As Christians we all believe in the idea of community. We already belong to discrete communities such as our families, our parish, our religious order or whatever – but those verses in the Acts of the Apostles, which describe the earliest Christian communities, where everyone comes together to pray and to share what they have in common, remain a potent if radical ideal. Throughout history there have been attempts to live within something bigger than the family circle. Generally such experiments fail sooner or later because the founders get burnt out by the demands made on them.
I make these remarks because I have just read a book that has jolted my thoughts on the subject. Written by Tobias Jones and published by Quercus at £20, it is called A Place of Refuge and describes five years in the life of Windsor Hill Wood Community, which flourishes in woodland on a 10-acre site near Shepton Mallet in Somerset.
Jones, married with three young children, explains in his book that he wanted to establish a community larger than the familiar nuclear pattern. Essentially, it would be a family home, not an institution, and would be inspired, as he put it, by “traditional Christian hospitality” to offer refuge to vulnerable people of all kinds. There were a few simple rules: no alcohol on site; no non-prescribed drugs; no physical or verbal violence. Later, a fourth rule was needed: no pornography. Everyone would contribute towards the food which would be shared in common and there would be a 9pm watershed, so that Jones and his own family could have some privacy. There would also be a simple chapel where the community would meet three times a day for 15 minutes of silence.
To say that those five years have not exactly been an easy ride for Jones and his wife would be a large understatement. Some of the residents were very hard to handle; others exploited the refuge offered them; yet others had to be asked, regretfully, to leave for infringing the rules. There were problems over money, debts and bills. Sometimes, Jones writes, “It felt like we were a magnet for the West Country’s blaggers and chancers.”
Yet Windsor Hill Wood has survived, put down roots, adapted to circumstances, developed traditions – and flourished. The vision and commitment of its founder strike me as very impressive so I contacted him to ask a few questions: firstly, had he begun the community from a specific Christian impulse? Jones tells me that he was brought up in a Christian family and that in his late 20s he began to worship with a (Protestant) Waldensian church in Italy. The Sermon on the Mount was an inspiration during “incredibly trying times”. Indeed, he adds, “You will be scapegoated very regularly and it’s only through reading passages like Mark 10.35-45 that one ever finds the humility to take such blows as a blessing.”
It was obvious to me from Jones’ descriptions in his book of the behaviour of some of the more demanding and damaged residents of the Windsor Hill Wood Community that without some deep inner reserves of strength he would have burnt out long ago. Looking up the Gospel reference I see it is about leadership and service; it makes sense – especially when Jones describes the necessary task of washing the very smelly feet of one woman guest every two days. He tells me that “having a place of prayer was central to what we were doing: attempting to create a place of quiet and listening, of celebration and lamentation. Our gruelling life would be impossible without the rhythm of prayer which underpins everything.”
Like Dorothy Day, whom Jones cites in his book and who co-founded another form of communal living, the Houses of Hospitality in the US, he found that “the smell of unwashed bodied was tough, especially at mealtimes.” He quotes Day’s ironic statement, “It’s a grave temptation to want to help people”, in his book.
I ask him how community life has affected his own family. He replies that “it’s an extremely difficult balance. At times our children are entertained and delighted and cherished by our guests, but they’re also ousted, upset and troubled by them. All the guests who live with us become, in some strange way, our children, and it’s very hard for our children to understand at times.” The Joneses take their children off for “happy periods by themselves” and emphasise that the community is primarily “a family home.”
Will they stay in the community as their children grow up? Jones is not sure that “it’s possible or healthy to live this degree of intensity and tension forever. So yes, we will leave it one day and return to live as a nuclear family. But communalism is something we’re passionate about and we’ll get involved in something similar – but completely different! – again; probably in Italy where my wife is from.”
Why, I ask, has he been so opposed to the model of the nuclear family? Jones thinks it is “defensive and claustrophobic and closed”, adding wryly, “But boy – can I see the attractions now! I just think that a loving family is such a precious thing that it has to be shared with those who don’t have one. Sadly there are many who don’t. Putting people in hostels or bedsits doesn’t do it.” He reflects: “The vast majority of people who live with us long, above all, for a family.” I am reminded of a comment in his book: “Most of our guests are suffering, primarily, from loneliness.”
Thinking about the five years so far Jones reflects, “Part of our difficulty here has been that it’s all been voluntary: maybe 30 or more hours of unpaid work each week, at the same time as having to do a day job to pay the bills. The toll on our family would have been hugely reduced had I not had to earn money to make ends meet.”
A comment in his book reminds me of a remark of Pope Francis when talking about another, larger community – the Church. Jones writes, “We’ve been like a field hospital placed just behind the front lines.” I am left with the impression that he and his wife have tried to counter our atomised, individualistic society in which many are driven to the wall, with a brave and hopeful, if fragile, model of how we can better care for one another. It remains a very impressive and worthwhile venture.
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