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.
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.