The Secret of Community (is a Soft Heart)

September 20, 2021 by

I’ve been hanging around Albany, New York, as part of a small community for a few months now, doing shopping, outreach, park-walking. I’ve met some positives, but I’ve also met anger, loneliness, mistrust, and many other negatives. All of this tends to harden you on the inside. You become callous and cynical, apathetic – and hard to live with. No wonder so many intentional communities fall apart so fast!

When I was in Missouri at the Possibility Alliance, a very popular and vibrant community at the time (and since relocated to Maine), the leader Ethan Hughes advised the youth present to join my wife and me at a campfire. What was his reason? The fact that most intentional communities seem to fizzle out after a few years, and ours had been around for one hundred. The thirty-some seekers, from eighteen to forty in age, joined us for an intense evening of questions with no interference from phones or flashlights, just the fire and the Milky Way above, and it was marvelous.

Bruderhof kids playing Photo by Darius Clement

We who inhabit long-lasting communities (as well as everyone else) also need to look at the secret of real community. Even communities that appear to be harmonious and have zero private property like ours can get dry on the inside, divided and uninspired. Yes, we need inspired communities that reflect peace.

My experience with “front-line communities” immersed in cities and constantly dealing with a fragmented world, made me realize the importance of avoiding a callous inside, a hard heart created by fear and resentment. We at the Bruderhof like to say that vibrant and forward-looking communities depend on living by the same Spirit that moved the early Christians to share all things in common. That is true, but in simplest terms, it might come down to just keeping your heart from turning into a stone.

A soft heart does not mean soft muscles or a soft head. It is an inner freedom that constantly forgives and is willing to ask for forgiveness. In community, we easily try to maintain the form of community we are used to and do it in our own strength, rather than that of a higher power. Then we become discouraged and wonder what the heck is wrong – and what was wrong, of course, was trying to rely on ourselves. It is living by God’s strength that clears the way and brings joy – and more community.

So when my wife and I went home by candlelight after three hours around that Missouri campfire, we said to ourselves, “this is why we came.”

I look back and see how much we learned and how much we were impacted by the questions, by the earnest and sincere and vibrant people there. They were asking what they were called to and what creates lasting communities. Our answer, summed up, was “personal inner renewal.” No matter where we are placed we need to avoid a hardened apathy, “living parallel lives to maintain community.” It doesn’t work, and it is nobody’s calling. Life anywhere can be tough, but true community that leads to radical and amazing forms can start in anyone’s heart right now. As the Good Book says in four whole places: The Lord can replace our hearts of stone with tender responsive ones (hearts of flesh). This is real freedom, not the freedom of legal rights, but a permanent freedom that no one can take away. Community, and the nurture and justice and joy that come with it, actually depend on freedom, not the opposite. A heart that listens will find the way, and although community is about the rarest thing in this divided world, there is great hope for it, and for universal peace, universal justice. Why? Because the answer is so simple. Not always easy, but simple.

Eve Merriam once said, “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’” That amazing dream depends on each one of us keeping a heart that is steadily compassionate – a free heart, not a bitter one. It takes communication, sitting down with a pastor or counselor, being open with questions. Gossip, on the other hand, tears apart relationships everywhere, and is even worse in a communal setting. Being bottled up about your worries does no good either.

Let us look to children for an example: brutally honest sometimes, but incredibly forgiving. Community is, after all, a matter of the heart. You have it already if, inside, you are free from grudges and anxieties, if your heart is light. The form follows after, and is changing a bit the whole time anyway. All problems and questions ultimately have the same answer, not in redefining what is evil, not in watering things down, but in an attitude of forgiveness that replaces bitterness and the violence it promotes. Join me in striving for a new world of joy, by letting it live inside me.


About the author

Simon Mercer

Simon Mercer

Simon Mercer is a free-thinking Anabaptist, would-be poet who lives at the Maple Ridge Bruderhof.

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