“This is the true story, of [four] strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and … to find out what happens, when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The beginning to an episode of The Real World? Nope. Try my life. In March 2006 I was selected, along with three other recent college graduates, to participate in a 10-month service learning fellowship through the Duke University Chapel. We were four virtual strangers picked to live in a house and get real with each other and the local community—minus the television cameras thankfully.
We began the year with polite friendliness, careful not to stir up conflict. As we ventured through the process of building relationships and living together, however, inevitably we encountered our first conflict. Unlike what you might imagine, it was not sparked by anything as lofty as our distinct worship or communication styles, but rather something as simple as grocery shopping.
In preparation for moving into our home for the year, we made our first shopping trip to the mother of all grocery stores, Costco. We compiled a list of all the items we deemed necessary for the house, and like explorers going on a treasure hunt, excitedly piled into an SUV and headed out.
If you have ever been to Costco (or equivalent whole sale stores such as Sam’s), you know the sheer immensity of the place. Ordinary items found in your friendly neighborhood grocery store are multiplied times 10 in family-size packaging. Wandering through the store with our cart, every aisle held domestic treasures that seemed like wonderful additions to the house; however, we had to debate about what was truly necessary. Do we really need a two gallon jar of mayonnaise? Should we get the Tupperware with the blue or purple lids? Can we really eat that much rice?
As our journey through Costco progressed, our initial enthusiasm waned, and we became weary from putting every item up for a round table discussion. I felt myself wanting to seize command of the situation. I wanted to buy what I felt was necessary without the consent of others, smugly feeling that my taste in household products was superior. By the end of our quest we had two shopping carts piled high with goods. We headed to the check out counter, nervous about the final cost of our purchases, but reassuring ourselves that most of the items were a one-time expense or would be used for the whole year.
The urge to be in control rose further within me as I watched the price total steadily increase. Impulsively I grabbed a toaster from the pile of goods and declared that we didn’t really need a toaster—I mean after all we already had a toaster oven. The forsaken appliance barely made a dent in decreasing the amount. After a whopping total, which I’ll refrain from including, we headed back home, and I pondered my response to the situation.
Who would have thought that arrogance would emerge in the most quotidian of tasks? Then again, it’s in daily life where faith is put to action. It’s easy to feel holy when we’re singing, praying or hearing a “feel good” sermon in church, but how holy do we feel when our spouses, roommates or parents ask us yet again to clean the bathroom or clear out the garage? Ordinary tasks teach us valuable lessons about being a community. While we are often assured that “my way” is the best way to get a task done, it gets messier when multiple people are making a household decision, even in something as ordinary as the food in the kitchen pantry. While it’s easier to default to personal opinion, living in community requires the hard work of learning to communicate and make a choice together.
For followers of Jesus, making communal decisions is a vital part of engaging God and other people. The choices made are not about what makes an individual happy, but rather what strengthens the community and ultimately what is most faithful to Jesus’ example on earth. But just as a simple task like shopping together can get complicated, figuring out how to be faithful to God as a community is even more so.
Living together this way goes against an American society that is obsessed with choice. From toothpaste to cereal brands, Americans want to be sure that they have control over their lives; for followers of Jesus, however, individual preference is not always the ultimate deciding factor, even in something as significant as roommates. When we give up the choice of with whom we share space, living in community is no longer focused on being with who we like, but rather on learning to live with whoever is in God’s family. My year living in community has reminded me that God is much bigger than the world I have known, the experiences I have had and the communities with whom I’ve chosen to share those experiences. God is the leader of people with whom I can’t even see the intersection between who I am and who they are. Just as I had no choice in who my companions for this fellowship would be, no disciple of Christ has a say in who their brothers or sisters in the faith are.
Like it or not, these are the people with whom we are to pursue God’s kingdom. They are the ones with whom we laugh, the ones with whom we cry, the ones with whom we experience the doldrums of life. While learning how to be a community is challenging, there is great joy in the unexpected ways that God meets our needs through people with whom we never thought we could share life. We experience whatever life throws at us, and bit by bit find ourselves able to trust more and see the face of God in a new way.