the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

ChrisholmsTaking community north:
Group living in Alaska

by Ryan Miller

Carrie Lehman Chisholm ’99 spent her childhood in Paoli, Ind., in an intentional community, even though she did not know it at the time. During college, both she and her husband-to-be, Jeff ’00, took part in Goshen College’s small group houses. But neither experience completely prepared them for the community living they currently experience as unit leaders for Mennonite Mission Network Service Adventure house full of teens and young adults in Anchorage, Alaska.

Carrie grew up surrounded by physician friends. Her parents, Eric Lehman ’72 and Louise O’Connell, were part of a group of Indianapolis doctors that moved together to Paoli and built houses
that surrounded a shared yard space.
“Growing up I didn’t really realize it was a community. I just thought we lived close together and shared things sometimes,” Carrie said. The difference between the neighborhood of her youth, the communities at school and the Chisholms’ current arrangement is choice.

“With small group housing in college, I picked my friends who I wanted to live with, so we all got along for the most part,” Carrie said. “Here I don’t get along with all of them all the time. You don’t have to like them, but you have to live with them.”

Added Jeff, “You take seven people from seven different places in the world and say, ‘OK, do it.’ It’s like MTV’s ‘Real World,’ except in that program they try to find personalities that will clash and in this program we seek to find people who will live by the guidelines,” Jeff said.

Jeff knows how those teens feel when they are tossed into a group of strangers from different origins. He spent his senior year of high school studying in Sweden, where friends and acquaintances challenged his beliefs and the way he hoped to live his life.

“In them questioning me and in my dialogue defending my own position, I think I became anchored. I also learned from them a new perspective that happens when you get out of a closed community,” Jeff said.

Service Adventure, he added, can be similar. “This is an opportunity for people to discover their own faith and become their own people,” Jeff said. “It creates a place where people can be challenged.”

Added Carrie, “They learn what they believe, and not just what their parents believe. They gain self-confidence. They can live on their own. They are more focused, know themselves better. … Some people came away switching their whole outlook on what they want to do. One girl came up after hanging out with the wrong crowd in high school. She wanted to get away and refocus. She ended up staying here after the term was over so she wouldn’t have the tendencies to go back with her old crowd.”

Within the unit, Carrie and Jeff are parents, best friends, spiritual leaders and mediators, to some extent. They meet individually with each person in the group and help coordinate learning components, weekly worship and other household necessities, but the group participants have ultimate responsibility for the health of the unit. Still, the Chisholms are the epoxy that holds everything together, acting as facilitators when problems arise – cleaning, doing dishes, leisure-time activities, personality clashes, the house budget, etc. – and help group members solve their own disputes instead of offering easy answers.

“How someone adjusts to this (type of living) in a large part has to do with what kind of communities they’ve lived in in the past,” Jeff said. “Those who are individualistic learn that they don’t get everything they want. … A lot of people may come in with a very authoritative background from their parents and want to tell others what to do. We won’t be a third party in triangulation in dealing with their issues, but we will work with them in dealing with reconciliation.”

Jeff’s peace studies minor and Carrie’s experience teaching at an area preschool/kindergarten has helped them guide the 2001 group through some rough spots that culminated in an eight-hour meeting over two days where group members wrote problems anonymously on slips of paper which were pulled from a hat and discussed until they could be resolved.

“When you put yourself in with a bunch of people who will let you know when you’re doing something wrong, you become very in tune with your own tendencies,” Jeff said. “They’ll let you know when you’ve crossed some boundaries or are being too critical or need to grow in a new way. It’s a highlighter for me as far as growth areas.”

The Chisholms examined other voluntary service group living programs, but wanted a place where they could live out their faith while enjoying the early stages of marriage.

Jeff said, “The idealism that a lot of people come out of college with, I wanted to put into action rather than being trapped into making the bucks that a lot of people get into. (At Goshen) we were studying about simplicity – how do we go about doing service or living without using so many resources? Community gives a great opportunity for doing that type of thing.”

Service Adventure promised a chance for simple living in community with structure and some couple-specific privacy built in. So, after a summer at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Mich., spent working and discerning God’s will for their lives, they went to the Mission Network in 2000. Service Adventure, with its emphasis on community as well as simple living, seemed to fit.

“How do I look at my life in relationship to Christ’s message?” Jeff said. “Living simply does not always mean having the cheapest things around you. And it gives you another value besides just work,” he said. “Service teaches so much about doing things and never getting anything in return. Somebody might notice that you cleaned up the counters after everyone took off for work, but if you’re waiting around for the repayment or the thanks, it’s not really service.”

Besides the community within the unit, Anchorage also features a small, tight-knit and ultrasupportive group of Mennonites at Prince of Peace Mennonite Church – as well as a significant military presence due to several bases in the area. In his work as an agency nurse, Jeff frequently is sent to Elmendorf Air Force Base, where he is asked regularly why he has not yet enlisted.

“I have to be honest and say what I believe or that I don’t think that’s where Christ is leading me,” Jeff said. The teens in the Service Adventure unit often receive the same types of questions and are forced to explain their own ideas about faith, war and peace. Many of those conversations are discussed and reinforced in group conversations.

But living, and working as leaders, in a group setting does have disadvantages.

“You never go home from work. I make a joke sometimes when I’m working as a nurse that this is my break,” Jeff said. “There are those communities that are so close that there is no privacy. … You can be socialized by your group so much that you don’t give yourself the time you need.”

Still, the Chisholms said the Service Adventure model of community teaches servant leadership in comparison to the values of the world. “When you look at communities this close, in comparison to this culture and the emphasis it places on individualism, very few survive,” Jeff said. “It takes a lot of give and a lot of willingness not to take.”
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