Archive for the ‘Social Action’ Category

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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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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For the last 30 years, Phil McManus has been actively engaged in promoting peace, justice and active nonviolence in Latin America and in U.S.-Latin America relations, working with a number of different organizations, including the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation. He is the Latin America Program Officer for the Appleton Foundation, and with Gerald Schlabach, co-editor of Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America (available from Wipf and Stock Publishers). He is an Oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, and a member of the Redwood Nonviolence Community, an intentional community based in Santa Cruz, CA.

In our conversation, Philip and I discuss his experiences in Latin America working for nonviolent social change in the context of often brutal repression and injustice. In particular, we discuss the widespread phenomenon of Christian base communities, which continue today but flourished especially for several decades after Vatican II (1962-65). Prompted by Vatican II’s emphasis on the church as servant to the poor, sensitive to reading the ‘signs of the times’ as the lens through which the gospel message is received and acted upon, the Conference of Latin American Bishops met in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia, to discern what this entailed for Latin America. Taking serious stock of the Latin American social, economic, and political landscape, the Conference took the unprecedented step of urging a ‘preferential option for the poor’ for their churches, posing a strong challenge to 500 years of the Catholic Church’s virtual collusion with the economic and political elite of the region. Amid this ferment, Christian base communities arose in astounding numbers, comprised of mostly poor, disenfranchised people who read, studied, and acted upon scripture from the reality of their own experience, perceptions, needs, and challenges.

Philip speaks of how his own Christian faith has been nourished and transformed as he encountered fresh, challenging readings of scripture from the “base”; that is, from within the collective struggles of those at the bottom of the social pyramid striving to realize the reign of love Jesus taught and inaugurated. This form of reading and responding to scripture challenges North American prerogatives in at least four ways: first, social conditions illuminate the meaning of scripture and vice versa, which is to say that the truths of scripture do not float above history but rather dynamically address our common needs and concerns today, and what God intends therein; secondly, the reading of scripture is a communal rather than individual undertaking; third, the poor and marginalized, as the victims of social systems that glorify wealth, power, and prestige, occupy a privileged position from which to understand Jesus’ message; and fourth, the gospel cannot be understood apart from action—through a cycle of action and reflection, the community interiorizes and actualizes the gospel message as an ongoing transformative process. These basic tenets pose a stark contrast to the common tendency to privatize the gospel message as primarily concerned with individual salvation, independent of social, economic, and political realities.

I was eager to include Philip’s thoughts here because of his ability to communicate, from a particular perspective, a theme I encounter over and over again. From Parish Collective’s insistence upon doing theology in the context of rootedness in one’s neighborhood, to New Monasticism’s provocative first mark (“relocation to the abandoned places of Empire”), to Servants Vancouver’s incarnational approach to mission, each share the insight that context and community matter. The concrete needs of our neighbors lay claim on us as disciples of Jesus Christ, and this requires some understanding of the social, economic, and political systems in which we’re embedded. From a Catholic perspective, this “method” was profoundly enfleshed amid the liberation movements of Latin America during the time period alluded to above.

For many of us Christians in North America, formed in a fragmented culture, habituated to an illusion of self-sufficiency, taught a gospel of individual and more often than not unearthly salvation, the habits of communal living don’t necessarily come easily. Hence, lessons gleaned from people on the margins, who are inescapably sensitive to their dependence on God and one another, can be indispensable to our own growth in community.

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

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John Schwiebert has served as pastor of the Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church of Portland, Oregon, since its inception in 1985, and is a founding member of the 18th Avenue Peace House, an intentional community that serves as the central gathering and worship space for the larger community and congregation.  In our conversation, John and I discuss how the community came to adopt the Quaker process of spiritual discernment, or “sense of the meeting,” after the consensus process they learned from their social activism endeavors failed to provide an adequate means of addressing serious differences among community members. We also talk about the community’s present process of discerning the future and living into the next generation as John prepares to step down from his leadership position. Finally, John offers strong words on the degree of commitment necessary for healthy, enduring communities, likening the decision to join a community to that of entering into marriage.

Metanoia Peace Community

The Metanoia Peace Community took its inspiration from the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, particularly the latter’s approach to intensifying and balancing both the inner (contemplative) and outer (sociopolitical) dimensions of Christian discipleship. In appropriating this model of radical discipleship, members of the Metanoia Peace Community commit to practices of resource sharing, common and individual prayer, peacemaking in the home and through acts of civil disobedience, participation in smaller discipleship groups that meet for mutual support and accountability, and, as a “Reconciling Congregation” within the United Methodist Church, welcoming and advocating on behalf of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.  For residents of the 18th Avenue Peace House, these commitments include income sharing and a more intensive sharing of daily life, prayer, and ministry together. In its ministry of hospitality, the Peace House has provided residential hospice care, particularly to persons with AIDS. The Peace House also functions as the hub for Grief Watch, which provides resources, publications, and support through the grieving process, especially for those suffering perinatal loss and the loss of children to murder or suicide.

When I first arrived at the Peace House, it was a bit of a culture shock: from Tacoma Catholic Worker in the midst of the inner city to a beautiful, spacious house in a relatively affluent Portland neighborhood. Nevertheless, in hearing stories (off-tape) about the community’s history—particularly risks taken financially and in their commitments as war tax resisters and peace activists—and the array of ministries that spin from its creative center, I was impressed. I geared my list of questions in the hope of eliciting some of those stories and John’s reflections on their significance, but in the actual interview he responded with quite different material. That’s not a bad thing, but if I was savvier, I would have tried to probe deeper into what he did offer than continue with the questions I’d preselected. For instance, John shared his thoughts on servant-leadership and his own role as leader within the community. But because this left me more confused than enlightened in regard to how his leadership interfaced with the community’s consensus process, I chose to leave that material out. In any case, the two topics that I found most engaging in this conversation were his reflections on commitment and spiritual discernment, the latter being the perfect segue for my next interview, which will focus exclusively on consensus process in community.

Metanoia Peace Community has built a strong foundation with its witness to Christian community and its dynamic ministries, but it’s also clearly a community with an uncertain future. As its original members age and its leader steps aside, it will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on what follows, since this is universally a sensitive pivot point in the life of any community.

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

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Nora with Daughters Bridget and Maggie

Nora Leider has been a resident of the Tacoma Catholic Worker community for the past six years, involved in a variety of the community’s activities, including helping guests transitioning from homelessness to develop strategies toward greater relational and financial independence, advocating for fair, affordable housing and mixed income communities in downtown Tacoma, and managing the community’s organic garden. Continuing on the theme of family in community, Nora and I discuss her journey of becoming wife and mother within the context of discerning and becoming a core community member. She describes the lessons she’s learned along the way in negotiating boundaries and establishing balance between community and family life, and the importance for her of living in a faith community that combines addressing immediate needs with working for systemic change. Nora also shares how the consensus process has led her to a deeper trust and openness toward others’ intentions, perspectives, and insights, and offers an encouraging word for young families discerning a call to life in community.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine

The Tacoma Catholic Worker grew out of a movement of houses of hospitality initiated by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York City in the 1930s. Combining the practice of welcoming the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the marginalized as Christ (Matt. 25:31-46) with a social vision embracing anarchist and pacifist principles, the Catholic Worker movement has since taken on many and varied expressions, with over 180 Catholic Worker communities in the United States at present.

Founded in 1989 with the initial intention of opening their doors to provide emergency shelter for the neighborhood’s homeless, the Tacoma Catholic Worker community soon found itself overwhelmed by the sheer number of slumbering people about the house each night. Reflecting on this experience and recognizing that Tacoma already had facilities for emergency shelter, the community decided that offering transitional housing for those seeking to get off the streets was a more effective, needed service that they could more manageably offer. Many singles, families, and women recently released from prison have all found help and home in the ensuing years.

Today the community is comprised of eight houses, with approximately fifteen permanent members, plus children, alongside temporary guests, residents, and interns.  In addition to transitional housing, Tacoma Catholic Worker hosts weekly open houses including liturgy and a communal meal, shares the yield of their organic garden, offers showers and phone services, and engages in local advocacy on issues that affect the neighborhood’s poor and marginalized residents.  Tacoma Catholic Worker is also a center of activity for Disarm Now Plowshares, organizing nonviolent actions in protest of the nearby Trident submarine base in Bangor, which houses more than 2,000 nuclear warheads, the largest single stockpile in the United States.

What I appreciate about Nora’s reflections is that, while her story may not be as dramatic as that of Craig Greenfield’s—nothing approaching taking small children in tow from Cambodian slums to one of the most destitute neighborhoods in the Western world—she manages to capture in a simple, accessible way the value of community for families and children, and for finding meaningful engagement with the people, the challenges, the hopes, fears, and dreams embodied in an inner city neighborhood. Like Servants Vancouver, the Tacoma Catholic Worker witnesses in a deliberate way to the possibility of breaking down the stratifications—economic, relational, and otherwise—inherent in so much of modern urban culture.  As communities of faith, each witness to the possibility of an intensification of following Christ, especially as he is to be found in one another and in the ‘least’ among us. As a young mother, Nora can insist that this work and witness is enriched by and enriching for children.

For more on the history of the challenge of Catholic Worker communities to accommodate families, see Dan McKanan, “Chapter 6: Inventing the Catholic Worker Family,” in The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), 146-180.

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

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I visited yesterday with Tim Soerens and Justin Mayfield of Parish Collective, a movement that connects churches, faith-based organizations, community groups and others on a neighborhood level to foster friendship, collaboration, justice-making, and vibrant local culture. Central to Parish Collective is the conviction that commitment to place and people is primary, that our God-talk must speak to and arise from local contexts, concrete relationships, and concerns, or it doesn’t speak at all. Loving one’s neighbor requires rootedness, and these rooted relationships in turn become the context in which we come to discover, discern, and participate in God’s creative presence in our midst. A second aspect to the work of Parish Collective is to create community not just at the neighborhood level, but to link local communities across a broad network, spreading the gifts, bonds, wisdom, and insights of local culture with a global view in mind. At present, there are established or emerging Parish Collectives in Seattle, Bellingham, Tacoma, Vancouver, WA, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Edmonton, BC, and Vancouver, BC.

Justin Mayfield and Tim Soerens from Parish Collective

Two things most impress me about Parish Collective. First, their intention to gather together and bring to bear in a concrete way the collective wisdom of local culture for positive social change stands in contrast to the way in which various groups and communities can live and work in the same area yet never substantially connect or collaborate. As a consequence, efforts toward justice-making and community-building in this fragmented context are often tackled piecemeal, from limited perspectives and narrow interests. The open, wholistic approach of Parish Collective strikes me as a refreshing antidote to such fragmentation.

Secondly, the emphasis on local stability as the abiding ground of commitment for discipleship and theological reflection poses a direct challenge to the present “keeping-my-options-open-indefinitely” sensibilities of the dominant culture. Craig Greenfield of Servants Vancouver also addressed this issue in our interview—the tension among today’s young adults between a hunger for community and an ambivalence toward commitment. In reality, you cannot have one without the other. Or to paraphrase Craig’s words, you cannot have community without the cost of commitment. Hence, it strikes me as particularly prophetic that Parish Collective begins and ends with commitment to place and people.

Rooted & Linked from Parish Collective on Vimeo.

Tim, Justin, and I talked a bit about this emphasis on local rootedness in light of the traditional Benedictine monastic promise of stability to a particular monastery and monastic community, intended as a lifelong commitment. The thought here is that Parish Collective is in some sense experimenting with the possibility of transplanting traditional monastic values and principles in the context of whole neighborhoods rather than insulated cloisters, and expanding the meaning and practice of “parish” in the process. Of course, while Saint Benedict wrote his Rule as a consolidation of the tradition he had inherited, he was also writing within his own unique cultural and historical context, for a particular community of men. The burgeoning monastic Oblate movement, among other models, affirms that Benedict’s insights and that of the larger monastic tradition can indeed speak to and enrich non-monastic contexts and cultures. I find it particularly heartening that stability, rootedness, and local stewardship are among those monastic values that seem to be having a transformative impact as counterpoints to disposable, rootless and uprooting cultural, economic, and social forces pervading our world and our neighborhoods today.

You can learn more about Parish Collective on their website.

I may publish an interview with a Parish Collective member down the road, but otherwise I am grateful for these new connections, budding friendships, and fresh inspiration. Thanks, guys!

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