Renewing The Commons


As a kid from the south, New England captured my imagination from the first time I visited.  Some of it was the normal stuff of a curious child – New England was geographically far away from South Carolina and may as well have been a different country given the architecture, weather, behavior, and the tendency to neglect the “R” in most words.  For a child visiting relatives every four years or so in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, New England came to represent everything my home was not.  I was fascinated!

Through all my visits there, a few things have stuck out about New Englanders.  Their cities and towns are old, at least as things go here in the “new world.”  New Englanders tend to be territorial.  Generations live their lives there and never really move away.  For them, the next town over is a long way away.  It can be hard for a newcomer to break into the fabric of the New England village.  But once you do, you are golden.  Citizens, though insular, tend to take care of their own.

Most New England villages are centered around a town square.  This square is often referred to as a “common.”  A common in colonial days was a place that was owned by no one but belonged to everyone.  The town’s people were allowed to graze cattle there and to cultivate little gardens for their household.  It served as a marketplace and a center for news and information – a place where goods and ideas were exchanged.  The most recognizable common in New England is the Boston Common – now a beautiful park in the middle of the city.

These days, the word common doesn’t have a strong reputation.  Who wants to be referred to as common, anyway?  At best, common refers to ordinary or average.  But, as Huguenot Road moves through its series on being neighbor, I hope we can give the word common a loftier place at the table.

Diana Butler Bass has recently helped me discover meaning in the word common.  In her latest book Grounded: Finding God in the World, she devotes a whole chapter on commons. To help introduce commons, she retells a story from her college days, when, upon entering the main dining common for the first time, she was overwhelmed by the vastness of the room at lunch.  Where would she sit?  And with whom?  But then she spotted an acquaintance from orientation who waved Bass over to her table.  Not seeing room for an extra tray and no seat available, Bass began to decline the offer.  But then the group of students began pushing “the jumble of plates together to make room and pulled up a chair to the table.  ‘There is always room for one more,’ they said.”   Not surprisingly, these people became dear friends.

“I learned many things in college,” reports Bass.  “But the most important: the commons is infinitely expandable, a place of hospitality for everyone.”

Like the school dining hall, a common is a shared space.  A place where people are free to come and go, but where hospitality is available to all people.  Bass reports that while historians are uncertain about the origins of the common, they have noticed that many town commons were located on land that had been deeded to the local church.  These church lots were transformed into shared public space.   

Bass goes on to say that in New England, the church was usually the largest building in town and served a multitude of purposes.  “The meetinghouse lot extended the sacred into the streets, providing a smooth access between the building where the Holy Word was preached and the “world” where faith would be practiced.  Divine worship led directly to diligent work.  The church and commons were intimately related, and there was no division between spiritual and secular.  The green was a gift from the godly congregation, thus enabling the whole village to gather and form a congregation outside the walls of the church building.”

So what does this piece of Americana have to do with hospitality today?  For a public that is more connected than ever by technology but more isolated than ever by the echo chambers of their own affinity group, for the growing nones who are “spiritual” but not religious – suspicious of organized religion, for those who long for a genuine conversation about faith but don’t think that can happen in a church, a common space is sorely needed.  And one that is real, not virtual.  A “common” is a safe place where people can engage in an honest exchange of goods and ideas, where neither have to relinquish control or identity but where each person is valued.  Some of the modern day  commons, also referred to as “third places” are found in coffee shops or, perhaps in Richmond, in craft beer establishments.

But what about church buildings?  Most are still located in surrounding neighborhoods or city blocks which have an identity of its own.  How can the church building or grounds become a community common or “third place?” Could church property, even its buildings, once again become a place where all citizens meet in the exchange of goods, ideas, and community?  Unlike the meetinghouse of old or today’s worship center – with its walls, pews, rituals and membership – the commons is open and its borders are permeable.  I believe the church can create a new commons, one founded on hospitality and not on what the institution might gain.  In other words, a common can be a visible glimpse into the Kingdom of God, providing the same kind of vision Isaiah once had:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8

My church is finding creative ways to offer a common to our surrounding neighborhood.  Food Trucks pull up every Thursday and the community gathers in our front lawn.  Community groups from the county parks and recreation to scouts to AA meet each week in our building.  How might your church serve as a community common?  May God enlarge your vision of hospitality in your community!   

Quotes taken from:

Bass, Dianna Butler, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution.  (New York: Harper One, 2015.)  p. 239-241