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In the early 1990s, I ended up living in a Christian commune. The circumstances behind my going there aren't that interesting, so I'll spare you the story, but it boiled down to me and three friends deciding that we needed to personally cure homelessness. So we found an organization that helped the homeless in Chicago, made the arrangements through our church, and left on a whim. Because people in their early 20s can do that, and looking back with regret on the actions of your youth is one of life's greatest teachers.

We all knew going in that it was a commune. We knew that it was going to be different and weird and kind of sucky. What we didn't expect was ...

It Was A Bad '90s Gang Movie, Just Barely Out Of Sight

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The day we left, I was wearing all green. Green pants, green flannel shirt, green bandanna, green plaid Chuck Taylors. Shut up, it was the grunge era. I was cool, and you cannot convince me otherwise. When we arrived, we were greeted by a small welcoming committee -- ten people or so -- who, as I exited our van, immediately surrounded me and pushed my head down into the "duck" position, like I was the president. I assumed they thought I was Eddie Vedder because I looked so awesome.

When we got inside, it was explained that I was ass-deep in gang territory, and that wearing all of one color is a pretty good way to get shot. Add in the fact that I'm a 6' 4" tall white guy in a predominantly black neighborhood which has built up a nasty hatred for white people, and I was basically a walking neon sign that flashed, "I AM THE OBJECT OF YOUR AGGRESSION! PLEASE FUCK ME UP!"

"At least do me the favor of not aiming for the crotch."

Now, it's important to note that when I say that we were in gang territory, that's kind of an understatement. At the time, the actual building where I was going to be staying sat exactly on the border between the territories of two rival gangs. The McDonald's employees just two blocks down told us that there had been six drive-bys there in the previous year. We saw several PSA fliers which warned residents to not sit near windows in their home, because stray bullets were an issue.

We fell asleep to gunfire almost every night. Occasionally, we'd hear police or ambulance sirens, but typically, they stayed the hell out. Especially at night, when all of the really bad shit happened. We were told several times by several different people, "Do not go outside after dark under any circumstances." I always mentally finished their warning with "... because you are so awesome, and people will mob you, asking for autographs."

"Hey, you're the one who told me not to wear all one color."

The weirdest part to me was that we never directly saw any of this. We'd hear the shots being fired at night. The next morning, we'd see spent shells on the sidewalk. Not just a stray one here and there, but dozens of them. We'd hear the residents of the commune occasionally gossiping about a robbery, a mugging, a shooting ... it was like a movie monster that's always just out of view. But you know that if you turn your head at just the wrong moment, that fucker is going to jump out of the bushes and eat your head clean off.

I always imagined that after the sun went down, Boyz N The Hood was playing out just down the block. Somewhere close, Cuba Gooding Jr. was just trying to do the right thing. Meanwhile, on the inside of the building ...

There Was An Oddly Large Number Of Metal Guitarists

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I know that this isn't a crazy earth-shattering point that's going to obliterate anyone's worldview, but I have to talk about it because it's just so fucking weird.

When I first heard of the commune, I thought what you're probably thinking right now: that it'd be like 20 or 30 people living together in a big-ass house. But that wasn't the case. It was more like 300 people living in what had been a hotel in the Al Capone era. If a floor had 20 rooms, 15 of those would house guitarists, and half of those would be practicing at full volume at any given hour. It didn't matter if it was noon or three in the morning. It sounded like an orchestra's pre-concert warm up, except with heavily distorted metal.

And I'm not talking about fluffy Christian hair metal like Stryper or ... whatever other Christian metal band went mainstream at the time. Amy Grant? I'll go with Amy Grant. No, I'm talking about full-on death metal, thrash, and speed metal. If you didn't know, then now you do. Christian death metal is totally a thing. And yes, it sucks just as much as regular death metal, only it sucks in the name of Jesus.

Knowing that, you're probably thinking the second thing that went through my mind at the time: Yeah, it's kind of strange that a Christian commune attracts that many musicians, but lots of people pick up an instrument at some point. Especially in an era in which the Internet wasn't a thing, so physical hobbies were a lot more prevalent. But this wasn't a community full of bassists, drummers, pianists, and tuba players (tubaists?). It was almost entirely guitarists. Specifically, guitarists who played hardcore metal. They were drawn there, as if the building was Mother Abagail from The Stand and their Jesus-based riffs were the only weapons that could ward off the Dark Man.

The funniest part to me was the irony that even though everyone was into playing music, nobody was in a band. Drummers were a rarity because nobody could afford a drum set. And even if they could, it's one thing for your neighbors to put up with screaming distortion pedals at 4 a.m. -- it's another beast entirely when someone is slamming out speed metal drum solos deep into the butthole of night. Nobody sang. Nobody wrote lyrics. Nobody played bass. Just guitar, all day and all night.

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"Dude, I rocked so hard that my guitar got raptured!"

No one ever complained about the noise. Not even when the normal humans were trying to sleep. Maybe it was a welcome distraction from the gunshots. Or hell, maybe that was the cause of the gunshots.

Now, you may be wondering how all those homeless people get fed if half of the commune's population was up all night playing angry Jesus songs. Well, that's kind of the problem with a communal system ...

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When Your Work System Isn't Regulated, Nothing Gets Done

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Keep in mind that I was a dumb kid fresh out of high school, and I had no real world education. So until I was smack dab in the middle of this lifestyle, I never made the connection between "commune" and "communism." In my mind, the word "commune" just meant "a shitload of people living together, and there's probably a barn involved -- I hear they do great work with stockpiles."

The main difference between that Christian commune and a full-on communist government is that they didn't regulate or assign work schedules. If the entire community decided that they didn't feel like working that day, then there was no army or police force that could sweep in and beat them into submission. There were no monetary fines to enforce, because nobody made any money. The majority of their income came from church-owned businesses like Christian-themed head shops -- and sadly, that's not a joke.

"Nah, dude. It's for tobacco. The Lord's tobacco."

All money went into a communal bank which was kept right there inside the building. If you needed money, you went to a barred window, told the person what it was for, and then you signed for it. After you bought your thing, you brought back the receipt to prove that you didn't just blow it all on drugs and dildos. Though I suppose if they OK'd a drugs-and-dildos purchase, then you were good to go.

The one thing they didn't do was keep track of who was volunteering for which job. So the guy who slept until mid-afternoon and then played God's version of Cannibal Corpse songs until daylight got the same allowance as someone who worked 80 hours a week feeding the homeless. Which is to say basically none, because money in a system like this is "necessity only." This created an unavoidable problem.

Since everyone was treated as financially equal (read "dirt fucking poor"), people quickly lost the motivation to get things done. Especially when the bulk of your community is made up of early-20s males who are still in the mindset of "Why should I put out the effort when I get the same things as someone who does jack shit?" Therefore, a large part of that population did exactly jack shit, and no more.

So tired. Must be all that soothing death metal from next door.

What you end up with, as I saw happening in person, is a core group of people who take on a massive amount of responsibility, volunteering their asses off, and then just kind of slowly morph into a "boss" type of role. Then they work until they break, while everyone else leeches off of their labor. For instance, you might really love cooking, so you start making meals ... for 300 people. If you ever get sick or need a break, very few people are willing to take over, because you've become The Cook. If you don't do your thing, then nobody eats.

So this sets up a weird situation in which floors don't get vacuumed until someone steps on enough filth to hit their breaking point. Preventative maintenance is nonexistent because there are no dedicated electricians, plumbers, or carpenters. Things get fixed when they completely break, and not one second before. If you're a guest and you're wondering why your bed smells weird, it's probably because the sheets have never been washed.

Everyone Had A Tragic Backstory

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Even though this organization was known for their work with the homeless, I encountered very few people who were there because they wanted to dedicate their lives to such work. Pretty much every person I talked to had lost someone important in their lives. Or they were a recovered drug addict. Or an ex-criminal. Or they had escaped extreme abuse. Lots of people came to the commune when they were at the lowest point in their lives -- and I'm talking about suicidal levels of depression.

Someone will inevitably pop up screaming that tired old rhetoric of "See?! Christianity preys on the weak!" I'm not getting into that conversation. I give exactly as much of a shit about other people's religious views as they do about mine. As long as the group is legitimately helping other people, I don't care if they do it in the name of Korrok.

There's a point to this. No, these people didn't come to the commune to help the homeless ... but it became a byproduct of receiving help themselves. A staggering number of people told me that, had they not found that community, they would have shot themselves or robbed a bank or overdosed on Twinkie filling within a month. I met people who had been sober for years because they now had a social circle which would check up on them and make damn sure that they were staying that way. For many of them, having other humans who could fill the most basic role of "someone to talk to when shit got bad" was a first-time experience.

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"... and thanks to your support, I finally have the courage to kill again!"

Most of those people were so grateful for the turnaround that happened in their lives that they felt the need to give back. So while the floors looked like Satan wiped his ass with it and my bed smelled like a hippie's pubic dreadlocks, when it came time to do the really intensive charity work, everyone jumped right the hell in, no holds barred.

Now, understand that I'm not saying that you can solve all of your problems by moving into a Christian commune. I'm no recruitment officer, and I'm sure as hell not a billboard for causes and movements. Even if I was, that wouldn't be what I'd promote, because I thought the whole experience was kind of creepy and surreal, and I hated every second of it. I'm just saying that it wasn't all "Ew, gross!" and "Did someone say they wanted to hear more death metal?" They legitimately helped a lot of people.

Unfortunately ...

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The People We Tried To Help Fucking Hated Us

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A huge part of our volunteer work was taking care of the elderly who couldn't afford nursing homes. There were probably a hundred of them who lived in the commune and needed near-constant care. The way the commune managed this was coupling up able-bodied younger people who didn't mind rooming with someone who had slipped into dementia, or who had taken to fits of violent screaming because Alzheimer's had set in.

Before you get all sad from that mental image, stop and remember the thing I mentioned earlier about the guitarists. Because so many people played, and so many other elderly people needed roommates, that set up a situation in which death metal would blare out of a 90-year-old woman's room at all hours of the night. If you could walk by one of those rooms and not picture that old woman shredding out a speed metal solo behind that door, you are a better person that I am.

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"Suck it, bitches. I'll jam until your fucking soul bleeds."

For those of us who didn't room with them (because fuck that), most of our volunteer work came down to just being a waiter. You brought them their food, and then took their plates when they were done. It sounds pretty simple, but when you factor in the mental disorders, or even just natural senility, it was kind of a nightmare. They'd throw food at you. They'd scream at you because you didn't bring them what they wanted (because of restrictive diets). If you mixed up an order, they'd treat you like you just attempted to stab them. If you actually tried to stab them, you'd go to jail.

We fed around 300 homeless people per day, and it was the same thing with them. The difference is that the homeless people were often able-bodied, and could beat the shit out of you if they snapped. Many of them carried knives or at least some form of makeshift weapon, because they had to. And it's not like you can withhold their food because they hit their breaking point at just the wrong time. If I was sleeping on sidewalks in the middle of a Chicago December, manners would have gone out the fucking window on the very first day. If you gave me shit at a soup kitchen, I wouldn't just take a swing at you; I'd power-bomb you through a table and scream "Oooooh YEEEAAAAHHH!"

And God help you if there's a folding steel chair within reach.

It was common to see someone going through the loot that they had stolen that day. I once saw a woman going through five or six wallets right there at the table. She'd take out the cash and anything that looked interesting, and then throw the rest in the trash. For that reason, we'd never bring anything valuable when we did volunteer work. Yeah, my wallet didn't have cash in it, because I was as broke as the losing end of a boner joust. But replacing your license is a pain in the cock, so it was best to just leave that shit at home.

I don't even remember how long I stayed there. It felt like a year, but it could have been a week. All I know was that it didn't take long for me to learn the most valuable lesson a Christian commune can teach: You don't want to live in a Christian commune for very long.

For the opposite side of the Christian upbringing coin, check out 5 Insane Lessons From My Christian Fundamentalist Childhood. And watch out for pregnancy witch hunts when you go to Bible school. You'll see why in 5 Insane Realitites At My Fundamentalist Christian College.

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