Self-reliant, intentional communities use small businesses to thrive in hard times

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 10:52 p.m. MDT

Carmelite sisters pray at the Carmel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Monastery.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — "Most of what we do is pray. What we are here for is to pray," says Mother Maureen Goodwin, smiling behind black metal bars in a visitor area at Carmelite monastery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Aside from things like medical visits — Mother Maureen had knee surgery — the 10 nuns don't leave the monastery. They eat, sleep and pray at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, below the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains. And they do business.

Down the dim hallway from where the sisters pray is a bright kitchen where they bake. They sell their altar bread mostly to Catholic churches to sustain the monastery.

"It helps pay the daily upkeep," Mother Maureen says. "It's nice work for the sisters. It's active work."

In the kitchen a nun wearing a checkered apron over her brown habit pours batter on a hot press.

"We were able to purchase the baker many years ago. A marvelous machine," Mother Maureen says, admiring the stainless steal press.

The thin sheets of bread are cut and the sisters inspect the wafers, throwing out defects even birds don't seem to like, then sort the host into plastic bags to be shipped and become finally, for some, the body of Christ.

The buzz of an air-compressor starts, opening the automated bread press and releasing a stuffy sigh of unleavened bread.

"A marvelous machine," Mother Maureen says again, smiling.

Communities living apart from society are often entrepreneurial out of necessity. The United States has a rich history of intentional communities — from Catholic monasteries to secular communes — and the businesses used to sustain and put into practice those community's values.

"Sense of enterprise"

The definition of intentional community is debated, but to Tim Miller, an expert at the University of Kansas, it is where people live together, gather for some purpose or idea, and have a shared economic basis.

Numbers of Americans living in intentional communities are hard to determine. There are 1,903 intentional communities in the United States registered with The Fellowship for Intentional Community.

"It is a marginal phenomena," Miller said.

But he describes the movement in America, more than 300 years old, as historically strong relative to other countries.

"Remember, we are a new country," Miller said. "There is a sense of enterprise here, a sense of adventure. And importantly, cheap land."

He noted a common assumption is that intentional communities prosper in hard times.

"Communal living is cheap," he said.

In the early 19th century the United States was a hotbed for social experimenters. Coming just out of the "burned-over district" in New York — a scene of religious revivals — were the Oneida Society, the Millerites and the Shakers. Secular utopian communities around this time included the Brook Farm and Fourierist socialists.

The Oneida Community, a religious commune, started the silverware community Oneida Limited. While the community disbanded in 1881, Oneida Limited survived as one of the world's most popular silverware companies.

The Amana Society, a Christian community that settled in Iowa in the mid-19th century, lived communally until the 1930s when they adopted use of private property. The Amana Society began manufacturing refrigerators in the 1950s with Amana Refrigeration, Inc. — now owned by Whirlpool.

In the 1960s and 70s the popularity of communal living rose. And in the last couple decades more conservative forms of intentional communities like cohousing and eco-villages have developed.

Not all intentional communities are communal. And not all are entirely isolated.

The focus of many groups is to isolate an idea, not themselves, said Steven Reschly, a professor of history at Truman State University.

"They were the vanguard," Reschly said. "They wanted to show how a true human, or a true Christian should live."

But if a community is to be a vanguard it needs to be sustainable, and that's where businesses ideas came from.

Today Catholic nuns sell altar bread, Hutterites in Montana sell pork and the Twin Oaks community sells hammocks.

A modern commune

Twin Oaks, located in rural central Virginia, is an income-sharing intentional community of around 100 members. One of their largest enterprises, more than 40 years old, is casual furniture including hammocks, which grossed around $1 million last year.

Members work 42 hours a week on various activities they choose — milking a community cow, working a business, giving a performance to the community. In exchange, all costs of life — food, rent, taxes, medical visits, school — are covered and the members get a modest allowance of $75 a month.

On a given day at work, Paxus Calta, one of the managers at Twin Oaks, spends the morning homeschooling his son, attends a business management meeting, and spends the afternoon on a production line.

Calta noted the community was always interested in a level of self-sufficiency (around four-fifths of the food the community consumes is grown on their land), but there are things for which the community needs money.

The members tried tobacco farming, the land's original use, but with disappointing results. Later they got lucky when Pier One purchased their hammocks.

Twin Oaks' hammock business is as unique as the values held in the community. With limited resources and no plan to add more, the business refuses to grow. Calta said they do not want to be part of the "endless growth model" found in businesses on the outside.

"There was a big conversation about selling to Walmart," Calta said. In the end the community decided against it.

An American flag pattern for hammocks was discontinued. A green line was introduced using recyclable materials.

The managers at Twin Oaks are not responsible for hiring and firing and they work on the production line. Calta is confident he is the lowest-paid manager for an American hammock manufacturer.

"Nobody works a 9 to 5 if they don't want to," Calta said. "What you give up in personal wealth (living at Twin Oaks), you gain in flexibility."

Afraid that Pier One would pull out at some point — it did — and leave the community with no business to sustain itself, members of the Twin Oaks community diversified some time ago. Now they operate five businesses, including a tofu operation set to exceed the revenue of hammocks.

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