Together Instead of Alone: Connection, Coworking and the Congregation

A few months ago, I left a meeting in a terrible mood. The weather was nasty and my day had not been what I hoped it would be. It was a primary election day, and so my plan was to swing by my polling place, vote, and then go home to scrounge up dinner in my apartment.

The polling place turned out to be an unexpected point of community connection. I bumped into a group my neighbors from downstairs, a group of women who lead a local justice organization, our fliering for their preferred candidate, and in the midst of it, struck up a conversation with a stranger on the street. Headed home as the sun sunk behind me, I noticed that my mood was lighter, more hopeful, more buoyant. Exercising one's civil responsibility often has that effect, but more than that, I believe that those three points of informal contact -- neighbor, new friends, stranger -- reminded me that I am part of a larger whole.

We're becoming a nation of freelancers. The unemployment rate for 2013 graduates sits at 10.9 percent while the "mal-employment" rate (working in a position that doesn't require a degree) is at 36 percent. Millennials have inherited a lackluster economy, a top-heavy workforce, and a steadily rising coast line. We haven't left them a whole lot to work with. But recent reports indicate that this generation is adept at making lemonade. With corporate jobs unavailable to them, millennials are making their own employment opportunities, with more than a quarter self employed, launching almost 160,000 startups a month in 2011. They've begun a movement that's left cubical life far behind, but rather than working from home, they're "coworking:" working side by side at shared offices with open floor plans and open cultures. This is a movement that I believe, has something important to contribute to our ideas about connection.

Cramped apartments and the hazards and distractions of working from home (roommates, facebook, netflix, facebook) are major motivators behind the blossoming coworking culture. Working at home most often means being alone, so just as important is a desire to break free from isolation. The coworking movement features a reengaged focus on collaboration and a decreased emphasis on competition, often termed "new mutualism." Attending a recent event at New Work City, a coworking space in Manhattan, I was pleasantly surprised by the way I was welcomed, handed a name tag, and instructed to talk to "as many random people" as I could. I met a young woman who told me that much of success as a freelance photographer had come as a result of working at New Work City. She spoke of a sense of generosity modeled by her fellow coworkers, who support one another through an accountability group where ideas are conceived and worked through together. Another coworker mentioned his belief that everyone thrives when experience and expertise are shared. He was casting a vision of an open-source work environment in which ideas flow freely instead of being hoarded or protected. I couldn't help thinking of what Christians call a theology of abundance: the idea that God has given the world all that the world needs -- if we would just release our tightfisted grips and share what we have.

A vision for a coworking space has come into focus at St. Lydia's, the Dinner Church where I am pastor. Moved by this witness of open-source abundance and a shared, collaborative work environment, I have begun to imagine another branch of St. Lydia's communal life, tuned to those from any and no faith who want to work together instead of alone. St. Lydia's is on the verge of moving into a storefront of our own in Brooklyn. From 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday, a bunch of freelancers, making a reasonable contribution to the running of the space, will gather there to work along side one another.

I have this vision of a life that is woven together: of a radically interconnected pattern of living, marked by eating and working together, and intertwined with daily patterns of prayer and silence. I imagine overlapping spheres of activity taking place in our space -- the marks of our Christian life, like prayer and worship, overlapping with the life and work of our coworking community.

What might it be like to arrive at work and unpack your bag as five or six people sit around a candle in one corner, holding contemplative silence? Or the next day, to arrive a bit earlier to help cook for the Neighborhood Breakfast we'd like to being hosting, where neighbors, homed and homeless, come together to make and eat some scrambled eggs and chat over coffee. Or to take a break in the middle of your work day to light a candle and sit for a moment or join a few other coworkers for a quick walk around the block. To pack up and head home as the first folks, now familiar faces, arrive for Dinner Church and set about chopping vegetables.

Let's be clear: the coworking community at St. Lydia's will help the church pay our bills. Rent is high in New York and our congregation needs to think creatively about how to achieve financial sustainability. But running a coworking space is a little different than renting out our space for money (a important income generator for many congregations tasked with maintaining large, historic buildings). The coworkers, from any or no faith contexts, will be an integrated part of the community that we're all building together at the church.

Perhaps, for us, building a coworking space is a way of asking a question, in the context of a community wider than just the church, about how our lives might be more connected to the lives of those people around us. About how we might live, not passing one another by, but side by side. It's a way of dispelling the isolation that plagues so many of our lives: a way connecting to people we otherwise might never have spoken to. Of allowing the church space to be a nexus of all kinds of people, in a way that might gradually help weave our neighborhood more closely together and disrupt the boundaries that so often keep us all in our own corners.

Slowly, I hope, our coworking community will even begin to disrupt the status quo of haves and have-nots in our culture. A coworking space won't solve the problems of racial and economic equality that plague our country. But offering scholarships for entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented in their fields is one small piece of subverting, as they say, "business as usual." And the overlapping interests of church folk and coworkers will create a more networked, more powerful voice and witness for justice in our city.

This quality of connection is as important to our spiritual and emotional selves as healthy food and exercise are to our physical selves. Connection is different than having lots of friends or a close-knit family, or something to do on a Saturday night. It's different from having an active social life. It's something more deeply felt and deeply needed: something more human. It's a feeling of place in the ecosystem of our neighborhoods -- the same feeling that was generated in me that evening running into folks I knew as a cast my vote. The knowledge that, trudging home after a long day, you are never really on your own.

Rev. Emily M. D. Scott is the founding pastor of St. Lydia's Dinner Church in Brooklyn. The congregation is moving into their new space on July 15! If you're interested in coworking with a religious community in the Seattle area, check out The Collaboratory, already launched and running!