Today, as we prepare for orientation and the start of another new QVS year, Assistant Director and Philadelphia Coordinator Ross Hennesy leads us in some considerations about community:

I am a member of a few different communities. I’m part of the Quaker Voluntary Service community and serve as the acting director there. I am a member of Germantown Monthly Meeting. I live in a multi-house intentional community and I am an active citizen in the neighborhood of Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia.

Today, I want to talk about community. It is the theme of this conference, one of the traditional Friends’ Testimonies, and it is one of QVS’s core values. I also would say that it is personal for me. I have, for my entire adulthood, been trying to live into the question, “How can small, intentional communities be organized to effect social change?” All of those communities, that I listed before, are holy experiments trying answer that question differently.

First, I want to talk about community as a testimony of Quakerism. Sometimes folks refer to these as our values. I do not particularly like the word “values,” as it is a secular term that conjures the image of a projected ideal for which we strive to achieve. It is not the same as a testimony, which is the natural expression of an internal movement. It is not a projection – it is an outgrowth. Values derive from mental assent to an idea – testimonies derive from an internal transformation.

So what is this internal transformation that leads to community – George Fox famously describes his transformation in his journal when he says: “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings.”

It is what Isaac Pennington talks about when he says, “as the soul turns from the power of darkness and death, towards the power of the eternal Spirit of light; so the power meets it, embraces it, appears to it, and manifests itself in it, proportional to its present capacity and condition.”

Today we don’t like talking about darkness or death. We want to imagine that everyone is already good enough as they are. We take the phrase, “there’s that of God in everyone” to mean we do not need transformation; we already arrived and this is as good as it gets. I know this is not true for myself. I have lots of shadows. And I am going to guess that you do too.

And so this is what is offered by Quakerism. It is this movement; a life that is lived in fear and guilt can be transformed into a life that is lived in love. There is a three steps to this process to this Quaker “technology”:

  1. We are born into a world of “darkness,” where we are incarcerated by our fear and guilt. All fears we have, I surmise, stem from two basic primal fears. Jesus, Pennington and Fox use the metaphor of Death, and I adapted this from Brian Drayton’s PH pamphlet “Getting Rooted”:
    1. The first is the fear of not-being:– these fears sound like “I need…” (not having enough, not being safe, not being heard)
    2. The second is the fear of not-counting: it is a social death and these fears sound like “I should…” (not being loved, not being respected, not making a difference, not being good, not fulfilling obligations)
  2. There are spiritual disciplines that enable us to see clearly how fear controls us. The option that society gives us is to stay really busy, to imagine if we just work hard enough, or we choose the right causes, we can postpone death and avoid pain. Or if we buy the right products those dark places will disappear. This is not what Quakerism offers; instead, we directly confront our darkness. We hold our fear in the Light. We invite death into the conversation with light, we let all of the darkness bubble up from within, then when it shows up we say, “Hello fear, thank you for that information, but you know what, instead, I’m going to choose compassion.” When our minds are silent, all of these subconscious motivations rise up to be greeted.
  3. By holding our fear in the Light, we are transformed into children of Love. If we do this enough, we reach a tipping point, what used to be called “convincement,” where our default way of being in the world is no longer out of fear, but compassion. The fear and guilt never goes away, nor should it. It remains one of our tools, but it at some point loses its authority. It stops serving as our basic operating system.

When fear loses its authority over us, and is replaced by compassion as our primary motivation, we look like the early Quakers who stood up to Kings and Presidents calling for justice without fear of imprisonment or losing social status. Or we look like early Christians, who no longer fearing death, say to Caesar, “go ahead and throw me to the lions. It doesn’t matter. I’ve already died with Christ. You lost your power over me because I answer to a different authority.”

So why community?

Two reasons that I can see:

  1. This transformation that Quakerism makes possible, this movement from fear to compassion – is impossible to do alone. You need a community to practice on. You can’t do empathy by yourself. So this is my spiritual discipline right now, during the week, when I am alone, I sit and let all of my own darkness, my hidden motivations, my fears, rise up to my own consciousness. I like to think of this as honing my full “intelligence,” not just my intellect, but my full self-awareness. I’m bringing it all to the Light. When I go to meeting for worship, I am using the people in the meeting house to blow on the ember of empathy that is my Inner Light. I am practicing listening to, not just with my ears, but with my whole body, to sense what the community is feeling and saying, hoping that at some point my capacity for true compassion gets so bright it begins to guide me throughout my week. I do the same with my house community. They give me so many opportunities to catch myself saying, “Well I should…” and then stopping, and saying instead, “What does compassion look like in this moment?” Sometimes it’s the same, and sometimes it is different.
  2. The second, “Why” to community is it gives you clues as to tell you what you are supposed to be doing. This year I got to watch the Volunteers, almost like a little laboratory, as they each came in with expectations of what community would be like. Each wanted to find in their house community a network of support that would encourage them and challenge them in the areas that were most important to them. The house community would be a place of rest and nourishment, so that they would be strengthened to go out into the world a do the real work that drew them to QVS.

Throughout the year, however. I got to check in one on one with each of the Volunteers. I got to hear their frustrations with the house community as it wasn’t fulfilling that hope. One Volunteer complained to me that the community wasn’t anti-racist enough. Another complained that the community wasn’t politically active enough. Another complained that the community wasn’t spiritual enough, and another complained that they didn’t tell enough poop jokes in the house!

Why is this? Its because the things that the Volunteers cared most about, what they sought support for, was the thing that they had to offer to the house. Those are the things that they have the most passion and skills for. If they were going to be present in the community, it was us to them to bring it.

So community is never going to reflect back to you your ideal community. It’s most likely not going to challenge you in areas of growth that are most important to you, but it WILL tell you who you are and what you have to offer. When you sense your true self not being supported or reflected in a community, it is a clue as to your leading. It’s not the support that tells you what you what you’re supposed to do with your life, it’s the frustration. And this is how community grows! This is how you “build community,” by offering our lives to fill in those gaps as gifts to others.

What is community?

When I refer to a community, I usually mean groups of 12-200 people, (I fudge it with “Intentional Community” as a shared house with a larger purpose– but prefer “Cooperative House”) who share, at their center what I’m going to refer to as a “common-wealth”. A metaphoric or literal storehouse, where each puts in what they can and takes from it what they need. This commonwealth can be political and look like power-sharing. As Hannah Arendt says, power “springs up whenever people get together and act in concert.” So the center can be a shared political will. The commonwealth can also be economic like the first Christians set up. It says in Acts, “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” It may look like a community of knowledge, where truth emerges from the sharing of ideas, or a spiritual community, where Spirit emerges. The commonwealth can look like a lot of different things, but the point is, we each bring what we have, our excitement, our truth, or skills, our energy, our money, and we gift it to the community, building up the resource bank from which, as we have need, draw.

Quaker communities, at their best, combine all of these things: the politics, the truth-seeking, the economic ,and the spiritual, into a community that is ultimately aspiring to be a community of love. In Quaker community, love has to have the final say. It is a higher authority than community. We already talked a little about how love and fear are opposites. Which is why 1 John 4:18 says: There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

Community is the means to this higher end.

What then is love?

I asked my professor this once, “Why do we use the same word to say, I love my partner, and I love pizza, and I love God, and I love baseball?” And he says, “They all have in common, ‘the urge to merge.’” For the two to become one. To have “common – union (communion), common-unity (community)” But there are often times where we know that this union, this one-ness is oppressive. Parents who can’t let go because they have lost their own identity, a partner who no longer sees us because we have become an extension of their own life, a collective who expects assimilation, a nation who invades other nations with the goal of a unified capitalist economy: these are all ways in which the desire for unity can manifest. These are all the shadows of community.

So I think my professor only got it half right: Love is not unity, it is the heightened tension between self and union. It is not just the ‘urge to merge,’ but as the poet Rilke puts it, ‘Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.’ And by entering into an empathetic relationship with another, we tighten that tension. The desire to overcome difference becomes stronger, as must the counter balance to protect the other. That tension can be tightened, like a guitar chord, to a degree that it plays music, but if it ever slackens – if the individuals lose the attraction for one-ness or if it’s ever successful and pure unity happens, love breaks.

One way to think of this is from the field of neuroscience. Our brains make a map of us, our sense of self, and it roughly includes our bodies, but sometimes it can extend or retract to include more or less than our bodies. For example, think of a tennis player, who uses a tennis racket. Over time, that player builds a neuron map that includes that racket in their own sense of self – and she can use it as easily as she can use her hands and feet. When folks lose a limb, it is thought they can feel a phantom limb because their neuron map of themselves is incongruous with reality. They have a sense of self that exists beyond their body. This happens in relationships, we start to map our closest relationships into our brain’s may of our self. We begin to predict patterns of behavior, we learn to read subtle tones of voice, we know the sounds of people’s footsteps. It’s all being scripted into our brain. The other person is literally drawing themselves into you. You are physically becoming one. So when you go through a break up, or someone close dies, that feeling of loss, is the fact that, just like with a lost limb, your map of your self is missing a piece.

At the same time, you have to recognize that that one-ness exists only in your head. The other person remains an individual with a infinite chasm between you and them. You will never have direct access to their experience, only what is communicated in thousands of subtle ways, verbal and non-verbal. This is the tension – at the same time, we become do literally become one, writing ourselves on to each other’s “sense of self”, but we must honor that which is infinitely distinct and separated, the other person’s subjective experience.

This is also the tension within communities. Community is built by what you have in common, where there is unity, by what is shared in the center. By definition that is in contrast with difference. Groups of individuals will (if they’re doing it right) struggle between building something in common and protecting what is different, with the goal of stretching both as tightly as possible without snapping.

And so I conclude with where I began. You have a choice before you: A life freed from darkness and lived in light, freed from fear and lived in love. But you have to participate in community to get there. And community is both hard and wonderful. It’s full of disappointment and celebration. It’s frustrating.

It requires making tough choices. It means getting into conflicts. It means doing other people’s dishes. It means having dance parties in your living room and cleaning up the mess the next morning. It means you have to sit through people’s nonsense vocal ministry. Or have old people tokenize you. Or worse have them ignore you. It means you get to make people food and eat food made by others. It means you have an audience, if you’re willing to be other’s audiences later. It forces you to create and enforce and respect personal boundaries. You’ll be taken advantage of, and you will accidently hurt people. It means you are confronted with the fact that you hurt people. That you annoy people. That you bring joy to people and make them laugh. That you will be called on your bull and sometimes you’ll have to call someone else’s. It means you will have live music playing when you want to dance along and far past when you want to go to sleep. And someone else’s dog will pee on your rug. Community is complicated.

But it’s the only chance we have to discover the life of love and courage and power that lies on the other side.


What does fear look like for me?
What does compassion look like?
What gifts to a bring to the community?
What gifts do I hope others bring?
In the tension between solitude and unity, do I idealize one over the other? Why?

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