Every December 28th a group of about 50 middle-aged geezers, a few of them now slouching past middle age, meet at a friend’s house to catch up on life. Thirty years ago the geezers were just hippies, and they all lived together in what passes for the ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. They bought a handful of houses on 17th Avenue, crammed husbands and wives and kids and single folks together, along with homeless people off the street and cats and dogs and goats, shared their stuff, pooled their incomes, and set up shop as an official New Testament Church, living in community, guaranteed to get it right this time, correcting the errors of 2,000 years of church history, ministering to the poor and needy, focusing on loving one another and the world around them. I was one of those folks, and spent eight years in their midst. I met my wife in that ghetto. The best man and ushers at my wedding all came from those motley crusaders.
Thirty years later, it’s evident that they got it wrong. And thirty years later, given the sizable turnout that will show up at my friend’s tonight, and given the fact that many of these people will travel great distances to be there, it’s evident that they got a lot right.
It was a silly, naïve notion. “Stupid,” as my friend Jeff told me a couple weeks ago over lunch. Jeff and his family are now firmly established in a nice denominational church. He wears a suit on Sunday mornings, and his hair is short, and he prides himself on being part of a long and vital church tradition. “I look back on those ‘Let’s all hold hands and be the church’ days with some embarrassment,” he tells me.
And I understand. I recall the interminable wrangling over every theological issue imaginable, the need to re-invent every single doctrinal stance and claim it as our own, the inevitable hubris that accompanies any attempt to be “the New Testament Church,” and the underlying disdain for all the poor brothers and sisters who have had it wrong for lo these two millennia. It’s not a shining legacy. And it wasn’t all peace and love. Some of the naïve hippies got robbed at gunpoint; a couple of the women got raped. Camp’s Carryout, across the street from the first apartment I shared with my wife, was held up almost every Saturday night.
It turned out to be a pretty lousy place to raise a family. And the naïve hippies grew up and got married and started having kids, and they figured out pretty quickly that toddlers and crack dealers on street corners weren’t the best combination. One by one, they left. Why? Because they could. Because they had the education and the job skills and the wherewithal to abandon the sinking ship. Four families pulled up stakes and moved out to the country, where to this day they’re still living in community and raising goats and growing grapes for wine. Everybody else scattered, some across the country, some to the relative comfort and safety of Columbus suburbia. The irony isn’t lost on me when I realize that from that tiny house church a suburban megachurch of 7,500 people emerged, and that the massive parking lot is filled with SUVs and minivans. Old hippies never die. They just become Republicans, and put W stickers on the back bumpers of their Beamers.
And so I wonder about the legacy. Is my friend Jeff right? Was it all for naught? Was it all just a silly, idealistic, misty vision that faded once people grew up and got some sense? Did we dabble in radicalism, only to become dreaded Average Americans?
Maybe. But I don’t think so. The fifty people who will show up tonight tell me No. They are doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, along with those who have never been able to hold down a steady job, and those who have suffered from debilitating mental illness, and those who have lost their marriages, and those who have watched their children walk away from everything good and important and choose addiction and enslavement. Life has a way of battering the shit out of you, even if you are the incarnation of the New Testament Church.
Every one of them will be on equal footing. They will be greeted warmly. They will laugh and remember together. They will be cherished as people who shared a common life together, as friends and brothers and sisters in perhaps the best and most inclusive sense. I would like to think that this is something different from Average America.
I look forward to this time, as I do every year. And I feel challenged, as I do every year, to work through what our common vision now means in middle age, in the midst of a successful career. I desire and pray for the generosity of spirit that characterized those turbulent, wonderful years.