As the weeks of summer slip by, Community of Christ reunion grounds have sprung to life across North America and Europe. Tens of thousands of church members will attend reunions this year, giving us pause to consider the theological and historical connections that reunions share with the wider Christian tradition as well as our own unique understandings of sacred space.
As noted in a previous post, annual Community of Christ reunions in their earliest incarnations resembled the camp meetings familiar to so many Protestants in the early 19th century. Indeed, the history of reunions parallels the evolution of the camp meeting among American evangelical Protestants. For instance, early 19th century Methodist-style camp meetings evolved from tent meetings that varied from place to place to settled meeting grounds where people camped during the summer and engaged in recreation beyond simply prayer and preaching. Communities like Ocean Grove, New Jersey grew out of these Methodist campgrounds—not unlike some Community of Christ reunion grounds like Onset, Massachusetts (founded in the late 1920s) that have people living there year round. Comparisons could go on and on. For instance, recreation at reunions parallels changing attitudes towards sports and leisure among North Americans and Europeans at the turn of the twentieth century.
Yet, comparison of reunion grounds to camp meeting grounds and American recreational practices only gets us so far for understanding this annual Community of Christ ritual. Community of Christ reunions fulfill needs created by classic Community of Christ theology. Reunions in the 19th century and beyond helped fulfill the desire by Community of Christ members to “gather to Zion”—a project that focused so much early-twentieth and mid-twentieth century church activity. But Zion at reunion grounds was different than the planned communities of the early Latter Day Saints of the 1830s (and the Community of Christ attempts to resurrect centralized communities in the 1920s). Rather than a centralized Zion in Independence, Missouri, Zion was diffused across the landscape of North America, and later in Australia, England, and Tahiti. It is no coincidence that there are reunion grounds named Tiona Park (Tahitian for Zion) in Australia, Ziontario in Ontario, Canada, and Sionito in Texas. Beyond spatially enacting a gathering to Zion, reunions became a place where people could also experientially encounter “living” in Zion. For instance, I have heard people regularly say that a week at reunion was like spending a week in Zion. Reunions were a way for Community of Christ people to live in the “already” and “not yet” dimension of being part of Jesus’ kingdom. And they continue to do that. Community of Christ members see these places as sacred spaces, not simply campgrounds. Reunion grounds are embedded in the personal spiritual goegraphy that many Community of Christ members use to navigate their worlds. Any church administrator soon finds this out if they try to sell a reunion ground.
What are your favorite memories of reunions? How do you describe your own experience of at a reunion? Complete the metaphor, “A week at reunion is like . . .”