Published March 27th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
When Michael Stringer and Jason Milbrandt bought the iconic St. Francis apartment building at 300 Gladstone Blvd., around the corner from the Kansas City Museum, they saved it from demolition just one year before it would have turned 100 years old in 2012.
Eleven years and much reconstruction later, the work isn’t quite finished. But now members of a nearby Catholic-based intentional community called Jerusalem Farm are helping to complete the job.
Since that nonprofit community was created 10 years ago to live out principles of “prayer, community, simplicity and service,” its members have done countless home repair jobs in the northeast area of the city. It has also led a curbside compost pickup program and engaged in other efforts to improve life in Pendleton Heights and nearby neighborhoods.
“They’ve just done amazing work to improve this area,” Stringer says.
Jerusalem Farm, located at 520 Garfield Ave., isn’t really what you might think of as a farm (though it does have a greenhouse and helps with a Giving Grove orchard). But it has tried to be an urban version of a rural intentional community in West Virginia called Nazareth Farm.
Like other intentional communities — many rooted in a religious tradition, some not — Jerusalem Farm brings together people with similar ideas about how they want to live and the values required to live in that way.
Jordan “Sunny” Hamrick, who has been part of J-Farm for about seven years, puts it this way: “One of the things that keeps us together is our common mission. Our mission isn’t just trying to live together, but we’re trying to accomplish something together. It’s working together for a better world where we take care of each other. It’s acknowledging every day that we need each other, we need to show up for one another. And when we do that we make things better. We want to accomplish something that is bigger than each other.”
Jessie Schiele, J-Farm executive director and wife of Jordan Schiele, the community’s project director, says, “Catholic social teaching is our guidance for what we do.” She isn’t Catholic, but she attends a Catholic parish, her husband is on track to be ordained as a Catholic deacon and their children have been baptized Catholic.
At the moment, Jessie says, Jerusalem Farm has “the largest community we’ve ever had — 14 adults and five children.”
In addition, (when not blocked by COVID restrictions) the farm attracts students for specific time-limited projects. They’re called “sojourners, people who want to commit from one to six months,” Jessie says. In the year before the pandemic, J-Farm hosted more than 200 students a year.
Holding together an intentional community can be a struggle. As Jessie acknowledges: “We have had people leave over how power is used, over personalities, over how decisions are made. Most people leave communities because of things like wanting to go to graduate school or other reasons.” And communities that fail, she says, seem to do so because of bad leadership.
Another J-Farm member, Trinidad Raj Molina, says he has experienced some other intentional communities “that weren’t very healthy, partly because they didn’t know how to do conflict resolution among members. Some red flags I saw in other intentional communities I haven’t seen here.”
At the Delaware Street Commons in Lawrence, the community isn’t based on a common religious commitment but, rather, on a desire for close community and cooperation.
Rich Minder, who helps guide that co-housing community, says the idea was generated in 1999 but it took until 2007 to build the 23 houses and other structures and green space that make up Delaware Street Commons.
Families buy the homes in which they live, but they own only what’s in the home’s interior.
“When you step outside your home, you’re in community space,” Minder says. “We go on faith that people will contribute time for the community. Everyone contributes in a different way.”
Each community funds itself in different ways. Delaware Street Commons, for instance, relies on assessments from homeowners based on square footage, while Jerusalem Farm is funded mostly by fees from participants in service retreats plus individual donations and grants.
And each community — even those with shared religious backgrounds — serves a different function. Unlike the home repair and environmental work that J-Farm members focus on, Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, near 12th Street and Benton Boulevard in Kansas City, ministers to homeless people by offering meals and showers, for instance.
At Jerusalem Farm, Jessie Schiele says she sees her community “more as a bridge. The Catholic Church has pushed a lot of people away for a lot of reasons. We are very approachable to people and we are doing something that people want to be a part of.”
What draws people to J-Farm, says Hamrick is “a loss of community. I call us a community of liberation. A lot of the work that we do and the way we go about doing it seeks to liberate us from the entrapments we could fall into. Everyone finally gets fed up with being overworked and underpaid. When those things fall away and no longer serve us, we can liberate each other from the demands of a 40-hour work week and even the demands of having to cook yourself dinner.”
In some ways, intentional communities resemble monasteries, not in their religious practices, such as silence, but in the way they model behaviors and attitudes that can be adopted by others who feel crushed by life and are looking for more sensible ways to live. In the process, they can feed and shower hungry people and fix up decaying homes and apartments.
Beyond that, they can bring some humor back to life. Why else would Jessie Schiele identify herself on the J-Farm website not just as executive director but also as “popcorn-maker”?
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at email@example.com.