“The Lord wanted them to be and to function as the Body of Christ, the Christian community, full time”
The following article was written by one of the many hundreds of guests who came in the early 1970s to experience first-hand the pioneering of the earliest charismatic covenant community, The Word of God, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. His article was first published in the San Francisco Monitor and in Sisters Today in December 1971. – ed.
AN EARLY ENCOUNTER WITH COVENANT COMMUNITY – SUMMER 1971
The twelve of them were in various stages of disrepair as they picked their way downstairs into the musty, unattractive living room of their guest house. As with most young people, these college students were not “morning people.” Some had not gone to bed til 1 or 2 a.m. But by 7 :35 all were assembled – many with bare feet, hair uncombed, unshaven, some having hurriedly grabbed a pair of pants and moved sleepily downstairs. We shared books as we recited Psalm 8 together out of the well-worn pocket editions of the “New Testament and Psalms” scattered around the house. “How great is your name, 0 Lord our God, in all the earth.” There was a period of spontaneous prayer, some quietly in tongues, some openly verbalized. After a few moments of silence all rose, and walked around to each other, hugged each one and said smilingly, “Good morning, brother.” Another day had begun in one household of the “Word of God” community.
Berkeley, California is a University town, but nothing like Ann Arbor, Michigan. Forty percent of the population in Ann Arbor are students. And the other sixty percent (c. 60,000) are primarily involved in taking care of the goods and services needed by the 40,000 University of Michigan students. But within this community is to be found another one, small by comparison to the overall population, but growing rapidly – The Word of God – presently (January 1972) involving some 230 people with 200 in preparation to enter the community. The Word of God, includes both students (50%) and townspeople (50%); singles (77%) and marrieds (23%); most under 30 (95%); Catholics (65%) and Protestants (35%), a few nuns, one priest, all enthusiastic and committed Christians who have been touched deeply by the charismatic renewal movement. On the surface one might say that all this is very interesting for a statistician but what’s so special about it? After living with them for three days, asking them incessant questions, listening to tapes, participating in their life together, I would say there is a great deal that is special about them and a couple of things that are unique in my experience.
This community is not a religious order, though in many ways it sounds and acts like one and indeed religious orders can learn a great deal from them about their own fervent beginnings. It is not a Church. It does not administer sacraments and each member remains a member of his own denomination, though the community is Catholic in character. It is simply the Christian community struggling to live and function as the organic Body of Christ, each member with his task and charism, each building up the Body of Christ, each filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, each serving the whole and one another.
The Word of God community emerged out of the pentecostal (charismatic) prayer meetings that began in Ann Arbor with four people in 1967. The numbers of people that came to prayer meetings continually increased, forcing a move from an apartment to a hall and finally to a larger hall. But the community came to sense that the Lord was calling them to more than a weekly prayer meeting. He wanted them to be and to function as the Body of Christ, the Christian community, full time. And so they have moved in this direction for the past two years. They definitely see this “community formation” as a work the Lord is doing among them according to His own plan and for His own purposes.
The prayer meetings for the whole community and anyone else who wishes to come are still held every Thursday night. 600 people were there the night I attended, praying for an hour and a half, with four different types of instruction classes before and after the meeting ranging from an “Introduction to the Charismatic Renewal” for the curious and the puzzled to a third series of instructions for those who had already attended the first two series “Foundations of Christian Living II.” Ten to twenty people begin the first series of instruction each week. There was a great deal of joyful song, hugging, and prayer, but there was also in the midst of the meeting, an instruction by a young college student on “Idols in Our Lives” that could have been given with great profit in any pulpit in the country. There was also a witness from a former dope addict whom the community has patiently cared for for several months now, of how the Holy Spirit has been operating i n his life. He was formerly deeply confused, violent, often out of his head (sounded like the descriptions of the demoniacs in the Scriptures) and yet his talk that night before 600 people was full of humor, peace, simplicity, and wondering faith.
Prayer meetings which are not as open to the general public are also held by the sub-communities, with from 50 to 150 members in each one, organized geographically around the University. Sub-communities were developed when the prayer meetings became so large that people were not able to know one another well, nor to relate to so many in a personal way. So these subdivisions were made, originally with the intention of having them no larger than 40-60 with two coordinators in charge of each one.
But again the community has grown so fast (doubling its members every year) that coordinators could not be found emerging from the community who seemed to take on the pastoral responsibility for the sub-communities. As a result, the sub-communities have now been further broken down into households, and this fall hopefully all members of the community will be in a household of from 4 to 8 persons. Each of these households operates more or less independently.
The Word of God has really become a community of households. All these structures have developed in response to specific needs in the community. They have not been dreamed up by someone in charge and imposed on others.
OFFICES IN THE COMMUNITY
Last year also the community decided on offices within the community: coordinators (paralleling New Testament elders), servants (New Testament deacons) and handmaids (New Testament deaconesses – later changed title to senior women leaders). These offices in the community were not taken over wholesale from the early Church, but because the community was facing questions similar to the ones in the New Testament community. The early Church’ s solutions have been found as useful today as they were then.
Two coordinators (two for the sake of balance) have responsibility for the over-all function of each sub-community, setting up households, guiding the sub-community’s spiritual growth, its spirit, helping to solve its practical difficulties, and above all, praying for those in their charge. In this they need the help of the servants who assist the coordinators in their responsibility for the functioning of the sub community especially in the administrative coordination. The handmaids [senior women leaders] have a good deal of responsibility for the spiritual growth of the women of the community.
All these officers emerge from the community itself. They are not formally elected. They rather are selected by a sense of the group after much prayer and discernment. The community seeks out as coordinators men “with a shepherd’s heart.” They fullfilI their tasks on a trial basis for some time, judged by their fruits in the community’s spiritual development, before being charged by the community for their office in a ceremony analogous to an ordination, only without any one leader (bishop). They do not regard themselves as ordained ministers and are careful not to claim any sacramental functions.
The community is organic, with strong emphasis placed on being open to assuming the task and the charism (the gift) the Holy Spirit has given each person for the benefit and the growth of the whole community, the organic, integral Body of Christ. The structures that have emerged from a simple prayer group have been in the interest of making all the members of the community into the Body of Christ, not just a group of people who got together on occasion to pray.
Christ is unquestionably the center of this community, not the organization on which I have spent so much time. It is the Holy Spirit who is seen as the guiding force of The Word of God and the community trusts in His having equipped the members of the community to build up one another in love. One person does not reduplicate the work of another. One task is not over-seen by a boss or a superior as though all had to be done under his directing eye. But rather a good deal of the unity is left to the Spirit to provide, with structures created only to facilitate life together. The community is organic, not managerial – that’s the unique thing about it, and what impresses me as one of the most genuine signs of its being of the Lord, and His Spirit.
All the members of the community are pentecostals [the term “charismatics” was also used interchangeably and later became the dominate term used], i.e. they have been baptized in the Spirit, a surrendering of their lives to the Spirit and the reception of the charismatic gifts. But they also have gone through fairly extensive periods of instruction, from three to six months, being taught what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, grasping more clearly who Christ is (for there is not community without Him) and what it means to walk in the way of the Lord and abide in the Holy Spirit. Only then, and after some period of living in a household of the community are they allowed to commit themselves formally to the community at one of the Monday night prayer meetings when the whole of the Word of God is assembled.
A great sense of joy and peace, and a definite sense of mission pervades the community. They have grown, in their experience of Christian living, to rediscover many of the values of traditional spirituality and practice, to lay a foundation beyond the oncea-week prayer group meeting, to live a Christian life all the time, and to live in the Lord. So they have come to rediscover personal prayer and the study of the Scriptures. Most members of the community spend between an hour and two hours each day in private prayer and studying the Scriptures. It seemed to me that they were constantly pouring over the Jerusalem Bible, of which almost everyone has a copy.
They have rediscovered tithing. Most of the community contributes five percent of their income to their denomination and five percent to the community. They believe in fasting, vigils, community meals, the Sabbath rest as a day of prayer [began Saturday evening and through Sunday], relaxation, and dependence on the Lord, community morning and night prayers. About a third of the community goes to Mass daily. Six of the community (mainly coordinators) have felt called to celibacy and have committed themselves to make the Lord alone “their portion and their cup.”
They have a guest master in the community and several guest houses. Their hospitality is totally open, receiving from 15 to 50 visitors a week. Visitors are given an orientation welcome when they come. One man came for a week end a year and a half ago and is still there. Others are there for the whole summer. Some spend only a few days. I was unfortunately one of the latter.
I lived in a household that had formed for the summer to be a guest household, (one of the four guesthouses in the community). The four men I lived with (a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and two Catholics) had entered into a covenant with one another as many households do. This covenant the household reviews regularly to see how they are living up to it and revise it as necessary. The covenant is drawn up and written out after mutual prayer and discussion when they first come together so that each brother knows and understands what it is the Lord calls them to and how they intend to live this out concretely in their life together.
Each member of my household had a part time job and from the proceeds of those jobs they provided the rent and food for the guest house for the summer. The three days I was there we had 12, 17, and 16 for dinner and were sleeping almost that many. The four of them took turns cooking the evening meal – simple, substantial meals, prepared with love and concern and eaten in genuine thankfulness. Each of the four had areas of specific responsibility – the laundry, outdoors, the kitchen supplies, finances and over-all running of the house, general housekeeping – and they functioned organically and with a consciousness of serving the whole household in love. The head of the household bears special responsibility for the unity of the house, its prayer life and the growth in the Spirit of each of the members.
Morning prayers were at 7:30 and night prayers at 11:15. Psalms were used in both, with time for spontaneous (pentecostal/charismatic) prayer, petitions, sharing the Lord’s work in one’s life in the course of the day, and before each visitor left, praying with him for a safe journey, for this continual guidance by and openness to the Spirit. There is also a sharing meeting each day (households originally grew out of these) to help each other grow in the Lord. After morning prayers and after night prayers they all give each other a loving hug. The original Christian terms “brothers” and “sisters” are in common use, but they don’t sound like titles but terms of affection and family. Greetings and farewells are more often “The Lord be with you” and “The Lord go with you,” not as a ritual, but as a personal prayer. In the time I was there, there was no question but that the members were living by their covenant. The human key to the success of the households is setting up a goal for the household beforehand and spelling it out, learning how to love the brothers one is living with at the moment, without the commitment to one another being permanent.
Other households in the community form for specific missions. There are during the summer two missionary households who have come together to evangelize the University in a special way. Others will form in the fall within the dorms to be a witness to the Lord there. Their witness is not oppressive or fanatical. They have contacted all the incoming freshmen, offered help to them if they needed it, introduced them to the community and invited them to become a part of it if they wished.
Another household is together for the summer simply for the sake of prayer and fasting. Other households are healing households, comprised of people who have been in the community and have walked in the Christian life faithfully for a reasonably long while. They can and do take into their homes people who are most deeply troubled, spiritually and psychologically, and are able to spiritually rally round and support them without being drawn away from the Lord themselves. One of the households is a community of committed celibates. Other households exist without a specific task in the community. though all the members of the community are active. There are no passive members.
The simplicity, the deep faith, the abiding joy, above all, the spiritual wisdom and depth, of t ese young men and women I met, these are the things that remain with me long after my three days visit ended.
Over-all direction for the community is an ongoing process. There is a large total community meeting each year in September that lasts several days where decisions are made as to the order and goals of the community for the coming year. There is ample joint reflection within the community. The heads of the households meet every other week on Wednesday nights, while the sub-community coordinators meet on the alternate Wednesday nights. That means that coordinators attend at least two prayer meetings and two sharing meetings each week. And yet the whole process is so Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed that it does not seem like a burden, nor did I get any impression that anyone in the community felt that the major responsibility for making the community function rested with them, but rather with God. And that one attitude makes a big difference in the spirit which characterized community meetings of any kind.
By no means is the community fixed where they are now as if it were a final stage of development. They remain open to the Spirit in prayer and in the events and developments within the community, ready to change and grow and develop as they discern the Lord working among them. This same move toward community has already begun to emerge among Pentecostal Catholics in six or seven areas of the country and they no doubt will not all follow the Ann Arbor developments or patterns.
The community remains in communication with the bishop of the diocese and open to his direction. Some of the community are considering the possibility of ordination at some time in the future, either to the deaconate or to the priesthood, which would seem the logical thing to me. One of the biggest obstacles to this would be the necessity of leaving the community for several years to be formally educated theologically. At the present they are not willing to do this, but remain open to the will of the Lord in this matter as in all others.
PROBLEMS AND QUESTIONS
The community does experience problems and at times does have to make difficult decisions. There are the over-zealous in the community that tend to repel rather than attract. Sometimes little ritual actions are romanticized all out of proportion to their significance. Some few personality clashes are inevitable and not all households work. But for a community of growing and searching young people, the unity and service in simplicity is nothing short of remarkable. Some people have reluctantly been refused admission to the community because of their lack of faith in some essential Christian doctrine. At least one person has been “excluded” from the community for the sake of the community and her own salvation for refusing to take seriously the order of the community or to continue at a much needed effort at moral reform. There have been other periods of doubt and suffering, which have been accepted in deep faith.
The only serious problem that I have observed in the community that to my mind has not yet been satisfactorily faced and solved is the whole ecumenical dimension of The Word of God. The unity and love that their common life of faith and prayer has brought about has grounded the community deeply in the Lord and truly made them one people. But they still have inherited the divisions that exist among the Churches, divisions with regard to sacraments and Church order especially. The Protestants in the community have come to appreciate the liturgy, the sacraments, celibacy and Mary and the Catholics have found greater respect for lay ministries. But it seems to me that the issue must be faced on a deeper level yet. The community cannot simply have individual relationships to the denominational Churches, without coming to some common understanding on the aspects of belief affecting sacraments and hierarchy. The community is a predominantly Catholic community (65% Catholic in membership, related to two parishes in Ann Arbor and to the diocese of Lansing) but with people of other Christian Churches as fully participating members of it. What it means to be an ecumenical community is going to have to be set forth more clearly, without face-saving ambiguity or vagueness and without watering down essential Christian doctrines affecting sacraments (e.g. Penance) and Church order (e.g. Pope and Bishops).
I feel that the community is open to facing up to this question and able with the help of the Lord to see it through. And it is the only real question that I have to address to the community, the only area that did not seem to me to have been thoroughly thought through and prayed through.
“They are keenly aware of the fact that no Christian can go it alone, that no Christian can ever be a perfect man, a complete Christian, but that the only full Christian community can be such for only it is the Body of Christ, the family with all the gifts and workings of the Spirit that are given for the benefit of all.”
When all is said and done, the description above sounds even to me somewhat dry and bare -boned, without life and Spirit. But the simplicity of their life together, the solidity of their commitment, these things can only be experienced among them. Many of the students stay on at Ann Arbor after graduation simply in order to be members of this community. Others desire only part time work permanently, just earning what they need to live on and to support the community, so that they may spend more time working exclusively for the Lord_ All this is much more than a fad. It has involved a fidelity and personal realism that I have seldom seen anywhere before.
They have desired to give themselves over to a purpose and a mystery beyond imagination, the work of the Lord in their midst.
Their main Christian witness, their apostolate if you will, is their life together, the living out before the world of a radical option, a Christian community that lives and works together, that is not based on mutual exploitation, nor an aggressive accumulation of money or position, nor is it withdrawn from the world of people. One might call it a Christian commune, but it is much more than that. They have agreed to be a part of a people in order that they may be a functioning Body of Christ. And the Lord teaches them how to structure their lives together. They live in a consciousness of the Lord with them. As one visitor put it, “God is among you and I met God being among you.”
They are keenly aware of the fact that no Christian can go it alone, that no Christian can ever be a perfect man, a complete Christian, but that the only full Christian community can be such for only it is the Body of Christ, the family with all the gifts and workings of the Spirit that are given for the benefit of all. The community sees itself as called to service together, not each one trying to do his little bit all alone, but rather learning to serve one another and especially the world as a part of a people. They try to steer a middle course between a “Do your own thing” mentality and a structured existence. What they really want to learn is how to live in an interdependent way, without spiritual individualism, but also without regimentation-always in response to the lead of God.
In a very real sense The Word of God sees as its total mission to form and live an open Christian community, to be what the Lord has called them to be, the organic Body of Christ, to be the seed of the whole new order, the whole society wherein men can serve God and one another in love. They have a covenant and a commitment to one another because they have a covenant with the Lord. And they relate to one another as covenanted people, with “merciful kindness and fidelity” as the Lord related to them. It is this actual learning to live responsibly in community day by day that is the great sign of hope and love which The Word of God witnesses to the rest of us. “What we are doing is changeable, but our hearts are always to be on the love of God and neighbor, our focus is to be on love. That’s what holiness is all about.”
A Household Covenant
Russ Prince, Mark Mathias, Don Fishel and Ted Kennedy (left to right) came together for the summer (1971) to provide a guest house for visitors to the Word of God. As a household they formed a covenant among themselves which Fr. Dan Danielson included with his article in Sisters’ Today.
The following is a copy of the “Covenant” of the household I lived with in Ann Arbor. The “covenants” are not the same for each household but would include many of the same elements and attitudes.
“The Lord has called the four of us to make a solemn covenant with one another to be faithful to him, to be faithful to one another, and to be faithful to the guests he sends us as we live together this summer in the guest house.
“Let us be faithful to him, daily turning to him in prayer and in studying Scripture. Let us open our hearts to him, yielding ourselves to the work he wants to do in each of us.
“Let us be faithful to one another, always being present at house meetings, at morning and evening prayer, and at dinner. Let us love one another as Christ loved us, taking care of each other’s physical needs by doing our assigned jobs and seeking ways in which to serve further. Let us respect the authority over the different areas of our life together which is given to each of the brothers. Let us care for one an other’s spiritual needs, holding each other up in prayer and respecting and guarding each other’s time in prayer. When one is weak, let the rest of us strengthen him; when one is downcast, let the rest of us lift him up; when one has a burden, let the rest of us help him to bear it. Let each of us share our problems with our brothers, remembering that We need not only to serve and to lift up others, but also to be served and to be lifted up. Likewise, let us share our joys, for when burdens are shared they become half as much, but when joys are shared, they become twice as much. Let us exhort one another to faithfulness and good works. If one brother is at fault, let one of the others go to him and, in all love and gentleness, show him his fault. Let the other brother accept the exhortation with an open heart and in humility and then correct his fault, thankful that the Lord is purifying him. Let us be careful not to offend one an other, and, if we do, let us be quick to repent and to ask forgiveness. Likewise, let us be quick to give our forgiveness when it is asked.
“Let us be faithful to the guests the Lord sends us, receiving each one as we would receive the Lord himself. Let us provide for their physical needs-food and a place to sleep-and for their spiritual needs, lifting up each one in prayer. Let us open our hearts to each one and love each one as we love one another, teaching, exhorting, encouraging and supporting each one. Let each of us assume responsibility for spending time in a personal way with the guests the Lord leads to us, making sure that each guest is served in this way and sharing with one another what work the Lord is doing in them. Let us look at each guest as one entrusted into our care by the Lord; we should be eager to watch over them all, lest one should fall away or not be provided for.
“Brothers, this is the work to which the Lord has called us; this is the covenant he is calling us to make with one another. Let us eagerly accept his calling.
Fr. Dan Danielson. An article from Sisters Today, December 1971. Reprinted with permission. © 1971 Fr. Dan Danielson / © 1972 The Word of God
Photo credits: photo collage of early charismatic community prayer meetings, and Word of God guesthouse, © 2020 Living Bulwark / The Word of God
Fr. Dan Danielson (1937 – 2019) was a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Oakland, California, for 55 years. He served in a variety of roles in the diocese, working with Cursillo and Charismatics, and developed a national reputation on the need for education of seminarians and for the continuing education of priests. He served for a time in the absence of a bishop, as administrator of the diocese.