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It seems like my life, over the past few years, but really in the last 6 months, has been been bombarded by images of these new monastics in the world. Well, I’m sure I haven’t been bombarded, but that’s kind of the way it feels.
In seminary, back in the early 90s I had a friend who, with his wife, purposely chose to live in a more dangerous, poorer section of the Durham area than a lot of us other students. I don’t think you’d say it was a slum, but it was clearly living in a rougher part of town. And, even if I wasn’t sure I had the guts (faithfulness) to do that myself, I admired this. This, I thought, was really taking the call of Jesus seriously.
Then, of course, we had Shane Claiborne come to Girdwood Chapel this summer and I could sit and listen to him for days and never grow tired of it. Here is someone who, living in community in Philadelphia is really initiating change in the roughest section of that city. I was taken aback when Shane even offered for me and the whole family to come and live in community with them.
Recently, I’ve been sitting on a news story by the Religion News Service of an account of persons making a difference in Gresham, Oregon. There is a “romantic” and “adventurous” feel to this account. It all seems so simple, yet so very challenging. The story is by Steven Beaven and includes the following:
In the two years since David Knepprath and Josh Guisinger moved into the rough-and-tumble Barberry Village complex, roughly a dozen young Christian men and women have made Barberry Village their home.
Their goal: Create a sense of community in a chaotic neighborhood overrun with drugs, prostitution and gangs.
Their work mirrors, in some ways, the “new monasticism” movement, in which Christians move into urban or rural areas to work with the poor.
It’s not an easy way to live. Some neighbors have been suspicious. Safety is an ongoing concern. And some of these urban missionaries have burned out on a project that can be a 24-hour-a-day burden.
Yet they’ve been so successful that other complex owners have asked them to replicate their efforts. Congregations have volunteered their services. A woman from Virginia is moving to the Portland area so she can do similar work in another neighborhood.
With guidance from a nonprofit called Compassion Connect, they moved with friends into an apartment, putting two sets of bunk beds in one room and using the other two bedrooms as an office and a closet.
Still, they remained outsiders who could live in almost any neighborhood they chose. They had to strike a delicate balance; they didn’t want to come on too strong and alienate their neighbors.
So while they were open about their Christianity, they didn’t plunge into conversations about their faith. Nor did they move in acting as if they could solve the social ills at Barberry Village.
“We were very conscious of that,” said Knepprath, who has since moved out but remains active in the ministry. “Our perspective from the start was that we’re not here with all the solutions, or even thinking we know all the problems.”
So they walked door to door, handing out chocolate-chip cookies. A letter explained their purpose and faith. They invited residents to the first community meal.
This fascinates me and I feel a calling to something like this, but I’m just not sure I’m up to it to this extent. I’m not sure I’m that faithful yet. In particular, I’m not sure I’m that faithful on behalf of my children. What would moving into a setting like do for them. I’m sure it’s many positive things. But when I try to reconcile the lack of neighborhood amenities or the safety of the area or the ability to be with my “usual” friends.
So I say, yes, yes, yes, and finally a no to monastic living.
Also, on of the things I really like here is the assumption that this all takes some time. Evangelism, at heart, is about building relationships over time and working, systematically, to alleviate the problems of a neighborhood or community. Whether that’s the family in apartment next to a new monastic order or if it’s a community half-way around the world, the church can still reach out in concern and service to those around it.