December 2010 - Vol. 45
Stories to tell: call to community 
by Elizabeth Grace Sanders

My story: from day trip to life shift
A spirit of adventure brought me into Christian community by a most unlikely path for a city girl – 40 days in the woods of northern Minnesota. In 2008 I was participating in a 40-day Christian leadership training program with an organization called Tentmakers. Some members from the Servants of the Word, who belong to a lay missionary group based in Michigan, spent time with the participants in the program and told me about their experience of living in Christian community. They invited me to visit the Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I took them up on their offer with a one-day trip to Michigan. The visit was a real eye-opener and made me want to know more. Since my business gave me flexibility, I was able to live for two months with a family in the community, Dan and Stephanie Smith and their three children  After a period of discernment away from Michigan, I decided to move to Ann Arbor in the spring of 2009 and have tried to live a full community life ever since. 

Since that first encounter in 2008, I have gone from being the “new girl in community” to someone who is learning little by little what it means to live in a Christian community and be linked with other communities worldwide. I’m discovering the divine paradox that when you submit to God and desire to obey him fully you become your true self – and that when you make a commitment to live and serve with others, you find true freedom (Matthew 10:39). 

This past year I have had the opportunity to travel to a number of communities in the Sword of the Spirit, which is a network of covenant communities worldwide. In my quest to capture a larger vision for this international way of life I have stayed with a number of families, experienced their warm hospitality, and talked with individuals about what brought them to Christian community. Here are three brief stories from some of the women I am privileged to call my friends.

Stephanie Smith and Elizabeth Grace Sanders

Stephanie’s Story: from Bangladesh to Michigan via the UK 
Geography puts no limits on God’s plans. He’s measured the waters of the sea in the hollow of his hand. So if he desires to draw someone into community – even a distant community in another land – he can make it happen. 

As the youngest child of parents who felt called to mission work in Bangladesh, Stephanie Smith (then Stephanie Lewis) lived out her earliest years in Bangladesh and India, with a brief time in the United Kingdom when war threatened her family’s safety.

Stephanie had a strong background in her Christian faith, but it wasn’t until she arrived in Belfast to attend university that she had her first experience with community. “A group of people I met [in Belfast] were so kind to me, they let me stay with them until my place was ready,” Stephanie says. She didn’t realize it at first, but these new-found friends were part of a community called Belfast Christian Family – a precursor of Charis, a member community of the Sword of the Spirit. Stephanie became actively involved in community during her undergraduate and graduate school years at Queens University in Belfast. 

“After finishing university, I applied for jobs in places with communities [like the one in Belfast],” Stephanie says. “I ended up moving to London for a job and got involved with Antioch Community. Then when the job moved to another location, I chose to stay. God blessed that choice and gave me an even better position in London. Then later, I left the food industry, where I had been working since graduation, to work for a pro-life organization, and have more time in my schedule to serve.”

God continued to bless Stephanie for choosing to follow the call to community. Stephanie met Dan Smith, an American from the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor , through mutual friends in thein Antioch community. After they married she moved to Ann Arbor to start a new season of life in the Word of Life Community.

Stephanie, who now serves as a senior woman leader in Word of Life, has been a great blessing to me as well as to many other women. I have been privileged to have her as a pastoral leader and to benefit from the wisdom and encouragement she has given me in living as a dedicated Christian. It is also a joy to see how she cares for her family and to watch her three children grow up in community. 

Gladys’ story: from prayer group to international networking 
Prayer has power. Over 10 years ago, Gladys Medina Rodriguez, along with a group of other Christians in Bogotá, Colombia, sensed that God was calling them to join together to pray on a regular basis. So they did. And God moved to form them into a Christian community, now called El Gozo del Señor, the Joy of the Lord.

When I visited that community this past year, I had the privilege of staying with Gladys’ family. She told me about how God worked in her life and in the lives of the others who were praying together, and how God led them to form a community together.

“We simply came together to pray on a regular basis but really felt like God was calling us to something more,” Gladys says. “We ended up finding La Nueva Jerusalén community in Miami through our search on the internet for Christian communities. Once we started communicating with them, we realized that this was the type of community God was calling us to start.”

Gladys and her family played and continue to play a key role in the El Gozo del Señor Community that they helped establish. Also, Gladys has worked to give her five children a larger vision for community by encouraging them to go to conferences and visit other communities in their region. 

“I’m so thankful for community and for how it has supported me and my family,” Gladys says.

And I’m thankful for the honor of knowing Gladys and for her family’s very kind hospitality to me, including transportation, staying at their home, and sight-seeing around Bogotá. We continue to keep in touch through email and prayer for one another. 

Jonathan and Caroline Mead (left and center) with guest and boys

Caroline’s story: from sister to sister 
Sometimes God moves individuals across continents to bring them into community. Sometimes he brings community vision from abroad using visitors who share their experience of community life with their hosts. And God works at times a bit closer to home.

When I visited the Antioch Community in London, UK, I stayed with Caroline Mead and her family. Caroline shared her experience of how she came into community. "I was brought up as a Catholic and always went to church with my family,” says Caroline. “But toward the end of my teens, I started questioning it all and thinking there must be something more.”

“I then went away to university and was taken along by friends to evangelical Protestant meetings and groups and was led to give my life fully to the Lord,” she continues. “However, I still believed I could live out my new-found faith within my home, the Catholic Church, while continuing to enjoy all the wonderful riches of the other traditions. This proved difficult, and I sadly felt there was misunderstanding and hostility to such an approach on both sides.

“The Lord had a wonderful answer for my hopes. My sister Clare had discovered Christian community in her gap year in the USA and had joined a new ecumenical community starting up in London. From the very first time I visited the West London Community, now called Antioch, I knew I had found what I was searching for: Catholics and Protestants worshipping and serving the Lord together, loving and supporting each other within their traditions. I couldn't even tell who was what! It didn't matter because they were united in Jesus. I'm still here in Antioch nearly 30 years later and am so grateful to the Lord for calling me into such a life with Him and my brothers and sisters."

I’m also grateful to the Lord for having Caroline as my sister in Christ and in community. During my stay in London, I found Caroline to be a wonderful woman who has an incredible gift for service and hospitality. She was so kind to take me in and to share her stories. I’m delighted to keep in touch with her and to hear all the latest news from “across the [Atlantic] pond.” 

So many more stories to tell
These are just three of the many, many stories I’ve heard of how God has led people into the joy of community. There’s not time to write all of them here. My next trip coming up in January will take me to Ang Ligaya ng Paginoon (Joy of the Lord) community in Manila, Philippines.

 If you are interested in learning more about community first-hand and have the opportunity to travel through Michigan, please come and visit the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor. 

I would love to meet you!

[Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a part of the Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She owns a time coaching and training company that empowers people who are overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful and accomplished through Schedule Makeovers.]

(c) copyright 2010  The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom