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Why We Did(n't) Start a Cult
"Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not
mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense
that these differences do not exist."
My friend/travel buddy/now roommate, Ryan, and I like to do what we call “park days”. We get a big ass blanket and gather the essentials for a day spent outdoors in nice weather: books, journals, Bluetooth speaker, weed, snacks, and beverages. Then we get to introverting hard. Sometimes we can not speak to each other for hours. Sometimes we get silly. Sometimes we get serious. On one such park day in August 2018, we did all of the above.
After I had an abrupt stay in Tulsa and then moved back to Denver and Ryan was in Denver after being on the road for six months, we began daydreaming together. What would our ideal lives look like? If we could do anything with ourselves and our time here, what would we do? How could we build rest and respite for ourselves while also caring for those around us? What would it look like to live good, fulfilling lives? What even are those?
For whatever reason, I got it in my head to write down all the things we would do:
The days between August 2018 and March 2019 were emptied by intense and near deadly cycles of depression and anxiety for both of us. On the few occasions Ryan and I did spend together, we tried to ease the pain by reminding each other of our dream, by brainstorming other things we would like to do with it. Between long talks about and near attempts at suicide, a slurry of physical and mental illnesses, and long periods of isolation, we still managed to hold onto our dream regardless of whether we would be able to make it manifest or not. Turns out Ryan had also been recruiting in his spare time.
In February 2019 I learned that Ryan had been telling his good friend Mike about St. Juniper’s and that Mike was on board so long as he could be the goatherd (we plan on having a farm; see the daydreaming list above). He and Mike had been talking about moving from Denver to Tulsa based more or less on my love of the place and its ridiculous affordability. Naturally, I needed to insert myself into their plans. Mike and I had maybe only met once or twice before, but I’ve never been one to avoid getting involved and living with strangers. By mid-March we had found and secured a house for ourselves in Tulsa, right near the river. What had been projected optimistically as three to five years away was now immediate and in progress.
The three of us have been working together through weekly family meditations and meetings to get this thing off and running while also doing a fuck-ton of work on ourselves. We’re brand-spanking new to this whole “healthy” and “community living” thing, but as a community requires and welcomes people, we thought we’d finally share our vision and practice with you all.
We are committed to actively engaging with and supporting both the immediate and global community. We plan to host community events ranging from: sexual education and discussion classes, group art and craft nights, philosophical discussion groups, reading groups, “feed the street” and potluck/dinner gatherings, gardening and nutrition workshops, free online courses and resources, political meetings, etc. It is our hope to be able to bring in experts-in-their-fields to teach and share their skills/knowledge with the community through St. Juniper’s while also offering space for retreats, sabbaticals, and residencies.
It is necessary to us that all feel welcomed and valued in all that we offer. We desire that the stigmas surrounding intellectual and spiritual pursuits that cause people anxiety and shame resulting in silence will have no place within the St. Juniper’s community, and that these ideas and practices will spread to the community at large. Everyone deserves to participate, be heard, contribute, and learn. No human is useless, everyone has something to teach and share, everyone has something to learn.
We also believe in being active participants in political and public arenas. St. Juniper’s believes in activism and direct action, whether it be phone banking, protesting, hosting refugees, organizing the community, etc. St. Juniper’s is not a retreat from the harsh realities of life, but is a place to rest before heading back out into the storm. We offer a space for rest, contemplation, and healing, but always with the intention of making things better for all through bettering ourselves. We are here for naps, residencies, retreats, reading days, nature walks, alone-in-your-room days, and meditation in conjunction with activism, rallying, carrying and supporting each other, fighting for and with the oppressed, rebuking and working to eradicate injustice, and destabilizing and replacing the archaic and dangerous systems that the world has largely operated through and is now crumbling under (you know, patriarchy, capitalism, sexism, racism/white supremacy, homophobia, general hatred and evil). We are a deep, belly breath, not a coma, not an excuse for apathy or hedonism.
We at St. Juniper’s recognize that a community is made up of individuals, that healthy individuals make for a healthier community, and that a healthy community makes for healthier individuals. This is where we model ourselves in the style of monks. (Read Ryan Connell’s piece for a bit of the history of monasticism and the world falling apart.) We are dedicated to creating and nurturing the best possible conditions for growth through study, craft, intentionality, and healing. We draw from the monastic tradition in that we believe in preserving the beautiful and good things of the past and present that the present seeks to destroy or cover-up. We believe in rigorous self- and community-examination through studiousness, contemplation, meditation, and conversation. We believe in “being alone together” and healing through introspection and space while having the support of an immediate and involved community. We believe in doing what we love, doing it well, and with dynamic mastery. We believe in simple living. We believe in the healing and necessity of nature as we are a part of the ecosystem, not above it, and can no better survive or thrive without it than a fish without water, a plant without light. We believe and practice the lost art of curiosity and play. To be a child is to be a natural philosopher and scientist and artist, and we seek to reconnect ourselves and each other to our lost inner children so that we may experience wild, unabashed growth, wholeness, and meaning as adults.
Basically, we’re a chimera of monasteries, communes, and Hogwarts, and definitely not a cult. We are not isolationist or exclusionist like many or most religious organizations, communes, and cults. We are not a group of hippies just looking for a good time, nor are we militant and aggressive. Anyone is welcome to visit and stay with us. Anyone is welcome to participate in the building and growing of this community and vision. We are all suffering from a lack of meaningful connection in our lives, and we are seeking to undo isolation and not replace it with extroversion or feeling good all the time, but with intention, health, and togetherness.
Here we build our own traditions, habits, liturgy, saints, and practices. Here we create our own meaning. Here we believe in absurdity and curiosity. Here we work to ease suffering. Here we allow ourselves to exist in the best possible conditions. We invite you and everyone else to join us. We can think for ourselves and still be a community bound by commonality and made unbreakable through diversity.
Humans of the world, unite. We are stronger together. Life doesn’t have to be hopeless. We have nothing to lose but the chains that have bound us for so long. We have options. St. Juniper’s is one of them. Let’s get building.
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© Alessandra Ragusin 2016-2020