I am grateful to Jason and Vonetta Storbakken for sparking this conversation and for all those who have responded. For about four years now, my husband and I have continually struggled with an ever-strengthening call to New Monastic life. Perhaps, then, the best way for me to participate in this conversation is to identify how New Monastics might help people like me discern and follow the call into the movement.
1. Narrate New Monasticism as freedom for life. As Shane mentioned, the language of voluntary poverty is not attractive in the least for people who have recently climbed out of poverty, are still entrenched in it, or provide emotional and/or financial support to poor kinfolk. Many of us, particularly middle-class African Americans, have replaced the chains of Jim Crow and poverty with the chains of consumerism. Not only do we need the “Theology of Enough,” but we need to understand that attachment to material goods impedes our ability to minister as God has called us - whether this be with our families, churches, neighborhoods, or the global village. A gift of New Monasticism is freedom from materialism’s bondage.
2. Involve us in the conception of new communities. There’s a certain multiple personality disorder in New Monasticism. On the one hand, there is sincere valuation of racial reconciliation, commitment to diverse communities, and willingness to hear the voices of people of color (hence, the invitation extended to an outsider like me to participate in this conversation). On the other, when people of color are invited to be part of New Monastic communities, it’s on pre-established terms. That is, the communities in which you live are not of our making. People of color are not unaccustomed to living in multifamily households. For many of us, the idea of shared space is fraught with loaded memories, including traumatic ones. Consequently, many of us will never be attracted to the structural conditions of many New Monastic communities. We might be more inclined to consider communities that provide private units for families centered around shared community space and common life. I’ll be the first to sign up when someone’s ready to replicate the Bartimaeus model in North Carolina. But invite me at the beginning, not when the structures and rules are already in place.
3. Address white privilege and family life. My husband and I expected to have embarked upon mark #1 of New Monasticism - relocation - by now. But this year, we began our transition to parenthood and our plans faltered. Adoption is part of our call to hospitality. And we’ve thought seriously about what it means to raise children in “the abandoned places of empire.” Our children will not be identified as the kids of “those white Christians who live in that house together.” We will be raising little brown children whose skin makes them indistinguishable from their neighborhood peers. The drug dealers, police, and even some teachers will not care about their parents’ education, income, or calling.
Even in our suburban enclave, we’d have a hard time battling popular society’s monochromatic image of young black men - the combination athlete-rapper-criminal (our now 3-month-old son’s future as a rapper is already being predicted by some whites). Do we really want to put them in the ‘hood where they can be up close and personal with real-life imitations of BET and MTV?
Moreover, what is our responsibility to our son’s birth mother, who chose us as his adoptive parents partly because of our access to middle-class privilege? What of the future children we will adopt from foster care - do they need the suburb’s shelter to heal some of the traumas they’ve experienced, to expand their imaginations about the world, and their future in it?
These are just some of the questions and issues that I have in my struggle with New Monasticism. Since my introduction to the movement, I have slowly, and reluctantly, come to see it as one of the best expressions of the gospel among us today. But its promise hinges on its ability to break through the walls of race and ethnicity.
Chanequa Walker-Barnes is an assistant professor at Shaw University Divinity School and a board member for School for Conversion. She lives with her family in a cookie-cutter suburban development that’s just close enough to the ‘hood to keep her from feeling like a total sell-out.
Greetings from Brazil! Rosalee and I have been following this exchange closely even if from afar – or à distância. A few of our friends in the U.S. — including Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Ángel Gallardo (who has lived at both Simple Way and Rutba House), and Eliacin Rosario-Cruz – are or have been part of New Monastic communities. In addition, our local church in the U.S. is Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, a historically African-American congregation. From our friends and mentors there, we began to learn about race and racial reconciliaton.
All this to say: Even though we write from afar, we write because we find ourselves a part of this conversation. Here are a couple of our observations:
1) Why this conversation needs to be happening. There is no “gracious and hopeful invitation to public dialogue” about Christian community and race in Brazil. On the one hand, there is no New Monastic movement here, but there are base Christian communities and other vibrant examples of comunidade. On the other, the race question is more slippery, in large part due to the fact that belief in the “myth of racial democracy” (as it is called here) is still popularly affirmed. But all our Afro-Brazilian friends are quick to point out that Brazil, too, suffers deeply from its own racial wounds. (If there is any doubt, consider that (1) of the roughly 10 million Africans who were enslaved during the colonial slave trade, around a half million were taken to the U.S., and around 4 million were brought to Brazil; and (2) recent estimates indicate that 31 million Brazilians live below the poverty line. Of those 31 million, 80 percent are of African descent.) Yet given that harsh reality, there is still no serious public conversation about race within the Brazilian church.
Recently, we participated in a forum at a church in Salvador that is part of the government-sponsored campaign called “Program Against Institutional Racism.” We found out afterward that this was the first time such a forum had taken place in a church in Salvador — where the population is between 80 to 90 percent black. Race is being talked about, but, unfortunately, almost all of the prophets are found outside of the Christian community.
So, first of all, we are encouraged by this conversation as it challenges us in Brazil to embody New Monasticism’s Mark #4: “Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of a Just Reconciliation.”
2) What submission might look like. These conversations reminded us of a scene from Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz. There’s an interview with Ossie Davis in which he, an African-American, describes how Benny Goodman, who was white, crossed the colorline to learn jazz in Harlem:
“I think Benny Goodman was the man who stood “outside” and was attracted to something he heard “inside” and came inside himself, and saw what was going on and picked up the nearest thing and joined it. He experienced in his own person the “true welcome” that’s at the root of jazz. For him to cross the threshold was easy, because jazz made it easy.” (Jazz, disc 2,”Swing, Pure Pleasure,” Title 3, Chapter 7)
Benny Goodman went to them and learned their cultural forms, yet he didn’t submit to the African-American jazz community. Instead he took their riffs, and their songs, and became one of the biggest bandleaders of all time.
The point — the connection between this scene and this conversation – is this: It’s one thing to relocate (Mark #1), to cross over, to receive the “true welcome,” and to learn from our neighbors. But the real question is about submission (Mark #5). How do we build a “collective witness” that moves from Mark #4 to Mark #5: “Humble Submission to Christ’s Body, the Church.” If white privilege, dominance, and male leadership have been recognized as problems, what would submission look like here?
As we read it, Jason and Vonetta, Eliacin, and Gabriel don’t question whether white guys can be in the band. But they raise another question: What would it look like to be in the band without leading it?
We look forward to hearing more from this “jam session.” Who knows, maybe we’ll even hear a little samba.
Sam (native Tarheel) and Rosalee (Brazilian-American) Ewell live in Brazil with their three kids, James, Isabella, and Katharine. Sam is a theological educator/networker with School for Conversion-Latin America and local pastor at Igreja Batista Catuaí (and a late convert to soccer). Rosalee also works as a theological educator and writer, primarily through her work with the Comité Bíblico Latinoamericano.
I’ve been following the recent online conversation about racial reconciliation and the New Monastics rather closely. Why? Because it is a conversation whose time has come. I honestly believe that much good work is being done in regard to engaging the mosaic of Christians about issues of poverty, race, privilege, and voice. That said, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, “Stony the road we trod.”
Some time ago, I blogged about a mosaic revival happening in the United States. I would add that this mosaic revival has been happening all over the world for some time. By mosaic revival I mean a Christlike movement across race, gender, culture, and economics where we all come to the table as equals, as children of God. I think that this revival in many of the movements (it is not limited to these but I am responding to a particular conversation) such as the New Monastics, Sojourners, and the Emergent Church is in an embryonic but promising state. Many congregations, denominations, and para-church organizations can learn from this fledgling conversation, including the groups to which I belong. Visions of the “peaceable realm” (Isaiah 11) or the multiethnic, multiracial multitude of the book of Revelation (Revelation 7:9) are still a work in progress.
What does this mosaic revival imply for me as a Latino pastor of an urban multicultural congregation, the New Monastics, Sojourners, the Emergent Church, and denominations that still do not have diversity represented in leadership? Here are some of my thoughts desde otra voz (from another voice):
- Internal Critique: First, that the critique of empire and power that I, the New Monastics, Sojourners, and Emergent Church make of the church and leaders in all spheres of life must continually be turned inwardly. This critique must be true of any movement. Entitlement and privilege is not just something others clutch. We too must confess where we have sought to be the principal and only protagonists. Pride is ubiquitous and subtle. The teachings of Jesus and the writings of Desmond Tutu, Reinhold Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral Society), and the book of Proverbs are helpful here.
- Conversation: We must maintain the dialogue and stay at the table even when we disagree. The world needs followers of Jesus committed to loving one another through their differences, be they ideological, cultural, generational, etc.
- Confession: There must be a continual confession of the privilege of platform and influence and where we have used that influence to exclude others.
- Promoting and Highlighting Diversity: The writings, tours, blogs, books, and particularly leadership on board and executive positions should intentionally highlight diversity. We seek inclusion not simply for diversity’s sake but because it is a model of the way of Jesus and the Realm of heaven. This is beyond a token representation, where we have a Latino(a), women’s, Asian, African-American caucus, etc. speak to and from their particularity or only on issues that we think are particular to them (immigration, racial justice, women’s rights). Diverse leadership (this should neither exclude nor privilege white males) should be at the center of decision making processes. White, black, brown, red all have something to contribute to the Christian story. Mosaic leadership can speak to many global issues such as genocide in Darfur, just war, poverty, human trafficking, environmentalism, a consistent ethic of life, etc. Perhaps instead of having racial-ethnic minorities join already-begun initiatives, we should join mosaic initiatives as a sign of solidarity and support. All established leadership should endeavor to use their platform to promote an emerging mosaic leadership. Moreover, one group need not always be at the forefront.
- A Historical-Contextual Perspective: This is no small point. Often in the public presentations, books, and conferences of these aforementioned movements, they are presented as something new going on. (I don’t think this is intentional.) I have been on college campuses and multiple emerging leaders’ gatherings where many well-intentioned next-generation Christian leaders see these movements as if something new is happening. This dangerous omission often makes many indigenous grassroots workers feel like there is some type of cultural capital being cashed in at the expense of lifelong indigenous Christian leadership. Present-day movements should continue to clearly tie and partner, when possible, with the legacy of the black church, the Latin-American and Latino(a) grassroots communities, abolitionists, faithful women’s movements, the South African church, etc., around the world. Also the New Monastics, Emergent Church, etc., could learn and partner with the work of storefront Pentecostal and indigenous congregations who have lived and worked in economically challenging contexts for some time. Some of these leaders and pastors did not choose to relocate; they were born, raised, and chose to stay in these contexts.
- Persistence: Continue to work. Despite our shortcomings and critiques, we must continue to do the work of Christ and allow room for growth. Critique is neither for rousing guilt or surrender but for seeking a better way. We must all continue our work. Not speaking or acting is not an option. In the words of Antonio Machado, “Caminante no hay camino se hace camino al andar.”
Rev. Gabriel Salguero is the pastor of the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene in New York City, a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary, and the director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also a Sojourners board member.
The very first mark of the New Monastic movement is to relocate to the abandoned places of the empire. However, after quick research, most of the social justice-geared intentional communities I found were either directly inside or in very close proximity to major cities. While there are enclaves within major metropolises that have seen the scourge of the empire, most of the American landscape is drenched in suburban and rural locales set far and away from the residual financial welfare the empire produces. And if that is the case, then the rationale for the privileged suburban dweller to relocate to urban hubs needs reexamination.
I believe there is a contingent of people that the Most High will call to relocate from suburban and rural places to preach, teach, and serve neighborhoods in urban areas. I would like to believe that these people are willing to fulfill the call of the Lord, counting the cost of their decision — perhaps reluctantly but with open minds and open hearts. These individuals are to be revered for their desire to be about God’s business.
Conversely, there is a growing population that relocates to the so-called “abandoned places of the empire” because of the proximity to all of the amenities and economic promise the empire seems to trickle down. The draw of experiencing the “big city” cannot be ignored, no matter what the overarching humanitarian desire might be.
Indeed, there is quite a difference between the called and the drawn. When we as followers of Christ truly submit to the calling of God to preach good news to the poor, our first inclination should be to find the poor already in our midst, and deliver the message to them — allowing them the opportunity to take that message home to their families and other neighbors, ensuring salvation for themselves and their households. The statistics are very clear: There are 1 million more impoverished Americans in the suburbs than in urban centers. Rural poverty among single mothers is at astronomical levels. Food stability is most scarce in rural areas. The further a community is from metropolitan areas, the more difficult it becomes to secure steady income, adequate wages, and affordable housing. In fact, the majority of affordable housing is created in urban areas. Moreover, the infrastructure of social services is more readily available to urban dwellers. However, in suburban and rural areas, social services and affordable housing are somewhat of an afterthought. Looking at the composite of my own community, statistically many of us might actually reach more poor people if we lived in our hometowns than in our assembled New York City home.
The fact remains, the poor are all around us. If we are diligent in our search for the poor to preach to, to teach and serve, we need only look to our neighbors. We should realize that urban areas are not synonymous with poverty, nor are suburbs synonymous with privilege. When we get honest before the Lord with our preconceived notions about the people we believe are the poor and the least of these, we may find that the least of these are our next-door neighbors — and not the urban ethnic enclave dwellers we so readily flock to.
We must be transparent with God and honest with ourselves when considering service to the poor. Being drawn to an area doesn’t justify relocating to it. And being called to a place doesn’t make you drawn to it. Throughout history, many people have been called to service, but were reluctant to go. Their reticence did not stop them from accomplishing revolutionary things for the kingdom of God. We must be diligent in seeking out the will of the Lord, and not be persuaded by the people, places, and things we are drawn to. If we are not diligent, we will lose our credibility and risk alienating, offending, and further marginalizing the very people we sent ourselves to enlighten and enfold in God’s flock. We must make every effort to be led by the Spirit in all that we say and do to ensure our households experience the power of God through salvation in Christ.
Sharaya Tindal is a member of Radical Living, an intentional community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about their community in this article in the New York Press.
Las Caras Lindas de mi Gente Negra,
Son un desfile de melaza en flor,
Que cuando pasan frente a mi se alegra,
De su negrura todo el corazón
-Tite Curet Alonso
I was delighted to be asked to participate in this conversation, even though I am not a leader or spokesperson for the New Monastic movement. I am using the term New Monasticism (as the group that is inspired by The School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism) for the sake of common understanding because that is the concept that has been used in this conversation so far, even though I believe New Monasticism is varied and larger than just the 12 marks and the popular idea of what New Monasticism is.
Like Jason and Vonetta, my family is interracial and multiethnic. I am a Puerto Rican of brown skin. My wife is white, born and raised in the state of Washington. We have two kids and a third growing in “mamí’s belly,” as my daughter would say. My kids are growing as hyphenated people, with a rich racial and ethnic heritage as Irish, white, Taino/Arawakan, brown, African, Potowatomi, Welsh, Spanish, black, German,Puerto Rican, mestizo, and USA American. My children are growing also in one of the few countries that ignores and often violently negates the reality of people’s multiple racial and ethnic identities. This does not happen only in the political/social services arena, but it is pervasive in all aspects of our lives — including our churches and our “movements.” En donde quiera se cuecen habas.
For me and mine (my family, community, friends) this conversation is not just another topic of the many we can choose from; this conversation is part of our core beings. Because of this I want to invest time and energy in conversations and relationships that will generate mutual transformation and growth. As a good friend told me recently, “blog conversations are a good start on a small front — but the real work is ahead of us.”
I am joyful to read Shane’s and Jonathan’s responses of how they are perceiving and working with the issue of racial reconciliation, healing, and full embrace in their private lives and in the life of their communities. I am also glad at their honesty in considering those points as only baby steps. Realizing that we are only crawling is a necessary action in order to see that we still have a lot of maturing to do. Andando, andando que la Virgen nos va ayudando.
What Vonetta and Jason have done with their provocative blog post is to help shed light on the homogeneous white and male expression in New Monasticism and beyond. By that I mean how “natural” it seems that most of the perceived leadership of this movement is white and male. I am certain there are women and men of color alongside. People of color are often considered strong companions and wise counselors, but often in hierarchies of power, people of color are behind the scenes — not in the spotlight. Part of the luxury of oblivious white privilege is that it is normal to have people of color around, while for the most part being oblivious that they are systematically assigned a place on the sidelines. It is not by chance that it is hard to find people of color as prominent figures in spreading the vibes of New Monasticism through books, conferences, and new media. This also true of many other new emerging expressions of contemporary Christianity.
This predominantly white expression of New Monasticism is not a personal thing; it is part of a larger system of social categories, social identity and perception. New Monastics, white and of color, are not above or beyond the psychology that structures our racial and social identity and consciousness. Nor do we live in a vacuum where we are not affected — positively or negatively — by these structures. So this conversation is not about just individuals, but about bigger dominant systems of oppression. That said, it does get personal sometimes — and not by choice. The unearned privilege that comes with being white may not be something people choose or take. The advantage is given by the system of social categorization, but the realization that some might benefit from a social construct while others are marginalized is a tough pill to swallow.
People in the spotlight and those who are socially perceived as leaders have lots of responsibility to speak out loud about these evil structures that thrive on silence. It is not enough to speak when asked and stay silent the rest of the time. To not speak of the issue is to give the perception that there is no issue.
If there is no challenge to the practices that — intentionally or not — support and preserve the marginalization of people of color, then we are accomplices in a self-perpetuating system of domination and oppression, while at the same time pulverizing efforts of racial healing, reconciliation, and full embrace. I am very glad Jason and Vonetta started making a loud enough noise about this subject that now it is part of a public open discussion.
Perhaps we need to work to a broader understanding of the formation of racial identity and systems of oppression and privilege. Perhaps we need to come to terms with the fact that while some have the option to move to the abandoned places of the empire, there are even more desolate places in hearts and minds and that are in dire need of liberation and redemption.
I do have some other things to say, but I was asked to write only a blog post, not a dissertation. Maybe there is more to come later.
Somos la melaza que ríe,
Somos la melaza que llora,
Somos la melaza que ama,
Y en cada beso,
-Titet Curet Alonso
Eliacín Rosario-Cruz serves as community catalyst and cultivator with Mustard Seed Associates. He and his family are part of The Mustard Seed House — an intergenerational Christian intentional community in Seattle, where they eat, play, work, garden, pray, and conspire for a new reality.
Jason and Vonetta Storbakken have extended a gracious and hopeful invitation to public dialogue about reconciliation’s challenge for New Monasticism. I’d like to say in public what I’ve already said to them privately: Thank you. I’m grateful not only that they have named an issue that we need to continue to grapple with, but that they have modeled the power of God to move us beyond race to a new identity in Jesus Christ.
It is no secret that many New Monastics come from places of so-called privilege in the white churches that have dominated American Christianity. Disappointed by the ways our whiteness kept us from Jesus, we relocated ourselves to black and Latino neighborhoods to learn from people who knew the power of God at the margins of society. We came to learn community from our neighbors and to know Christ more fully across the dividing walls of hostility that Ephesians says God has already destroyed.
The good news is that we have not been disappointed. Eliacin Rosario-Cruz is exactly right: New Monasticism needs the life and spirit that minorities bring because it is a more complete expression of what the kingdom is. The testimony I have to share with other white Christians is that we can be set free from a history of colonial control and condescending service. We can find new life by submitting ourselves to the traditions and wisdom of minority churches. In my experience, this is possible only because of the radical love of God that is extended by people whom white Christianity has historically ignored and abused.
But this only makes the Storbakkens’ central question all the more pressing: “What are the reasons for the membership [of New Monastic communities] to remain so homogenous?” That we come from segregated churches is not surprising. The problem is that these radical communities seem to remain so homogenous.
Where, then, is the church that God is gathering beyond the color line? The last thing a white guy like me needs to offer is an answer to a question like that. But for the sake of this conversation (which I hope others will join), let me offer a few observations:
1) Reconciliation is happening in minority churches. In the historically black neighborhood where I live, our communal houses were started by white folks and continue to be dominated by them. Our local church, however, was started by black folks and continues to invite all of us into a journey of liberation from the power of race and transformation into new life. Our community feels a greater need to be part of the community at our local church than to sell our neighbors on New Monasticism.
2) Listening to neighbors means changing our ideas about community. While we came to our neighborhood with the best of intentions, we’ve seen that we get things wrong. The Storbakkens are right: We must affirm affirmative action in New Monastic community, welcoming whoever might come. In our experience, though, we’ve also had to re-evaluate what were inviting people into. Are our meals the sort of meals that neighbors would want to eat with us? Is our Bible study a place where neighbors can share their spiritual gifts? We haven’t figured all of these things out, but I know that we’ve made some changes for every authentic relationship we’ve built across dividing lines.
3) We are caught between two conversations. Ninety-nine percent of my neighbors and fellow church members have never heard the term New Monasticism. I doubt they need the term. Yet I’ve written a book about New Monasticism. I talk to churches and denominational leaders about it all the time because I believe that mainstream Christianity needs to imagine a different future.
Any dialogue about reconciliation and New Monasticism needs to take both of these conversations into consideration. One way New Monasticism has failed is that guys like me have tried to communicate the gospel that we’ve learned from our neighbors without asking for our neighbors’ help. An African-American mentor pointed out to me how white people enjoy listening to me talk about the experience of black people, but they don’t actually listen to black folks. Indeed, we do need to hand the mic over to indigenous community leaders.
But I also notice that when black friends speak with me or in my place, white audiences often assume my friends are speaking primarily for other black Christians, and not to the church as a whole. So-called black theology and black preaching can be affirmed as good for them without being taken seriously as true for all of us. So maybe it’s not enough to just hand the mic over. Maybe we have to stand together, joining our voices in witness to the truth that we confess we can only know together.
Thats why I’m so grateful for the Storbakkens. Not only are they pursuing community across the dividing lines that this world writes on us. They’re joining their voices to speak to the whole church about what it means to receive God’s gift of reconciliation and become its ministers in the world. Yes, we need dialogue. More than that, though, we need a way of life that is good news for all people and a gospel that we can proclaim together. I hope all our conversation leads us toward that.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line.
In addition to the steps mentioned in my previous post, I also wanted to share some things that go beyond our local community to the broader New Monastic movement and my role in it. As I said before, I don’t want to give any impression that we’ve figured this out, or to boast “look at all I’m doing!” It certainly has been difficult and not without much sweat, tears, and mistakes. But here goes:
- Countering whiteness. We have currently initiated several projects to work against the homogeneity of “the movement.” Every month we host a gathering on radical discipleship (for four days) that is limited to around 20 folks to insure diversity (old/young, male/female, ethnicity, denominational). This means that we have to limit the number of white folks (and end up saying no to about 20 for each white participant who comes). We also have different communities hosting every month to give exposure to the many beautiful, diverse forms community takes, and we have been especially excited to celebrate communities led by people of color.
- Affirmative Action. As a speaker, I regularly turn down speaking engagements that do not have women or people of color in the lineup, and I let the organizers know why. I believe that every critique I give comes with the responsibility to try and suggest alternatives, so I also recommend women and people of color who are dynamic communicators to speak in my stead. I give priority to events organized by people of color and speak regularly at events such as Urban Youth Workers, CCDA, Pentecostals for Peace, etc., and I find these are a great place to listen and learn (not just speak).
- Economics. All speaking events we organize are free or on a “suggested donation” basis so as not to exclude anyone for financial reasons. We give away all proceeds of my books and resources, prioritizing “local revolutions” — groups living among and led by folks in poverty (such as Coalition of Immokalee Workers, homeless coalitions, etc.).
- Politics. Our communities tend to be fairly peculiar in how we engage the political scene. Traditionally, we often resonate with the history of Christian anarchism and movements like the Anabaptists. We have also become very aware that there is a great degree of “privilege” that accompanies decisions like principled non-voting. We wrestle with this in Jesus for President, but many of us have also taken steps to submit our political voice to people of color or undocumented folks here in the U.S. A friend in the NAACP has said, “Affirmative action for white folks in the election is asking black folks who they should vote for.” So many of our communities are doing exactly that.
All this is still certainly not enough — but God is good to fill the gaps and work through the cracks of our feeble attempts to be faithful. So, again, I want to thank Vonetta and Jason for being the catalyst for reflection, and to cause me to take the pulse on where we are in the “active pursuit of a just reconciliation,” to celebrate the steps we have made, and to insist that it is not enough. I guess that is why we begin with “lament.” I leave today for a one-month sabbatical, but I eagerly look forward to hearing what others have to say in this conversation and will now “pass the mic” to others.
Shane Claiborne is the author of Jesus for President, a Red Letter Christian, and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Vonetta and Jason, first I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for the conversation you’ve invited and stirred with our private conversations and now your blog post. I take all critique very seriously, and pray and reflect on it. Probably the most personally painful lament and failure of our communities is around race and reconciliation; we are at times paralyzed by the deep history and slimy elusiveness of racial injustice and so-called “privilege.” We’ve been trying for 10 years to figure this out. Several years ago, my mentor and friend John Perkins was at the house, and I poured out my dissatisfaction with how white the movement was. He said to me: “Teach what you know … and it may be white folks who listen. And learn what you don’t know, be a good listener.” I’ve tried to do that, and yet it often just doesn’t feel like enough. I am working on a book with John right now (his idea) about the importance of being a good follower — as there are many books on leadership but very few on “followership” — and as a white male, that is something we need to learn.
I want to share more publically a few things that I have shared with you in our private conversations — though I hesitate to do so as it could come across as defensively flaunting all the “progress” we have made. That is by no means the case. I find our pursuit of reconciliation has been riddled with failure and setbacks, and a paralysis of imagination. I share this not as a boastful discrediting of your critique, but rather as a sign that I deeply honor your thoughts and invite your constructive ideas on how we can do things better.
- Submit to leadership of color. For the past 10 years, I have been submitted to John Perkins, as a teacher and mentor. I have told him to tell me when to speak and when to shut up. For The Simple Way, the chair of our board is an African American (from Philly), a close friend and brother (and also married to one of my former housemates). He’s my boss.
- Submit to neighborhood leadership. I see myself as a learner and listener to the indigenous leadership in my neighborhood. Families on our block (even the block captain) have persistently asked me to be a block captain, but I have not assumed (or presumed) such a role, as this is a very clear way I want to continue to be led by elders in and from my neighborhood. Neighborhood renewal, as we say at CCDA, takes “remainers, returners, and relocators” — all working together.
- Submit to local pastors and congregations. We deliberately join the local neighborhood congregations, rather than start our own services or programs. Every long-term member of TSW joins a local congregation (such as Iglesia del Barrio around the corner from us). This has distinguished us from many other folks who identify with the Emerging Church (and put us at odds sometimes), as we say, “The inner city doesn’t need more ‘churches’ — it needs A CHURCH, so join the body there already at work.”
- Media Savvy. There are many journalists who want to do stories on “New Monasticism” or “The Simple Way,” and we have become very sensitive to the dangers of this. Usually they want to portray the relocating white folks like myself as saints, saviors, and sacrificial heroes moving into a poor neighborhood. This is garbage and incredibly hurtful to the dignity of our neighbors. We try to be “as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” We do not allow cameras in the neighborhood. For instance, a network has wanted to do a story for two years now, and I have insisted that we will only do the story with them if it is in our New Jerusalem community (40 people here in Philly), which is composed of and led by 90 percent people of color. The producer has insisted that they do it at our Potter Street Community (the original house, mostly white, where I live). So we will not do the story.
- Rethinking Language. A few years into our little experiment in community, we found that much of our language was riddled with privilege and whiteness. For instance, traditional monasticism and the Franciscan love of “Blessed Poverty” and “Vows of Poverty” did not go over well with our homeless friends! We have studied and reflected on this, and articulate a “Theology of Enough” that is in much of my writing and in the core values statement of our community, summed up well in the Proverbs mantra: “Give me neither poverty nor riches … in my poverty I may be forced to steal, and in my riches I may forget my God.” So we have rethought the traditional vows and even our language around monasticism (this is not the primary language I use in my neighborhood or even in my speaking for what we do).
There are lots of other personal decisions people have made in light of the hunger for racial justice and reconciliation. In our communities folks have married across race and adopted kids from the neighborhood — all little signs of much thought and deliberation. Later I’ll share some steps I’ve taken that go beyond our local community in my role as a speaker.
Shane Claiborne is the author of Jesus for President, a Red Letter Christian, and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.
In August 2006, before having ever heard the term “new monasticism,” my husband, Jason, and I founded Radical Living, an intentional community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. When I (Vonetta) was 12 years old, I emigrated from Guyana to Bed-Stuy, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in New York City. I witnessed firsthand urban decay — and renewal — as well as the devastating effects of the crack epidemic.
Some of our neighbors, many of whom I have known since I was young, have been afflicted by drug addiction and poverty. They are not merely the nameless, faceless people you might read about or pass on the street. They are living souls made in the image of God. When a person applies for membership at Radical Living we explain that we want to live in community with people who desire to invest in the lives of their neighbors, regardless of their position in society. We are not interested in living with “tourists” who want to “experience the ghetto.”
My husband and I are an interracial couple with a baby daughter, and it is important to us that our community, regardless of the predominant culture around us, is centered in Jesus and reflective of the diversity of the kingdom of God. Although our community — 17 people who live in three houses around one block — is blessed with diversity, we have a lot of work to do with regard to racial reconciliation. There are African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and first-generation Americans, and more than half our community are white folks. Although not as representative of our neighborhood as we could be, due to the rainbow of voices in our community we regularly discuss the role of minorities in the New Monastic movement. It is also due to these voices that we know how much work we have to do.
The key players in New Monasticism have made important strides in raising awareness of issues pertinent to disenfranchised members of our society, yet these leaders often make some of the same mistakes as their conservative counterparts. One of the 12 marks of New Monasticism is the “lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities, combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.” Although most do “lament” the racial divisions in our society, one is hard-pressed to find a leader in New Monasticism who is not a middle-class white male. However, the problem is not with their class, color, or gender, but that there has yet to be an “active pursuit” of reconciliation realized within the myriad of intentional communities that have sprouted across the U.S. And after some good private conversations with some those leaders, we agreed to open a public dialogue about this issue because by their very natures both this conversation and this movement aren’t just about a handful of leaders. It’s about every member of every community who needs to actively seek reconciliation.
Another of the 12 marks is to relocate “to the abandoned places of Empire.” New Monastics have done this quite well. But sadly, years — and sometimes decades – after an intentional community has been planted in a minority neighborhood, the community’s membership continues to remain predominantly (if not exclusively) white. What are the reasons for the membership to remain so homogenous? One thing is for certain: The idea of “us and them” is perpetuated when an intentional community does not actively seek to diversify its membership.
New Monastic communities need to be redemptive communities where all, regardless of ethnicity, national identity, or economic status, are invited to participate in the communal rhythm of Christian living. As Eliacin Rosario-Cruz, a friend and fellow communitarian, recently said, “The current wave of New Monasticism needs the life and spirit that minorities bring because it is a more complete expression of what the kingdom is, not the other way around.”
The current generation of progressive Christians has done amazing work in broadening the social agenda among evangelicals, but now it’s time that we trust what our hearts and minds believe and actively pursue the reconciliation we talk about. The next step, rather than being a voice for the “voiceless,” is to hand the mic over to indigenous community leaders and ask them to facilitate the conversation so that we might grow and deepen in relationship with one another and with God.
Every one of us in this movement needs to plead with God to make us ministers of reconciliation. We must pray for eyes to see the structural racism perpetuated by unjust policies and a shared history of colonialism and slavery. Some of us will need to repent of inaction and empty rhetoric. Others simply need to heed what the Lord is already speaking. All of us will need to affirm affirmative action in our communal houses, and actively pursue reconciliation.
We are hopeful that the New Monastic movement will be a diverse, Christ-centered, Spirit-led movement. And if all of us in this conversation will extend transparency, grace, and love to one another, we will surely disable the structural racism that has infected the church for far too long. And then we will be able to truly proclaim Jubilee!