Once Utopia leaves the mind, like a child leaving the womb, it is confronted with the reality of the world. The idea is immediately set upon from every side and, whether reality was considered at all in the formulation of the Utopia, it can no longer be shielded from that reality. Reality is no respecter of ideas. Reality will not only attempt to reshape the utopian idea in those places where it does not fit, it will attempt to annihilate any aspect of the idea that does not conform. What seemed so pristine in its conception is now beleaguered in its inception.
Let me give an example. Fifteen years ago I visited a local soup kitchen with the idea of donating some money and then getting out. It was a cold February morning and when I stepped in from the quiet whiteness of the snowy dawn I was confronted with the reality of heat from the kitchen and the smell of cooking and the almost monolithic noise of people gathered in a confined space, all of whom were trying to be heard over everyone else. I met a fifty year old woman who obviously lived outdoors. She was shivering and her grey coat was mottled with damp spots.
“I live in a cave in Horse Gulch,” she informed me. I stayed to share some hot beef stew. “Of course on nights like last night my pets get awfully cold.” She carefully took some rocks from her coat pocket. I looked at her closely to see if she was joking.
“What’s it like, living out like that?” I asked. The nighttime temperatures had been hovering around twenty degrees.
She looked evenly back at me. “Well if you want to know what it’s like, why don’t you come out and try it for yourself.”
This was probably a standard dodge for her. She never thought, and I never dreamed that I might actually take her up on her proposition. But on Friday afternoon I followed her and several others up into the mountains along a narrow trail that led, they informed me, into a place known as Horse Gulch. I had nothing with me but a sleeping bag and a roll of plastic to keep out the cold and wet.
There is no way for me to relate here what transpired over the next twelve years. Suffice it to say that we took her challenge to the greatest extreme possible. We lived among the poor and homeless. We shared meals and led worship and cared for those who were ill and helped in any way we could for all that time. We came to realize that if we set up camp right in the midst of the homeless we could bring positive elements to an otherwise very negative community. And it worked! It worked, that is, until the reality of the world set upon us. It was strange, really, how we were cast away. People did not want to help the poor or homeless – at least not in the way we were doing it, up close and personal – but they also didn’t want us doing it. Apparently our sincere actions made them look bad. So in the end they got rid of us. They closed the soup kitchen on Sundays altogether, so that we would not have a place to gather.
Their actions, however, did not change our commitment to helping others. We moved out into their parking lot in and continued to serve hot meals all winter long. If they would not fulfill their own mission, we would do it. It was something of a Public Relations nightmare for them. At last they negotiated with others to re-open on Sundays and we were not invited.
This Utopia did not grow directly from an idea. Rather, it grew from a need that wasn’t being met. A community was already there. The homeless in our town knew each other and met together, but at the center of their meeting were drugs and alcohol and violence and alienation. What we did was to displace that center and bring a positive community into existence. A community of love and nonviolence and of healing recovery.
We still live in that Utopia. We meet in our home. We share food and love and healing recovery together, though on a much smaller scale. While living in the streets we came to truly understand what the problems of this world are, and what must be done to solve them. Now, we are living every day as a solution to those problems. But that is the subject of next week’s post: ‘The Kingdom of God’.
Merry Christmas. Jim