The Rev. Jennifer “Helms” Jarrell and her husband, Greg, are white, college educated and from middle-class backgrounds, but they choose to live in one of Charlotte’s poorest and most racially segregated neighborhoods.
Neighbors knock on the door asking for food. Some are seeking car rides. And others mistake the house for a day care center because there are so many kids there.
“It was difficult to explain to some people why we wanted to be here,” Greg Jarrell, 35, said of the couple’s decision to move off Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte after attending seminary in Richmond, Va. “After we moved here, we would say come and see. The fruit around us would give people the answer to why we made these choices.”
They are part of a small, but growing number of homes called “intentional communities,” where small groups of people live together based on values and beliefs such as environmental sustainability or social justice.
The Jarrells founded QC Family Tree nearly 10 years ago in the Enderly Park neighborhood near uptown. About a dozen people now live in two houses, agreeing to share meals, prayers, child-rearing responsibilities and chores.
They host weekly dinners for neighbors, lead a summer reading program at a nearby church and organize a youth group. But the goal is to follow Christian teachings and build authentic relationships where people learn from one another.
When protests erupted across the nation over the killings of unarmed black men by police, the effort took on added urgency. Borrowing from the protest theme “Black Lives Matter,” the group has launched a project in which neighborhood children write poems and create art documenting why their lives are important.
The initiative is significant because the children often internalize the negative messages they hear about black youths and the places they live, said Helms Jarrell, 36, who leads SouthPark Christian Church along with her husband.
After 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, she said, “There was a lot of conversation about ‘that could have been me.’ They could see themselves in Trayvon. There was fear.”
With their often left-leaning politics and unconventional living arrangements, intentional communities can recall the 1960s when some people lived in communes to challenge the mainstream.
The Fellowship for Intentional Community, a Missouri-based clearinghouse, has estimated some 100,000 people in the United States live in homes organized around religion, social activism and other beliefs. There are about 60 intentional communities in North Carolina, according to the group, including at least two others in Charlotte. The organization’s website lists an additional 10 such communities in South Carolina.
Chris Roth, editor of Communities Magazine, which covers the lifestyle, said it has seen an uptick in popularity in recent years. Within the past decade, Roth said, the trend has been driven by people creating “co-housing” communities in which individuals or families live in their own homes but share common spaces such as kitchens, laundry rooms, libraries and recreation spaces.
He said the Jarrells are part of a segment striving to uplift urban neighborhoods. Often, the groups move into an area and try to buy multiple houses on the same block, Roth said.
At one time, he said, a group in New York City offered free ambulance rides until the venture went bankrupt.
But the Jarrells stress that they have a two-way relationship with Enderly Park. Their neighbors have enriched their lives, they say.
‘A new way of life’
When the couple finished seminary, they decided to go someplace to live out their Christian teachings.
After scouting several Charlotte neighborhoods, the couple found Enderly Park. Nearly half the neighborhood’s roughly 3,400 residents receive food stamps, according to a city study. The school dropout rate is twice the city average, and the violent crime rate is four times the city average.
Asked why they wanted to live in the neighborhood, Greg Jarrell recalled as a 19-year-old spending three months working at a Christian activity center in East St. Louis, Ill., an impoverished, blighted suburb of St. Louis.
Growing up in Fuquay-Varina, just outside Raleigh, he said he knew little about living among the poor. But the acceptance and warmth he received from people in East St. Louis changed him.
“I wanted a new way of life,” Greg Jarrell said. “These people we were falling in love with touched our lives. We couldn’t remain in the same place and on the same trajectory.”
Now, he and his wife spend their days managing the community and trying to raise money to keep it going.
All of the community’s members eat breakfast together each morning at 7:45. They read Scripture and share prayer. Helms Jarrell makes sure her children, ages 4 and 6, get to school.
Community members often work outside jobs to make ends meet. In addition to working as a minister, Greg Jarrell also plays the saxophone at local clubs and said he has performed with stars such as Aretha Franklin, the Temptations and the Spinners.
When school is out, the community houses are often filled with children. Teens hang out. Smaller kids run in the house and play in the backyard.
A man who says he has diabetes used to knock on the door at 3 a.m., saying he needed crackers and juice. Community members persuaded him to come by no later than 10 p.m. Other times, people come to the house at night because they have run out of gas and have no money.
Helms Jarrell said responding to the requests can be challenging but is ultimately rewarding.
“My practice of faith is so embedded in everything I do,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”