Our Beginnings in Christian Covenant Community Part 2: From Prayer Group to Community

To trace the transformation from prayer group to covenant community, we need to go back a few years, to 1964, and view the development of the Cursillo group at the University of Notre Dame. It was telling that from the beginning, the participants in the group saw Christian community as the goal of their apostolic work. In the “Pastoral Plan” drawn there in September 1964, the group including George Martin and Steve Clark notes that while all Christians are part of the Christian community by baptism, they are not conscious of this reality. “Thus it is most important to live this Christian community life and to bring others to participate in it actively.”[1]

For participants in the Cursillo movement, the Cursillo weekend, although the best-known part of the program, was meant to be only the beginning of a life lived for Christ. It was not to be lived alone. Cursillo also includes the ultreya, a regular, somewhat larger meeting of Cursillo members, and the grupo or group reunion, a weekly meeting of a small group in which the people share their spiritual life and apostolic work. Thus Cursillo was intended to create a certain kind of community. 

When Ralph Martin and Steve Clark went to work in East Lansing, they took this Cursillo vision of Christian community with them. They developed a plan for Catholics at Michigan State University similar to those for Notre Dame and its various dormitories. Their focus at that time was Catholics because they were working for the Catholic chaplaincy on campus. The Antioch Weekend (originally called the Study Weekend) was to provide the initial conversion, and then ongoing follow up was to be provided by the same Cursillo-type large and small group meetings.

Both at Notre Dame and in East Lansing, the advent of the charismatic renewal became the glue that held people together in community. First Corinthians 13 reminds us that the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is self-sacrificing love, and without love, community cannot exist. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit released in those who experienced it not only the more visible gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy, but also gave them a new power to love. When one of the participants in the Duquesne weekend, Karen Sefcik, was being baptized in the Holy Spirit, she felt the Lord give her the word “community.” She wrote later, “I resisted that word because I thought it meant I was to become a nun, and at that moment such a notion was far from my plans. I realize now that God was showing me that he was dealing with us as a people, a community, not just as individuals.”[2]

The unity among those who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit was founded on the bonds of friendship and common commitment that already joined them together, as well as on the natural ties that arise when a circle of friends share a new and, in the beginning, rather unusual experience; but the Holy Spirit gave them power to realize the goal of Christian community that they had been seeking.

As recounted in part one, Ralph Martin and Steve Clark arrived in Ann Arbor in September 1967, along with Jim Cavnar and Gerry Rauch. They set about doing evangelistic work through St. Mary’s Student Center on the campus of the University of Michigan. There were already students in Ann Arbor who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit through the Days of Renewal in Williamston, near Lansing. On Thursday, 16 November the four men invited others and held their first prayer meeting at the apartment they were renting. The prayer meeting, held regularly on Thursday evenings, grew quickly, filling the living room, the bedrooms, and finally even the bathroom. Pressed for space as the numbers grew, the leaders asked the St. Mary’s Newman Center for the use of their basement, and the prayer meetings moved there. The original four were joined by Fr. Charles Harris, from Notre Dame, and a group of other young men and women devoted to evangelism on campus, including Peter Collins and Patti Gallagher (Mansfield).

Around this group, an informal but recognizable community developed, mostly Catholic and mostly students, from Ann Arbor, joined by others from Detroit and its suburbs. By the end of 1968, attendance at the Thursday prayer meetings had grown to around 175. In December 1968, Steve Clark wrote what he called a “state of the union” message for Fr. Harris and some of the other leaders, discussing the progress of the mission and the prospects for its future. He proposed that the fourteen leaders of the group should be organized into teams, each with a particular concern. He urged that Fr. Harris should take overall responsibility as “overall coordinator,” or that the position should rotate: until then, Clark had been the de facto leader. He also suggested that there be a meeting “other than Thursday, to which we only invite students who have received the baptism, which would be a chance to grow in the life of the Spirit…. It could be a focus for a creation of a sense of community among the regulars, too.”[3] He also proposed small “growth groups” similar to Cursillo group reunions, to facilitate growth in the Christian life among the students they contacted, and smaller prayer meetings for study in university dormitories and other situations. He also proposed that more people should be added to the leadership group, and he suggested that there be special groups to train students who appeared to have gifts for pastoral work.

The next year, 1969, a “Pastoral Report” describes the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor as it was in April of that year. Three hundred people were attending the Thursday prayer meetings and seventy-five were attending the Monday evening prayer meeting for those who had become regular members of the community.[4] The report identifies several “local groupings” – houses and university dormitory groupings – and fourteen small group reunions of men and women.[5] On 17 July 1969, the leadership group adopted a number of decisions that for the first time defined the “structure of the community.” It called for providing instruction “before praying over people for the baptism in Spirit,” having people make “a definite commitment to the community,” having two weekly meetings (the Monday and Thursday night meetings) and one meeting for a “regular leaders group.” Part of the role of the leaders was to provide leadership for “sub-communities” within the community. The leadership group, now consisting of the original four men plus Peter Collins and Randy Cirner, began to identify more leaders who could begin to take pastoral roles.[6]

In August 1969, the community held a retreat at Camp Takona (on Clear Lake west of Ann Arbor), where the six principal leaders presented their proposals for the community structure and an orderly process of bringing people into life in Christ and becoming part of the community. The retreat was an opportunity to consult with the members, seventy-five of whom attended, concerning the leadership group that had been identified by the principal leaders during the summer.[7] The community approved the plan in its various parts, and in the months that followed an ongoing council was established with which the leaders could consult on the direction of the community. 

Considering the process of initiation into the community led to developments in teaching that eventually reached far beyond Ann Arbor. The leaders of the community developed a six-week (later seven-week) course to prepare people to be baptized in the Spirit, a course entitled the “Life in the Spirit Seminars.” The course was the work of the whole group and taught by a team under the leadership of Ralph Martin. The materials were put in a final form by Steve Clark and eventually published in 1971 as the Life in the Spirit Seminars Team Manual. The seminars have led many people throughout the world to new life in the Holy Spirit and are still in use today.[8] Steve Clark also led the team in developing a course on “The Foundations of Christian Living” which was taught to people entering the community, following their participation in the Life in the Spirit Seminars. This is the Foundations (or Foundations I) course still in use in communities around the world. 

The pastoral report in April 1970 describes these courses. At that time, the number of interested new people was so great that a new seven-week series of Life in the Spirit Seminars was beginning every week, rapidly adding to the number of those baptized in the Holy Spirit. By the time of the report, the Foundations course, “designed to impart basic attitudes on how to live as a Christian” had been taught twice – each time to a group of about thirty. There were now 155 members of the “core community” of whom 115 were registered students. “Only about 10” were over thirty years of age.[9] The report identified as “sub-communities” units of members that had been called “local groupings” the year before. As might be expected in a community consisting mostly of students, many of them were dormitory groups, but the report also notes a demographic change. A new “sub-community” had developed in the residential homes near St. Mary’s chapel where a number of newly married couples now lived. The report expected that “next year there will be a least five married couples living in the neighborhood.”[10] Slowly, the community was changing from an endeavor among university students to a more mature group with families. The first child born into the community, Ralph and Anne Martin’s son John, was born in April 1971. 

“Covenant” community

The introduction of covenant into the life of community was not merely incidental. As we have seen, community was something that had been intended and foreseen from the Cursillo days at Notre Dame. When the Ann Arbor community began receiving prophetic words during 1970 speaking of a covenant, however, the leaders and the community were puzzled. Many of them were trained in theology and Scripture and were of course familiar with the word. God had made a covenant with Israel, and Christ was the “priest of a new covenant.” But what did it mean to say that God wanted to make a covenant with them as a people? What did “covenant” mean in the context of a Christian community? As they studied the scriptural references, a new dimension of their call to community emerged. This perspective was crucial to their identity not merely as a community, but as a covenant community.

First of all, they noted from Scripture that the call to covenant was at God’s initiative. This perspective indicated that they as a community were something God was calling into being, and in which they were to be formed by God himself. They were to approach their life together as something which was an instance of the New Covenant in Christ. Community may have been their idea, but covenant was God’s idea. From the charismatic experience they were already accustomed as individuals to the experience of God taking initiative in their lives; the same activity of the Holy Spirit that had called each of them to live for God now was at work in them as a community.

This call was also a call to mission. The covenant was a call to dedicate themselves to the service of God not merely as individuals but as members of a body within the larger Body of Christ, the whole Christian people. It was becoming clear from prophetic words and from their study of Scripture that God had a purpose in calling them together, a work for them to do in the world. The nature of this mission was first of all to receive God’s direction and then to follow it. It involved calling men and women to Christ and sharing with them the life in the Holy Spirit. 

The covenant with God also involved a covenant relationship among themselves. They were to love one another with a love founded in a common calling. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, a relationship they shared with all other Christians, but by entering into the community covenant they were brothers and sisters with one another in a special way, bound to one another in a bond created by God as his own initiative. Commitment to the covenant was to involve commitment to a particular group of brothers and sisters. The mutual commitment that was the heart of covenant preceded the details of a way of life or a specific mission. 

These implications of covenant were not immediately apparent but became clearer as the community began to search for a name. As the community leaders pondered how to respond to the call to covenant, they faced a practical problem: how to refer to the community that was forming. It had no name other than “the Ann Arbor Pentecostal Community” which hardly seemed adequate. Just as Abraham’s name was central to his call from God and closely related to God’s covenant with him, the question of the name also became the catalyst for the formation of a covenant community. Ann Arbor was by no means the only place where community developed. The process occurred in parallel forms in other places, including South Bend, where many members of the original Notre Dame Cursillo group remained, and in East Lansing, where one of the earliest charismatic prayer groups had arisen. The apostolic efforts of small groups who came together to share the life kindled by being baptized in the Holy Spirit became communities of men and women united by the bonds of covenant. Leaders in these communities were in touch with the leaders of The Word of God, and they gave and received help and encouragement. From the beginning they all shared in the work of Christian renewal, including the Michigan Days of Renewal in Williamston, and provided leadership for the wider charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church, with its annual conference in South Bend. As the communities themselves adopted more formal structures, the communities began to develop more formal ties with one another.

This article © 2020 The Sword of the Spirit is adapted  from A Brief History of the Sword of the Spirit, by Bruce Yocum, Bob Bell and Henry Dieterich, commissioned by the International Executive Council of the Sword of the Spirit to mark the 50th anniversary of covenant community.

[1] “A proposed starting point for an apostolic plan for Notre Dame” (Stephen B. Clark papers), p. 1

[2] Karen Sefcik Treiber, “A Waterfall of Light,” in Patti Mansfield, As by a New Pentecost: The Dramatic Beginnings of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (Golden Jubilee Edition, Phoenix, AZ: Amor Deus Publishing, 2016), p. 143.

[3] [Stephen B. Clark] “State of the Union” (4 December 1968), p. 13 (Stephen B. Clark Papers).

[4] [Stephen B. Clark] “Pastoral Report on the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor” (Summer 1969), pp. 2-3 (Stephen B. Clark Papers)

[5] Ibid, pp. 6-7.

[6] “Decisions Made July 17, 1970” (Stephen B. Clark Papers).

[7] [Stephen B. Clark], “Pastoral Report on the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor” (April 1970), p. 11 (Stephen B. Clark Papers)

[8] In 2015, Pope Francis recommended the Life in the Spirit Seminars: “I ask each and all of you that as part of the current of grace of Charismatic Renewal you organize seminars of life in the Spirit in your parishes and Seminaries, schools, in neighborhoods, to share Baptism in the Spirit.” “Meditation during the 3rd World Retreat of Priests on Friday, June 12th at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome” Zenit, 17 June 2015.

[9] Ibid, p. 2a.

[10] Ibid, p. 9. 

Top photo credit: Christians worshipping together facing a white cross, from Bigstock.com, © by paul shuang, Stock photo ID  251603902

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *