ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Small Christian communities are a way of life, not just a program, according to participants at a national convocation here. Many said these groups of approximately a dozen adults are "church" just as dioceses or parishes are, and that they fill many people's need for more personal faith-sharing than large parishes can provide.
"This is an answer to people's basic need to belong, to be in a relationship where they can be themselves, to articulate and own their own faith, to be loved and accepted by other people," said Bev Quintavalle, director of the Office of Evangelization in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. In these communities, people "serve the community and pray together," she said.
Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee, who with colleague Michael Cowan of Loyola University, New Orleans, wrote the book Dangerous Memories about small Christian communities, cautioned that from the outset they "have to be in mission," or they can remain support groups, not church communities. "I fear that because we are so middle class, we might not take the social agenda seriously," he said.
Nobody knows how many small church communities exist in the United States, Lee said.
Almost all the 425 convocation participants, from 33 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia, were white and middle class. Notably absent, Lee said, was any significant representation from the 400 Hispanic small Christian communities, from communities connected with religious orders rather than parishes and from "free-floating" communities.
Nevertheless, the gathering at the University of St. Thomas was a landmark: The three groups representing small, U.S. Christian communities at the diocesan, parish and group level were meeting together for the first time at their own initiative. These groups are Buena Vista, the association of community members; the National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities, an association of parishes; and the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities, an organization of diocesan personnel.
The earliest of these organizations -- Buena Vista and the forum -- independently began to take form about 1986. Some convocation participants have been members of small Christian communities for decades (NCR, July 16). Lee traced his participation to 1969 in Berkeley, Calif. Barbara Howard of Arvada, Colo., a cofounder with her husband, Michael, of Buena Vista, said the couple has belonged to their community 22 years. Others said they are novice members or potential members learning what distinguishes communities and how to create them.
Some say this U.S. phenomenon grew out of such predecessors as the Christian Family Movement or flow naturally from involvement in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
They definitely constitute an indigenous development, an outgrowth of Renew, the three-year, five-part spiritual renewal program for dioceses, said Marianist Bro. Robert Moriarty, director of the pastoral department for small Christian communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, where 500 small communities exist. Others said the communities are imported from or strongly influenced by the Latin American experience of base communities.
Holy Cross Fr. Robert Pelton, faculty fellow at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies, has long studied small communities in the United States and other countries. In 1990, he hosted a meeting about small communities, with Buena Vista, the alliance and the forum represented. A subsequent international meeting at Notre Dame gathered 50 people from small faith communities on six continents. Pelton writes a quarterly column on small communities.
He told NCR that, despite intercultural influences, the U.S. movement is developing distinctly. In many Third World areas, small communities are composed of poor people whose faith group is "the only game in town," …