I wonder if some societies mark breakups with a ritual. In our culture we prefer to just move on, to let the past be the past. But isn’t this an illusion? When people’s lives are intimately entwined, surely we impact each other forever.
I know this is true not just of couples, but of communities, if we are lucky enough to belong to one. In 2001, three months after 9/11, the community of New Jerusalem, which I’d participated in for sixteen years, splintered apart. We’d been embroiled in bitter conflict for a long time when suddenly most of the long-time members decided to walk out.
I still carry a grave sense of responsibility for my own role in that event. Even though a smaller, more intimate New Jerusalem carried on, and is still miraculously vibrant, the rancorous rupturing of the original community makes for a heavy legacy. A certain energy of sadness and hurt still lingers after all these years. I’ve always wished we could have mourned together what we lost, and made amends for our carelessness with one another.
New Jerusalem has an extraordinary history. It sprang up out of the reforms that swept through the Catholic church in the 1970’s. Flush with a radical vision, members moved into households together, attended peace rallies, and prayed their way through myriad miracles. They fell in love not only with the Spirit, but with one another. They married and started families.
By the time my husband Gerry and I joined them, they were bonded to one another by over a decade of history. Common traditions, memories, and complex layers of love and forgiveness created a tight network. How could newcomers ever share that deep connection?
Churches, even more than other human systems, replicate our families. At New Jerusalem I was plagued by a familiar sense of having arrived too late. Once I had a nightmare that my car wrecked on the bank of a hill, and I discovered all the core members happily gathered around picnic tables, sharing a weekly potluck I had never been invited to. In real life, a long-time member dying of cancer invited us all to pray over her. I was paralyzed with a sense of being an impostor: surely, I thought, my prayer would mean nothing to her.
An added hurdle was that just like in a family, the older members retained their leadership roles. Newer members often struggled to find a niche. While some succeeded, others came and left again, quietly, without leaving a ripple.
During those years I often felt that I was sitting atop vast caverns of untapped creative energy. Sometimes I seized the initiative, preaching a homily, running a kids’ program, even leading a public vigil against the first Iraq War. But the impostor feeling continued. One Lent Gerry and I were given permission to lead all the Sunday liturgies. When people complained of our over-exuberance, though, I resigned in humiliation. There was an intense rhythm to my struggles: rouse myself from invisibility, give my all, then boomerang back into bottomless shame at my audacity.
While NJ activated my wounds (and everyone else’s as well) I never doubted that my longing for a more inclusive, vulnerable community was a vital expression of God’s longing. I kept imagining all that we could be together. Unlike in a parish, we lay people were totally in charge, unhampered by clerical authority. We brought in priests to help lead our Sunday liturgies, but then they went home. We could live like the early church, if we wanted to.
By 2000, though, I came to believe that few members wanted what I wanted, and clearly not with my fervor. Gerry and I started searching for a new spiritual community among local Protestant churches. Our pilgrimage led us nowhere: one church was too formal, another sexist, another one without spark. We missed New Jerusalem: how could we not?
And so we decided to do what all the others who had quietly left over the years had never done: we returned and, along with a good friend, stood up publicly at the end of our service, asking for what we wanted and needed.
We experienced an ominous silence as people listened. The starkness of our impassioned plea struck some raw nerve. Perhaps it felt like an ultimatum.
From there on out, passions ran high. Members took sides. An us-against-them energy was set loose. For those kindred spirits who’d silently yearned for years to use their gifts more fully, the rush that came from being finally heard was exhilarating. Structures began to loosen; roles became more fluid. For those who hated conflict it was a miserable time. For the older members, I can only imagine a mix of heart-ache, bewilderment, anger and betrayal.
After the community was pruned so abruptly, new life blossomed forth: shared leadership, deepened intimacy, the unfolding of hidden gifts. But we still held onto New Jerusalem’s identity and traditions, the stirring music, the powerful healing prayers.
Fifteen years later, we are a small circle of aging people. We see each other’s faults and foibles too well. Our prayers are deeply personal. Our awareness of Spirit is exquisite. The sense of blessedness that has moved the community for over forty years has only grown more precious.
But there is no way to close the lid on our history, our poorly ended love affair. It still longs to be brought out into the light, grieved, and honored as one of those passionately flawed wonders God and human beings enjoy creating together.