In 1971, a small group of mostly Catholic families in Indiana, who were involved in the charismatic renewal movement, decided to join together and form a Christian community focused on prayer, charity, and mutual support. Now, in 2021, this group, the People of Praise, has 22 chapters around the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean and are celebrating their 50th anniversary.
In contrast, the Veritatis Splendor vision of Kari Beckman—a massive 600-acre project in Texas involving a suburban-style development, religious institutes, and a church to rival some cathedrals—emerged and imploded in a single year. It’s possible the project will still continue, but it has at least suffered a major setback with the news that Beckman and one of the board members allegedly carried on an affair.
I do not make this contrast to either promote the People of Praise or to mock the collapse of Beckman’s ambitious vision. But I did want to take the moment of the first-year collapse of one and the 50th anniversary of the other to glean some best practices on building Christian communities. Thankfully, I had a long interview with Beckman for this magazine in the spring, and I grew up around many People of Praise members in Northern Virginia and have interviewed one member on what life within their organization is like. So, I believe I have enough information to at least do a broad comparison.
The first notable difference is that People of Praise’s model encourages building community where people already live; while Veritatis Splendor, and other similar projects, seek to create an entire village from scratch.
There are many reasons to prefer the first option. For one, there is less risk. If community members uproot their families, leave their jobs, sell their houses, and start completely over in a new place (in this case east Texas), they are left extremely vulnerable. In the People of Praise model, you keep your day job, your house in the suburbs, and the church you attend; you just add community activities with others also living in the area. If that chapter crashes and burns, or if it’s just not for you, your life can go on pretty much as it had.
The member I interviewed did say that they have always encouraged members to live in the same neighborhoods to promote community cohesion, but it’s not a strict rule. And, in the Northern Virginia branch where land is expensive and in short supply, it’s not generally practical. People of Praise, then, do value proximity, but they are not trying to run from the world and cloister together.
There is an element of “run for the hills” that is very tempting when forming a Christian community. Rod Dreher has been very adamant that he is not encouraging that in his “Benedict Option” model, which is broad enough in theory to include projects like People of Praise (although it predates the Benedict Option) and Veritatis Splendor. After my interview with Beckman, I asked Dreher about Beckman distancing Veritatis Splendor from what she called the Benedict Option’s model of “closing the doors and pulling back.” He was none too pleased with this characterization.
“The idea that the Benedict Option is about running away from the world is plainly nonsense, as anybody who read the book can tell you,” Dreher said. “It’s actually about creating thick communities of faith and practice that can prepare us to be resiliently orthodox when we confront the world. My curse is to have loud critics who feel no obligation to read first and criticize later. Drives me crazy, actually.”
In a follow-up article after the news on Beckman’s alleged affair surfaced, Dreher said, “In light of today’s news, I’m glad they distanced themselves from me.”
Ironically, it seems that Beckman’s model was the one that more closely resembled a run-for-the-hills model, since they bought a huge plot of land in a sparsely populated area and encouraged those interested to pull up roots and relocate to east Texas.
The next difference, which feeds somewhat off of the last, is that People of Praise does not have such a stark moral line between “the world” and the community. The group is fairly “in the world,” living in places like the D.C. suburbs or South Bend, Indiana; whereas Veritatis Splendor’s marketing seemed to draw a line of moral separation between the corrupt world and a sort of holy city on a hill.
While it’s disheartening to see the culture spiraling down morally, evil is always present in human society, and juxtaposing yourself so starkly with the immoral world can lead to credible accusations of hypocrisy if you don’t live up to the hype. And countless scandals of well-respected religious leaders tell us this is fairly likely. This approach also risks alienating the members from society and dehumanizing non-members.
My friend said he would describe being raised in the People of Praise as “90% normal, 10% different.” And now, looking back, a lot of that 10% accounted for very valuable parts of his childhood that he sees are not very common—like having “dozens and dozens of awesome role models” from among the adults in the group.
It’s actually very important for the People of Praise that they be in the world because they view their mission largely as one of service. For example, over the past couple of decades, they have identified certain areas with high poverty, like the Allendale neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, and they have focused their time and money on improving conditions.
In Allendale, members have moved to the neighborhood, created a classical school for area kids, built and repaired houses, developed summer camps, prayed with their new neighbors, and tried to become part of the community. There were likely all kinds of unholy things going on there—drugs, crime, prostitution, violence—but they saw this as a reason to approach, not draw back.
Another difference between People of Praise and Veritatis Splendor is scale, or ambition. When I interviewed Beckman during the initial rollout, she said, “Our vision is this is just the first one, which is why we’re calling it the HQ, Splendor HQ, and that other communities learn from us, that we help to establish [more communities] throughout the country, maybe even the world.”
So, their plan was really global in scale. The People of Praise actually had some similarly ambitious plans initially as well, but as the decades went by, their vision changed in scale. Now they do not really focus on recruitment and expansion as much as they do on service in the places they are now, places that already exist.
Seeing the world as it is and helping people where they are—whether isolated in American suburbia or struggling in an impoverished neighborhood in the South—appears less ambitious than building holy cities to replace the fallen ones. But this small-scale, “Rome-is-not-built-in-a-day” attitude to community development seems to have produced more over time.
Another area of difference is that Veritatis Splendor was set up more vertically, with a very visible figurehead, rather than horizontally, with most members having fairly equal stature in the group. This first, more top-down approach comes with many risks, including to the group’s moral credibility. Any moral failure, like Beckman’s alleged affair, could destabilize the entire organization and discredit its call for a morally pure community different from the fallenness of the world.
People of Praise, as a much more horizontally organized network of small communities of families and friends, is less likely to be discredited by a single scandal among members. An understanding that human beings are morally compromised—even in the most noble Christian communities—also puts these failures, as well as the sin around them in their typically urban surroundings, in perspective.
All groups need leaders, but there is a noticeable difference in organizations with a very visible figurehead like Beckman—who dreams up the idea, promotes it in interviews, fundraises for it, and manages day-to-day operations—versus a group with various people filling different roles over time on behalf of the organization.
Again, this comparison is not made to bash Beckman (who needs our compassion and prayers) or her Veritatis Splendor vision. Sometimes large, ambitious plans led mostly by a single figure do work. Also, many Christians are seeing the same problems that she saw with the culture (and the Church) and want to do something about it. This impulse is a sign that Christians are not confident that we have a workable model, and the statistics showing young people flooding out of the Church is evidence that something needs to be done. But while we all want to “do something,” this is a time to be deliberate and to take note of what has generally worked and what hasn’t.
And People of Praise seems to work, as far as intentional Christian communities go. It’s not experiencing dramatic growth (as its numbers are fairly stable over time), but neither is that their focus. Where their success can be seen is in their service and in providing a place for families to experience authentic communities of faith.
So, in terms of best practices for creating a Christian community for maintaining the faith in uncertain times, the lessons seem to be: keep it simple; organize horizontally rather than vertically; maintain and strengthen already-existing roots and social capital (rather than uprooting and starting over); and keep in mind that both the world and your community will be a moral mixed bag.
[Photo Credit: People of Praise website]