St. Elizabeth: A Planned Community

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ST. ELIZABETH COMMUNITY is not yet in existence but is envisioned by its planners as a “Place of Belonging, a community where Orthodox Christians can live and heal together, sustaining a therapeutic way of life in relation to each other and the earth while serving the broader community on a healing path.” So reads the opening section in a proposal submitted by a group of Orthodox Christians in California through their parish priest to their bishop and a board of advisors. The following is the text of their proposal, which we are pleased to print in IC as an example of the kind of local, community-based ministry that is, essentially, Orthodox peace-work by design. We hope to draw attention to the work and also offer it is an inspiration to others. The proposal made its way to us via Jennifer Ferraez who is one of St. Elizabeth’s founding advisory board members and also a longtime OPF member.

Background

It was through the trauma of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr’s husband being killed that she dedicated her live to social services and caring for others whose souls had been stretched open by suffering. Other saints throughout history have engaged in a broad array of social services, acting as God’s hands on this earth: St. John of Kronstadt, St. Basil, St. Rafael of Brooklyn, Saints Herman and Innocent of Alaska, St. Maria Skobtsova, St. Brigid of Kildare, and many more

Today the Church has responded to the needs of its people and the surrounding community in various social service related ministries. Modern works include: St. Emmaus House of Harlem, Reconciliation Services in Kansas City, Rafael House, St. Elizabeth’s of Minsk, St Brigid Fellowship of Goleta, CA, and of course FOCUS North America which seeks to unite Orthodox organizations caring for those in need

In his travels through Eastern Europe in the summer of 2012, Fr. Paisius Altschul of Kansas City saw many communities of lay people in these former Soviet countries coming together to live, work, and pray. All with a desire to raise their children in the faith that they are now freely able to live. We have such examples in the United States of lay people uniting together in community, but they are either secular or of other faith groups. To this day, there are no Orthodox communities living on land with a goal to care for each other and the broader community. It is essential for the survival of such a community that services to others remains a goal, otherwise it will become an isolated bubble “utopia” that will eventually have the life drained from it. Many of us have come to realize through our own experience of suffering that all our healing is intertwined and we need each other to become all that God has intended us to be on this earth.

The world, especially Western society, is becoming increasingly driven by competition, material-ism, and individualism. These values result in a variety of physical and mental health “symptoms,” including loneliness, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, substance abuse, and violent behavior. When people lose their sense of connectedness to each other and the earth, their sense of self is distorted and aware-ness of God is diminished. We are now faced with two options: unite together in therapeutic communi-ties or fight for what are perceived to be scarce resources on this earth.

Community is one of the most basic human needs. A place of belonging is not only essential to our physical health and well-being, but is a critical factor in our spiritual development. We are who we are within the context of each other. Community reveals our weaknesses and need for each other, but also nurtures our strengths. Like stones on a river, it ultimately sculpts us into the creatures God had intended us to be and reveals our true colors.

Vision

The homeless, those returning from war, the formerly incarcerated, survivors of abuse (childhood and partner), those in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and survivors of disaster all have in common the shared experience of trauma which has forever altered their lives. Coming out on the other side of something that stretches the soul wide open—and sometimes shatters it, requires learning how to live again with this new-found knowledge. Many do not survive. In attempting to go back and reengage the world they once knew, they often find that nothing makes sense anymore. Life is forever altered. Not even people who were once familiar are a comfort. Loved ones may no longer be alive, they may have found other lives, or they may suddenly appear as strangers. Drugs, alcohol, and suicide are common results when the pain becomes to much to bear alone.

Surviving traumatic events requires a reorientation of perspective and a reintegration back into life—and eventually the broader community. This cannot be done alone. At St. Elizabeth’s people can support and guide each other in this healing process while participating in community life together—prayers, meals, work, etc. Everyone’s healing is intertwined, as it is also intertwined with the healing of the earth. The length of time spent living in the community will depend on the individual needs of those recovering. We believe that all suffering can be transformed to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. A goal of the community is for those displaced by trauma to recover a sense of place again.

The proposed community will directly nurture two populations: 1) Orthodox Christians with a heart for social services and community living. Individuals or families who desire to live in a more rural place for their health and sanity, sharing their talents and skills. 2) Individuals displaced by trauma (homelessness, domestic violence, post-military, survivors of disaster, those in recovery from addiction, and others) who are seeking a transitional or more permanent place to live and desire to live in a rural community to continue their healing journey.

The community will also welcome and serve other populations: 1) Visiting pilgrims––those in the field of social services and medicine seeking retreat to rest and restore. This is an aim to prevent “secondary trauma” that can be acquired by working with those in need. 2) Those who would like to teach a seminar or skill to the community. 3) Clergy and family needing retreat to rest and restore.

Outside Ministry: Residents of the community will engage in outreach to the poor and homeless. Potential opportunities include street outreach in the nearby town of Santa Rosa, service at local drop in centers, providing weekly community meals, etc. It is important that the community not become disconnected from the heart and struggles of the poor in the broader community. Working in the streets and slums will “keep things real” and help keep the community healthy while we strive to be the hands of God on this earth.

Funding and Finances

A. Start up Costs: Primarily funding for land and any needed renovations. We are currently looking for at least twenty acres. World Stewardship Institute has offered to make the community a program under their organization until we are able to achieve nonprofit status on our own. They would allow us to manage our own bank account and begin to take donations.

B. On-going Budget: “Community tithes” (a percentage of their income) for food, development, and upkeep of the property. A number of our consultants have experience with grant writing, which will assist with additional funding as needed.

Location

Over the years many locations have been considered. There are certain criteria that were deemed absolutely necessary to sustaining a healthy Orthodox community that is connected to the broader community in service: a church close by, a town nearby, and preferably a monastery not too far away. It is also necessary there be open land and a political climate that would allow fairly free development of such a proposed community. Sonoma County has a long history of “intentional communities” and in speaking with business owners, such a community caring for the poor would be welcome. Santa Rosa has a handful of Orthodox Churches, including St. Seraphim’s where some of the long-term former community members of Rafael House attend. The Kazan Skete is also in town and the Assumption Monastery is in nearby Calistoga.

Physical Description of Community Layout

Among various elements being considered:
▪ two dorm style houses (1 male and 1 female)
▪ community house with dining room, industrial kitchen (to serve the community and prepare food to be sold), library, living-room with fireplace
▪ cabins or yurts for individuals, families of permanent residents, guests
▪ chapel where residents and visitors can engage in prayers together
▪ garden and greenhouse to grow food for the community and the poor
▪ workshops for iconography, music, woodworking, pottery, candle making, etc.
▪ barn for, among other things, chickens and goats
▪ clinical space for counseling, medicine, etc.

Advisory Board

Jennifer Ferraez: Clinical social worker specializing in recovery from trauma. Co-founder of St. Brigid Fellowship (Goleta, CA) and founding team member of Doctors Without Walls. Also a Drug and Alcohol Counselor and member of St. Athanasius Church in Santa Barbara.

Fr. Athanasius Shaw wife Molly: Members of the the Rafael House from its inception until recently. Molly has a background in administration and development. Fr. Athanasius is a volunteer with IOCC. The couple continue to offer insight and guidance to the formation of the community and potential community member.

Fred Krueger: Began our community discussion of the healing of humanity being intertwined with the healing of the earth. Founder and director of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration and the World Stewardship Institute. Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Community consultant.

Christina De Michael: Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Would like to live in community and teach iconography.

Panteleimon David Walker: Currently working with those in recovery from drugs and alcohol. Interested treating those in the community and possibly joining the community. Member of St. Seraphim Parish in Santa Rosa. Community consultant and acupuncturist.

Bob Harrison: Logistics expert and former member of Rafael House. He and wife, Connie are potential community members.

Carmela Biggs: Adviser and potential community member. Former nurse for Rafael House.

Father Paisius Altschul: Clinical social worker who founded and directed (recently retired) Reconciliation Services in Kansas City which cares for the poor and homeless in their community. He is also the the priest of St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church. Adviser to community.

Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges: Consultant regarding trauma and disaster mental health. Volunteer with IOCC. Assistant priest of St. Athanasius Church in Santa Barbara. Co-founder of St. Brigid Fellowship.

Deborah McQuade: Founder and director of Sarah House hospice for the poor and homeless in Santa Barbara. Former member of a Catholic Worker community. Member of St. Athanasius Church. Adviser and potential community member.

Valerie Yova: St. Athanasius (Goleta, CA) church administrator and choir director. Former director of Public Relations for Project Mexico and Assistant Manager for Capital Campaign. Community consultant and interested in working with community members through music therapy.

Metropolitan Jonah (formerly Abbot Jonah): Adviser in the early years of brain-storming. Introduced us to the work of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier who, through their work with the L’Arche, revealed a model of “professionals” and those in need living in community under the realization that all our healing is intertwined.

Mo. Victoria of St. Barbara Monastery: Community adviser and spiritual guide.

Jim and Nancy Forrest: Community consultants. Founders and directors of Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Social Services & Communities Referenced

L’Arche: http://www.larcheusa.org/
Reconciliation Services: http://www.rs3101.org/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship: http://www.incommunion.org/
IOCC: www.iocc.org
Rafael House: http://www.raphaelhouse.org/
Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT): http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/
World Stewardship Institute: www.Ecostewards.org
St. Brigid Fellowship: http://www.stathanasius.org/ministries/st-brigid-fellowship/
St. Elizabeth’s of Minsk: http://www.obitel-minsk.by/obitel-minsk_mid2475.html
Doctors Without Walls: www.santabarbarastreetmedicine.org
Catholic Worker: http://www.catholicworker.org/communities/commlistall.cfm
Emmaus House: http://www.emmaushouse-harlem.org/
FOCUS North America: http://www.focusnorthamerica.org/