I make my home at a place called Rutba House, an intentional Christian community that’s been putting down roots and finding its way over the past decade in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina. We are, at present, two households with fourteen people between them, surrounded by several circles of support (neighbors, friends, churches, a nonprofit organization). I love being here and, some days, I struggle to remember why I’m here—just what this is all about. I find inspiration in the stories of Acts and wisdom in the ancient monastic traditions, but I’m also aware that we’re finding our way, figuring this out as we go. We sometimes call it a “new monasticism.” It is, at least, a stumbling toward community.
On a Saturday in May, the alleluias of Easter still resounding in our prayers, the Rutba House community rises early for a work day. These things do not happen without some prep work. Two years ago we noticed that the house next door to one of ours was falling down. The hole in the roof had gone unattended for months. We wondered how Marie, our neighbor, continued to live there. Then, one day, she was gone.
We walked through the house with a friend who’s a contractor, looking for what could be salvaged. The foundation was bad. The wood was rotting. The roof was about to cave in. I stopped midway through the tour to take the kids outside, worried that the mold might settle in their little lungs.
A few weeks later the bulldozer came. The house was gone in thirty minutes, but it took the rest of the day to load the debris onto dump trucks and haul it across town to be buried in the ground. Beside us sat an empty lot.
We’d been talking for years with the housing development group in our neighborhood about rising home prices, about the dangers of gentrification. They’re good people. They had rehabbed dozens of homes for neighbors who’d rented all their lives. A grandmother who’d raised her kids in the projects, feeding them with money she earned cleaning other people’s houses, got a nice three-bedroom to call her own. Now she gets up early every Saturday morning to cut the grass, running an edger along the sidewalk to cut a crisp, clean line. She’s proud of what she has, and she works hard to keep it nice. Community is made by people like her.
But markets being what they are, there comes a point when too much development can change a neighborhood. This is what we’d been talking with the housing group about. As long as renters were becoming homeowners, their model had worked. But when we ran out of neighbors who could make that transition, grad students started qualifying as “low income” families, buying starter homes to write their thesis in. They didn’t bother getting to know their neighbors’ names because they were, for the most part, afraid of them. Every three years, on average, they moved on, often with a loud, late-night party to celebrate their departure. No one was sad to see them go.
All of this was part of our conversation with the developers about the lot next door. Eventually, they decided not to build another house. Maybe we convinced them. Or maybe property values just rose to a point that their model doesn’t work here anymore. At any rate, they sold us the lot to keep as a green space. We started to dream about what it might become.
Sarah, who doesn’t lack for vision, sketched a three-tiered garden with a prayer labyrinth at its heart—a place to pray and grow fresh vegetables. My brother, who runs a landscaping company, volunteered to do the grating. Dan ordered supplies and thought through what it would take to build the walls, to spread the dirt. We talked up the vision to the neighbors and to our friends, proclaiming the good news of a garden in the city. Still, we all felt like Ezekiel must have, looking over that valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). All we could see when we looked out the window was a mud pit.
But we each had our jobs to do. Leah made plans for the kids to all go off with a friend for the day. Matt got all the tools out. I checked in with neighbors who I knew had the time and asked to make sure they were coming. “Work day tomorrow,” I said half a dozen times. “We’ll have coffee and donuts in the morning, lunch for anybody who makes it that long.”
This prep work done, and we are here, twenty of us scurrying about this mud pit finding our tasks. I work with my shovel on the ditch I’m assigned to, chatting with Alex about the rock climbing he likes to do on the weekends and the rabbits he raises in his back yard. A chain saw whines on the hill above us, then two other guys deliver a landscaping timber that fits our ditch just so. We smile, a little surprised that it worked on the first try. “Not bad for a couple of amateurs.”
By late morning the sun is up. I’m sweating, and I can feel my back begin to ache. I don’t do this kind of work often enough. I look at my watch. I look around. I have a conversation with Leah about lunch plans.
When the food arrives from a local sandwich shop, I call “break” because it’s after noon, because I need it. Sarah grumbles. “Break if you need to. We’re not done yet.” Each person is left to discern the mixed messages, to decide for themselves when to grab a bite. I’m sitting in the shade at the bottom of the hill, holding a sandwich in my hands when I look up, amazed.
A garden is taking shape, here in the place where a dilapidated house once stood, here in the mud pit that we’ve been trampling all morning. It is not finished yet, but I can see it now. Though there’s nothing we can do to make it happen, green shoots are going to rise out of this soil. A resurrection is happening. In lieu of grace, I whisper alleluia.
Above the desk where I write hangs a simple icon of Mary, the mother of Jesus, pregnant with the Maker of the Universe. Her hands are lifted in praise, and she is surrounded by flames, her robe flowing down to the grass beneath her. “Fire Temple,” it is titled, and I cannot look at it without thinking of the fire that fell at Pentecost, the Spirit’s power that we celebrate at the end of every Easter season.
Yet, when I look again at this image, I see that Mary’s robe forms a trunk, rooted firmly in the ground. She is engulfed in flames, but the tongues of fire surround her like the leaves of a tree, her arms its outstretched branches. She rises from the earth, the Christ child inside of her. She is singing an alleluia before Jesus is ever born. This act of welcome has laid the foundation for her whole life.
It is Advent now, and the plants that flourished through the summer in our new garden are mostly gone, except for the garlic that will over-winter in the ground and the leafy greens that grow year round in this part of North Carolina. I think of Mary because we are singing the Magnificat at morning prayer, because she is not only an icon on my wall but also an icon for our community—a picture of what, by grace, a hospitality house might become if we truly welcome every guest as if the guest were Christ.
“This being human is a guest house,” the poet Rumi says, and we have learned that it is true, for Mary as for us. We become the community that we’re called to be by welcoming every gift that comes along—the dilapidated house, the vision of a seer, the labor of neighbors, the pain in my lower back at the end of a long day behind a shovel. When your head is down and you’re doing your task, all of this can seem mundane—burdensome, even. Sometimes in community, you want to stop and shout, “Break.”
But then you sit down at the bottom of the hill and look up to behold a mystery—resurrection right in front of your eyes. You sing the song that came before you, a song that Hannah sang before Mary, “The Lord looks on me, a lowly servant; henceforth all ages will call me blessed.” And you know that you are blessed. You’re blessed because you’ve found life in a garden, planted in a place where you can establish roots of love. Of course, there’s work to be done—there is always, always something to be done. But you can take a break—you can rest, even—because you’ve been through enough seasons to know that there’s nothing you can do to make a garden grow. There’s nothing you can do to make community happen.
Everything is gift.
And you are engulfed in flames, burning like a bush—roots in the ground, your branches on fire. Yet somehow not consumed. Then someone notices. They take off their shoes, stand barefoot on your porch, knocking on the door with hope in their eyes. Their soul has been stretched thin by the fragmented life of a world that’s always on the go. They stumble in the darkness, longing for community. Like the magi, their eyes are drawn to light. “Tell me,” they say, “how I can find real life in community.”
You wish you had the answer. You wish you could be the guru who speaks the word that will transform their life. But you know you can’t. Because you know that you know nothing. You know that there are no how-to guides for this stuff. You know your life is a gift.
Like the garden you planted with neighbors and friends last May. Like the Christ child in Mary’s womb. Like the stranger who’s standing outside your door, her face encircled in flames.