Entering into the new decade, the Life Together fellowship program in the Diocese of Massachusetts is marking the completion of its first 10 years and looking forward to what comes next.
Though it's been 10 years in its current "Life Together" configuration, the program's origins go back even further to 1999 when the diocese's 10-month residential internship program, the Micah Project, was founded to offer young adults the opportunity to live in community, serve through urban ministry and justice work, and reflect upon their life work and purpose, according to the Life Together website.
In 2009, the Micah Project was combined with a subsequent diocesan effort, the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project, which had "relational evangelists" work in parishes or chaplaincies to facilitate a more relational culture, build small leadership teams and to organize social action campaigns. The combination of these two programs launched the Life Together program as it is known today: A full-time program for emerging leaders, 21-32 years old, discerning vocations in ministry, nonprofit management and education, through spiritual practice, social justice, leadership training and community building.
Kelsey Rice-Bogdan is an alum of the Life Together program from the 2009-2010 year--the first year that the program was taking the shape that it has now--and now serves as the executive director. Rice-Bogdan explained in an interview how this program aims to make a difference in the lives of young people and the communities that they are a part of.
"We’re bringing people in at that particular moment in their lives where they are setting the foundation for what adulthood is going to look like, and they are asking not just, 'Do I want to be a priest or not?' but, 'How do I want to be in the world, how do I want to live my life, what are my values and how do I want to live those out?' " Rice-Bogdan said. "Our long-term change here is what these people will go out and do after this and how they will be in the world and the ways that they will affect the communities they’re in--to have that goal, of them going out and being life-long change agents and leading our church and our world."
According to Rice-Bogdan, in the 20 years of the Micah Project and Life Together, just over 200 young people have gone through the diocesan fellowship programs. While some who complete the program go on to become ordained leaders in the Episcopal Church and in other Christian denominations, many enter careers of community organizing, government and education; and many are in graduate school for programs ranging from political science to social work. Past fellows of the program are working to combat climate change with organizations such as Mothers Out Front and the Sunrise Movement, while another is working with a youth organizing affiliate of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. One alum of the program is currently serving as a legislative aide to Senator Ed Markey; another works for the City of Baltimore in urban planning; others work as teachers in various contexts.
Life Together sponsors three full-time, 10 to 12-month young adult fellowships: the Micah Fellowship, the Emmaus Fellowship and the Esperanza Academy Teaching Fellowship. The Micah fellowships are first-year fellowships in the greater-Boston area comprising 32 hours per week of service in mission-driven nonprofit organizations or Episcopal churches; spiritual formation and leadership training for eight hours per week; and life in intentional Christian community with other fellows. The Emmaus Fellowship is a second-year program for those who have already completed the Micah Fellowship and seek to do greater capacity building at host site placements. The Esperanza Academy Teaching Fellowships are AmeriCorps teaching fellowships at Esperanza Academy in Lawrence, a tuition-free, independent day school for low income girls grades 5-8.
Through these placements, past fellows have worked on education reform, hunger relief, health-care reform, civic engagement, job training, pastoral ministry, prison reform and youth development.
In addition to work at their site placements, fellows engage in leadership training designed so fellows can put new skills into practice directly in their site placements and intentional communities, and regularly reflect on their experiences. Fellows also participate in monthly day-long thematic workshops on topics such as non-violent communication, community organizing, vocational discernment, public narrative movement-building and anti-oppression.
In addition to in-kind use of the diocesan property at 40 Prescott Street in Brookline, where a cohort of fellows currently resides and where the program's offices are currently located, Life Together receives diocesan budgetary support; in 2020, that support amounts to $175,000.
One of the distinguishing marks of the Life Together program is that fellows live in intentional Christian community together, creating a "living house covenant" to "continually shape a healthy rhythm of fellowship, self-care and communal worship," according to the Life Together website. Fellows share a community meal together each Monday evening and meet several Friday mornings a month with prayer partners--volunteers who are Life Together alumni, priests, spiritual directors and friends of the program.
Fellows currently live in one of three intentional community houses located in Boston and Lawrence, including rented housing at St. Michael's Church in Milton and the diocesan property at 40 Prescott Street in Brookline. Esperanza Academy Fellows live together in Lawrence in a house owned by the school.
Caroline Hunter--who was part of the 2009-2010 Life Together program and now works in education--explained in an interview how exploring her values in community as part of the program has allowed her to hold onto those learnings over the past 10 years.
"I spent a lot of that early time in my life really thinking deeply and looking internally and I think doing that in community is a very sustainable way to do that," Hunter said. "Trying to have an understanding of all of the big questions in life, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense in my mind to do that alone. Having the exploration of the values being connected to the emotion-soaked relationships of praying together and living together has made those values stick with me over--I can’t believe it’s been over--10 years." Hunter said.
Lindsey Hepler, the associate director of training and recruitment for Life Together, has been working for the program for the last four years and explained in an interview how living in community is transformative for the fellows that come through the program.
"I think it comes down to not shying away from conflict or hard conversations but really confronting some of the ingrained ways we have of behaving that can maintain isolation, and doing the hard work to confront those things and to make ourselves vulnerable to one another so that we can really experience the power of deep connection," Hepler said. "That power then becomes this vehicle for transformation and deeper work--as well as deeper resources to do the work when we are able to show up in the fullness of ourselves."
Spiritual practices are also an important part of the Life Together program as fellows learn contemplative worship incorporating sacred chant, Lectio Divina scriptural meditation, centering prayer and silence. Fellows meet individually with a spiritual director once a month, and twice a year fellows gather at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington for guided retreats to deepen community and spiritual self-awareness. In addition, through a partnership with the Society of St. John the Evangelist, fellows are invited to initiate individual silent retreats free of charge throughout the year.
Life Together's identity as a Christian program goes far beyond its partnerships and learning spiritual practices, Hepler emphasized.
"It’s really seeing this as our call as Christians to be working towards justice in the world and understanding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection as a model for and the thing that makes possible our work for justice," Hepler said. "In our mission and vision language we talk about cultivating a generation of leaders for the church and the world and we do really prioritize that broad definition of 'for the church and the world.' We can’t and don’t want to separate those two things and so our alumni--some do pursue ordained leadership in the church, some are actively involved in their church communities and some are not--but all of them are pursuing this work from a spiritually grounded place."
Dominique Bocanegra, a Life Together alum from the 2015-2016 year, was placed at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan for her program year, and stayed at the church for another four years serving as the youth director. Bocanegra described in an interview how Life Together, for her, offered a safe space to play with the words church and love.
"I really felt [before Life Together] that church was just when you walk in on Sundays, and Life Together really let me understand what our calling and our identity is in a Christian faith; and that church isn’t defined by what we believe, but by how we love each other," Bocanegra said. "Church is the body of Christ and not a specific physical building, and I think that was something that I got to learn."
"What I really took away from Life Together is that love is not just this happy feeling, but love can feel like it’s hurting and there are times when love is challenging, but [Life Together] was a space that there was a communal transformation of love,” Bocanegra said. “Love is transformational because of the experiences that enable us to become more fully about ourselves, to empower us to transform together and to transform the world.”
Ten years later, Caroline Hunter is active in an Episcopal congregation and, like Bocanegra, expressed how the program changed the way that she viewed church in a way that stays with her today.
“It was really this idea of thinking outside the literal and metaphorical walls of the church and meeting people where they are and that being the reality of the church: Building relationships with the people who are outside of the current structures,” Hunter said. “That’s how I think of church and that’s how I started to change thinking about the emergent church when I was in the program, and I still probably bring that mindset into everything I do around the 'church' concept."
Looking towards the program's future, executive director Kelsey Rice-Bogdan said that it hopes to move toward two-year fellowships with the option of a one-year fellowship, as opposed to the current one-year fellowships with the option for a second year. They are also looking for more opportunities for collaboration with other young adults across the diocese, particularly in light of the Young Adult Ministries Advisory Council being formed in response to a resolution, “Engaging Young Adults Fully in the Life of Our Church,” adopted at the 2019 Diocesan Convention in November.
In addition, program leaders intend to make racial justice and equity work more central to the program, as exhibited by the monthly "Racial Identity Affinity Groups" that Boston-based fellows participate in, to support fellows in their racial justice work by providing a regular meeting space to confront the effects of racism, Rice-Bogdan said.
"Our racial justice and equity work has become much more central to what we’re trying to do because we feel like that work is so critical and so vital, and it’s an important part as an institution that is nestled within a largely white Episcopal Church of privilege," Rice-Bogdan said. "It’s important for us to live out our Gospel witness by engaging this work, fully. We’ve been doing a lot of things around that and continuing to bake that in more, that it’s not some initiative project that we’re working on, but it’s fundamental and central to who we are as an organization."
Ten years after starting out initially as a fellow in the program, Rice-Bogdan is grateful for all those who have made the program possible and hopes that it will continue into the future.
"I’m grateful to our partners throughout the diocese who have helped make this possible," Rice-Bogdan said. "It really is a lot of faithful people from the beginning: A lot of faithful people, a lot of faithful churches, a lot of visionary folks who have made it possible to get this far. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and let them know that this has made a difference, and by the grace of God, will continue to do so."
--Bridget K. Wood
For more information about Life Together, visit www.lifetogethercommunity.org.
Recruitment of fellows for the 2020-2021 Life Together cohort is underway. Those interested in applying are invited to contact Life Together at firstname.lastname@example.org.