It began as a vision: a Christian community for single women — a communal-living house that focused on ministry and outreach to the surrounding urban community.
What grew from that vision was more than Joan Coolidge could imagine. Ms. Coolidge, who came to the District for an internship at age 22 in January 1985, was a founder of the Esther House.
What began as a small group of women sharing ideas in the basement of the Madonna House, a prayer center in Washington, soon evolved into a group of 10 women moving into a rented house at 83 New York Ave. NW in March 1989, and eventually a purchased house down the road at 119 New York Ave. NW.
Residents of the Esther House “live with intentionality towards neighbors, seeking relationships in which [Esther House residents] can talk, pray and share resources [with members of the community],” says Jenell Paris, associate professor of anthropology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., who lived at Esther House for four years beginning in 1994.
Esther House has no board of directors, nor any philanthropic funding. Monthly rent, as well as household responsibilities, are divided equally among residents. Although some residents are involved in charitable missions, the house itself operates no such programs.
“Esther House does not run any programs, and we are adamant about that,” Mrs. Paris says. “We did not want to be paternalistic, middle-class people offering more services to the poor. [Esther House] is a collection of true friends who live together in a way that has significance both inside and outside of the house. It is held together by love and nothing more.”
In the 15 years of the Esther House, many women have transferred in and out of the residency, staying for as short as 2 months to as long as six years.
Faith Evans, youth pastor at Washington Community Fellowship, moved into Esther House in May 1996 as part of an urban ministries project at Wesley Theological Seminary. During her four-year stay, Mrs. Evans started a ministry to teenagers called Building Bridges, which focused on issues of racial integration.
“These are just radical women who are willing to serve the community with the gifts God’s given them,” Mrs. Evans says.
Women of Esther House have initiated Bible studies and after-school tutoring for children. More importantly, Ms. Coolidge says, “We’ve just helped people get through the day. Stopping and talking to people on the street has allowed us a chance to be different. I know for a fact that we’ve impacted a lot of lives.”
Esther House is part of a movement toward forming communal Christian homes — “intentional communities,” as they are known — with members choosing to imitate the simple lifestyle of early followers of Jesus, described in the Bible’s book of Acts. More are choosing such communities than at any other time in the past 30 years, advocates say.
The Simple Way is an intentional Christian community in Kensington, Pa., founded in 1997, in which residents share possessions and keep each other accountable through love and encouragement. They offer meals and after-school activities, in addition to running an in-house thrift shop called the Gathering. Their mission statement is “Love God, love people and follow Jesus.”
“All we do here is try to live the Gospel out of our home,” says Shane Claiborne, one of the founders of the Simple Way. “We don’t separate the traditional acts of charity out of our way of life.”
Members of the Simple Way pool their money and share two cars. Members work part-time jobs in order to allow time for ministry and community fellowship.
“What we’re doing makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Claiborne says. “Community life is just about being a good neighbor. It may seem extraordinary in the world we’re living in, but what we’re doing was very normative in the early church.”
Researchers estimate that there are 3,000 Christian communities in North America. The Fellowship for Intentional Communities listed more than 700 communities in its 2000 directory, up from 540 in the 1995 edition.
Catherine Nicosia, staff member for the Fellowship, says although many community living groups have a spiritual focus, “only 35 percent of the American communities listed in the communities directory are explicitly spiritual or religious, while the other 65 percent are secular or don’t specify.”
The growth in number of intentional Christian communities is what some researchers believe to be the rebirth of a movement typically associated with the 1960s and ‘70s. Historian David Janzen, who contacted 148 groups in a study of their growth, says that the idea of “communes” in the 1960s and ‘70s was a fad.
“More young people today are just feeling the emptiness of our country’s goals and capitalism approach to society,” Mr. Janzen says. “These young people seem much more willing to sacrifice material objects for a lifestyle that has integrity. I think a lot of people today are just reading the book of Acts and saying, ‘Why not?’ ”