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Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

Church of the Sojourners 25th Anniversary Celebration

Debbie Gish is a founding member of Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco’s Mission District, a community of the Shalom Mission Communities network. She works as an adoption social worker and, with her husband Dale, is parent to two daughters, Annalise and Rebecca.

In our conversation, Debbie and I discuss the emergence of Sojourners as both church and community from a small collective of five young women and three older couples with children engaged in urban ministry in the mid-1980s. Debbie speaks of the community’s search for healthy balance and boundaries in their life and ministry together, which led to the development of a particular self-understanding as church that emphasizes loving one another well as the Body of Christ. This understanding manifests in a form of ministry and hospitality that Debbie describes as functioning primarily as the Inn rather than the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In other words, whereas much emphasis tends to get placed on ministry as going out to those in need, Sojourners’ role looks more like that of the Inn to which the injured are brought to heal. Such people are often integrated into the community, become family, so that the boundary between ministers and those ministered to dissolves. Debbie also shares about her own learning process through 25 years of communal living: from an exuberant honeymoon period, to a deeper realization of community as her way of living out her discipleship to God, the joys of living through the various stages of her life in the close company of others, and a grasp of the necessity of stability and commitment to human flourishing. Finally, since Church of the Sojourners is often identified with the New Monasticism, and Debbie and other members were present when the 12 Marks of the New Monasticism were developed, we spend some time talking about the strengths and challenges in this vital, emerging community movement.

As someone who appreciates contrast, I found going from spending time with Mark Scandrette to staying with Church of the Sojourners particularly illuminating (incidentally, they’re friends and neighbors). In my perception, whereas Mark emphasizes spiritual formation and building community within a highly fluid social environment, Sojourners places great value on stability and mutual commitment in the context of living together for the long haul. Not to exaggerate the contrast, since both overlap in their seeking greater intentionality as Christian disciples through caring, committed relationships. But I was struck by Debbie’s reflections on enduring commitment as the place wherein human beings grow and flourish, a truth our culture has largely forgotten, to the point where it’s difficult to even communicate this wisdom to others. Does our culture need pockets of strong counter-witness, like Sojourners, to excessive autonomy and mobility? I’m inclined to believe, yes, without diminishing the value of forms of community such as Mark’s that can accommodate mobility and flux.

(Tech lesson of the day: avoid recording interviews next to a refrigerator with a high-sensitivity mic in a high-ceilinged, uncarpeted kitchen…)

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

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From childhood, Mark Scandrette was taught a highly intentional form of putting the teachings of Jesus into practice in everyday life. In the ensuing years this practical intentionality has grown into a lifelong habit of sensitive discernment and active response to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, in dialog with the personal, social, and global realities of our time and place.  Mark now shares this practical wisdom as founding director of ReIMAGINE!, a collective that engages people in integrative spiritual experiments and practices. He is the author of  Soul Graffiti and Practicing the Way of Jesus , and contributing author to Community of Kindness , The Relevant Church, and Emergent Manifesto of Hope. He lives in San Francisco’s Mission District with his wife Lisa and their three teenage children (read Mark’s full bio here).

In my experience, spiritual formation has tended to be a rather introspective and private affair, centered on meeting regularly with a spiritual director, discerning God’s presence and action, and making decisions based on this shared reflection. And even though this often occurred within a community, it was not a deliberately communal process as such, nor did it necessarily draw concrete connections between spiritual development and local/global social, economic, and political concerns. Hence, I was attracted to Mark’s work because of his ability to integrate personal transformation with community building and social action. He does this through shared experiments he calls “learning labs,” which may involve such practices as activism aimed at ending human trafficking, applying Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions to personal and group finances, addressing addictive and compulsive behaviors, or sharing silence and contemplative prayer. From these experiments in faith emerge small communities or “tribes,” who make vows together annually, continuing to love, support, challenge, and hold one another accountable through successive experiments aimed at living ever more fully into the Kingdom of Love Jesus proclaimed.

One aspect that makes this model of community unique is its plasticity. According to Mark, about one third of his tribe move away each year, as other members join, which is only slightly higher than the degree of transiency in San Francisco generally (every year, approximately 20% of the population leaves). Amidst this high mobility, a core group remains, while those who depart may form similar communities where they land. Furthermore, because members of the community engage in an ongoing process of shared action and reflection, this allows for a flexibility that can discern best practices that endure over time, while providing a framework for addressing new challenges as they arise (as an example of the latter, we talk about online social media, the pervasiveness of which  could not have been anticipated 8 years ago, yet has now become a central and even consuming part of many people’s lives in a very short time).

Among other topics, Mark and I discuss spiritual formation in this context of an often dizzying mobility and social fragmentation (of which San Francisco is but a highly condensed microcosm). Against this backdrop, Mark shares his perception of a new consciousness rising, a longing for wholeness in ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and our world. In Mark’s view, this new consciousness has profoundly impacted young Christians, who today tend to be more concerned with issues of justice, community, ecology, and creativity—of a whole way of life—than traditional roles of priest, pastor, or missionary. As emerging communities seek to embody this new consciousness, integrating body, mind, and spirit and the personal, social, economic, and political dimensions of life, traditional models of formation may not be completely adequate. “Learning labs” that give rise to, shape, and sustain community offer one possible, complimentary approach of ongoing engagement in the cycle of action and reflection, catalyzed by a steady gaze upon Jesus’ vision of Kingdom of Love.

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

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Victoria Austin is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. She has practiced for forty years mostly at San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. She has also taught Iyengar yoga for more than 25 years.

In our conversation, Victoria and I discuss how the Soto Zen tradition Suzuki Roshi transplanted from Japan took root in fresh ways in the United States. In particular, Victoria speaks of an emphasis on everyday life as the field of practice, of lay people moving from a supportive to a creative, participative role, the rise of women leaders, and the development of more communal structures of leadership. We also talk about the emergence of San Francisco Zen Center’s unique constellation of City Center, an urban, residential meditation center; Green Gulch, a rural farm for families and others; and Tassajara, a more traditional monastery in the remote Ventana Wilderness, inland from the Big Sur coast, which opens to guests during the summer months.

Several features of this conversation I find worth highlighting, especially in light of previous interviews. San Francisco Zen Center represents a unique translation of a monastic tradition that exhibits great flexibility, while retaining ancient practice and teaching forms. To my mind, this illustrates a wonderful “middle way” between what I see as the institutional inertia of classic Christian monasticism, and the relative lack of continuity or rootedness among communities identified, for instance, with the fledgling New Monasticism movement.

The integration of lay and ordained, monastic and householder, and the flexible permutations among these categories, along with the fluid variety of practice and lifestyle options the three Centers foster, provide a striking example for  Christians seeking new forms for an emerging “new monasticism.” This model comes very close to the “concentric circles” concept for monastic communities Bruno Barnhart and I began to explore. Furthermore, this model also provides cues to what cultural and institutional support for lay intentionality (an intensity of commitment and participation analogous to that of monastic orders) might look like, which Ivan Kauffman insists Christian churches urgently need to develop.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise (street ambiance provided by local afternoon traffic, corner of Page and Laguna.

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