The Counter-Cultural Impact of Intentional Communities and the Values that Shape Them

By Madison Boboltz

Imagine preparing a meal in your home, and then at the last second, without any notice, a stranger walks through the doorway. Without missing a beat, you set an extra spot at the table and welcome them to join you. Such an experience is not out of the ordinary during non-pandemic times at Beacon Hill Friends House, a Quaker-based nonprofit organization and intentional community located in Beacon Hill. At full capacity, the house holds up to twenty residents of religious and non-religious backgrounds who cultivate spaces to share in their lives and their work. 

 Residents of BHFH describe intentional community as a push against the tendency for people to separate themselves into individualized units— rather than close themselves off, they believe human life is enriched when people choose to open themselves (and their homes) to others. Some remarked that the cultural pressures to achieve independence is isolating. BHFH appealed to them because it is organized around hospitality driven values and commitments that residents not only agree to, but also put into practice. An unexpected dinner guest showing up at the house unannounced is therefore not perceived as an intrusion or inconvenience, but as a welcome addition and opportunity for connection. 

Residents who favor this kind of lifestyle do not mean to convince everyone they encounter to sell their homes and adopt a similar living arrangement; instead, they hope to demonstrate to their communities that an alternative way of life such as theirs is not only possible, but also yields a number of potential benefits. One thing that makes BHFH unique, for example, is its physical location in an extremely affluent area. In many ways they might be considered the “weirdos on the block” who bring to Beacon Hill various groups of people who would typically not feel welcome there. Furthermore, because of their proximity to the state house, they are able to develop programming that invites members of the community to join with them in various forms of political action. 

 Boston University’s School of Theology provides a similar living experience for first year students. Theology House is located at 2 Raleigh St, just a fifteen minute walk from the School of Theology. Again, during non-pandemic times, residents share in weekly meals and spiritual programming, and the house often becomes a popular meeting place for events or gatherings that bring together other members of the STH community to join in meaningful fellowship with one another. Theology House demonstrates the transformative role of relationship-building in education and the vocational discernment process. In addition, it provides spaces in which STH’s community principles–love, justice, safety, rights, responsibilities, and respect– may be cultivated and put into practice outside of the classroom.  

In both Theology House and Beacon Hill Friends House, residents are not expected to belong to any faith tradition or share the same theology. The mission of these intentional communities rely on adherence to shared values, not beliefs. However, some intentional communities may be more theologically driven. For instance, one of the partner organizations for the Center of Practical Theology’s Creative Callings Project, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, launched an intentional community called St. Mary’s House in September 2020. The goal for the house in its first year was to focus on the relationships between residents, a diverse group of individuals who were selected by the congregation after a two-year period of discernment. Having now achieved this foundational goal, members of St. Mary’s house hope going forward  to strengthen the relationships between the house, the congregation, and the surrounding neighborhood. Some members of the house have taken to going on walks throughout the neighborhood, and have discovered through these outings some needs of their neighbors which the church has been helpful in meeting. It is their involvement with the church and their call to service which inspires residents to commit themselves to their community.

Beacon Hill Friends House, Theology House, and St. Mary’s House each engage in collaborative efforts to foster intentional communities that, to one degree or another, are counter-cultural. Independence does not necessitate isolation, nor does affluence necessitate exclusion. Education, particularly theological education, should not be focused exclusively on the academic competence of students, but also on their physical and spiritual well-being. One may build a home not to benefit themselves and meet their own needs, but to enrich their faith community and meet the needs of their neighbors. While tension and conflict inevitably arise in intentional communities, their ability to navigate those challenges and continue on in their missions demonstrate their creative potential and their admirable commitments.

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