Fertile Soil For Faith Formation: My Life At Koinonia Partners 1975-1990 by Steve Clemens. October 2012
When I arrived at the 1400-acre farm in south Georgia in September 1975, the first person who greeted me was the young woman who became my wife 2 ½ years later. Christine Haas told me I was late for lunch and pointed me in the direction of the community’s dining hall. I was one-month short of my 25th birthday and had agreed to serve as a “volunteer” for the next two years. It was to serve as my “unofficial voluntary service” assignment as a conscientious objector even though my military draft lottery number was too high to be drafted and the Vietnam War had just ended in a resounding defeat of South Vietnamese forces several months before.
I arrived at this “intentional Christian community” as a young man already on the pathway of “radical Christian discipleship” as I had understood it. Having been raised in an evangelical/fundamentalist family in southeastern Pennsylvania, schooled at Wheaton College – proclaimed to be an evangelical “Harvard” (but, in reality not very challenging academically) – and followed by a year of graduate school in Social Work at Temple University, I had already thrown off the “shackles” of that fundamentalism and was exploring my Anabaptist heritage and its understanding of pacifism and nonviolence. Immediately preceding my arrival at Koinonia, I had spent a year in voluntary service with the Mennonites in Washington, DC coupled simultaneously with a year of Bible Study with radical Christian Catholics from Jonah House and the Community For Creative Nonviolence.
What attracted me to Koinonia was the opportunity to work and worship with a group of people who shared a vision of discipleship which embraced nonviolence, racial reconciliation, simpler living, economic sharing, and service to others. The community was small enough to make one feel valued and included but also large enough to try to make a difference in the local community. Koinonia ran a Volunteer Program which was a work/study experience where one lived in a shared community household, was given a work assignment in farming/gardening, the pecan processing plant, fruitcake bakery and candy kitchen, home construction crew, or the mail order business operations.
Through the Volunteer work/study program – both as a participant (September –December 1975) and then later as one of its co-coordinators (for 8-10 years in the late 70s and 80s), I got to experience the deep faith of Ethel Dunning, Deacon Ludrelle Pope and his wife, Mamie, Correnza Morgan and Mazie, and Miss Gussie Jackson – residents of one of the two residential housing “villages” created by Koinonia’s housing ministry begun in 1968 or living nearby. To hear the stories of the harassment and personal travails they endured because of their relationship to Koinonia and their desire for reconciliation with white folk was a life-altering experience. There wasn’t a lot of sophisticated seminary-induced Bible learning but rather a “trust-and-obey” simplicity to their faith and how it was to be lived out. “Peoples is my hobby” is a refrain that sticks in my mind when I took volunteer groups down to the Forest Park neighborhood to meet with Ethel and Ladon Sheats at her house. Deacon Pope would always have a Bible story or drawn-out prayer whenever Christine and I would visit, coupled with his homemade buttermilk biscuits, after Mamie had “passed”.
Mamie, who was employed as the community cook for noonday meals for many years, had to put up with the plethora of new white folks coming into her kitchen. They often suggested she make the latest culinary fad desired by these “hippies” and counter-cultural volunteers who arrived fresh every three or four months. Even the Resident Partners would discuss the noon meals and give Mamie their input for her menus. Since the farmers were growing soybeans, could we incorporate more of that vegetable protein into our meals, lessening the amount of meat we consumed, was the query that the Products Manager George Worth asked. His solution? Ask Mamie to substitute soy grits or soybeans for the hamburger she normally put into her chili. Mamie’s solution to that request? - she asked the “new boy” who was now in charge of maintenance on the farm, a college-educated young man from Pennsylvania (me), to taste the chili for the proper flavoring of the spices since she didn’t want to taste it herself: “After all”, she told me, “soybeans are what you feed to hogs, not people!”
The faith lessons we learned sitting with “Miss Doris” were especially poignant; she had suffered so much in her own life having had her husband die at a young age in a car accident, her husband’s uncle shot and killed by “white folk”, becoming a mother at age 13 and a grandmother at age 26. By age forty, she was a great-grandmother as generation after generation seemed to repeat the pattern of having babies in one’s early teen years. Her daughter, Nadine, battling what seemed to be insurmountable health obstacles; her son Leonard, dealing with the racism of the deep south; her daughter Linda with her struggles as a teenage mom, … Miss Doris, whose job and passion was running the community’s pre-school Nursery, would pour out her love and warmth on all the children she was charged with, depending on the deep spiritual well-springs she drew upon.
Meanwhile, having witnessed the lived-out faith of the local black residents, I spent much of my time reading and listening to the theology and insights of Clarence Jordan, one of the co-founders of the community back in 1942. Fortunately there were dozens and dozens of reel-to-reel tape recordings of Clarence’s sermons, speeches, and story telling preserved as well as the several books he had published over his 27 years at Koinonia. Truly a gifted orator and storyteller, I would sit for hours listening to Dr. Jordan’s southern drawl, marveling at both his Biblical insight and his infectious sense of humor. What always came through was a combination of both compassion and a passion for justice. Clarence often concentrated on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his parables.
Equally instructive were the stories about Clarence and his family that were frequently shared by his life partner, Florence. Although Clarence died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969, Florence survived her husband by another 18 years and often told the stories of the earlier days of the Koinonia “experiment”. Clarence often referred to the community as a “demonstration plot” of what the Kingdom of God could embody. Educated as a scientific farmer at the University of Georgia before hearing “a call” to attend the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Clarence often drew on his agricultural knowledge and experience in his sermons and stories. Because of his extensive knowledge of koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, Clarence would translate directly from the Greek text when he preached, putting the stories and teachings into the local vernacular and settings for what would become his “Cotton Patch” version of the New Testament accounts.
Although my politics were radical when I arrived, my theological positions hadn’t evolved as quickly. It was in seeing how others lived their lives that helped break down some of the walls I had constructed from my upbringing and my Wheaton College indoctrination. Clarence Jordan said very clearly on one of the many tapes I listened to over and over that we are not called to “judge others” but we are called to be “fruit inspectors” – noting how Jesus remarked, “By their fruit shall you know them.” In our volunteer group, George and Coffee Worth, lifetime Presbyterian missionaries who arrived at Koinonia the same week as I had, would often scoff at a Bible verse someone quoted, especially if it came from the writings of Paul (or those claimed to be by him). It was clear that they believed neither in the inspiration or inerrancy of “God’s Word” as I had it drilled into me by the bastion of evangelicalism at Billy Graham’s alma mater. Wheaton would have me believe that with such “heretical” views, even missionaries who did not believe in the infallibility of scripture were not “saved”. Yet, using the fruit inspection standard promoted by Clarence and Jesus, it was very clear that the Worths evidenced their “salvation” by the way their lives reflected the life and values Jesus proclaimed. (And Coffee shared the story with me about how she was bitten by Billy Graham’s dog!)
Later, in the mid-80s, another Koinonia resident I had gotten to know came out as a gay man to Christine and me, taking a risk to share the pain and self-loathing he had endured for years while in the closet. Again, I was forced to re-think my theological understandings and the walls and exclusions which remained around my head and heart. Koinonia, as an institution, wasn’t quite ready to be “open and affirming” but at least the Resident Partners began dialoging about that possibility. A few years later we welcomed our first “out” Partner who was gay. But it was bittersweet in recognizing all who may have felt excluded or marginalized before then.
Living at Koinonia for 16 years, I got to meet many of the “legendary” people from Koinonia’s history – or people who knew them. I heard not only stories of inspiration but also you heard or witnessed some of their “warts” as well. Community living has a way of exposing our shadow-side as well as the persona we’d like others to see. Despite the flaws, sins, and shortcomings I often found a way to learn and grow from the privilege of working and worshipping with the same group of people. Koinonia’s size, never more than 25-40 Partners coupled with 5-20 volunteers (plus children) meant that we could relate to one another without bureaucratic boundaries and strictures. Koinonia had morphed from having a more powerful “Director” as it re-emerged in 1968 to a model featuring a more decentralized “Coordinator of Activities”, “Fellowship Team”, Residency Committee, and Housing Committee by the time I had arrived in the mid-70s.
The on-going power of the Koinonia experience for me was its counter-cultural vision and practice. Living in the intentional community was an invitation to reject the values of the dominant society and replace them with the ideas and values expressed in the Gospel and the early church as described by Clarence Jordan’s careful Biblical analysis. The U.S. cultural value of rugged individualism, the John Wayne “tough guy”, go-it-alone mentality was replaced with a value of interdependence rather than independence. American ideals of competition were contrasted with a Gospel of cooperation and community. The main focus of our society seems to be predicated on “consumption” and the best adjective for many Americans seems to be consumers. Koinonia’s emphasis on simple living (which was later recast as “compassionate living”) stressed a downward mobility economically while finding ways to befriend Mother Earth in the process. And arriving at Koinonia only months after the end of the war on Vietnam meant that the culture’s dependence on militarism should have been more readily questioned - but in the deep South that ideology of military solutions to most international programs continues to hold sway in most circles. Koinonia’s clear commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation often provided a sharp contrast to the social and political forces that dominated our corner of southwest Georgia.
It was a multi-media presentation by Ladon Sheats of the comparing and contrasting of American values with those of the “Kingdom of God” that was my first introduction to both Koinonia and Clarence Jordan just a year before I arrived as a volunteer. That “Values Presentation” continued to be used in Koinonia’s volunteer program a decade later as the struggle between the dominant culture and the counter-culture values espoused by Jesus continued to help define the community. Even though most Resident Partners embraced those values, there certainly were differences of styles and expressions of how one talked about and lived them out.
Another strength of the Koinonia “experiment” was its ecumenical nature in embracing and welcoming a variety of Christian denominational expressions. In my 16 years there, numerous individuals led worship, were elected to the Fellowship Team (providing leadership and coordination for the spiritual life of the community), and/or conducted Bible Studies or prayer groups. My Mennonite tradition was accepted alongside Roman Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Swedenborgians, Presbyterians, Methodists, evangelicals, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and non-denominational Christians and even those who had given up on institutional expressions of the faith. Some infants were baptized; others were “dedicated”. What was “communion” for some was “Eucharist” for others. Some Resident Partners attended other churches in town while Koinonia’s own worship on Sunday evenings was seen as their primary “church” for many others. Speakers from outside the community were invited a couple of times each year to provide inspiration and challenge. Most notable for me were visits from Walter Brueggemann, Daniel Berrigan, Murphy Davis, and Joyce Hollyday.
I am so grateful that I had the opportunity for much spiritual formation and grounding as a result of my years at Koinonia. It led to relationships with other intentional communities (Sojourners, The Open Door, Jubilee Partners, Reba Place Fellowship, New Jerusalem Community, …) and their members and, through our mailing list, thousands of visitors. The 1970s and 80s were a time of social and theological ferment and Koinonia was a helpful place not only for me but also a place to start a family and begin to raise my sons in an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Even though we lived almost a thousand miles from my family of origin, my sons had “aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and other relatives” among the other community members who served as surrogates for relatives in Pennsylvania. Community became family for us, making it very difficult for us to leave after 16 and 20 years respectively living at Koinonia.
If there are just a few things to mention about my experience in intentional Christian community between Plains and Americus, GA it wouldn’t be having a Presidential campaign anchored from the nearby town, nor the Ku Klux Klan gathering to protest and embarrass the new President a year later. Our visits over 10 years to a man on Death Row stand out as well as helping in the starting of three new communities: Jubilee Partners, The Open Door Community, and New Hope Hospitality House. The community support for Peace Pentecost, the White Train campaign, and anti-Trident submarine protests was impressive. Joining with the Jubilee Partners community working with their Año de Jubileo program to help Central American refugees gain asylum in Canada and Open Door friends with assistance and advocacy on behalf of the homeless and imprisoned was very satisfying for me. I was very moved by community solidarity when I was jailed for six months after the Pantex witness plus weeks in jail in DC, Atlanta, and Montezuma. Participating in vigils during state executions or in witness against the U.S. Army School of the Americas drew many of us together in prayer and protest. Witnessing the birth and growth of Habitat For Humanity. The list could go on and on.
But what I remember most deeply are the words of Clarence Jordan: “Faith is not believing in spite of the evidence but rather acting in scorn of the consequences.” And “Fear is the polio of the soul which keeps us from walking by faith.” Those words, embodied by years of faithful witness while embattled by racists and other opponents, continue to instruct and inspire me more than 40 years after Clarence joined the great cloud of witnesses. My friends Ladon, Will and Margaret, George and Clara, Ray and Lois, George Worth, Art and Ruth, Miss Gussie, Ludrelle and Mamie, Correnza and Mazie, Jophie, Mary Ruth, Don, and many others have also crossed over but continue to live in my memory. The fertile soil of what was once 1400 acres of red Georgia clay may have grown peanuts, corn, soybeans, grapes, and peaches – but it also helped develop disciples, people choosing to embrace the nonviolent servanthood of Jesus of Nazareth and trying to make and be a difference in our world.