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What chores would Jesus do?
In a peeling house on South 32nd Street, five friends came together to stretch their faith.
They left comfortable apartments for a communal home within walking distance of a prison, a pawnshop, a derelict trailer park. Exhaust from a sugar beet factory drifted down the streets.
Moving in last January, they pledged to spend one year together, learning to become true followers of Christ. They would give generously, love unconditionally. They would exchange their middle-class ways for humility and simplicity, forgoing Hardee's fries, new CDs, even the basic comfort of privacy.
"The focus has to be on God and the way of life he has set out for us, as opposed to the way we want to live, which is very selfish," Jeromy Emerling said.
A few months into the experiment, at a weekly house meeting, Jake Neufeld framed the vision this way: "Church is not something we attend. It's something we are."
But even lofty rhetoric could not lift the mood that sleety evening in early April. A quarter of their year together had passed, and the friends felt they had failed. They had not met a single neighbor. They had not given any aid. Everyday life seemed to suck up all their energy; it was draining just to figure out whose turn it was to mop the kitchen floor.
"We're trying to live so every dimension of our lives is different," Jeromy said. Then he admitted: "We don't know what that will look like."
The household consisted of Jeromy, a fundraiser for a Christian nonprofit, and his wife, Debbie, who stays home with their toddler and newborn son; Kyle Porrett, an architect, and his wife, Phyllis, who cares for their baby daughter and two young foster children; and Jake, a builder.
Theirs was a radical vision, but also a trendy one, part of the New Monastic movement sweeping white, suburban evangelicals. In the last few years, perhaps 100 communities like the Billings house have been founded across the country, and hundreds of Christians have attended workshops to learn of the concept.
"There's something happening here, some sort of reformation," said Scott Bessenecker, who studied the movement for his book "The New Friars."
"They're asking the question 'What constitutes God's people?' "
On that April evening, the Billings monastics met to renew their commitment to simplicity.
Their personal space was suitably spartan; Jake lived in the basement, and the two families had bedrooms upstairs, off a dark, narrow hall.
But when it came to food, clothing and entertainment, they had not been able to agree on ground rules, beyond a vague vow "to live a continually more modest lifestyle."
Some monastic communities pool their resources and renounce private property. The Billings friends chose to control their own finances, though they shared equally in rent, utility and grocery bills. They all said they wanted to consume less, spend less, so they could give away more. Yet they found it unexpectedly hard to give up little comforts.
Each family had come to the house with a refrigerator, so they now had two. They sat on a leather couch to watch Bible study videos -- and Jennifer Aniston comedies. Their pantry was filled with bulk beans, but they splurged on kiwi fruit, reduced-fat Cheez-Its, mint-chip ice cream.
When Phyllis, trying to be diligent about budgeting, refrained from buying a $5 pacifier for her baby, she stewed all day, questioning how much she must sacrifice to live up to the ideal of a simple life.
"Do we want to be simple about how many outfits our kids have? Or how nice the furniture is?" she demanded. "How many kinds of salad dressing are in the fridge?"
Phyllis proposed a cap on discretionary spending -- perhaps $250 to $300 per adult. Excess income would go into a community account, to be given away. Everyone nodded approval. Months later, though, they still had not put the plan into effect, or even agreed on a definition of discretionary: Did that include car insurance? Cellphone bills? What about Christmas gifts?
That was how many of these discussions went. Everyone was so determined to be respectful and open-minded that they tended to talk in circles, rarely reaching a decision.
Debbie picked up the laundry she had been folding. "We are not equipped to lead ourselves," she said, "let alone each other."
"God operates within our own inadequacies," Jeromy reminded her. He looked around the room, his eyes tender. Then he gathered the rest of the laundry.
The couples came to monasticism out of frustration, a sense that modern Christianity had grown soft and self-centered.
Jeromy, 29, and Debbie, 30, worshiped at an evangelical church with a bouncy six-piece band, but they thought the sermons empty; they went more out of habit than conviction. Kyle, 30, and Phyllis, 25, had stopped going to church because their lives were too hectic.
The two couples and Jake, 29, sought a more fulfilling path in the Bible. They found themselves drawn to accounts of how Peter organized the early church into communities of believers. Members sold all they owned, shared necessities in common, and "continuing daily with one accord . . . did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart."
They planned to form just such a community in the rambling old house. But when Jake poured the last of the baby's milk into his cereal, or Jeromy forgot to unload the dishwasher -- again -- Phyllis found herself wondering how much she could endure.
"You can't make other people more Christlike," she said. "We were pretty naive about what we were getting into."
She and Debbie fought over rules for their children and nursed grievances about the division of chores. When their husbands came home at night, they had no family time to unwind. Everyone descended on a battered table for a determinedly frugal dinner: a huge vat of potato soup or a pot of spaghetti. The conversation had to be shouted over a cacophony of "ma ma BA!" and "dada DA!" Gummy Cheerios ended up in the salad.
Phyllis tried to look at all this as a positive -- a chance for her to become a more loving, forgiving person. "I'd like to deal with my frustrations as Jesus would," she said. But she sometimes dissolved into tears.
Debbie poured out her doubts at night, when she and Jeromy retired to their tiny room with the red shag carpet and walls so thin, not even a whisper felt private.
"I want this house to be something positive in a world where people are very much alone," she said. "It hasn't worked out the way I anticipated."
The group had yet to figure out simplicity. The two refrigerators held six types of salad dressing.
One afternoon in May, Debbie was slicing potatoes when Jake bounded into the kitchen, bursting with news about an elderly neighbor.
"She was moving rocks with a bucket, literally two rocks at a time, into her backyard," Jake said. He beamed as he recounted how he had moved the pile for her.
Then he grabbed a mop. "What kind of soap do you use for the kitchen floor?"
The mood in the house was more upbeat now; with the warmer weather, the modern-day monks had begun to break out of their isolation.
A plan to deliver Easter treats to the neighbors had gone off badly; they didn't get around to handing out the plastic cups filled with candy until a week after the holiday. Still, knocking on doors paid dividends: Jake befriended a lonely widower and invited him to the house for dinner. Debbie urged the neighborhood children to come over to shoot hoops.
Though he was wary of asking homeless men into the house, Jeromy sat on the porch one night with a vagrant who had stumbled up the steps. He gave the man a plate of chicken and cheese, and they talked into the night.
Newly confident, the house held a barbecue for friends and family. After beans and burgers were served, they gathered everyone in the kitchen to explain their vision for the community. "God is most glorified when we spend less time on ourselves and more on other people," Jeromy said. "The five of us, we've started to get that."
In early June, the friends faced a test of their commitment when Nathan Vincent asked to join the house.
Jake, Jeromy and Kyle considered Nathan a friend. They also knew he could be difficult. Nathan, 30, had hearing and vision loss, and trouble with social niceties. As he put it: "I can be very abrasive." That was one reason he wanted to join -- to improve his relationship skills.
But some of the monastics weren't sure they wanted their house to become Nathan's proving ground. They couldn't relax around him, they said.
Then they caught themselves.
They had not joined this community to relax. They had come to serve. Why not start with Nathan?
"This is where the rubber meets the road," Jeromy said a few weeks after Nathan moved into a bare basement bedroom.
Nathan, a computer consultant, loved the house, but he dominated Bible studies and forgot to do his chores.
Instead of blowing up at each annoyance, Jeromy trained himself to ask: "Is this about me? Or is this about serving Nathan and thereby serving Christ?"
Phyllis had a harder time. She wanted to respond to Nathan with a generous spirit, to exemplify God's grace. But even when she agreed with him, the way he phrased things made her bristle. He'd comment about the need to conserve water, for instance, and that would touch off a fight about dishwashing. "I'm not sure how Jesus would respond," she said. "Maybe he would tell him to quit being a dork."
One morning, Jeromy and Nathan awoke early to pray together. They opened up about their failings and anxieties, speaking softly, their voices catching with emotion. As they bowed their heads for a final prayer, the house erupted into chaos.
Kyle, still sleepy, stumbled into the kitchen to fix a bottle for his daughter, who sat on the floor, her hair in a bolt-upright pigtail, clapping for the sheer glee of making noise. The foster siblings raced around the room in pursuit of Jeromy's golden retriever. Debbie called for help with the baby. The coffee maker gurgled in the kitchen; 11 breakfasts would soon have to be made.
Jeromy took the baby and returned to his prayer.
"Lord," he said, "this house, this community is a blessing. Help us to see it that way."
By summer, Phyllis was craving space.
"I'm never alone. I never have time to think," she said. "There's no time to grow."
Communal life was supposed to have taught her to resolve conflicts. Instead, Phyllis said, she found herself obsessing about every grievance: how many nights in a row she made dinner, or who had scratched her coffee table.
Far from learning to live like Christ, she'd realized just how far she was from that ideal. "I'm not a very gracious person," Phyllis said. "I don't love people the way God does."
In August, she and Kyle announced that they could not keep their yearlong commitment to the house. They had learned they could adopt their foster children, and they wanted to start fresh in their own home that fall.
With the Porretts preparing to leave, the community seemed to falter.
Then, on a snow-bitten Saturday night in September, the friends found their bearing.
Jeromy joined Heather Thompson, 26, a new arrival to the house, on a meal run for the Billings Rescue Mission.
Heather, who had moved into the guest room over Labor Day, worked with children at the mission's homeless shelter. This evening, she drove a van through streets rutted with potholes, past dilapidated trailers and barking pit bulls straining at their chains. Little kids, some barefoot and coatless, ran up at each stop to grab a peanut butter sandwich and a cookie.
When the pair returned to the shelter an hour later, Jeromy spotted two women huddling over dinner with two young boys.
"You guys need a place to crash?" he asked. "Because we've got a lot of room in our house. If you want, come over. We're just a few blocks away."
The women hesitated, then agreed. Ashley Tremont and her 3-year-old, Zyan, and Ashley Marcha and her 7-year-old, Kedrik, had left bad men and bad luck in Louisiana and were driving north to a new life.
For the first time since they had pledged a life of service, the monastics welcomed guests who had nowhere else to go.
Jake went to hunt for sleeping bags. Debbie dug out four sets of clean sweats and T-shirts. Phyllis got Kedrik a bowl of cereal. After, he and his mom sat on the carpet to work a jigsaw puzzle with Debbie.
In the morning, Jeromy gave the travelers two bags full of sandwiches and snacks. Marcha, 21, took them with gratitude -- and a question.
"Was this something you were raised up knowing?" she asked, her gesture taking in the lunch, the sleeping bags, the hospitality.
"And why are you doing it?" asked Tremont, 24. "You could get hurt."
Jeromy shrugged. "We just found that it's healthier to live with other people," he said.
Marcha looked at him. "We so appreciate you all," she said. "I think God stopped us here for a reason."
When they left, Debbie admitted she had been nervous with strangers in the house; to her chagrin, she'd felt an impulse to lock her son's door. Jeromy said it too: "Last night was uncomfortable."
But the evening had been invigorating as well. No one felt they had done an especially noble deed by welcoming the two women and their sons.
They had simply served, as they were able.
On the cold November day when Phyllis and Kyle moved out with their children, Jeromy stood in the foyer, overwhelmed with sorrow. He had been so consumed with the conflicts in the house, he said, that he had not realized how close they had all grown.
Later, he wrote it down, as if to remind himself: "In just 11 short months we had grown to love a family with whom we really had very little in common. Genuine, honest, sacrificial love. The Kingdom of God revealed itself to me in that brief moment -- an ideal realized through the fog of messy lives."
Jeromy had no illusions as he prepared for his second year as a monastic.
He and Debbie had invited several single friends to move into the house; they were also saving a bed for a meth addict they knew, hoping he'd move in when he got out of jail.
New faces meant new frustrations and more fights about mopping the floor. Jeromy knew it would be exhausting, exasperating.
But this was how he felt called to live. He still believed the house could be a blessing.