Faith leaders discuss the value of community, and how to navigate a culture clash
I never considered myself a joiner. As a kid, I quit nearly every activity I attempted, from horseback riding to baton twirling. The only club I ever belonged to was my high school’s French Club (which was more for the croissants and racy films than for the social company) and any college enthusiasm for Ultimate Frisbee or the ISO fizzled out after the second meeting.
But, as the poet-preacher John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Indeed, we humans are not solitary creatures, designed to live in isolation. We create makeshift tribes everywhere we go, from our native family units to school cliques and street gangs. However, it was only recently, after moving to Sacramento to join a nonprofit dedicated to self-awareness, that I began to truly understand and appreciate the value of community.
For Maria McSweeney, co-minister of the Ananda Center of Sacramento, and Molly Carlson, founding pastor of Table of Grace Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Elk Grove, community has proven the essential component of their lives. In fact, when McSweeney first came to Ananda’s main center, a residentially-based community in Nevada City, she said she felt, “at home for the first time in my life.”
Ananda is based on the work of Paramhansa Yogananda and blends teachings from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita. In her last year of college, McSweeney realized that “if I was happy, if I was centered, if I was strong in myself, I would be successful. And if I didn’t have those things, life would be harder.” She came to Ananda to learn the practice of meditation and was “really taken with the aspect of their spiritually-based community, living with people of like mind.”
McSweeney lived at Nevada City’s Ananda Center for 10 years, and met her husband, Ananta (a former Higher Ground guest), as well as the community’s founder, Swami Kriyananda. In 1986 Kriyananda asked the couple to start a center in Sacramento. Eager to create the kind of community she realized she’d been looking for all her life, she and her husband found a 48-unit apartment complex in Rancho Cordova, which now houses about 65 people committed to living spiritually-centered lives.
While McSweeney came from no religious affiliation and happened upon the joys of spiritual community in her early 20s, Carlson grew up a preacher’s kid, in a “declining” church that modeled group dysfunction. After going through a period of personal difficulty in college, during which time her father was asked to resign from his pastoral position, she felt “a deep sense of abandonment” from her faith community, and subsequently spent years as an aimless spiritual seeker, “trying to find out how I could connect to God and how community could make any sort of sense whatsoever.”
After dabbling in world religions and landing a corporate job, with a boss who demonstrated “the worst of corporate life,” Carlson finally turned to prayer to figure out what she should do with her life. The response was a clear command to minister. She chose Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion, which offered the global perspective she was looking for, and gradually worked toward developing a personal spirituality that also integrated healthy “life-giving” community.
The turning point occurred in her last semester of seminary, when Carlson gave birth to her son four months premature.
“All of a sudden all the studying and worrying and concern about community, all those things that had been consuming me just went away because everything was about this little baby. And I experienced during that time a powerful new sense of what prayer meant and what community meant, because I knew there were literally thousands of people across the country who were praying for my baby. I felt a physical sense of comfort. The load was lifted from me enough that I could carry what was left.”
Together, McSweeney and Carlson addressed one of the problems inherent to another type of community: how close is too close in a work environment?
My boss at work has a habit of rubbing my shoulder or somehow touching me when we speak. I don’t know whether to feel this is inappropriate or not. He is European and is more touchy-feely in general, so it may not mean anything personal to me. What should I do to be more comfortable in this situation?
“These days the guidelines are so specific about personal contact in work between male and female, boss and employee,” McSweeney noted. “So there are two things here: one is that [the relationship] needs to be in compliance with the work setting and guidelines. … And this woman needs to be more personally clear because, regardless of what others’ customs are, you need to know for yourself what you would allow and not allow. I think when women are really vague, that’s when they find themselves in trouble.
“When I talk to people,” McSweeney continued, “I really try to address people’s personal magnetism—the kind of energy they put out and the appropriateness of that energy. I really try to help people to take some sense of personal responsibility for that, not just get into a victim role.
Carlson drew upon her corporate background and her firsthand experience with a disrespectful boss to emphasize the importance of open communication.
“We give things so much power when we keep them a secret, and by speaking the truth it can often release nearly all of the power that’s held around that issue. And so my immediate reaction is: Say something … if it is truly a misunderstanding or unintentional, it’ll diffuse very easily by saying something.”
Both Carlson and McSweeney extolled the virtues of “standing in truth.”
“I don’t believe in Jesus so that I can make it to heaven and have a good afterlife,” Carlson said wryly. “I don’t think that’s the end result of knowing God and living a faithful life. I think we are called as God’s people to work towards the world that God would hope for us to have here, now. If we believe that this is God’s creation, and if Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love one another, then there’s something important about our life here on earth. That passion for compassion is central to my faith experience. And I’m compelled by my faith experience to stand up to authority and to speak for what’s right—and it’s not always what’s right for me, but what’s right for God’s people.”
“I want to be in the center of truth,” McSweeney agreed. “I believe if you stand up for who you are and you act centered in truth … good things will come of that. To me, it’s a law that works.”