The Beloved Community, Aspen Trees, & Recovery Cafés

by Mike Schut

Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Recovery Café Medford
Recovery Café DC
Recovery Café Fort Wayne

The beloved community—it’s a phrase many will never forget, partly because Dr. King did so much to reveal what that community could look like, and partly because I think we all recognize how much we desire such a community, too.

Frederick Buechner, at the beginning of his memoir, wrote that in reflecting on his story that he wanted to listen to his life as a whole “for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear.” And he did so in the hopes that his listeners would page through the “photo album” of their lives to listen for that meaning and holiness too.

When I open the album of my life, the times most pregnant with meaning are precisely those times when I experience at least part of what I think King was pointing to when he described the beloved community. And if I were to pinpoint what ties those experiences together it is that the perceived barriers between myself and others gracefully disappears. Differences, hierarchies—they all melt away.

The sculpture outside Christ House, in DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Table Fellowship at Christ House

Just after college I lived for a year at Samaritan Inns with men who had recently lived on the streets of Washington, DC. (Recovery Café Network’s cofounder, Killian Noe, also cofounded Samaritan Inns.) For meals we all walked across Columbia Road to Christ House, a twenty-four-hour residential medical facility for those experiencing homelessness. Every Thursday evening Christ House celebrated Table Fellowship, a special dinner woven through with song and prayers and Communion. 

I remember being so struck one evening as I watched people walk to the altar. There’s Don, a walking miracle, craggy, recovering from alcoholism and the streets. There’s David, the brilliant Christ House doctor who struggles mightily with depression. There’s Maggie, the elderly donor who helped make Christ House a possibility. There’s Carlton, a man twice my age who, understandably, is ticked at me because of the position of authority I have as the resident manager of his home. There’s David, the young Harvard-educated founder of a neighboring nonprofit. Rich and poor, young and old, brown and black and white, healthy and on the mend, housed and not, male and female. While I have to use those identities to describe that evening, it was precisely those identities that fell away. I saw instead our oneness, each recognizing our need for reconciliation and relationship. Acknowledging, in reaching out to accept grace, our shared need for that grace. That night, Communion became communion. I was living in the beloved community.

Yosemite, Llamas, and Aspen Trees 

For two summers I led wilderness backpacking trips in Yosemite and the North Cascades. On one particular Yosemite trip I resupplied a group of seminary students with food and rock climbing gear halfway through their ten days in the mountains. To transport all that heavy gear, I thankfully had the assistance of two sturdy llamas: Alex and Ama. The three of us met up with the students in Rainbow Canyon. I spent a few days there, teaching rock climbing and summiting Tower Peak, then set off on the fifteen-mile hike back to the trailhead, Alex and Ama in tow. 

The mid-September day was crisp, dry, and clear. Maybe ten miles in, descending out of the high country toward a mid-elevation valley, passing by a boulder-strewn talus slope, we came upon a large grove of young aspen trees. Perhaps 1,000 were gathered there, close ranked, crowding the hard-packed trail; none of them measured more than two to three inches in diameter, perhaps ten to fifteen feet tall. Touched by a light breeze and the late afternoon sun, each leaf turned silver and gold.

As we entered that chorus of aspen tree and color, I left behind all self-consciousness, all worries, all distraction. I felt transfixed in their presence, overtaken by beauty. I remember feeling like royalty—almost as if the grove had parted, just then, to allow us to pass on the narrow trail. But there were no barriers between me and the aspen, no separation. The newness and joy seemed a gift bestowed directly to me from that grove. Their golden-leafed garments rustled in the breeze as their smooth, silver, slender trunks bowed in respect, recognition, and celebration. I smiled on the outside and bowed on the inside, seeing more clearly than ever before their irreducible beauty and rooted freedom in being who they were created to be. We acknowledged each other. They invited me into the beloved community.

Recovery Café Valley of the Sun (Phoenix)
Recovery Café San Jose
Recovery Café Seattle

Bound Up with Each Other 

Those two stories—from DC’s inner-city and Yosemite’s wilderness—speak to me of a deeper reality than the divisions and hierarchies our society teaches us every day: the reality that we are more connected than we will ever know. Grace reveals that reality periodically. Maybe the sagest among us are simply those who live there more often than not; maybe the saints are those able to invite others to see that reality more often than not. And maybe our job is to simply stay rooted in that reality, to allow it to shine through us, and to create spaces where others see it too.

That evening of communion at Christ House, and the momentary unveiling of my profound connection to aspen trees – that is what is true, across all cultures and time. It’s true for you, it’s true for me, it’s true for all those with whom we work in Recovery Cafés across the country.

It’s what the beloved community feels like. A place where Carlton, Don, the aspen trees, David, Alex, Maggie, Ama, and I all belong, feel respected, are treated well, and know that our wellbeing is bound up one with the other.

We use a variety of phrases to describe what Recovery Cafés are striving for: a place to be known and loved; a community of healing and belonging; a space where we live like we belong to each other. “The beloved community” works pretty well too.

Mike Schut serves as the Recovery Café Network’s Communications Manager.