Gemma: Community Life in North-West London - Toward Community

Gemma: Community Life in North-West London

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The Thames, London. Photo Source: Flickr, User: raghavvidya

A PhD Researcher at Royal Holloway, London shares her experience of a close-knit Christian community.

“Community life has not always been easy, and I personally find that our community and its dynamics change every year as people come and go…”

I have lived in a community for 7 years this September.  When I left university, the idea of settling down in the suburbs with a husband, children and an office job was my worst nightmare.  In fact, I refused to go to career fairs whilst at university because I told myself that I didn’t want “a career!”  In hindsight this was a little foolish, but we live and learn.  The suburb dream is a perfectly fine dream, and many people work that dream beautifully.  But for me, it seemed lonely.  I am an introvert, but I love keeping the company of interesting and passionate people.  I wanted a group of people to scheme with, dream with, live collaboratively with and care about the world with.  I wanted to find people who were committed to loving and caring for one another.  I thrive on new ideas and get excited about encouraging people in their own dreams.  I found that community is a perfect place to tap into that energy.

Who we are

Ours is a little church community in North-West London. I  wasn’t a Christian when I joined, but I had been looking into the faith privately for a number of years and subsequently became a Christian while attending a bigger Anglican church in Central London.  What I found when I moved into one of the communal houses is a love, optimism and enthusiasm for life that I had never experienced before.  The commitment we have towards one another and our wider community is shaped by our faith but also a belief that all of our lives benefit from community.  Our community life manifests itself in many ways; we have helped one another buy houses, we have set up and participated in community projects and we’ve cooked for one another when families have new babies.  We’ve baby-sat for each other, we’ve set up a Frisbee team together and we’ve started businesses together.  We’ve participated in each other’s artistic ventures, we’ve done Easter guerrilla gardening and we’ve taken on an allotment together.  We’ve had our church meetings in our living rooms, gardens, a local pub, a local school and the Salvation Army building.  We function dually as a church and a registered charity with a board of trustees.  Both of these commitments means that we are spiritually and legally obligated to help our local community.  Every year we have a budget meeting where everyone can have a say in deciding things like what projects we support in our local area or how much money should be allocated to the hardship or arts funds.  Our church doesn’t pay for any vicars/pastors or the up-keep of a building.  As a collective we share our homes and non-work time with one another to ensure control over the church/charity’s direction and that it’s money goes to causes we care about.

Dealing with change

Community life has not always been easy.  I personally find that our community and its dynamics change every year as people come and go and we all get older.  The community started off as a bunch of single (mostly) and childless (entirely) twenty/thirty somethings almost 10 years ago.  As people got married and children came along, our community needed to change and adapt in order to be considerate of people’s changing needs.  Our community also changes when new people arrive and veteran people leave.  It takes quite some stamina to make an effort to get to know new people but it’s always worth it.  It is also emotionally wrenching when much loved people leave.  Learning how to be fully open, connect with people and then say goodbye to them without feeling abandoned is a very difficult but important part of community.  I’ve observed in my community and life otherwise that many people resist change strongly, due to the discomfort and uncertainty involved.  But change is inevitable, so we must face it head on in order for everyone to remain on the same page.  Every year my church community has a review – we fill out a questionnaire and meet to talk about the various aspects of our lives together.  The review covers the practical (do the meeting times work for everyone, what projects should we continue) and the relational (are we helping each other to grow in our faith, are we including everyone, does anyone feel lonely).  Maintaining our sense of openness to change allows us to be agile and try new things each year.  This is because we recognise that there is no single perfect way of doing community, but rather we’re always in a process of working it out.  Additionally, if things change after the review and someone is unhappy with those changes, they know that there will be another opportunity to put their ideas forward in the next year.  Whilst in the meantime recognising the importance of giving the changes a chance, for the sake of the collective.

Challenging “busyness” in the city

Living in the city brings its own challenges.  London is an ambitious place where people work hard and play hard – some making more money than they know what to do with and others only just scraping by each month.  Our community has included people at both ends of the spectrum, and from my experience of working in debt advice, no matter where you fit on the spectrum, you can be just one pay cheque away from mounting debts and eviction.  But it seems that for the ambitious bunch of people that we are, our general trend is to become richer in money and poorer in time.  I perceive this as a challenge to maintaining community, and a condition that is endemic to London life.  It’s easy for people to become used to the amount of money that they earn and feel that it is not possible to live on any less.  However, living communally allows us to encourage and enable each other to slow down and continually assess our life priorities.  Many of us work part-time and our community gives us plenty of worthwhile things to get involved in if we choose to work less.  I’ve had many a conversation in my part-time days where people asked me, “but what do you do with your day off? I’d be so bored!”  To me, this question is absurd – there are hundreds of things I’d love to do with that extra day!  My time is so so important to me.  With that extra day I can hang out with friends and build connections with people.  I can volunteer or I can work in my garden. I  can start a creative project, I can go for a run in the park or I can just sit and reflect on whether I’m doing the right things in life, leaving me space to live intentionally.  I love living in a city of ideas and opportunities while also attempting to challenge “busyness.”

For me, community is about connection

Community means many things to many people.  For me, it boils down to vulnerability and connection (see Brene Brown (2012), Daring Greatly).  Brown is a social worker who researches vulnerability and connection.  She discovered that connection with others is fundamental for our wellbeing and that we cannot connect with others without vulnerability.  There’s no place to hide in community.  For me, it feels like someone showing me a mirror of who I am all the time.  Being yourself and showing others your flaws is extremely difficult.  But, if you are in the right kind of community and you find you are accepted for who you are, warts and all, this is a very uplifting and encouraging environment in which to grow.  I’ll leave you with a quote from Brown (2012) and a link to her famous TED talk on vulnerability.

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” TED Talk [http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability]

 

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Gemma Pearson

Gemma Pearson is a Doctoral Researcher in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) investigating the impact of relationships on street-connected children's well-being. See Gemma's Website and follow her on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Gemma: Community Life in North-West London

  • 18th September 2015 at 4:41 pm
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    Great article, well-written and full of truth I totally resonate with especially the part about community acting as a constant mirror of who we are. Thanks!

    Reply
    • 29th October 2015 at 2:11 pm
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      Thanks Mark! It’s nice to hear that others can resonate. Living in community has been a big learning curve for me!

      Reply
  • 14th October 2015 at 7:57 am
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    Great article. Thank you Gemma. You always have such excellent insights and information on community. You were the one who introduced me to the idea that we form around 150 close connections in life (the same as some apes), so 150 is the perfect number for a community. Do you still feel that is true? What size is your community at the moment?

    Reply
    • 29th October 2015 at 2:23 pm
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      Hey Dave, yes, I remember saying that (just did a quick wiki search, and apparently this idea comes from a guy called Dunbar)! I think there is certainly some truth to it. I think there’s a limit to the number of personal-close relationships too, and perhaps a trade-off between many sub-level relationships and fewer close relationships which may be negotiated depending on people’s personalities. I think that capacity to maintain relationships must be linked to a person’s busyness in some way, and I’ve been thinking recently about how the quality of relationship can be shaped by what people do together – i.e. going for a drink, having dinner, working on a project, going on holiday, sharing a car, living together, attending a local toddler group etc. I think a mixture of activities could be good for enriching quality of relationship and avoiding superficiality.

      Our community is about 50 people or so, but it’s hard to pin it down because we have “blurred edges” where different people are involved and connected-in in different ways.

      Reply

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