%, and most companies don’t last past a generation. Over 85% of the fortune 500 companies from the 1950s are long gone.
Businesses fail more often than not. This doesn’t stop entrepreneurs from trying or people from investing. Intentional communities – groups of people trying to live collaboratively – have about the same failure rate as start-ups.
Think of back to the land folks in the seventies or convents. Small groups with a purpose that includes cooperation. A few last and evolve, most fall apart within a few years, just like start-ups. https://aeon.co/essays/like-start-ups-most-intentional-communities-fail-why
We take the failure of intentional communities however, as a sign that their utopian ideals are an impossible dream. That we can’t possible live in egalitarian ways that care for everyone and live lightly on the earth. We mock them, those foolish people.
And as we heard in the story this morning, we have bold visionary ancestors who believed there were ways to live in beloved community.
From Rakow in 17h century Poland to communal urban homes in contemporary New York, people of the chalice have attempted to find ways of living that put human well being ahead of economy.
We know that people thrive together, not apart.
Our principles, sources and aspirations all call us to an ideal of human interaction – one of mutual care and support. Especially our sixth principle – the call to build community – stated as the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
This principle is one I struggle with – that ideal of world community speaks to me of western expansionism – and at the same time – building community is essential to my faith.
While I find the wording awkward, the more I sit with this principle I see it calling us to intentional living, which we echo in our mission to nurture community.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a pie in the sky ideal – communities based in peace, liberty and justice for all – but it is truly what most of us want – a safe place to belong that allows us to be ourselves without exploiting others.
Intentional communities – utopias in practice – are living experiments in how to be together, trying to avoid harmful exploitation. They are the seeds for a better world and Unitarians and Universalists have been the gardeners.
Hopedale Community, begun in the mid 18oos by Universalist minister Aden Ballou flourished for over ten years as a small New England village. Ballou founded Hopedale as a form of “practical Christianity” – rejecting military service, taxes, voting, profanity, intoxicating beverages, idleness, games of chance and much more.
Despite a very long list of prohibitions, Hopedale worked well with income from agriculture and business pursuits and families came and thrived.
But two brothers who were the primary investors didn’t like the level of debt the community was carrying and pulled their money out, forcing the end of Hopedale.
It’s hard to build community when capital has the final say.
Trying to challenge an economic system while living within its constraints is a momentous task. It is amazing that any intentional communities succeed at all.
Fruitlands was another utopian experiment in New England in the 1840s. Established by Bronson Alcott, author Louisa May Alcott’s father, Fruitlands was intended to be a return to Eden – people in harmony with nature.
This seeking of “universal harmony” was taken so seriously that Alcott would not use ox or horses to plough the land, as that was exploiting the animals.
Fruitlands did not last long, with Alcott spending much of his time off on a speaking tour to raise funds, leaving his wife and four daughters to do the work. Other men involved had little farm experience. Tensions rose among the dozen adults participating and the experiment ended in little over a year.
Despite its early end, the thinking behind Fruitland was progressive in many ways – they believed pollution and environmental degradation harmed civil society, they espoused a sense of interconnection with the planet, advocated for abolition and women’s rights.
The idea of a loving community influenced Louisa’s writings.
But it’s hard to live differently, because people are people. Social norms around class, wealth, gender and sexual roles, power, all show up even as a community tries to challenge these norms.
Alcott may have espoused women’s rights but he also left them to do the domestic work.
Intentional communities which succeed are ones that find a way to deal with people being people, with strategies to maintain good relationships and manage conflict.
They help people deals with all the bias and prejudice we carry, examine assumptions and check privilege. It depends on goodwill and intentionality.
While our Unitarian Universalist ancestors weren’t able to create lasting communities with peace, liberty and justice for all, they did leave us with valuable examples to learn from.
I am proud to be part of a tradition that takes its values so seriously that people take action to create a better world. I hope we continue to tend to the garden of community so that it may flourish.
I wanted to share Gurdeep Pandher’s video with you because I think he is an example of world community. Gurdeep grew up in a small farming village in Punjab, became a writer and a traveller and ended up in Canada. He fell in love with the Yukon and has been living there for over a decade.
One of his youthful passions was Bhangra dancing, the traditional Punjab Sikh dance form. He teaches Bhangra in Whitehorse and on-line and began posting short dances on youtube.
Pandher builds world community through dance, doing mash ups with indigenous neighbours as well as with Irish and Scottish folk musicians.
Difference is treated with curiousity and respect.
I know I need Pandher’s delight right now, as we witness the endless growth of the global economy coming up against the limits of nature. So far it seems like the economy is winning, which means all of us are going to lose.
It’s frustrating because as Gandhi once said, the Earth provides enough for everyone’s need, just not for everyone’s greed. The earth produces more than enough food and we produce more than enough goods for everyone – the issue is one of fair distribution.
We don’t need more, we need to learn how to share better so that every person can have a good and decent life.
For me, this is the essence of the sixth principle – to find a way to share better so that all people can live well.
I don’t need thirty different choices in toothpaste. I’d rather everyone have access to toothpaste, toothbrushes and clean water.
I believe one way we figure this out is by living in community with intention and care.
As emergent Strategy author Adrienne Maree Brown asks – where do we learn to be in community? Families have their own stories and ways of being, school and work more often teach us authority and hierarchy.
We are fortunate our religious faith teaches community.
As Brown says “community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong…not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…community feels responsible for each other. community is a choice. more precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.” https://adriennemareebrown.net/tag/community/
We try to do this here, we nurture community, we seek community for all people everywhere, community that rests in peace and security, in the freedom to be yourself, in justice that restores, not punishes.
Brown, who is well worth reading as a guideline to new ways of thinking in activism, suggests one way we begin to create larger system changes is by how we live our own lives.
As we create communities that respect difference, put people’s needs ahead of profit, that develop carbon free economies, as these succeed, they will expand and influence the system around them. Over time, small seeds will flourish and grow into a mighty tree.
Brown argues that change starts with us – we find our agency by speaking from our own experience, owning our prejudices and bias, and learning to work with people different from ourselves.
Small seeds grow into mighty trees.
We’ve seen it happen here – where years ago UUs saw that Mississauga needed affordable housing, found others who agreed – and from a meeting of a small group of religious folk grew Pathway Housing. Which is not just one building but multiple buildings and programs that give struggling people a safe place to land.
Not every seed planted is going to grow, but when there are good gardeners and fertile grounds, it is worth it to keep on planting and tending the garden.
I invite you to consider what you are already doing to nurture community, to seek peace, liberty and justice for all?
I suspect most of us are doing more then we think, we just don’t always see it in the small seeds or tender shoots.
I see it in the work of Mississauga Climate Action, in the hybrid and electric cars in the parking lot, in those going to demos and writing letters.
I see it in the people helping refugees become new Canadians, making room for more.
I know I see it in all the people engaged here, willing to practice community over and over again, so that we learn how to live together well.
I see it in the ways we practice consensus, experiment with new models of governance, in the longing for more kindness and compassion in the world.
May we remember always that from small seeds come mighty trees.
May we continue to nurture community, may we continue to seek healthy ways of living that help all people live in peace, liberty and justice.
So Say We All