Since September 2009, residents have been filling the rooms and halls of the Atangard Community Project, located on the renovated top floor of Abbotsford, BC’s Fraser Valley Inn (also known as the Hotel Atangard).
I remember the first time I set foot inside the Atangard.
The musty smell of old building confronted my senses as the doors swung open. Like a well-worn book, it had a strangely welcoming odour. Cluttered to the right were a handful of old bicycles, the kind I’d seen hipsters in California riding to the beach. To the left, a winding staircase circling a Bourbon-inspired street light climbed to the second level; the home of the Atangard Community Project. At the top of the stairs, an artsy looking girl, with black plastic-rimmed glasses, flashed a smile in my direction before turning back to her book.
The old brick hotel has a long history at its busy downtown Abbotsford street corner, a history that dates to a time when staple accessories included fur coats, fancy hats, and cigarettes. It once included a bank and even a pharmacy. As time marched along, however, the building became a decrepit hub of social problems and the pharmaceuticals found there were no longer those of the doctor prescribed variety. Eventually the city closed its doors and the building became a haunt for the local spider and rodent population.
Today the Atangard Hotel, with its 18 single and double occupancy rooms, houses nearly 30 students and young professionals, who have come together to experiment in life as an intentional and shared community. This dream, better described as a longing, was nurtured and brought to life by a small group of dedicated 20-somethings who wanted real, natural, and frequent relationships with one another.
From the first stages of dreaming and planning, right through to rezoning proposals, renovations and finishing touches, this has been a community shaped by a hunger for genuine involvement in each other’s lives.
The Atangard Community Project co-founder and director, Sophia Suderman, describes the community living on the second floor of the Atangard as “a collection of individuals learning what it means to invite others into their lives.”
There is something genuine and real about the lives and relationships I observed there. An open-hearted generosity extends to Atangard guests and strangers alike. While this community is not officially tied to any belief or religious system, many who live there point to Jesus and their Christian faith as a key motivator in trying to live a simpler and more relational lifestyle. Within the narrow brick hallways lined with artists’ work, the faith of these residents is being developed and challenged to grow.
In many ways, the values this community is living out look very similar to those of the early church in the book of Acts. For the denizens of Atangard, community is not just a nice concept that gets talked about; it is a very normal and practical life, rightly lived.
Suderman put it this way: “The Atangard Community Project is an experiment that explores living together as a means of integrating our priorities and beliefs into a way of life that works within this society. We aim to create an opportunity which facilitates our ability to love God and love our neighbours in an honest and practical manner. We have no intention or interest in an exclusive Christian living arrangement. We are building a foundation which bases our love for one another on the example of Christ, and offers acceptance to all who reside among us. People will be treated with respect and compassion, without partiality.”
For the Atangard this looks like showing real care and concern for the people around them, as well as promoting eco-friendly choices like van sharing, bicycle riding, buying local produce, sharing huge house meals a few days a week, using city transit and planting a community garden. They intentionally live on fewer resources and without some modern luxuries, freeing up more time and money to spend on relationships.
Of course, any time you throw a bunch of people into a shared space, conflict, tension and drama are bound to arise. While tension can divide a community, it can also allow its members to learn to love each other in a deeper, wider and more authentic way. It is a time of soul shaping, not just for the individual, but for the entire community as they learn who they are becoming and where they are going. Lisa Ottevangers, a student at the local university who also doubles as a pancake chef, rooms over the building’s downstairs bar with its bad karaoke, amateur scratch DJs and cheap watery pints. For Lisa, the nightly routine of bass lines, bad singing, and ear plugs is a reminder of the other sacrifices and struggles required to live within this kind of community. “Community is built by being vulnerable with each other. To be broken and humble before others, it reveals that we are all humans with similar struggles; able to support each other despite our differences,” she said.
“Community living entails energy and time spent on others, confrontation, tears, laughter and growth.”
Oddities can occur while living in a community like this. For example, last summer a hula hooping craze swept through the community like a tornado in a trailer park; the hula hoopers even have a dedicated hula-hoop storage space. Odds are the Atangard community will get weirder still. However, with this sense of fun comes a creative edge that inspires the artists of Atangard.
The Atangard Community is like a bohemian sideshow of artists and musicians who’ve gathered into one place to provoke creativity in one another. Josh Hyslop, songwriter and recording artist with Claymore Records, has found that even just the space — writing alone in one of the lounges — inspires his work. Songwriters, musicians, print and mixed media artists, winemakers, writers, photographers, producers and graphic artists have come together under one roof, each sharing their art. Their work lines the halls, they fill the lounges with interesting discussions — and an album was recorded in one of their guest rooms.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that those who love the dream of community more than community itself actually destroy what community there might be. On the flip side, those who love people without exception unknowingly create community. The Atangard is a colourful expression of the latter. Its residents have consciously chosen the way of community which may be, subconsciously, the way of love. The community that resides inside the old brick Atangard Hotel is intentional about opening up and allowing others to inhabit their lives.
“I do understand that this will be a fight. It will require a conscious effort and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights,” said Suderman. “Some aspects of this life may appear substandard from the outside, but I truly believe it will be worth it,” she said. “It may be that in later years we will look at this portion of our lives as a process of learning and growth, and as the foundation to many other endeavours.”
Community, whether living together in an old downtown building or opening our lives to a neighbour or co-worker, is intentional, messy, and usually comes on the heels of a lot of time spent together. But despite the hard work and sacrifice it can entail, the struggle for a shared life is worth it.
Jeremy Postal lives a five minute bicycle ride away from the Atangard Community Project in Abbotsford, BC. Follow him on twitter @jeremypostal Follow the Atangard story at atangardcommunityproject.blogspot.com.