Communal life brings Underground church members closer to community

TAMPA — Seven adults. Six children.

Not all family, they share one home. Some adults are married couples, others single. They are young and college-educated and live in a Tampa neighborhood polluted with drugs and prostitution.

They say God led them there.

The residents of this 2,000-square-foot house are part of a Christian lifestyle called New Monasticism, reflecting what they think Jesus would do about poverty and consumerism in today's world.

They share bills, chores and prayer and live on limited means. They started a church and give to the poor and travel to serve Third World countries. By pooling their resources in blighted areas, they feel they can accomplish more than they would in the suburbs, alone.

Dozens live this way in urban areas across the country. The idea has caught on in the Tampa Bay area. Eight houses in Tampa and three in St. Petersburg are connected as Christian "intentional communities."

The local houses all lead back to Brian Sanders, a father of five who started his first 12 years ago.

"Living together generates conflict and pressure," he says. "Yet that same pressure, whether it's interpersonal or external, bonds us, locking us together."

On Nebraska Avenue, derelict motels feed the prostitution trade in one of Tampa's poorest communities.

Just around the corner stands the two-story house where Sanders lives with his wife, Monica, their five children and a band of fellow believers.

The Sanderses, both 35, occupy the master suite. Down the hall, three of their kids share a bedroom, where they sleep under a raised floor their dad added to give them more space. The two older kids occupy small makeshift quarters — one in a converted breakfast nook and the other in a closet.

Three single women live upstairs. A married couple and their toddler live in an apartment in the back yard. A chart on the fridge shows who's responsible for laundry, dishes and cooking.

Everyone pays about $200 monthly for expenses. And no, they're not polygamists.

It's Wednesday night, dinner time. Sanders sits at the head of the table. He pauses to summon the words for a prayer. A dozen heads bow.

Tonight's meal is a Filipino dish. A baby cries. Dogs beg. Arms reach across the table to fill plates when Jael Sanders, 13, makes an announcement.

"This," she says, "is my promise ring. I won't do anything bad till I get married."

From the head of the table, her dad's eyes widen. "You won't do anything bad?" Sanders asks. "That is the ring of power."

Laughter erupts. Noah, a fifth-grader, eats his dinner at the nearby computer, where he surfs the Internet. Later, he'll climb a ladder to the bedroom his dad built for him, inside the closet.

The space is tight, but Noah doesn't mind. His nook is big enough for a twin bed, some books and a flashlight, but too small to stand up all the way. Sometimes, he peers through the air vent to spy into the kitchen.

This is the only lifestyle the 11-year-old has known. Sanders started this community when Noah was still in the womb.

• • •

When Sanders was 11, his parents temporarily split. He rode his bike down the streets of his St. Petersburg neighborhood, to a church.

At the University of Florida, he packed his dorm for Bible study. He read the Book of James as if he were uncovering a conspiracy: Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. . . . Faith without deeds is dead.

Convinced that Jesus lived to serve the poor, Sanders pledged to do the same.

Soon he was elected to a position with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an international campus ministry. He took students to Haiti and struggled with the gap between the poor and the privileged.

In 1996, he read a book called Live It Up, by theologian Tom Sine, which mentions communal Christian households in east London, Chicago and Washington. The idea made sense to Sanders, who bought a house in Tampa and started his own community with his wife and another couple.

Three years later, he crammed students into other inner-city homes to minister to their neighborhoods with projects that included summer computer and arts and crafts classes.

When Sanders and other students graduated, they tried mainstream churches but couldn't find one that emphasized service and simple living. So about a year ago, they created their own.

• • •

It's Father's Day. Members of the Underground church fill the seats at the Hillsborough Community College theater they rent for services. Sanders stands in jeans at the center, eyes dark and intense.

"When a Christian loses their passion — when they lose their sense of commitment to God, they're not good for anything," he bellows. "Don't leave. Don't burn out. Don't give up."

Last year, InterVarsity Press published his book Life After Church. To save their relationship with God, he writes, Christians who are bored or angry with their traditional churches must find something better.

This church is his shot at something better — a racially diverse group in their 20s and 30s, electric guitars and a drummer, dancing and worship. They disperse into 20 smaller groups during the week to serve different missions, from home Bible studies to after-school programs.

Underground has an annual $130,000 budget from members' offerings. Sanders says 60 percent goes to external programs for the poor; the rest pays administrative costs. He says he raises funds separately for his $24,000 salary.

His church has a board, with the power to fire him. He has no criminal record, nor do property records indicate he is amassing wealth from his ministry. His church owns a house that will shelter abused women and ex-prostitutes, and he owns his own home. He says living in a community makes him accountable.

Half his congregation first experienced communal life in one of Sanders' student houses. Dozens have chosen to live in their own. But "it's not for everyone," Sanders says. "We've seen some communities blow up."

Dave Arndt knows what that's like. As a senior at the University of South Florida, he moved into Sanders' one-year student house: four guys, five girls. Food caused the most problems. Some didn't put money into the pot, so everyone ate less that week.

In 2003, Arndt started his own community in North Tampa. The eight people living in 1,300 square feet never had meetings or figured out boundaries or cleaned. "It was Lord of the Flies," he said. "And I was Piggy."

The community disbanded in 2005. Arndt, 28, says he was immature and not enough of a leader. He is willing to give it another try one day, maybe when he's married.

• • •

In his book, Sanders writes, "We understand what it's like to be misunderstood, to be called a commune, to be thought of as hippies because we try to live simply or live in a multifamily household."

Robert B. Kruschwitz at the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University has studied New Monasticism. Unlike cults that operate on the fringes, this movement is well within mainstream Christianity, he says.

Somewhere between 30 to 50 communities are tied to the movement, which has no central organization. He says its leaders have good reputations and respected publishers, and the movement is rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, a Christian teaching in which Jesus calls people to be poor in spirit, show mercy and work for peace.

"The leaders I've met and the communities I've read about are very impressive to me," he said. "That's not to say there aren't failures."

Jane Stephens of Dover had many questions when her son Jeremy and his wife chose the lifestyle as USF students. Would they have enough privacy? Would they be safe?

In time, she said, she let go of her "prejudices" and stopped worrying.

But some concerns are legitimate. The Sanders house, where the couple once lived, was robbed 13 times in 14 months.

"The neighborhood tests you," Sanders says.

The thefts decreased, and Sanders now feels accepted. He puts on a block party every Halloween, barbecues for his neighbors and sends his kids to public school.

• • •

Jennifer Bartlett, 29, feels safe in Sanders' home. Coming from a family with problems, she considers her housemates family. She likes having people around if she gets sick, her car breaks down or she needs something fixed.

She works at a new Underground ministry called Created, which plans to offer temporary shelter and life skills training to abused women and ex-prostitutes. She's also a hospice nurse. Bartlett is single and has lived in Sanders' community throughout her 20s. She can afford an apartment but doesn't want one.

"I don't know," she says. "It just seems kind of lonely to me."

Half a mile away, a tiny garden sprouts with cucumbers, zucchini and eggplants outside another community of Underground members. Natalia Dengler, 24, lives here with her husband and six others.

By day, Dengler tests people for HIV at a drug rehab center. Living with seven others reminds her of her big family in Costa Rica and feels different from individualistic life in the United States.

"Being married can actually be extremely lonely," she said. "Your husband isn't enough. It almost puts too much pressure on the relationship when it's you two alone. . . . I wouldn't want to raise kids alone."

• • •

It's bedtime at Sanders' house. Eve, 9, Luke, 7, and Simeon, 4, catapult off a platform their dad built inside their room. Sanders walks in, tells them to brush their teeth.

"There's someone in the bathroom," Eve says. With only 1 1/2 bathrooms, there's always someone in there.

Bartlett and housemate Joann Macabante, 29, walk in from a run to the pharmacy and manage to dodge a ball bouncing off the wall. Someone's doing dishes. Someone just got home from work. When the kids are in bed, the adults will gather around the TV for The Office.

The kids settle down for a bedtime story, and Monica curls up with Simeon. He won't be the youngest much longer. This year, Monica learned she'd have an unexpected sixth.

The community will grow to 14.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

.fast facts

Sunday services

Tampa Underground holds its 10 a.m. Sunday service at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor campus theater, 2001 N 14th St. To learn more about the church, visit TampaUnderground.com.

Community life

To take in the sights and sounds of daily life in an intentional community, go to news.tampabay.com.

Communal life brings Underground church members closer to community 06/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 27, 2008 9:40am]

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