In intentional communities, like-minded individuals come together to share resources and living quarters. Such arrangements gained popularity in the ’60s when so-called hippies retreated to the country to live in peace and brotherhood. But they still exist today, often among Christians who feel compelled to follow a strict interpretation of the Bible.
Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Ill., is one such community. Founded in 1957 by a Mennonite professor and a few Goshen College students in search of a way to follow the prescriptions of Christ to “hold all things in common,” it has grown from three persons and one building to more than 380 people and 180 units at two sites today.
In some ways, life at Reba Place has changed little through the years. Individuals and families occupy the fellowship’s houses and meet regularly for worship and often for shared meals. Most adults work outside the fellowship, and all income is pooled in a common purse, with households receiving a monthly allowance. All needs – such as food, medical care, education and transportation (members share several cars though use public transportation whenever possible) – are covered by the fellowship. But adherents follow a no-frills lifestyle, too.
What is life like for Reba Place youth? Y-Press traveled to Evanston last month to see how today’s children and teens negotiate this age-old arrangement. “There’s no real membership for kids; they’re kind of dragged in whether they want it or not,” said Carol Youngquist, 22, who grew up in Reba Place but left the community to attend the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She has since graduated and is now assessing whether to join the fellowship as an adult.
Fellowship members reside in a neighborhood not far from Lake Michigan. Three central households—the Clearing, Cana and the Patch—house individuals and families within the fellowship. On the outside, fellowship buildings cannot be distinguished from other households. But inside they often are crowded and in need of repair.
Touring the houses, the lack of children was apparent. Single adults live with married couples, but school-age youth are scarce – 11 in the fellowship itself, with 50 to 60 more in two affiliated churches.
Micah Clark, 15, is a freshman at Evanston Township High School. He is outspoken and defies the sheltered stereotype one might expect of a child raised in an intentional community. Micah’s friends come from outside Reba Place, and he hangs out in downtown Evanston.
Micah’s brother, Ransom, is 11 and attends a nearby parochial school. He plays sports and skateboards and has friends over almost every week to the house his family shares with another couple. Ransom has known his friends since kindergarten, and they don’t question his living arrangements.
Brianna Doran, 10, attends an affiliated church called Living Water in nearby Rogers Park, which does not practice a community purse and has a wider membership. She lives near her church, attends a public school and likes to draw and write.
Hannah Blackwood, 16, also is a member and nearby resident of Living Water, though her parents had been part of the Reba Place Fellowship. She travels more than an hour to her public magnet school, usually on public transportation, and is on the track and swim teams.
All of these youth are keenly aware of their small peer group. Though most find it helpful to live among a lot of caring adults, they do find they are held accountable more than most kids.
“If you ever get in a play in church, you’ll be hearing about how great it was for the next three months,” Micah said. “I mean it’s nice, but after a certain point you forget what people are congratulating you about and it just seems odd.”
But the adult presence largely is a positive role. Consideration is seen throughout the community. When walking to church in shorts on a chilly Sunday morning, more than one adult expressed concern, not with disapproval but with compassion.
The common purse arrangement does provide some constraints. Because young people are not official fellowship members, working teens don’t have to give their wages to the common fund. All children receive a monthly allowance, which varies.
Carol received $40 a month as a teen, but she said the money never seemed to go very far. “It sounds like a lot of money until you realize that a pair of shoes is $40. So it’s like, ‘Do I want to get a pair of pants this month or would I like to get two shirts?’” she said.
Like other teens, she solved that dilemma by getting a part-time job.
Reba Place residents strive to save money and have few luxuries. While this might cause resentment in some households, it really doesn’t seem to be a factor here, where there is a universal lack of materialism.
“My friend, her parents both work, and her mom is constantly taking her to places like Borders and American Girl, and if she sees something that she wants, her mom will buy her that. But with me, I don’t get as much of that kind of treatment, and I’m used to it so I don’t really want it as much as most kids do,” explained Brianna.
Hannah attributes the lack of materialism to the close-knit community. “It just is more family- and friend-focused instead of iPods and Game Boys,” she said. “We live really near the church, and there’s just a lot of people around who care about you and support you.”
None of the youth is self-conscious about growing up in an intentional community or feels like an outsider in the wider world. Carol didn’t even realize her living situation was unique until she read about similar arrangements.
“I think it was actually in high school that I was reading about utopian communities in my history book, and I was like, ‘I think I live in one of those!’” she said. “I know that sounds pathetic, but you don’t necessarily question things that are normal to you. You just kind of assume that that’s the way things work.”
Other youth share that sentiment. “A fish doesn’t know it’s wet because it’s never been dry, and because it’s never been dry, it can’t really comprehend what wet is, right?” said Micah.
“I’ve never experienced anything outside this community.”
Though young people feel no stigma about being part of the community, Reba Place has experienced wide fluctuations in membership. In an effort to expand, it became a two-tiered church in 1981 – continuing the fellowship but also adding an affiliated congregation that doesn’t share a common purse. About 10 years later, Living Water Community Church was established.
Sally Schreiner Youngquist, retired minister at Living Water and stepmother of Carol, explained that that community has a more diverse membership than Reba Place because of the many refugees and immigrants in the neighborhood.
Younger adults also are becoming interested in Reba Place (about 25 are in the fellowship, with more in the affiliated churches), and that attracts former members like Carol to reconsider the fellowship lifestyle as an adult.
But Carol, who is working at a technology consulting firm in downtown Chicago, says it’s not an easy decision. “I haven’t lived on the fellowship budget for real since I was like 14, so I don’t even know what that means,” she said. “I have to dress up, go downtown. It’s not as cheap as buying T-shirts and jeans at Wal-Mart like I did in high school.”
ASSISTANT EDITORS: Ariana Gainer, 15; Allison Simmons, 14.
REPORTER: Libby Bowling, 11.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press