Reunions as Sacred Spaces, Sacred Metaphors

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 . . .”

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8 comments on “Reunions as Sacred Spaces, Sacred Metaphors

  1. I’m not original, but “A week at reunion is like…Zion!” I heard a lot of talk about Zion since I was too young to understand. But going to reunion helped me to understand. I’ve been to reunion at Camp Farwesta, Guthrie Grove, Chesapeake Bay mission center, and the one in Utah. All have given me a taste of Zion. I could let my guard down. I felt like I was among family. It was a sense of belonging “to the tribe.”

    Each time I try to explain it to non-members, it truly is hard to really capture what reunion is and what it means for my life. What I love most about it is the trusting nature of people. I’m not a person who lets my guard down easily around people in the real world, but when I’m at reunion, retreats, World Conference, or other church events, I have no problem shutting down my cautious guard and just be at peace.

    Its been years since I’ve been to reunion and I wish I had the time off from work and the extra money to be able to afford it again.

    When I think about reunion, I believe that is what Zion would be like. And I love our concept of Zion much much better than the Zion presented in “The Matrix Reloaded.” Its a spiritual experience for members of our church. After reunion, though, its always difficult to go back to the real world and deal with the challenges of people around you who have no concept of Zion or carry the peace within.

  2. Barb Walden says:

    I dreaded reunions as a child. The outgoing “everybody knows everybody” atmosphere was a terrifying environment for a young introverted and painfully shy kid. My siblings and I were raised in a small congregation with few other children – in fact, we were the only kids from the congregation who attended reunion. When we walked on the grounds, unlike my parents, we didn’t know anyone. Rather than getting to know the other kids, we preferred to hide out in the cabin and wait for the week to end.

    However, as an adult who eventually crawled out of her introverted shell, I love the reunion experience. Time to reconnect with folks you haven’t seen all year and a chance to meet one-on-one with church leaders. The best part of the annual reunion is the week-long break away from distractions and an allotted time set aside to refocus on one’s spiritual core. I completely agree with Nicholas, when he shared that our reunions are a glimpse of the zionic experience. A supportive and loving environment that attempts to recapture our 19th century communal roots. Good times.

  3. jeswitts says:

    I’m an adult convert so I didn’t have the childhood and teen camp and reunion experiences. I have attended 6 reunions in the past 30 years.

    Reunion for me is about relationship, connection and freedom. My congregational life is typically over-full of tasks and task-focused conversations and then rushing back to our lives. Reunion provides time for sitting in the lawn chairs and classes and meals, catching up with the spiritual journeying of others and ourselves. I tend to arrive expectant to deepen fellowship, and uncover insights and a sense of belovedness of my/our journey, mission, and fellowship.

    Reunion is also an opportunity to have the class conversations that are often too conflicted and volatile to hold in our congregations. I expect to be challenged and frustrated, and it is easier with people you don’t see and need to function with every week. I find it is not as risky and vulnerable feeling to consider a new idea in the Reunion setting. If I had not been exposed to female priesthood members in the reunion setting I would likely not be a member of Community of Christ.

    When I look back at the spiritual landmarks and turning points of my personal life, many were experienced, cemented or celebrated at a Reunion.

    My first reunion was Temple Grove in 1980. I was a teenager, just 2 months had passed since being baptized in a small town congregation. I first experienced the awe and wonder that I was a citizen in a world-wide fellowship drawn together to build Zion.

    I think I am drawn to reunion when I have urgent needs that require space and freedom to think things through, to take respite from daily life, and to build a resolve to change my circumstances. I took the first steps toward finding peace with 156, with turning 30 :/, with serious illness, with a discerning Priesthood call, and with coming out.

    Reunion is when I am most engaged, honest, open, and vulnerable to myself and Community and Spirit, allowing me to set a course to new landscapes.

  4. dhowlett says:

    Great comments! Jeswitts, I had never thought about reunions being a place to discuss issues that would have been too contentious to talk about in congregational space. Reunions, in that way, could be thought of as “temples”–places where people congregate and heaven and earth meet. The evangelical camp meeting and the quarterly conference were new spaces constructed by nineteenth-century American Christians in church life. Reunions seem to function similarly as an alternative space for some Community of Christ members. Thanks, Barb and Nicholas, for your reflections, too about reunions as embodying some of early community building aspirations.

  5. I just returned from a lovely week of reunion at the Ozark Campgrounds. It was cool most of the time (remarkable for July in Missouri) and just went perfect. They had a book exchange so I unloaded at least a dozen books while there and picked up two.

    I taught a Temple School class on Survey of Church History. It was accurate information for a change. I am happy to see the church begin to confront it’s history and acknowledge it.

    Nice prayer meetings and many children and young folks prayed and testified.

    All in all…just perfect…a little taste of Zion.

  6. Christopher says:

    This is really interesting stuff, David. If “gathering to Zion” was/is central to Community of Christ reunions, I wonder why no similar tradition exists among the Utah Mormons after the revocation of the commandment to gather to Utah in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (it really does seem like a logical and practical idea). Perhaps the CoC picked up the idea from other Christians in the midwest and eastern U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and because of Utah’s isolation from any such Protestant gatherings, it never took hold among the LDS. It seems like there’s a lot of potentially fruitful avenues of research here. Perhaps we could collaborate on something in the future for an MHA or JWHA conference.

    • dhowlett says:

      Hi Christopher,

      Interesting thoughts on why RLDS “gathered” at reunions and LDS did not do such a practice. Several historians have argued that Utah Mormons gather to Zion by gathering to temples that expand outside the intermountain West after the late nineteenth century. (By the way, is it “intermountain” or “innermountain”?) I think Bushman does this in his essay “Making Space for Mormons” in the edited volume, Believing History. Others have done so, too, but I can not think of who off the top of my head. Do you know? A MHa or JWHA session someday would be really interesting.

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