In my journey seeking autonomous community spaces, I have found that some spaces have a certain feeling – intangible – the closest I can describe it is a feeling of safety, of acceptance, of belonging, of love. Through my travels I am also becoming more and more aware how powerful these communities based in love are as sources of resistance to an increasingly divisive political climate.
Globally we have entered into political regimes sustained on fear. Ok – is that bad? Machiavelli argued that The Prince should prefer a regime based on fear rather than love because this will allow the people to be more malleable and therefore The Prince could act more freely to best protect the state. And while Machiavelli is right – The Prince should prefer a state built on fear – what should the people prefer? Should the people not prefer a social arrangement based on love? Love is our, the people’s, power. Love is the ability to come together as a community, respect the plurality of perspective and strengthen each other – this is our greatest strength.
What do I mean by “love?” The word has undergone intense colonization through possessive western interpretations. Perhaps we can look to one of the least romantic philosophers, Spinoza, who defined love through joy. He defined joy as the sensation of becoming more powerful and love as joy with the recognition of an external source that makes you more powerful. I am stronger because of you. Our ability to think, act and succeed is due to each other. We are one. This is the art of love politics. Love changes you, allows you to see a complete stranger as inherently valuable and therefore respect them no matter their beliefs. One could argue that regimes of fear – nationalism, fascism, racism, colonization etc- are also based on love, the difference is that regimes of fear are based on a love of things and people that are like you and so you feel the need to preserve, protect and possess what you identify with and begin to fear anything that is different, whereas relations based in love, are based in a love of all, differences included. The latter is the core of democracy – the belief that we are strengthed through our differences. Democracy won’t be possible until we can create a political society that is not based on fear.
Ok but what would it be like to have our social arrangement based on love? This is what I seek.
This dichotomy between regimes of love and fear is devastatingly apparent in the church. I am by no means an expert in theology and do not pretend to understand or judge any person’s connection to the infinite, to the divine. I recognize that there are many beautiful paths to truth. However, I do know what it feels like to sit in a space where you are not allowed to speak, must kneel and listen to a man tell you what to think and how to dress. If you speak to me of church, I immediately think of repression, assimilation and patriarchy. That is, until I found this next space.
On my morning run a few blocks from where I was staying and days before I am to leave Prague, I come across a garden replete with a diy climbing wall, hammocks, compost piles, a water collection tank, sandbox full to the brim of toys and two men in collard baby blue shirts.
I stop running and investigate. The front door appears to be barred but there are refugees welcome signs and a notice board in Czech that has all the makings of a community center.
I am panting, sweat dripping down my face and staring intently into a window that has been filled with what looks like children’s artwork. I feel a woman come up behind me, take Future out of my ears and ask, “what is this place?” She’s small, kind and beaming in the most wonderful way. It is a church. Of sorts. She tells me to come back tomorrow and she will answer my questions and give me a tour. “Come in through the garden, the door is always open.”
When I come back there is a man in the garden working on his laptop. I enter the garden and attempt to take pictures but my camera is having difficulty focusing (I learn later because it was just in manual setting lol 🙃) so apologies, I have very limited and potato quality documentation of this magical wonderful space. The man says hello. I ask if he works here. He says no but his colleague does, would I like to meet her? Yes please, of course. We go into the door and there are coat racks and a place to put your shoes. To the left are small, circular mirrors with “you look great today :)” and other sentiments of encouragement written next to them. Take a right and we are in the kitchen. The woman I met the day before is frying zucchini disks.
She says hello and then proceeds to speak in Czech with the man. I ask if I can help and she says I can peel potatoes. I attempt to do so, before I even get through one she comes over and starts to peel, finishing two as I start my second. One of her twin 6 year old boys runs up intermittently to poke her, laugh and make funny faces. This seems to be a normal thing as she remains unphased. I feel useful, although not too much, and comfortable in the space.
I start to ask questions. She and the man I met outside teach improv classes to adults, usually to people in HR. I ask something along the lines of if her work here in this space is her second job. She laughs and says she doesn’t know which one is first or second – she spends more time working in this space but gets paid more by the other.
Everything still seems pretty nebulous and I’m doing a terrible job of peeling potatoes. So far I understand that she and her husband studied theology nearby and were living in dorms that are next door to the church. At that time, around 12 years ago, the church was empty, no one was coming to services. The church asked if she wanted to come in and help to restore/manage the space. They pay about 10,000 euros per year for the space.
I feel safe, welcomed and included. She has occasional conversations in Czech with the man from outside and another, younger man in tattoos smoking a joint. I decide to try a new knife and immediately slice off a chunk of skin from my left pointer knuckle. She doesn’t have a band aid but offers paper towel to stop the bleeding. The slice on my finger looks very similar to the marking on the sides of a guy I am dating’s face who got the marks as a young boy from his tribe in Nigeria. It doesn’t hurt.
I try to keep peeling potatoes and she kindly says maybe that’s enough potatoes and puts the pot on the stove to boil.
She shows me the adjoining dining room and another attached room that has a futon and a desk with computer that her boys are watching what appears to be an interview or documentary on. They are planning on cleaning up and renting out that room as an office space. The church makes money through donations, grants, concerts, performances and other varying rentals for rehearsal/office space. She then takes me back through the kitchen down the stairs to a basement with a free clothing store, storage and then a giant underground space where they host performances. Her husband is working on renovating the stage area.area. All of the maintenance and renovations have been done by her with the help of her husband and other community members.
There is also a really nice bar area and a full rehearsal room equipped with padding and recording equipment her husband built for his band that I unfortunatately did not photograph. We head through the space up a back set of stairs into the main church area. But instead of pews, they have constructed a completely round stage so people are immediately included into any performance (they also use the space as a theater) or service.
She leads me into a side room with glass boxes lining the walls full with ashes, photos and flowers for deceased communuty members. It is only now that she begins to explain the history of the Czechoslovak Church.
The Czech church was created by the people for the people. La Sagrada Familia may have said that was its intention but here that is literally how a baby church was born. People would move into a large home and from that community they would together found a church on the first floor and basement for the community living in the space. When a community member died, their ashes were placed in one of these glass boxes so they remained in the community.
The church was very much your space, and was there to address whatever concerns arose within the community. As she is describing this I feel a wall of salvation slam into and fall down around me. For the past few years I have felt this severe need to create a space. Last year at this time I was deep cleaning a farm house in upstate New York trying to build something, I had no idea what. With each space I learn more and more about why I was doing the things I was doing. But here I am presented with a demonstrated tradition of spaces exactly as I had dreamed in the country of my father’s side (my father’s family is from Chezoslovakia but escaped during world War II). And then I get very very sad. How is it that the concept of church as a community of love has become so distorted into communities of forced conformity and fear. These spaces based on love I thought I dreamed up have existed for generations and yet I and many others have been completely deprived of knowledge of their existence. Instead, force fed sterile versions of community. Never truly knowing what it feels like to be in a community that loves you and will be there for you. My eyes start to water and she almost instinctively responds by explaining how dangerous the church can be in the wrong hands. Life is fine when you are happy and everything is in your favor, but when you are really in need and vulnerable, going to a space that professes to offer love and salvation but only colonizes your mind is very dangerous. You learn a false love that can inhibit your personal growth and self sustainability.
This place loves. Blindly. She is beyond humble and as we tour the space she will casually mention another service they offer in the space. For example, on Sundays they allow the local homeless community use the washing and drying machines and open up showers, the doors are always open for people in the community to come by and get water, they have daily soup kitchens throughout the year, host free Czech and Roma language courses, have a community garden that is open to the public and often used by parents with children, have free after school programs for kids in the neighborhood, host art classes and workshops, host theater and music performances including punk and underground acts, have church services that are non denominational and actively seek to learn from all who enter’s religion (for example a large portion of their community is Roma so they have actively sought to learn from the Roma religion and incorporate their practices into weekly services), offer aid to refugees. She reiterates that the church is there for the people so if there is something that the community needs, they try to provide it. This means that their services are constantly in flux. This again hits me like a wall of salvation. My mantra, if you will, for the past few years has been to create spaces that are responsive to the constantly evolving needs and desires of those in the space. This is it, an organic, evolving space serving the needs of the community. Again I am presented with a tangible rendering of my dreams.
She is on a small salary along with three other people, the priest and two young women who do general jobs. Every year the church chooses four people to have on official salary. She has been there 12 years, the longest out of anyone.
She takes me to the space where they host church services and daycare. It is about the size of a small Chapel and clearly multipurpose. We then head out the building to the side gate where there is a play area for children and indoor classroom and office where the priest is working on the computer.
There is also a young man there who she begins to speak with in Czech. It appears that the night before someone had stolen a saxophone and guitar from the community space. The young man works in the space and is a Romani musician. She asks him to check around to see if anyone is selling the instruments as she thinks that will likely be the case. She explains to me that in the 12 years she has been there she has been hurt like this many, many times. The church responds by cancelling their services until the objects are returned. She says that’s all they really can do. She seems understandably upset by it but explains that they chose to work with vulnerable populations, they know having an open door is likely to be taken advantage of and that this is part of the service. The police had been there all morning so it has been a long day for her.
We head back to the kitchen and she mashes the potatoe and makes five plates. She invites me out to eat with her husband and two children almost without asking. As we eat her children play freely coming every now and then to sit and eat with us. Again I feel welcomed, included and safe. As we are eating several people walk by who she waves to, members of the community. One is an electrician that helps out for discounted prices. One a tour guide who leads tours for alternative underculture in Prague. He shows his groups this space and a portion of his profits go to help the space. He comes often to the church and has become a close friend of the couple.
Her husband tells me that a few years back some of the leaders in the larger Czech church community wanted to shut down this church. They didn’t understand what was being done in the space. He explains that although the Czech church was founded to be a community for and by the people, this is the only church in the country that still follows those principles and operates the way that they do. The other churches have become formalized and moved away from community service, opting instead to keep things clean and formal. She remarks, “so many young kids come here and ask why am I allowed to dance and play here but in other churches I have to sit still and be quiet?” In the face of being shut down, they invited the church board to come and see what they were doing and what they were offering. The church was impressed and allowed them to remain. She explains, “so many people are afraid of what they do not know, but differences should be embraced and encouraged.” I ask her if she identifies with a particular religion and she says no, no, no. Her relationship to god is very personal. She believes everyone’s is, and thats why it is so important for the church to embrace differences in praise and expression. She studied ethics and theology, her husband studied theology and social work. Their partnership feels very comfortable and mutually strengthening.
She tells me of another place called Klinika close by. It is a community space and squat that is a completely independant space – as in they will not accept any funding or help from the government or organizations. The church partnered with Klinika when the refugee crisis became severe and they offered homes, food, supplies, events for the refugees coming through. Since then Klinika has hosted events in the church basement and the two groups keep close ties. She mentions that people outside the community (and on the church board) do not really like that they partner with Klinika because Klinika has different focuses and serves different communities. She scoffs at this and explains that you can come together as separate groups to accomplish a goal in common while maintaining your differences. This is the core of political theory.
At this is begin to cry. I am so proud of her. I am so thankful for her existence. All of the hard work she has put into the space, her ability to connect and partner with other organizations, she struggles daily, little to no thanks, and still she is so kind, level headed and brave. Such resilience, I am in the presence of an angel. She mentions that she really wants to become a therapist but she has to go to a lot of schooling and I bite my tounge. Here in this space she has and continues to touch so many lives. This space is therapy in itself. This is the politics of love. This is the true face of church, community for the people by the people running on shoestrings but waking up everyday to provide refuge from the storm.
I take the empty plates in and wash them. The electrician comes in and they need to work so I say my goodbyes and leave my email just in case there is anything I can do to help.
Again I ask – what would it be like to have our social arrangement based on love? A multiplicity of diverse groups acting politically together as equals to achieve common goals. I see communal spaces like this church as experiments in political love, blueprints if you will, for the building of a new structure of social relations.
I’m sure you have experienced the sterile nature of a traditional church. Now imagine walking into this space, this church full of life and love. To me, the experience of this form of a church illustrates the difference between a regime built on fear and the possibilities of a world built on love. We have become accoustomed to sterile relationships in a political realm built on fear. But there is another way to build up a relational structure. On the foundation of love. I cannot emphasize enough how magical finding this space was. Only a few blocks away from where I was staying, days before I had to leave. Everyday up until today I walked past a space so beautiful without noticing. Oh my dear, dear you have taught me so much. Loveloveevolvelove.
What we learned:
- Even if everyone tells you there is no community space in a city, even if you feel that a city is particularly sterile, there are fractals coming up, perhaps even more powerful than you ever imagined.
- The theory behind the Czech Church. Church as non-denominational community. How beautiful that this concept has been around for hundreds of years and yet how terribly sad that greed and thirst for power have turned church into a repressive space.
- Spaces like this take a lot of work and are constantly challenged.
- Rethinking of performance relations – circular stage.
- Spaces exist within an already existing framework (the church) that can and do evolve to respond to the constantly changing needs and desires of those in the community.
- The experience/trajectory of a space depends so much on the backgrounds and perspectives of those in the space. Find a beautiful person, find a beautiful space.
- Theft, abuse happens. You are going to be taken advantage of.
- She works so hard for the community and yet still needs another job to survive.
- Tours focusing on alternative spaces can help fund and bring awareness about particular groups and spaces.
- She does not live in the space because she finds it important to be able to have time where people do not constantly need things from her.
- Theology and religion have a beautiful side.
- Kitchen work is dangerous