I am part of a wonderful contemplative community called SoulStream. Their values include authenticity in community and acting for peace and justice. I give leadership to SoulStream's Contemplative Response to the World initiative and this week, I interviewed Brent Unrau about the way Brent lives out these values in very practical down-to-earth ways.
"Living on land is by and large a gift. There’s land, beauty, space, a pond, garden stuff, and we have other people that are in conversation with land. I never thought of land as a needed part of my journey as a disciple, or part of what forms me. But this does seem like a new season where my relationship to this acreage somehow is a part of what’s shaping me.” Brent Unrau
Brent lives with his family on Kingfisher Farm which is located in South Surrey, British Columbia near the U.S. border. Brent is a therapist and a SoulStream partner. I wanted to talk to Brent about his views on the SoulStream Contemplative Response to the World initiative because of the unique community that he lives in. Also, every time I hear Brent speak, like he did at the last Partner Gathering, he always has something brilliant and spiritually enriching to say. Here is our conversation…
Brent – At Kingfisher Farm there are six families – 12 adults and 11 children living on 10 acres. We have a wide variety of vocations, so it’s an ongoing learning curve as far as our work commitments and life on the farm is concerned. The community was born with the intention and longing to lean into a shared and sustainable life and to practice what it might mean to live a little more simply. It was formed around the idea of land and stewardship. Learning to take care of each other, take care of land, and to find ways of being hospitable. It wasn’t designed as a protectionistic retreat. If there’s life, community and some beauty here, how do we share that with the marginalized or the needy? We are trying to find rhythms that are meaningful and sustaining.
Rod – What are some of the things that you do together?
Brent – We have a weekly meal together on Thursdays. One family is in charge of making food for everyone else. And twice a month we have business meetings. At the business meetings there’s a facilitator, an agenda and we’re learning the process of consensus decision-making. We’ve broken up into four different subcommittees because there was too many things to deal with on a general level. There’s a land committee, a finance committee, a building and maintenance committee, and a social group. And then on the first Saturday of each month we have a 4 to 5 hour farm workday. We also all have days where we’re in charge of the chickens. We collect eggs and feed the chickens.We also try to play together and look at our values regularly.
Rod – I want to revisit something you said. You said your community didn’t start out as protectionist retreat. It sounds like you started with more of an intention to live simply and be open to helping people on the margins. It also sounds like you are very open to being experimental and figuring out how to do this as you go along. Would you say that’s true?
Brent – Yeah, that’s quite true. It almost feels like within the contemplative journey, with mysticism and the shift to the heart – it feels like a beginner’s mindset. A mindset of learning. It’s very much a part of our journey. We all realize that we all have a pretty deep handicap around living in community with lots of history around a kind of a private self and independent individual life stories, so sharing money and sharing land and getting along are a challenge. We realize we are probably on a life long learning curve when it comes to this.
Rod – You mentioned a beginner’s mind and a contemplative mindset, aside from your own personal practice are there ways that you practice these things as a community?
Brent – I’m not sure that there’s a formal encouragement. I’m not sure that anyone would call us a contemplative community. We do talk about gentle rhythms of spiritual practice and we occasionally bump into a rhythm that works for a season. Monika Hoff lived with us for four months in a silent retreat before she moved to Burma and she provided an evening prayer for us while she was here at 9 o’clock each night. She offered a half hour of chanting through the Psalms, an awareness examine, a closing prayer, and some silence. That was a really strong experience for our community. A lot of the kids who came to it found it a safe and neutral space to hold silence together.
Since she’s left we’ve tried different rhythms and evening prayers. Different families holding that space and it’s had some success, and then it kind of peters out and then we re-examine our schedules and try again. Occasionally, a group gets together and goes through a book. About six or seven of us meet just kind of paying attention to that book in our lives. So our contemplative practice together kind of comes and goes.
Rod – What are some of the challenges, and what are some of the good things that have come out of living in community for you?
Brent – Living on land is by and large a gift. There’s land, beauty, space, a pond, garden stuff, and we have other people that are in conversation with land. I never thought of land as a needed part of my journey as a disciple, or part of what forms me. But this does seem like a new season where my relationship to this acreage somehow is a part of what’s shaping me. So there’s beauty and blessings in that, but there’s also a cost or a drain or exhaustion. There’s invasive plants, trees falling down and constant maintenance.
There’s a certain fatigue with land. Sometimes it seems like it would a lot easier to live in an apartment and not have anything at all. So that’s one aspect. And again, it’s great to have people close by where you can have spontaneous life and conversations where you’re taking your trash out or just pop out on the patio and talk for 15 minutes. You don’t have to jump in your car and make big plans. It’s kind of like functional neighbors. And you share responsibilities and you share a mortgage. All of our utilities like water electricity and Hydro are just one big strata each month. To be honest there’s a challenge with that too. Sharing a washing machine, people wanting to borrow things and having kids living with us. Our kids are grown, but everyone else is still raising families. With teenagers and family routines I’m finding myself sometimes not that terribly generous and giving like I would like to be. My first response is no I don’t want to share my butter, or flower or let someone use my car. Almost daily something comes up where somebody needs something of yours and you realize you’re a little selfish and protective of yourself.
Rod – Do you think it’s a little more amplified because of your close living situation and the values you have committed yourselves too?
Brent – I think so. Sometimes living in community enriches your life and you have more companionship, but it also exposes you, so when you’re down, or selfish, or you’ve been a little bit irritable all that stuff kind of gets exposed. Sometimes the shame of having people see you in a bad space, or just being immature, just like in any close relationship, it gets seen. I’m going to have bad days no matter what my role is at church or the fact that I’m a therapist. Sometimes community supports you and sometimes you feel like you are exposed and you kind of want to isolate yourself a bit. You can’t free fall as much. On your own you can isolate and free fall a bit, but here you just keep bumping into people.
Rod – I have asked several people from SoulStream this question. It seems like the term “a contemplative response to the world” is a term looking for a definition. What thoughts does this term conjure up in your mind?
Brent – For me, I guess the heartbeat of the contemplative life is returning to the truth that love supports reality, and my existence, and all existence. Love is at the centre of my day and my breathing, and my coming home to that. Love also produces fruit, so most people give out of that love, or sacrifice, or care for others. It’s not just an internal soaking up the sun. Love is also an external thing. It’s kind of an in and out type thing.
We have been on a journey on the farm welcoming a new family to Canada. Last February we contacted the ISS and let them know that we had space here on the farm for an immigrant family. We had a long community process here on the farm asking: Does this fit with our values? Are we ready to host and welcome a new Canadian family? Do we have the bandwidth for this? Do we all have to be committed on the same level? Could there be a variety of people having a different level of involvement and do we have help from other sources because maybe we don’t have enough all by ourselves?
Eventually, we said “yes” and there’s freedom for different people to engage according to their capacity. We were given a Kurdish family from northern Syria. A family of five with three young children. It’s been an overwhelming experience to have a Kurdish Arabic speaking family arrive on our property with a six-year-old, a four-year-old, and a two-year-old. It’s been interesting to see how it has affected our ethos as a culture and as a farm. Different people have different relationships. They have different levels of attachments. It affects us in our different roles in life and how full-time it is. It has been a whole journey of self care, marriage care, and community care as it relates to hospitality and radical hospitality.
It’s hard to know when you are possibly a little over committed, or different ones on the farm are maybe carrying the burden too much and suddenly the farm doesn’t feel like a home. It feels just like a constant outreach centre. It has stretched us in different ways and we have just had to be honest. It’s kind like six families foster parenting a new immigrant family.
Rod- You brought up the word “capacity.” That must be something that you have to be constantly aware of. I like how you described the process that you went through when you decided to invite this new family to live with you and the questions you asked and answered. It seems like everybody had to decide what their capacity to help and be involved would be.
Brent- And that’s a very fluid reality. We just went through it at our last retreat. We went through the calendar year and asked: what are some of the highlights of the last year and do they have a season or rhythmic time where our sweet spots happen? Is there a certain time of year that is more difficult? What rhythms and patterns do we need to be aware of like maybe every September we struggle, or a lot of us take vacations in the summer, but a few of us take vacations at winter because we are farmers. What drains us at different times, and are we aware of these rhythms seasonally and monthly so we can kind a chart of this out and then have a chance to pay attention and realize, wow - we should be aware of our capacities as they come and go throughout the year.
Rod – I would imagine that living in community you have to learn to respect other people’s capacities as well.
Brent – It’s kind of humbling to be vulnerable and to just say you guys may view me as resilient and tough and always up, but I’m going to have to out myself and say that I’m having a really tough month. I can’t actually do what I thought I could do. I’m disappointed in my capacity for hospitality, and I might be letting the whole group down. At the end of the day are we protecting and caring for each other, or just caring for a project and a cause? Those are hard things to bring to the group. It’s a lot of practicing and learning. You have to take the risk of showing up with what you’re going through.
Rod – Thanks for sharing that with us. I know a lot of people have tried and failed to do what you guys are doing. Do you have any thoughts or ideas on why it’s worked for you like it has?
Brent – We originally started out expecting good will towards each other and cultivating and protecting goodwill which is practicing compassion and kindness. We have a mix of personalities and we check in and don’t let conflicts stay submerged. We’ve also got some help over the years. We brought in an enneagram specialist once for a weekend retreat and we have occasionally reached out for a bit of help with other issues too. I think that the expectation of offering goodwill helps and if you feel yourself moving towards a bit of bitterness and coldness toward someone, you need to check in with that person. It does feel like a general grace.
We also have four families that have a connection with A Rocha and I think the A Rocha culture and how they’ve worked that out over the years has also given us some momentum. Not all six families were total strangers.
Rod – What do you do when there is some conflict in the community?
Brent – I don’t have any specific wisdom or insight, but there are a couple things. Conflict is going to happen within a healthy community. It’s always quite defensive and always emotionally loaded. To have it in a place where there’s supposed to be intimacy and trust is always a bit of a rattling feeling. When you realize that there is fresh conflict it needs to get processed sooner than later. When you begin to privatize your experience and then spend too much time on analysis, it usually becomes much more rigid.
Even within a marriage, if you have a moment that is unhealthy or a little scary, if each person goes away with a private version of the conflict and creates a bit of callousness around it – oh man.
Rod – . As I am trying to figure out this initiative I think there are lots of things that SoulStream could learn from your community. Maybe someday something will surface for SoulStream where we have a collective contemplative response to the world, but I think it’s going to be far more fluid than that. Kind of like your life on the farm where something surfaces for a while, you respond and then it fades away.
Brent – I realize that living on the farm is a pretty rare situation. But in some ways, it really does address some of my needs for community and some of my expressions of the contemplative response to the world. It feels like I’m involved in this on multiple levels already, so I don’t quite have that sense that I have to go out there and do something. My urgency to add on something else probably isn’t as strong as someone else who might say “I’m not really involved,” so I do feel a little bit spoiled in that way. Having this organic rhythm that’s helping me to articulate part of that.
Rod – Isn’t that nice? Because I think some people feel a little social justice guilt – like they aren’t doing enough.
Brent – And maybe what we are doing is kind of a template. People finding organic neighbourhood things to do. Things that are local, that are going on within your actual watershed and are happening in your actual community. Maybe those are the places where our response can be more incarnate and liveable versus some of these huge things that can get a little abstract, make us feel a little guilty and weird.
Rod – There are people within SoulStream who have that view. That being a good neighbor is their contemplative response to the world. I love that!
Note: Brent sent me a couple of interesting articles. See https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/letters-gary-snyder-wendell-berry/#! And http://geezmagazine.org/magazine/article/admit-defeat-then-engage/ He talks about Paul Kingnorth below who decided to live out a more localized contemplative response to the world:
Brent – Paul was a radical blogger and trying to save the planet on a huge level. He became a bit burnt out and disoriented by the big causes, and decided to get back to his acreage. He decided that this is where he was going to live most of his life and he was going to care for this piece of land and his neighbors. Not that he doesn’t still have the awareness of global issues. It’s just that 90% of your life is going to be lived where you live versus globally.
Rod – Thanks Brent for sharing your thoughts with us!