How to Build a Ville by Taryn Strauss


I’ve been thinking a lot about neighborhoods.  The other week I caught the Mr. Roger’s documentary, and I believe his vision of the neighborhood was the most groundbreaking of all of his theological concepts put to mainstream children’s television.  Love your neighbor, get to know your neighbors, rely on your neighbors, accept a lot from your neighbors.

My sisters and I routinely discuss the ways in which we try to build a ville and seek support in our lives.  Fifteen years ago my older sister started a mom’s group in her DC neighborhood that delivers meals to families in the community who give birth, or fall into crisis.

They still organize meal-sharing and now they share childcare, and home improvement projects, and toy trades, and clothings swaps, and now deep in the metro Washington DC sprawl, my sister has built a “ville.”  A loose and ever-shifting collective of people who have developed a sharing economy, and who tend to value the health of the whole community over the individual’s ascension.

In his 2017 book “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Marc Dunkelman reflects on this disintegration of that core community building block—what Alexis de Tocqueville and others before him defined as a “township”—remained the defining feature of American society over the 20th century.  Americans moved from farm to factory and from town to city. They withstood the Industrial Revolution. They evolved from a society dependent on slave labor to one focused on innovation. But through all of those changes, the core architecture of “townshipped” society—where communities of people with different skills and interests, disparate concerns and values, collaborated with their neighbors in the pursuit of the common good—endured.

Until now.  Dunkelman believes shifting behavior patterns, gentrification, and stagnant incomes have resulted in the demise of the townshipped society, isolating us and splintering us so that we’ve lost interest or availability for what he calls the “middle circle of relationships- the bridge club, the NCAAP, those civic and neighborly connections.

Dunkelman’s work pulls from the groundbreaking sociological research done by Harvard researcher Robert Putnam in his seminal turn of the century book, Bowling Alone, where he illuminates a steady decline in what he calls “social capital,” a civic virtue drawing power by being embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.

We know from Robert Putnam’s research at Harvard that there over the past 25 years what he calls social capital has declined rapidly.

Attending Club Meetings              58% drop

Family dinners   43% drop

Having friends over         35% drop

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood may be relegated to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, no longer accessible in reality.

We know these trends have continued even as social media has ascended in people’s lives.  But here is what you may not know.

All around you, in every corner of your world, little networks are igniting, like bonfires across a canyon, and they are united by creativity, by activism, by a desire to help, by parenting styles, by unique hobbies.

Okay, well you may know they exist in a general sense, but I have lived a few places, and in each place I land, I learn there are worlds within our world, and they are everywhere, in backyards and living rooms and church basements and rec centers.

My friend in Brooklyn runs a weekly Bible study for queer young black women where they sing and eat candy to find some sweetness together.  At Vaughn Crawley’s memorial I learned about an underground world of wild joggers with rowdy stories called the Hash House Harriers. Another friend of mine facilitates a group that’s met monthly for over four years now called “What Would an HIV Doula Do?”

Another friend is part of a group of sober black gay men who meet for brunch every month and hold spiritually-based discussions.

This past Wednesday at the Fourth of July parade I learned that there are pirates in Atlanta, and they are nocturnal.

I have friends in Asheville who have had a board game night for going on twenty years, every single Thursday.  I used to believe groups such as these were how people enjoy life.

Now I understand, this is how we will survive these times. See, I don’t want to live in a world where people are not meeting to dream up what an HIV Doula would do.  If they ever answer their question, they can revolutionize patient care for people newly diagnosed with HIV. If they don’t answer their question, then they will have created a holy container for dreaming, clarifying the gaps and needs, laughing and sharing community.

This our human pattern, across millennia.

Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig, a New Testament historian, has found that the early Christian gatherings were not worship services as we think of them.  This format came later in Church history. In the Augustan empire, people gathered for meals that were shared together in the tradition of the Hellenic and Roman associations of that era.

I do not mean the modern concept of “association,” but a specific term with socio-historical understanding, meaning part of a trade guild.  The bricklayers would have meals together, the shepherds, and so on.

Taussig describes these meals in three dimensions:  how they organized themselves at the meal, the time of sharing food together, and the symposium, or the post-eating time of singing and intentional conversation.  Most of these associations consisted of people who could only eat quickly while working, or traveling, or at standing at their posts.

The assembling of socially and economically diverse groups reclining together for a meal was a radical act of role reversal.  In ancient Roman culture, reclining to take a leisurely posture of eating was afforded only by the upper classes. The Jesus people’s assembly at tables in this posture was in itself innovative resistance against Roman imperialism.

The symposium was the part of the meal where the most social interaction, community discussion, singing and teaching occurred   Further, Taussig observes that these meals created as space in which:

new relational patterns and social structures could be risked without the larger consequences incurred because of the imperial domination in the public square.  The stability and safety of the meal structure became a primary milieu in which to imagine different relationships emphasizing the qualities of philia, koinonia and charis (123).

See the concept of meals by association were acceptable to the empire, were culturally normative.  But then they subverted the practice by the quality of their experience together, their covenant, and their format, emphasizing philia, the ancient Greek word for “Brotherly Love.”  Koinonia: meaning “communion, fellowship, a gift jointly contributed,” and “charis,” an ancient Greek term meaning grace, kindness and life.

When we are told to put ourselves and America first, we must respond with Koinonia.  Communion, fellowship, joint contributions.

When we are told that we must pay for a wall around ourselves, we must respond with philia.  Brotherly love.

When we are told we must make ourselves great, we must respond with Charis.  We make ourselves small in power and consumption, and large in grace, kindness and life.

I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, so by the time I read the Bible at age 30, it read to me like a Road Map for the Resistance.

Step One:  gather in small groups, welcome the strangers, even the ones who don’t keep kosher, tell stories of freedom and sacrifice.

Next,  share memories of the martyrs who were trying to teach us how to be free from our oppressors.  Be loving and affirm life however you can.

Step Three: Flip over all the tables in the Temple when you cannot bear the injustice, and when people act out of greed, call them greedy!  And offer forgiveness. And begin again in love.

Next on your path: Bear each other’s burdens.  Make the table for each other.

If you get lost: You don’t need the temple, just bring the ark with you, it’s in your hearts and souls, and build the temple according to God’s architectural design.

You’re almost there: Anoint one another.  Love each other. Be loved in return. Love people through serving them.

There is something abundant and joyful about a feast.  Many of us feel even now, the absence of our Wonderful Wednesday midweek feasts together.

When I was a child, my family of six ate dinner together seven nights a week.  When my genteel southern now-husband first dined with us at family dinner he was horrified.  Not only by our utter lack of table manners, but also by our raucous banter, where we tried on ideas like pairs of shoes, fighting mercilessly over them before throwing them out altogether and trying on someone else’s to see how they fit.  The dinner table discussions were how I made sense of the world, and where I developed my viewpoint.

Years later, on the eve of my wedding, I found myself in a dark field surrounded by women who I had known at various significant moments in my life.  It was my blessingway, a ritual moment to release fears, honor the life transition of becoming married, and receive blessings from my dearest friends.  They wrote their blessings on stones, which I still have in a bowl in my living room. One friend wrote a simple blessing, in metallic pen on a smooth river stone:  Feast.

Throughout seminary, I found myself at tables.  I worshipped at St. Lydia’s a new church plant near my house in Brooklyn.  It was a dinner church, where everyone walked in, set up tables, sang, prayed, sat down, drank wine and ate bread for communion, listened to a sermon, and then responded to a sermon while we ate together.

Monthly, at midday chapel on campus, people set up tables, someone made a giant pot of soup, and we all sat “At Table.”  We listened to a story, we sang, and then we shared our responses to the story. We worshiped like the Jesus people, who were reclining by candlelight, telling their own survival stories.

I am not trying to prove to you why it’s important to gather.  We know it feels good, most of the time anyway, and so we make the effort.   It is the quality of the gathering that creates meaning.

What if Unitarian Universalists were known for being generous listeners?  Have you ever met a skilled listener? Someone who engenders true curiosity, who seems to ask the right questions, who doesn’t appear to be waiting to share her own story?  It is such a powerful skill, that some of us pay quite a bit of money to be listened to.

Active, curious listening is the praxis, the experience of being true to our First Source of Unitarian Universalism.  I’m talking about that direct experience of transcendent mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.  This is a central virtue of Unitarian Universalism.

Not a childlike innocence, though I do believe children have the closest access to this Sacred Source, but a discipline of wonderment, demonstrated by curious, open, active listening.  We can be people of intelligence and discernment and still release our judgments. We can learn to be curious with each other, and the layers of that curiosity are infinite.

So, what makes this religious?  Building a ville is important for our survival, but how is it spiritual work?

A while ago, I had the honor of facilitating a blessingway for someone else’s life transition into motherhood.  The majority of the guests were strangers, or at least did not know each other well. After some chit chat, we gathered in a circle around an altar, set with flowers, a chalice, candles, and a bowl of water.  The first thing we must do together is cross a threshold.

God told Moses in the wilderness he must remove his shoes, for he was standing on holy ground. Ground that he and his people had made holy by their intentions and their covenant with God.  So we had to find a way to remove our shoes, metaphorically.

I informed everyone I would anoint them, and if they did not desire to be anointed, they had only to raise their hand.

These women were not necessarily Christian, nor did they know what a Blessingway was, and yet not one raised their hand.  Young and older, dressed up in beautiful dresses and heels or dressed casually, they each received a blessing, a dab of water on their forehead as I whispered a blessing in their ear.  Then I invited everyone to chant, and we were in. We had crossed over onto holy ground, and here is how I knew that.

I invited everyone to share how they knew the guest of honor being blessed by the life transition.  Instead of giving a summary of the meeting time and place and circumstance, they each immediately went deeper.  It was a love feast.

Each person shared what gifts they had received from knowing our guest of honor, how she had changed them and taught them.  They shared intimate details about themselves in the telling, and wove remarkable memories of connection and transformation.

We had left the realm of small talk and surface-level interactions, and we were in the wildness of intimacy and vulnerability and profound connection.  Tears flowed, and there was poetry too, and more singing.

We witnessed the guest of honor releasing her fears about her transition, and she knew she could be real.  She could be authentic to her fear, and honor it, and let it be dissolved by the bowl of water. Something powerful was called forth, the power to transform and resurrect and gather energy for a new phase of life, and a door opened to mystery, and everyone in the circle watched it open.

After the circle was broken, things returned to relative normalcy, but we knew we had created something powerful.  I think some people were in awe of that power. I wanted to tell you this story so you can know that you too, can be part of something deep and transformative and mysterious!  We created koinoinia.

We are creating it here at UUCA.  Today we invite you into a Small Group Ministry experience, where we will unleash something powerful, and a little counter-cultural.  Because the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy wants you to stay isolated, and believe you are in constant competition with each other.  The powers that be do not want us to know the truth. That there is another economy, of mutuality, support, reciprocity, and authentic sharing.  That we are bound to one another, and the more we share each other’s burdens, the more we stay connected, the more we threaten that which seeks to isolate us.

This is how we will keep the fire of our faith glowing strong, and burning bright.  Though we will be in our own wilderness, without our four walls here, and our roof, and our round sanctuary and our memorial garden and our classrooms and our theatre, we will be on holy ground.  We will be together. Wherever you are in the wilderness of your life, out there in the shifting sands of political chaos, depression, fear, broken relationships, loneliness. Build a ville. Start with just one.  Invite someone to sing with you, or march with you. Build a table, out of kindling, like the Jesus people.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

This is how we survive.