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Posts Tagged ‘New Hope Covenant Church’

Here’s a glimpse into how connected my world has become.

A few months ago, my girlfriend Lisa Washio, co-director of The Pink House in Fresno, California (an InterVarsity Urban Projects program that immerses young adults in a 10-month residential apprenticeship in biblical community, urban ministry, and leadership development) called me from a pub in New Orleans. She was hanging out with interviewees Mike Brantley of Communitas New Orleans (Episode 21) and Scott Bessenecker, InterVarsity’s associate director of missions (Episode 29), plus other members of Communitas. Also in attendance was our mutual friend Josh Harper of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland, California (Episode 16), InterVarsity’s national coordinator for Urban Projects. As well, there were Phileena and Chris Heuertz, established leaders within the new friar organization Word Made Flesh, who are presently embarking on a new venture that I’m very excited about, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism, through which they hope to help people integrate contemplative spirituality with social activism. In fact, I was eager to meet Phileena and Chris in my travels, but their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, was too far from anywhere by bicycle!

So what am I doing now, six months after the journey’s end?

First of all, I want to say that it has been a journey in itself readjusting to ordinary pedestrian life after 14 months on the road. Thankfully, I had the close company of friends in Collegeville, Minnesota, to lighten the burden of transitioning. Even so, the visceral sense of not knowing who I was or what direction my life was headed was fairly acute for the first couple of months. In this condition, I found it extremely difficult to reengage theological studies at Saint John’s School of Theology for one last semester. Thankfully, I did manage to complete my classwork, yet my eye was more focused on where the real fruits of the tour were emerging. In previous posts, I’ve alluded to Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” as characterizing my own experience of being stripped and given new life in the process of making this bicycle tour. This sense of being given a new life only increased after the traveling ceased. In fact, in a fairly short period of time, I’ve gone from a dizzying sense of groundlessness to a new inner stability, interwoven with new relationships and opportunities, about which I will say more below.

Regarding my thoughts in response to what I learned and experienced on tour, I resonate strongly with a chapter I came across in an anthology of reflections on centering prayer, “Three Contemplative Waves,” by centering prayer teacher David Frenette (see Thomas Keating, et al, Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation: Writings on Centering Prayer [New York: Lantern Books, 2008], 9-55). Frenette’s basic thesis is that, over the past half century, the Christian contemplative tradition has undergone a profound renewal and transformation toward what he calls “incarnational contemplation”; that is, toward an emphasis on integrating contemplative practices such as centering prayer in the context of the everyday life concerns of work, marriage, family, and social justice. He identifies the first two phases of this renewal—firstly, developing new ways of understanding the relationship between contemplation and various areas of human concern, including integrating the insights of developmental and transpersonal psychology; and secondly, developing practice forms accessible to people living in the world—with the work of Cistercian monks Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Significantly, Frenette believes that we are currently on the cusp of a third phase of contemplative renewal, namely, the emergence of lay intentional communities that support and express these new patterns of contemplative living in the world.

Now, Frenette is writing from a different but related context than that of the majority of communities I’ve visited. Whereas the contemplative renewal Frenette traces has its roots firmly within the monastic tradition (most of its seminal teachers, for instance, have been monks—Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, John Main, et al), the new monasticism-new friars movements I’ve covered are emerging from outside the classic monastic and mendicant orders. Whereas incarnational contemplation until now has focused primarily on interior practices and personal transformation, the greatest strength of the new monasticism-new friars, as I see it, has been a deep commitment to embodying the radical social teachings of gospels, most often in poor urban neighborhoods. Whereas incarnational contemplation has thus far developed structures for local support groups and extended retreats, the new monasticism-new friars have focused on communal forms of social engagement. One other contrast that I believe is particularly relevant here is that of demographics: while both incarnational contemplation and the new monasticism-new friars are fairly diverse, their demographic centers of gravity split between older Catholics and mainline Protestants on the incarnational contemplation side of the coin, and younger evangelicals among the new monasticism-new friars.

From the point of view of the monasteries themselves, at least in the Christian West, there is the related phenomenon of the vitality of many monastic houses tipping more and more toward an engagement with the wider world. Many monasteries now have far more Oblates (lay people who commit themselves to living out the spirituality of the monastery in the world) than in-house monks and nuns. For example, at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California—of which I am an Oblate—there are presently approximately 50 Oblates for every monk. This widening gap underlies Ivan Kauffman’s conviction, which I share, that the future of monasticism in the West lies in the direction of celibate monastics forging new collaborative relationships with lay people.

So here is my reading of the situation in a nutshell: On the one hand, many monasteries—their numbers shrinking and median age rising—are leaning uncertainly into an unknown future, while some lay or “incarnational” contemplatives grope toward yet-to-be-determined communal forms of life. On the other hand, a vibrant, youthful network of mostly evangelical Christians is busy at work experimenting with structures for intentional community, seeking roots in ancient tradition while embodying fresh responses to present circumstances. And if there’s anything that I have to speak into this situation, after having explored communities on both sides of this equation, it is this: Monasteries and their associated movements stand to benefit profoundly from the youthful idealism, fresh perspectives, courage, and creative imagination that I see permeating the new monasticism-new friars. The new monasticism-new friars stand to benefit profoundly from the maturity, depth of prayerful interiority, historical rootedness, and accumulated wisdom of the classic Christian monastic and contemplative traditions. Hence, I see vast potential waiting to be tapped through forging enduring collaborative relationships among these various Christian movements, all of whom lay some claim to historical monasticism.

I have no general prescription for how this relationship-building might unfold, except to say that I believe that people like Phileena and Chris Heuertz, who are already rooted in both worlds, are in an ideal position to step into this creative overlap and make things happen; for surely, the Spirit broods over this field of possibility, awaiting willing hands and hearts. Phileena is especially well-positioned as someone steeped in the teachings and practice of centering prayer and widely respected as a leader within the new monasticism-new friars. As well, Lisa and I are already beginning to envision possibilities for a community or center of some kind in Fresno. We are both Camaldolese-Benedictine Oblates (or at least, Lisa will be shortly), and whereas my experience and training lie mostly in the classic monastic and contemplative vein, Lisa is more firmly grounded in urban ministry along the lines of the new monasticism-new friars. And, she has deep relational roots in Fresno. Hence, we intend to draw upon our many relationships in the area, maintaining close ties with nearby New Camaldoli Hermitage, to develop a way of life in community that integrates monastic rhythms and contemplative practice with service and hospitality to our neighbors.

At this point, our aspirations are in the early germination stage, and the specifics of what we decide to do will be the outcome of a long process of prayerful discernment and consultation; or, to paraphrase Scott Yetter of Nehemiah House, of listening for what God is doing in the neighborhood and how we can participate. For now, I am back at New Camaldoli Hermitage with a load of books underarm that I need to read for comprehensive exams in order to complete my monastic studies degree. Hopefully, I will finish by May and will then make my way to Fresno. I have no timeline to offer as yet for our endeavors, but I will check in periodically on this blog with updates (if you haven’t inferred this yet, I am an irregular blogger; hence, if you want to be kept informed, I would recommend signing up for an e-mail subscription at the top of the sidebar to the right).

In the meantime, I will continue to watch in wonder and gratitude at how God breathes new life into weary limbs and weaves meaningful connections out of what once appeared to be mere disjointed bones.

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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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