When I first arrived to move in at Blackburn House, I was struck by the chickens bawking in the yard, a dog barking frantically, and a stoic, frowning, dark-bearded man in dirty overalls holding a bucket of beans. The dust settled on the driveway. I knew the guy (he had been at my interview) but I could not remember his name for the life of me. “I’m Mary Claire,” I shouted, as my friend helping me move pulled her car up next to me. “I know,” he shouted back. Without another word, he walked back inside to my future house. This was my second impression of Matt Gundlach.
Taylor and I quickly unpacked. It only took one more small trip to Boone to bring everything else I needed in the world into my room next to the stairs. I also met Katie, Matt’s garden intern for the summer. In stark contrast to Matt, Katie is a light haired, chipper and spunky ASU student from Maryland. “Hi, I’m Katie,” she said, seconds within my arrival to Blackburn House. “Do you need any help?”
What in God’s name possessed Matt, a stout introvert, to pick out Katie, an enthusiastic extrovert was beyond me. While Katie’s resting expression was a smile, Matt preferred a furrowed, bushy brow over his dark eyes which were constantly in thought whether over the mysteries of the universe or why caterpillars were at his beans. I also found Matt’s dog ironic. It seems that most dogs usually reflect their owners in some way. Unless Matt had a hidden room in his mind filled with bouncy balls, then he and his dog were nothing alike. In an effort, perhaps, to make the dog more serious, Matt had named him Jayber after a character in a Wendell Berry novel. The effort had no effect on Jayber the dog whatsoever. Jayber the dog was more likely to chase his own tail than to represent classic American literature.
I also met Joel, the Duke Intern. My first impression was of a polo shirt and a Michigan accent. Later, I learned Joel’s favorite past times included tennis and golf. Of all the sports to watch on a screen, I was not a particular fan of golf. I don’ know many people who are, except the elder few. “Yes,” said Joel, “I’m an old man at heart.” He guffawed loudly turning back to the Australian Open on his computer. I say “guffaw” not to sound prim or proper but because the laugh of Joel Boersma is best described this way. It’s flavored with a great deal of Michigan Lake accent and Calvinism as it cuts short as God intended (I say this only as a way of teasing Joel’s Dutch Reformed tradition. I’m hoping someone out there gets the joke.)
This was my impression of Blackburn House. It wasn’t until the next morning, waking up to the fresh smell of dew and the lilting sound of birds chirping, that I began to pray.
“God, what the hell am I doing here?”
You see, I was a little blind at first. I had heard of intentional communities before. I had read Shane Claiborne. I knew the act of living together in community is to get at the mundane experience of everyday tasks. I knew what to expect, and yet I didn’t.
I had opened my ears to this only to morph them into big, fancy words to paint over the cracks of the everyday life. I took intentional living and did what the authors of this movement tell you what not to do— I painted it with “sexy” Church words like “community,” “spirituality,” and “meditative practice.” It became sort of an ideal rather than an action.
It’s true that Blackburn House is all of those things, but it’s not an abstract ideal. It’s a literal house with people in it who work, who track dirt through the house, who leave dirty dishes on the table, and laugh with food in their mouth (I’m working on not doing that). Recently, Blackburns’ Chapel has been doing a book study on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Awakening of Hope. The book talks about intentional communities with deep thought-provoking chapter titles such as “Why We Make Promises.” After living at the Blackburn House for a few weeks, I think a better title might be “Why We Do the Dishes Right After We Eat and Don’t Wait Until Two Days Later.”
Don’t mistake me though. In the few weeks I’ve lived at Blackburn House, it has come to feel more like a Home than just a house. I have learned that Matt indeed does not have an entire room in his head for bouncy balls but he can still act as silly as Jayber. I learned that Joel, despite his “old man status,” has a zeal and care for the people in the church that is genuine and loving. Jayber, well Jayber is mostly a wiggle-worm, so some first impressions don’t change. With prayer in the morning, dinner in the evening, and all the dirty dishes that come in between, I’m learning, not just learning about, how intentional communities work. It’s as if this is the “How- to” portion of love. The act of love is in picking up after each other, in making sure not to cook with aluminum, or sharing a pot of coffee together. I still have a lot to learn here, but now that I’ve stripped away what I’ve painted it to be, I think I can look at the real colors of Blackburn House, or rather our Blackburn Home.