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Scott Bessenecker is Assistant Director of Missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational university student ministry, and has been involved with InterVarsity’s overseas mission projects since 1986. He has written numerous articles for publications such as RELEVANT and Mission Maker magazines, and is the author of New Friars; How to Inherit the Earth; and editor of Living Mission. Inspired by folks like Viv Grigg and others who see the need for a new kind of Protestant monasticism to take root to serve  urban slums, Scott developed the Global Urban Trek, through which takes young people overseas into slum communities to live with, to serve, and to learn from those embedded in poverty. In this way, Scott seeks to foster what he perceives the Holy Spirit doing in our day: inspiring a new generation of young Christians to bind themselves to the lives and struggles of the urban poor. Drawing a connection to the movement stirred up by Saint Francis of Assisi during the rapid urbanization of the 13th century, Scott refers these contemporary missional young people as “new friars.” He lives with his wife, Janine, and their three children, Hannah, Philip, and Laura, in Madison, Wisconsin.

In our conversation, Scott outlines the similarities and differences between the new friars and their close cousins in the new monasticism movement. Both are ecumenical in composition, led largely by young, Western evangelicals who seek to learn from the classic religious orders; both embody a similar, downwardly-mobile, communal solidarity with the poor. Yet, while new monastics are most often drawn into local Western communities, emphasizing stability of place, the new friars tend to be drawn into the world as if by a centrifugal, outward-moving energy and global vision. Similarly, Scott distinguishes between the new friars and conventional Protestant missions. While the latter have tended to reflect a modern Northern European capitalistic, individualistic, product-driven value system, the new friars—valuing community, contemplation, and ongoing spiritual growth—are seeking to create new wineskins outside the old structures. In discussing his work with young people through Global Urban Trek, Scott emphasizes our need to detox from the spiritual sickness engendered by affluence in order to learn rightful dependence on Jesus Christ and to walk in solidarity with the poor. Scott also speaks of the rediscovery of contemplation and spiritual direction among Evangelicals, and the necessary reciprocal relationship between activism and contemplation. Finally, while recognizing that the new friars may remain relatively small in numbers, Scott voices his confidence that the movement will not only endure but have an impact far exceeding its size, helping urban youth develop a prophetic imagination for what God’s kingdom can look like in slum communities.

Organizations associated with the new friars movement: Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (see my interview with Craig Greenfield of Servant’s Vancouver); InnerCHANGE (see Catherine Rundle of InnerCHANGE Los Angeles and Mike Brantley of Communitas, New Orleans); Word Made FleshServant Partners; and Urban Neighbours of Hope.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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David Janzen’s experience in Christian intentional community spans the greater part of four decades. In the early ‘70s, David and his family helped found New Creation Fellowship in Newton, Kansas. In 1984, they moved to Reba Place Fellowship, an urban, income-sharing community founded in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Since coming to Reba Place Fellowship, David has assisted in the community’s refugee asylum project, served on their leadership team, directed an affordable housing ministry, and is currently focusing his energies on mentoring the new generation of communities associated with the new monasticism movement. He is the author of two books, each the fruit of visiting and researching Christian intentional communities throughout North America: Fire, Salt and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America (Good Books, November 1996) and the forthcoming Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Paraclete Press, November 2012). The latter, due for publication this fall, reflects David’s responses to questions gathered from visits with contemporary communities, arranged in a developmental sequence according to the needs and concerns of communities at various stages of growth, including advice for those seeking community.

In our conversation, David and I discuss the three historical waves of North American Christian intentional communities to the present: from the energetic idealism and experimentation of the 60s and early 70s, to the less visible but more stable emergence of communities in the 80s and 90s, to the current generation of new monastics eager to learn from those who came before them. While all share a common bond in Christian faith, many inspired by the radical social and economic template laid out in the Sermon on the Mount and the description of the early Jerusalem community in the Acts of the Apostles, each wave has its distinct characteristics, reflecting the social context and concerns of their day. David weighs in on the particular strengths of the current generation, especially their identification with the wider Christian communal tradition, namely monasticism, and their enthusiastic welcome of the help of their elders. On the other hand, deluged by the seemingly unlimited options of our hypermobile culture, and often enough coming from broken households themselves, the current generation tends to bear a woundedness and a reticence toward stable commitments that require special attention.

David also traces the development of three related networks of communities of which he’s been a part: the Shalom Association of Communities (1972-85), Shalom Mission Communities (1996-present), and his current work with the Nurturing Communities Project. The latter reflects the efforts of a dozen or so communities, in light of the needs of the current groundswell of new monastic communities, to establish new community-networks in order to provide help, encouragement, and accountability for one another. In fact, members from participating communities (approximately 50 people) will be meeting this September at Saint John’s Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to explore possibilities and learn from the monks who are hosting them.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Laird Schaub (community and consensus blog) and Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig (www.maikwe.net) are members of neighboring Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, respectively, in Rutledge, Missouri. Laird co-founded Sandhill Farm in 1974 as an egalitarian, income-sharing farming community, and is one of the creators and current administrator of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, an organization committed to nurturing and promoting intentional communities worldwide. He has worked as a group process consultant for 25 years, providing training in consensus facilitation, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Ma’ikwe is author of Passion as Big as a Planet, which explores the connection between the inner and outer dimensions of ecological activism. She is a consensus facilitation trainer, often working together with Laird, directs Ecovillage Education US, and gives workshops on starting communities, leadership, and spiritual activism. She is the mother of a teenage son and expresses her passion for people and planet through helping Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage grow into its vision of a full-scale, ecologically regenerative village and center for research and education.

In our conversation, Laird, Ma’ikwe, and I discuss the consequences of communities lacking a common understanding and agreements around how to handle emotionally-charged conflict. We explore the strengths and weaknesses often exhibited in communities with a shared spiritual orientation, and the challenge of bringing the full range of human modes of knowing into the room—including emotional, kinesthetic, intuitive, and spiritual—in a culture that is heavily biased toward translating all forms of knowledge and experience into clear thinking. Laird talks about his experiences working with communities and the most common causes of group conflict he encounters, such as scapegoating (the contagious belief that “things would be better if only so-and-so would…”) and the tendency of groups to harden themselves around particular narratives. Finally, Laird and Ma’ikwe speak of the advantages Christian teachings offer in establishing healthy relational and communication habits in community, and of the spiritual benefits of consensus process and decision-making, and its congruence with a Christian sacramental worldview—of God in all things.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Photo by Scott Langley

Imagine Benedictine monasteries hosting conferences and providing help to lay people looking to incorporate monastic values and practices into their lives. Nothing new, you say. People have been flocking to such monasteries, especially over the past couple of decades, gleaning wisdom and guidance on contemplative prayer, Lectio Divinaliturgy of the hours, and other portable practices. For now, though, let’s reconfigure this image so that these particular practices passed on to lay people are first located in their monastic context. What might it look like, then, for monks and nuns to transmit the more foundational principles and practices of their way of life, such as common ownership and structures that break down inherited socioeconomic divisions between people?  In other words, what forms might such a monasticism-in-the-world take that, like Saint Benedict and the tradition he consolidated in his Rule, understood concern with economic realities to be as intrinsic to a life of prayer as prayer itself?

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is Associate Minister at the historically African-American St. Johns Baptist Church, directs the School for Conversion, a nonprofit organization that educates people in Christian community, and has authored a handful of books, including God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth GospelThe Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture, and a contemporary paraphrasing and commentary to The Rule of Saint Benedict. Jonathan is also editor of the New Monastic Library Series (Cascade Books) and associate editor of the Resources for Reconciliation Series (InterVarsity Press).

In 2003, Jonathan and his wife Leah co-founded the new monastic community Rutba House in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina (the community is named after the town of Rutba, Iraq, where injured members of their Christian Peacemaker Team were given medical care in a hospital that had been bombed by U.S. forces only three days prior). The community at present consists of two houses and fourteen members (including four children) who share a common life of daily prayer, meals, mutual support, hospitality, and active peacemaking.  They live by a modified common-purse economy, working full or part time and contributing 30-40% of their income to the community. These shared resources in turn cover not only all household expenses (including a car co-op) but also enable them to provide meals, housing, and other forms of hospitality to homeless or struggling friends in the neighborhood.

Rutba House Members and Friends

In our conversation, Jonathan and I discuss the meaning of monastic social and economic relocation in the context of today’s largely urban, non-cloistered new monasticism movement, especially as lived at Rutba House.  For the 4th century monastics of the Egyptian desert, this relocation represented a physical flight from the dominant culture into uninhabited places, in order to focus unerringly upon the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and to confront more directly the spiritual forces at work in the world and in themselves. As an heir to this tradition, in the 6th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia configured this relocation in the context of self-contained, cloistered monastic communities. For today’s new monastics, Jonathan believes, the call to relocation is not primarily to uninhabited regions or even to cloistered, celibate monastic communities, but rather to set down roots as families and single people living together in the ‘abandoned places’: those areas scarred by social, cultural, and economic marginalization.

Drawing on monastic sources as well as contemporary civil rights wisdom, particularly John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association movement, Jonathan speaks about how Rutba House has concretely sought to take the values of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution seriously. We discuss the community’s in-house economy and its outflow to the neighborhood, and the ways in which this outflow has fostered forgiveness and friendships based on trust, in place of suspicion. In fact, Jonathan uses the language of repentance to describe this deliberate movement of taking responsibility for inherited economic and racial privilege, and seeking to break down these barriers that divide the family of God. For Jonathan, this movement of small, inconspicuous, locally-rooted intentional communities embodies the kind of transformative social engagement, the leaven within the dough, practiced and prescribed by Jesus in the Gospels and by monastics in every age, according to the particular needs of their time and place.

Other people, places, and things mentioned in this interview: 12 Marks of the New MonasticismS. Margaret McKenna of the Medical Missionary SistersNew Jerusalem Laura; John Cassian on the Three Renunciations.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Having just come from Koinonia Farm and gleaned from conversations there that, among some in the New Monasticism movement, there is a growing interest in connecting more deeply with the classic monastic tradition, I was eager to bring “old-school” monastics into the conversation. Here I speak with Cistercian monk Michael Lautieri, OCSO, current vocation director of Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. In our conversation, I asked Michael how neo-monastic communities might better learn from monasteries and the monastic tradition. He offers two concrete possibilities—monastics living temporarily with neo-monastic communities as teachers, and core members of neo-monastic communities spending time in temporary monastic guest programs such as that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit. In regard to learning from monasticism, Michael stresses the need to actually experience monastic life firsthand in order to understand the monastic charism. And while he emphasizes monasticism’s adaptability and flexibility according to culture, circumstance, and religion, he’s also clear on what he considers the constitutive elements of any form of monasticism: prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community. Michael also shares his thoughts on what he anticipates for the future of monasticism (mirroring Ivan Kauffman’s conviction that the future of monastic communities lies in stronger bonds with lay people) and his enthusiasm over the broad interest among lay people today in incorporating a depth of spirituality into their lives through learning monastic values and practices.

Embedded in this interview are two questions that have come to the fore for me over the course of this tour of communities. The first question is, simply: what is monasticism? One concern I have is that the New Monasticism movement has been re-defining the very meaning of the word, often with little concrete input from or experience of the classic monastic tradition. While this re-definition process from a fresh perspective expands the monastic imagination, so to speak, sometimes I have difficulty understanding just what’s monastic about particular expressions of the New Monasticism. Hence, I want to carry this question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism into future interviews with monastics “new” and “old,” and especially into my Monastic Studies program at Saint John’s School of Theology upon my return this fall. Thus far, I’ve received three direct responses to this question: Mary Ewing Stamps, leader of the Methodist-Benedictine Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery, emphasized the structural elements of stability of place, a leader, and a rule of life (incidentally, even though much of her own formation took place in a Benedictine monastic guest program similar to that offered by Monastery of the Holy Spirit, she prefers the idea of monastics coming to live as teachers with new communities in order to preserve the importance of a sense of place). Camaldolese-Benedictine monk Cyprian Consiglio, speaking from the eremitical (hermit) tradition and from years of involvement in monastic inter-religious dialogue, named the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as comprising the core of monasticism. And here, again, speaking from within the Cistercian tradition, Michael identifies the essential elements of monasticism as prayer, silence, solitude, manual labor, and community.

What these three monastics witness to is the fact that there is no definitive answer to the question of what constitutes the essentials of monasticism. Rather, there are many perspectives from within a shared body of experience that constellates around certain key features, while allowing for much diversity. Hence, I think Michael makes a crucially important point here: that monastic life cannot be adequately understood from the outside; it has to be lived. And to reiterate an observation I’ve made in earlier posts, this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism contrasts with new expressions of Buddhist communities in the West, in so much as the latter have mostly developed directly from what has been passed down from Asian monastic teachers; the lineage of tradition remains unbroken. Which brings me to my second question, reflecting my conviction that the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism have much to offer one another:

How might this gap of experience between the classic Christian monastic tradition and the New Monasticism be bridged? And why? What does each have to offer the other?

Stay tuned…

Books mentioned or alluded to in the interview: Monastic Practice, by Charles Cummings, OCSOConsecrated Religious Life: The Changing Paradigms, by Diarmuid O’Murchu 

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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“I don’t know whether you’ve ever walked over a piece of ground that could almost cry out to you and say, ‘Heal me, heal me!’ I don’t know whether you feel the closeness to the soil that I do. But when you fill in those old gullies and terrace the fields and you begin to feel the springiness of the sod beneath your feet and you see that old land come to life, and when you walk through a little old pine forest that you set out in little seedlings and now you see them reaching for the sky and hear the wind through them; when you walk a little further over a bit of ground where your child is buried, and you go on over to a hill where your children and all the many visitors have held picnics. When you walk across a creek where you’ve bathed in the heat of the summer. Men say to you “Why don’t you sell it and move away?” They might as well ask you, “Why don’t you sell your mother?” Somehow God has made us out of this old soil and we go back to it and we never lose its claim on us. It isn’t a simple matter to leave it.”

—Koinonia Farm co-founder Clarence Jordan

Yet another sign of rebirth and renewal at Koinonia Farm. Shortly after Brendan Prendergast’s arrival at Koinonia with his wife Sarah and their daughter Ida in 2006 (a second daughter, Kellan, would be born within the year), the community heard and blessed his passion for the land and entrusted him with the management of their 575 acres of farmland. A significant portion of that land had for years been committed to pecan production, and Brendan envisioned how to integrate their staple crop within a broader design plan through application of the principles of permaculture.

Permaculture design was first developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s in Tasmania, Australia, and has since evolved into a flexible set of practical principles built around the core ethics of earth care, people care, and fair distribution. The aim of these principles is to design regenerative landscapes that also take into consideration the social and economic aspects of any human settlement, in all climates and contexts, including urban environments. In fact, in our discussion, Brendan expresses his surprise when permaculture teacher and Earthaven Ecovillage member Chuck Marsh devoted most of his initial consultation with the community on matters of business structures and interpersonal dynamics.

Pineywoods Cattle under the Pecan Trees

Since their initial consultation with Chuck, Koinonia Farm has hosted permaculture and natural building courses with Patricia Allison (also of Earthaven Ecovillage), Cliff Davis of Spiral Ridge Permaculture, and Wayne Weiseman of the Permaculture Project LLC, among other instructors. These workshops have provided opportunities for community members and others to receive hands-on training in the application of permaculture principles, while also inviting the input of a diverse range of people in tackling various design possibilities on the land.

Pecan Orchards at Koinonia Farm

In our conversation, Brendan speaks of how he first encountered permaculture through friends while living and working in Cincinnati, how permaculture design has taken root at Koinonia, and how connecting with God through God’s creation and through being a steward of the land is central to his Christian faith. He also offers specific examples of applied permaculture design at Koinonia, especially the introduction of livestock and the soil-enhancing and other benefits of their grazing among the pecan orchards.

Other resources mentioned in this interview: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, by Bill Mollison

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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In this second half of my conversation with Bren Dubay, we speak of the rich tapestry of relations Koinonia Farm now enjoys, with communities already mentioned in the previous episode (Jubilee Partners, Reba Place Fellowship, Church of the Servant King) as well as with the Bruderhof, an early 20th century addition to the Anabaptist communal family tree (which also includes the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, among others). Formed in Germany on the cusp of the rise of Nazism, the Bruderhof were expelled from their native country after refusing to allow Nazi teachers to instruct their children. Finding their way first to England, then Paraguay, the Bruderhof finally set roots in the United States with the help of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm in the 1950s. Here, Bren tells the story of how this friendship between the two communities has recently, serendipitously been rekindled, and the intimate bond of mutual help and learning that’s rapidly emerging.

Koinonia Farm has also been adopted by the contemporary New Monasticism movement, who consider Koinonia one of its pioneering forerunners. In fact, Bren is part of a network of new monastic communities currently exploring how they might strengthen relations among themselves. She also expresses her strong conviction that this movement’s future lies not only in strengthened bonds with one another, but with the classic monastic tradition. To this end, the core members of Koinonia are currently engaged in a close reading of the Rule of Saint Benedict, with commentary by Joan Chittister, OSB, and plan to continue this practice of shared reading and discussion with other monastic literature. Several members also retreat at nearby Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA.

Members of Koinonia Farm with Bruderhof Friends

In addition to these topics, Bren and I discuss communication and trust in community, and how she looks forward to the collective maturity that comes only with time, longstanding commitment, and patience.

What excites me most about Koinonia Farm at this time in their history is this unique confluence of influences: of its own profound spiritual legacy interfacing with that of the Bruderhof, representing the classic Anabaptist tradition (what Ivan Kauffman refers to as the “old” new monasticism), and the younger generation of communitarians involved in the New Monasticism. Koinonia Farm also exhibits the strongest inclination I’ve seen thus far toward seeking ways to learn from and build concrete relationships with the classic monastic tradition. Taken together, these factors render Koinonia Farm a key community to watch as the New Monasticism movement continues to evolve and reach for greater maturity and stability.

Other people and resources mentioned in this interview: Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, School(s) for Conversion.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia, was founded in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, with the intention of being a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” and helping the region’s poor, struggling farming families. Foremost among the biblical values they sought to embody were economic sharing among themselves and with their neighbors, racial equality and reconciliation, and compassionate nonviolence. Due to their pacifist stance during World War II and inter-racial composition, the community quickly gained a reputation as an irritant to the surrounding culture. In fact, during much of the 50s and 60s, Koinonia Farm endured all manner of persecution, including cross-burnings, death threats, gunfire, expulsion from local churches, fire-bombing, and a prolonged economic boycott by local businesses. Undaunted by these trials, in the late 60s, Koinonia Farm began the partnership housing movement, building affordable homes for low-income local families. Seeing the global potential of this movement, community members Millard and Linda Fuller went on to expand the endeavor beyond its local scale, giving birth to Koinonia’s most famous contribution, Habitat for Humanity International.

According to Bren Dubay, steward (vowed member) and current Director of Koinonia Farm, while the community enjoyed a certain kind of expansion and growth during the partnership housing era, the very forces underlying that expansion were at the same time subtly eroding the original communal vision. Short-term volunteers swelled the ranks through the late 60s and 70s, motivated more by a particular cause than by the aspiration to embody Christian koinonia, or community, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As one longtime member succinctly described the scene, “The tail began to wag the dog.” Finally, in 1993, with the decision to reorganize Koinonia according to a more conventional non-profit business model, what remained of the original communal pattern of life was dismantled. Consequently, Koinonia’s focus grew more diffuse, and financial losses were suffered in the process of moving from a common-purse economy to paid employees. By 2003, it was clear that a fresh vision and new leadership for the community were needed. To this end, the Board of Directors sought to hire a new Executive Director. That’s where Bren enters the story.

Prior to her arrival at Koinonia Farm, Bren Dubay had worked and served as a spiritual director, retreat leader, playwright, Montessori educator, fundraiser, and development consultant. In May of 2003, she rather innocently took a group of students on a field trip to Americus, Georgia, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. As they were preparing to leave, she reluctantly accepted an invitation to take the students to Koinonia Farm, Habitat’s birthplace. Unbeknownst to her, this visit would trigger a series of events that have since turned her life in a surprising, radically new direction. Within a year, in May of 2004, Bren moved to Koinonia as its new Executive Director. Within another year’s time, she was leading the community in a retrieval of its original communal inspiration.

Koinonia Farm Members and Friends

In our conversation, the first of two podcast episodes with Bren, she tells the story of her entering the stream of Koinonia’s rich, diverse history, the decision to return to the original communal vision and how that process has unfolded over the course of 7 years thus far, challenges and mistakes made along the way, and her own sense of inner peace amid the difficulties. We speak of particular changes, such as restructuring the Board of Directors to include one member apiece from 3 other Christian intentional communities; namely, Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA (a community that welcomes refugees from war-torn countries, founded by members of Koinonia in the late 70s), Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, IL (inspired by Koinonia), and Church of the Servant King in Eugene, OR. Finally, Bren shares her joy in the revitalization of the community’s internship program as an expression of the founders’ intention that Koinonia serve as a “school of discipleship.” Through this program, and through other forms of hospitality, Koinonia Farm welcomes and feeds the spiritual hunger of a wide diversity of people, young and old and in between, of all manner of religious faiths or none at all.

What strikes me most in this part of my conversation with Bren is that hers is clearly a vocation story: of an unexpected invitation, of wrestling with the tension between wanting to say “no” yet knowing (without knowing why) to say “yes,” and of an underlying peace and mysterious satisfaction even through difficulties and trials. There’s humility and gratitude in the recognition of having received a graced opportunity to serve; and a posture of faith, even though the way forward may seem anything but clear at times. To my mind, these are the marks of true servant leadership, the branch grafted onto the Vine, and a vital sign of hope for Koinonia Farm’s uncharted future.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Mike Brantley returned to New Orleans, his native home, during Hurricane Katrina and, at the instigation of his wife Susanne, planted roots there a year later to pioneer Communitas, an ecumenical order of missional communities affiliated with InnerCHANGE and CRM. Up till this point, Mike had wrestled for years, as an Army officer and a pastor in various church contexts, with the fact that conventional models of “church” and “mission” simply weren’t reaching people in post-Christian Western culture. Influenced by the ancient Celtic monastic missionaries, the monastic orders, and a handful of people and communities involved in contemporary neo-monastic, New Friar, and missional movements (including some I’ve covered in this podcast, such as Church of the Sojourners, Mark Scandrette, and especially John Hayes and InnerCHANGE), in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans, Mike began to experiment in earnest with a model of church that integrates community and mission in a shared, committed way of life. At present, Communitas is comprised of residential communities embedded in three neighborhoods in New Orleans, and a fourth community in Valparaiso, Indiana. Mike is also known to be one heck of a lacrosse coach and is one of the most generous, warm-hearted people you’re likely to meet.

In my experience, Communitas typifies a model of church rooted in intentional relationships, with one another and with those in their neighborhoods. On the surface, especially to those of us accustomed to thinking of “church” as something that occurs in a place and time set apart from our ordinary daily round, and “mission” as applied strategies oriented toward re-making others according to our own religious convictions and ideals, this more diffuse, relational model may appear…well, kind of fuzzy. For instance, I spent one afternoon with a community member, Adam, who took me for a tour around town. We eventually settled in for deeper conversation at one of his “ministry spheres,” a local coffee shop. Better than any explanation he provided, simply watching how well he knew customers and employees alike, and how they spontaneously opened to him and shared about their lives, spoke reams of how a missional, communal church functions: real relationships, real caring, solidarity, and a posture of service and investment of one’s life in the lives of one’s neighbors. Whether or not such people choose to join the community for a meal or to pray, they know that the door is open, and are uplifted by authentic friendship. While members of Communitas may also participate in more conventional types of ministry, this overarching relational context renders them uniquely present and available, addressing real-world concerns through concrete relationships with those otherwise unaffiliated with Christian faith.

Adam also spoke in some detail of the formation he’s undergone as a member of Communitas, an aspect of their life that seems particularly thorough and well thought out. In fact, Mike attributes his past experiences as an Army officer with teaching him effective practices of formation that engender real transformation. He also draws upon a military analogy to explain the role of new communities and orders like Communitas in the church and world today: in the wake of ineffectual and outdated church structures, these pioneering communities are like the reconnaissance mission that forges ahead, tinkering, experimenting, and developing new systems and infrastructure for churches to come.

One concern that Mike brought to me involves finances. While some of the communities I’ve visited manage to meet most or all of their financial needs through support-raising (Servants Vancouver, InnerCHANGE Los Angeles), Communitas members work outside the community at least part-time. While this engenders a certain humility and provides a context for establishing themselves among and serving their neighbors, Mike laments that at present they’re not able to commit themselves fully to the mission to which they feel called, and as a consequence, their time and resources are often stretched to the hilt. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common challenge among lay intentional communities, with no easy solution.

In our conversation, in addition to topics already mentioned, Mike and I discuss the significance of being an order and learning from the classic religious orders; his hopefulness about younger generations; what he sees as the disintegration of Christendom and the opportunity for Christian communities to re-take their place on the margins as a subversive influence; what makes for healthy and unhealthy missional communities; the need for a greater emphasis on contemplative practice; and the satisfaction he takes in the risky venture of coloring outside the lines for the sake of the Kingdom. Typical of the relaxed, relational tone of so much of my experience of New Orleans, Mike and I lingered awhile outdoors over coffee, with a passer-by chiming in at one point, only to return to spontaneously lavish us with several loaves of bread on her next go-round.

Other people and resources mentioned in this interview: Stuart Murray; Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Catherine Rundle with Husband Alastair (left), Family, and Friends

InnerCHANGE emerged in the mid-1980s from the aspiration of John Hayes. While living and ministering with his family among immigrant neighbors in the most poverty-stricken, overcrowded street in Orange County, California, John recognized the urgent need to better enable missionaries to share more concretely in the lives and struggles of the poor to whom they minister. Identifying as “a Christian order among the poor,” ecumenical in composition, and affiliated with the larger mission organization CRM: Church Resource Ministries, InnerCHANGE communities have since taken root in impoverished neighborhoods in South and East Africa, Central and South America, London, Cambodia, Bangladesh, as well as a handful of urban centers in the United States.

I first encountered writing by and about InnerCHANGE while reading of the New Friars, a movement of Christian missionary communities seeking to live more integrally among the poor, in part through appropriating the wisdom of the classic religious orders. I was particularly impressed by the maturity reflected in their writing, a clear awareness and responsiveness to historical, economic, and political conditions, and the intention to create sustainable ways of life and lifelong formation in community.  In fact, I had met members of InnerCHANGE years before at New Camaldoli Hermitage, again impressed by their intentionality in integrating solitude and contemplative disciplines into their lives. Perhaps the most significant note of appreciation I heard, however, came from my monastic formator, Michael Fish OSB Cam., who gave a talk at one of InnerCHANGE’s recent annual retreats. After the retreat, he spoke excitedly to me of his impression that such emerging communities represent a springtime of renewal in the church. Hence, I had already developed an appreciation and curiosity before meeting InnerCHANGE members on their own turf, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. In particular, as a former member of a monastic order, I’ve found InnerCHANGE’s capacity for liberally incorporating the creativity and spontaneity of their members a breath of fresh air, a capacity Catherine Rundle compares to the necessary messiness of the artistic process, equally applicable to life and ministry.

InnerCHANGE from CRM InnerCHANGE on Vimeo.

Catherine Rundle’s story was grafted onto that of InnerCHANGE when an urban mission internship in North Hollywood, California, put her in contact with longtime InnerCHANGE Los Angeles members Jude and John Tiersma-Watson. While this internship (unaffiliated with InnerCHANGE) provided the motivation for a way of life among the poor, she and her husband Alastair still lacked the tools, ongoing mentoring, and enduring context to make that happen in an intensive way beyond the period of the internship itself. Hence, in 1999 Catherine and Alastair joined InnerCHANGE as apprentices, therein finding the guidance, maturity, ongoing formation, and  modeling they sought from those who had walked the path well ahead of them. However, an unexpected medical condition compelled them to move to Texas after three years, where they bore their two children surrounded by the loving embrace of extended family members. Six years after their move, having served as outreach pastors for a Presbyterian church, they discerned the call to return to InnerCHANGE and to Los Angeles specifically, where they continue to live and grow and learn what it means to live out God’s tender heart for the poor.

In our conversation, Catherine and I discuss how she’s been transformed by her relationships with the poor, her initial entry and return to InnerCHANGE, the significance of raising a family as members of a diverse religious order, raising financial support for her life and ministry, and her love for the city of Los Angeles where she’s chosen to set down roots. She speaks of her special passion for imparting a sense of personal dignity and value to others through writing their stories in light of scripture and God’s love for them. Finally, Catherine gives a taste of her practice of prayer and praise walking, of sharing holy attentiveness, blessing, and inspired song as she walks the streets of her Westlake/McArthur Park neighborhood.

To learn more about InnerCHANGE, see John Hayes’ book, Sub-Merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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My encounter with the Nehemiah House was one of those happy accidents one learns to treasure, and perhaps even rely on, during extended excursions on the road. I was biking down the Southern California coast with a still unformed idea of what I would do or who I would meet once I got to Los Angeles. Significantly, I didn’t know where I would stay. Fortunately, through friends at InnerCHANGE Los Angeles (interview here), I was put in touch with Sarah and Scott Yetter, who graciously offered me a futon in one of the adjoining houses that comprise the Nehemiah House community. Over the course of my time there, I grew to feel affectionately part of this bustling hub of friendship, mentoring, and prayerful presence in the historically troubled, predominantly Latino Pico-Union neighborhood.

The Yetters did not come to the neighborhood with the intention of starting a community. Rather, their journey began when Scott participated in a mission trip during college with Campus Crusade for Christ. During this trip, Scott not only fell in love with the neighborhood, but fell more deeply in love with the Lord and what the Lord was doing among the people he met. This inspired him to pick up and move into the neighborhood in 1997, working first as a high school teacher and then as a pastor for the First Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. While the intention or hope was that Scott and Sarah would draw local young adults to the church, God seemed to have something else in mind. In short order, Scott found himself flooded with children asking for help with homework, forming relationships with them, while comparatively little came of their outreach to young adults. Quite organically, these relationships with children and their families coalesced into an afterschool program affiliated with the S.A.Y. Yes! organization. Continuing to listen for what God was doing in the neighborhood, and needing physical space for this dynamic network of relationships focused on the afterschool program, Scott and Sarah facilitated the church’s purchase of the Nehemiah House in 2002, which became both their own home and the home of the teen center for S.A.Y. Yes! Pico-Union, Los Angeles.

Today, having purchased an adjoining house in 2009, Scott, Sarah, and their three young children are now joined by two local families who live with them, as well as a handful of interns volunteering with S.A.Y. Yes! and other local ministries for a year or more. Some of these interns, after completing their internship, have themselves chosen to move into the neighborhood also, providing a growing sense of cohesion and relational stability among children, families, mentors, and friends.

In our conversation, Sarah, Scott and I discuss how their faith and concrete relationships led to the forming of Nehemiah house, starting a family in the context of community life, and what they’ve learned living and working with an ever- fluctuating population of young adult interns. Finally, they speak of their hope of seeing today’s young adults shed negative cultural influences, grab hold of the values of discipline and commitment, and fully step into the lives God intends for them—a hope whose realization might be aided by learning from the monastic tradition.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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In this second half of my conversation with Lois Arkin, having introduced the general landscape of ecovillages and the Los Angeles Eco-Village in Part I, we now hone in on lessons she’s learned along the way. Specifically, Lois addresses the issue of structural conflict, reflecting on her own experience in light of the insights of ecovillage and intentional communities author, consultant, workshop leader, and conference presenter, Diana Leafe Christian. The concept of structural conflict points to the fact that, if a community or organization doesn’t adequately address fundamental issues of identity, values, and vision, and how these are to be implemented over time, conflict will most likely ensue, regardless of who’s involved. Given that communities are often founded with an exuberant mixture of idealism and naiveté, drawing on this very practical wisdom from those who have weathered first fervors, successes and failures, can be lifesaving.

In this vein, we spend time talking about membership processes and how these have evolved for the Los Angeles Eco-Village, becoming more narrow and restrictive over time. Earlier, Lois spoke of ecovillages as having porous boundaries, neither closed nor wide-open to the world of which they’re a part. Membership requirements, discernment, formation, education, etc., play an essential role in ensuring that these boundaries, and the integrity of a community’s identity, purpose, and common life, remain healthy. Membership is also an area sure to become highly contentious and problematic for all if these criteria and processes aren’t clear from the beginning.

How does a community clearly impart to new members and communicate to the world its own ethos, while integrating new energies and ideas from without and within? How does this fluid communal organism remain open while retaining its distinctiveness? For a start, through building on solid footing by alleviating structural conflict as soon as possible.

Other resources mentioned in this interview: Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community and Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities by Diana Leafe Christian, and Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making by Tim Hartnett

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Lois Arkin is the founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit CRSP (the Cooperative Resources & Services Project) Institute for Urban Ecovillages. In 1993, she co-founded the Los Angeles Eco-Village as a project of CRSP. Other organizations that she’s co-founded or have grown out of CRSP include the Eco-Home Network, the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, the Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust, and the Urban Soil Tierra Urbana Limited Equity Housing Co-op (LEHC). She is co-author and co-editor ofSustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development andCooperative Housing Compendium: Resources for Collaborative Living. In the late 1980s, Lois received an award from the American Planning Association-L.A. Section for Advocacy Planning for, in her own words, “having a big mouth.” She is also a founding member of the Ecovillage Network of the Americas and a board member of the Global Village Institute.

In this episode, the first of two with Lois on the subject of ecovillages and the Los Angeles Eco-Village in particular, we explore what constitutes an ecovillage, the history of the ecovillage movement, and Lois’ own experience as an ecovillage founder. From her suburban childhood romping unfettered amid her close-knit neighborhood, to working with troubled youth in inner city Los Angeles in the 1960’s, Lois was passionately drawn to explore the question of how to reinvent urban living to enhance quality of life and address the underlying causes of social ills. This aspiration took a decisive turn in the wake of the L.A. riots in 1992. In light of the glaring, urgent needs this tragedy exposed, a plan to build a demonstration ecological neighborhood on an unpopulated site outside the downtown area was scrapped in favor of revitalizing and retrofitting Lois’ own 2-block Koreatown neighborhood. Beginning January 1st, 1993, Lois and fellow volunteers hit the streets, talking to neighbors, spreading “positive gossip, ” planting trees and garden plots with children, hosting social events, all intended to build a sense of safety and community. Thus were laid the foundations of the Los Angeles Eco-Village.

What inspires me most about Lois’ story and ecovillages generally is their truly integrative approach to re-envisioning how human beings inhabit the planet. Taking into account the social, economic, environmental, and technological dimensions of shared living, ecovillages function as research and development centers, evaluating new possibilities and critically reevaluating processes and practices that the dominant culture takes for granted. In the case of Los Angeles Eco-Village, this includes integrating human-scale, ecological technologies, growing food and running a food cooperative, establishing an affordable housing co-op and community revolving loan fund, implementing inclusive, participatory decision-making and conflict resolution processes, all within the heart of a preexisting urban neighborhood.

Links to other resources mentioned in this interview: Global Ecovillage Network, Ecovillages Newsletter, Los Angeles Eco-Village blog, Los Angeles Ecovillage Wiki.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Dan Schmitz with wife Jan and their son Peter

By the time I arrived in Oakland, California, a question had grown in me that I now sought to address more directly: what makes evangelicals tick? Having grown up Catholic and returned to the Catholic Church by way of Buddhism, the differences between my self-identity as a Catholic Christian—from how I read the Bible, to how I pray, understand the nature of Christian community, tradition, authority—seemed strikingly different in many respects from the evangelical Christians I was meeting. While I may have known about these differences on paper, I still found myself somewhat disoriented in my actual encounters with evangelicals and evangelical communities. At the same time, I was aware that there were profound shifts taking place in the evangelical ethos that underlie these community movements; I’m merely swimming along the surface of currents whose depth and breadth I could only dimly infer. And the most curious aspect of these shifts, from my perspective, is that they’re prodding evangelicals, especially young evangelicals, to mine the riches of the pre-Reformation tradition, in search of a wisdom that can more thoroughly address their aspirations and challenges today. Hence, wanting to deepen my own understanding in these respects and learn to better situate myself in the growing overlap between evangelical intentional communities and the classic monastic tradition, I spent some time sharing in the lives of and learning from the kindhearted, generous folks of New Hope Covenant Church in the Lower San Antonio District of Oakland.

The beginnings of New Hope strike themes I’ve heard several times thus far (see for instance Debbie Gish of Church of the Sojourners): a youthful immersion into the whirlwind of urban ministry leads to an aspiration for a more sustainable way of life in community, but the resources and models needed to bring this aspiration to fruition aren’t close at hand. Dan’s insertion into this story begins with his affiliating with Harbor House Ministries in East Oakland and moving into Oak Park Apartments in 1989, inhabited primarily by poverty-stricken Cambodian refugees and Latino immigrants. His intention was to live in a local equivalent to the overseas urban slum conditions he anticipated encountering though foreign mission work. Soon joined by others, especially young Christians associated with InterVarsity, the budding community found themselves deeply enmeshed in the often chaotic lives and overwhelming needs of their neighbors, including organizing a successful lawsuit against the building’s negligent owner. Rather than go overseas as originally intended, however, Dan chose to remain among these neighbors he learned to relate to as family, participating in the shaping of this community of mission-minded Christians into the multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse New Hope Covenant Church, of which he is the present acting pastor. Given the lessons he’s learned helping to birth this new model of church from such unformed beginnings, Dan recognizes some of the challenges faced by evangelical leaders and communities in light of radically changing social and cultural conditions.  As a response, he presently focuses much of his energies on leadership development and formation as interim chair of The Mosaic Center of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Dr. Joan Jie-eun Jeung prays during a Sunday service at New Hope Covenant Church. Photo © 2010 Lacy Atkins / San Francisco Chronicle

In our conversation, Dan and I discuss how the complexities of our increasingly religiously and culturally pluralist “post-Christian” world challenge evangelical theology and spirituality to adopt more holistic perspectives. In contexts where a basic Judeo-Christian framework can no longer be assumed, the good news of salvation must be expressed through a living witness of rooted commitment, living side by side with the poor and marginalized and sharing their struggles. This in turn requires processes of formation that impart a deeper understanding of social, historical, and economic issues across cultures, and practices that can integrate this learning within one’s own self-awareness and spiritual development. How am I connected to the exploitation of migrant farm workers? How has the church been implicated in racist attitudes and practices, and how must I repent and change in response? What presumptions and privileges must I divest myself of in order to live in solidarity with the poor? How do the Bible narratives reflect God’s ongoing concern with structural injustice and oppression, and where am I situated in that story? An adequate formation for contexts like that encountered in Oak Park must prepare leaders to ask and respond to these kinds of questions, for themselves and their congregants.

Another element that makes Dan’s perspective unique is his Catholic upbringing in a Franciscan parish. And while he now serves as an evangelical pastor, in his own words he never “protested” his Catholic origins; rather, he has sought to integrate in his own life and ministry the values and strengths of both worlds. Hence, he’s right at home among evangelicals now eagerly learning from “Catholic” figures such as Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Benedict of Nursia, Antony the Great and the early desert abbas and ammas. As well, in thinking about new models for evangelical churches that incorporate the kind of changes we discuss, Dan looks to the Catholic orders and their ability to diversify and incorporate people in varying lifestyles and degrees of intensity of commitment, such as the three Franciscan orders: Order of Friars (celibate men), Order of Saint Clare (celibate women), and the Third Order (inclusive of lay people, married and otherwise). His larger hope? That this integrative impulse and drawing on the whole Christian tradition helps facilitate the healing and unification of the Body of Christ, the Church.

My heartfelt gratitude to all in the New Hope community who welcomed me, fed me, gave me a bed or couch upon which to lay my head, played games with me, drank, laughed, prayed, shared enlightening conversations, and all-in-all made me feel right at home.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Paula Huston has been an Oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage since 1999, after encountering the monastery during a period of acute spiritual crisis and having her life’s direction turned in an entirely new direction. She is the author of The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, By Way of Grace: Moving From Faithfulness to Holiness, Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving, and Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, as well as works of fiction. Her spiritual writing regularly appears in such journals as The Christian Century, America, Image, and Geez, in addition to websites like www.explorefaith.comwww.catholicexchange.com, and www.godspy.com.  She has four grown children plus small grandchildren, and lives with her husband in rural Arroyo Grande, California (full bio here).

This conversation is largely a response to my previous interview with Bruno Barnhart. Taking a decidedly different tack than Bruno’s vision of a new role for monasteries and the emergence of small, local experiments budding into new forms of monastic or quasi-monastic communities, Paula strongly defends the enduring validity and necessity of preserving ancient forms. In contrast to Bruno’s optimistic assessment of human creativity as a kind of revolutionary force unleashed by the Christ event, Paula sees, particularly in the Romantic Movement and the social upheavals of the mid-to-late 20th century, an unrestrained, destabilizing approach to both art and life that tends toward dissipation and broken relationships. Whereas Bruno suggests that the containment of the monastery often best serves as a period of training for a more creative kind of life, Paula sees the limitations imposed by a highly structured, disciplined life as the context wherein true creativity flowers. Not surprisingly, where Bruno sees the 1960s, and Vatican II in particular, as a time of grace, Paula paints a picture of the social fabric coming undone due to an exaggerated ideal of the good life as one without constraint or limitation. Paula also discusses her experience of the Oblate community of which she is a part, of how they’re held together in a bond akin to family with the monastery firmly at the center, and the liberating effects of learning to align their lives with the monastic values instilled by their relationship with the monastery. As regards the vocational crisis facing so many religious communities in the Christian West, Paula shares her belief that this is primarily a clash of cultures between modern and ancient prerogatives, a historical lull that actually gives monasteries greater opportunity to witness to something truly countercultural.

While these contrasting views might be caricatured as “liberal” and “conservative” (which I believe is an unfair simplification), I also see something else at play. The context for both interviews revolves around Bruno’s and Paula’s responses to the state of monastic institutions in the West, and New Camaldoli Hermitage in particular. As such, they appear to inhabit virtually opposite poles. I believe this kind of stalemate permeates much of the discourse around how to address what many see as a vocational crisis among monasteries today. Are changing cultural circumstances calling forth new forms of religious life? Do monastic institutions need to hold their ground as a countercultural witness and weather the crisis? Obviously, these are complex questions with no easy answers. What I find intriguing, however, is how different the context is among new evangelical communities that I’ve encountered. Because these communities have as yet no formal institutions of religious life of their own, there’s a spirit of freedom and spontaneity relatively unhindered by the kind of polarities one finds in Catholic circles. In other words, they’re able to draw from scripture, tradition, and human experience without bumping into overarching, longstanding structures, and hence do not suffer the kind of inertia that results from polarized reactions toward such structures. In fact, I would say that because of this freedom, the kind of small, local experiments Bruno foresees are actually happening now, though more often than not outside Catholicism.

My growing hope? That evangelical “new monastics” and Catholic monasteries forge stronger bonds, which would allow “new monastics” to establish deeper roots in history and tradition, and the “old monastics” to benefit from an infusion of youthful openness, enthusiasm, and spontaneity—the “many possibilities” of the beginner’s mind. This development leans more toward the less contentious idea put forward by Mary Forman, that we are entering a period of expanding diversity not unlike that which emerged in similar periods of cultural upheaval, a diversity fostered today by ecumenical dialogue and new relationships between monastics and laity.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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