New monasticism takes God to streets


When Catholics think of monasticism, names like St Anthony of Egypt in the desert and St Benedict and his rule come to mind.

But what has been dubbed a “new monasticism” is taking place in the Kensington neighbourhood of north Philadelphia in the US.

It is characterised by urban regeneration, taking liturgy to the streets and the people, community living and non-violent social activism – all in one of Philadelphia’s poorest areas. It is called “The Simple Way” and one of its founder members, Shane Claiborne, visited New Zealand in late March, as he has done several times before.

One of his talks was at Christ the King church, Owairaka, on March 21. The evening was arranged by Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission, Pastoral Team and Youth Ministry and was a “Fit for Mission” event.

Mr Claiborne, 41, described how he had grown up as a Methodist in Tennessee and was “very immersed in Christianity”.

“[But] I kept reading the words of Jesus and they ‘messed with me’,” Mr Claiborne said. “If you want to be the greatest, be the least; Sell everything you have and give it to the poor; Love your enemies.”

So, he started “a journey” — and this eventually took him to India, where he worked with St Teresa of Kolkata and her Missionaries of Charity in a home for the dying and in an orphanage. “I think I really learned what it meant to pray there,” he said. One anecdote he related really struck a chord with his Auckland audience. He told of how he bought a little ice cream cone for a street kid, on the child’s birthday.

“And the kid gets so excited. I don’t know how long it had been since he had got an ice cream. He gets it and just stares at it. And then his instinct is that this is too good just to keep for myself. He yells at all the other kids ‘we have got ice cream!!’ He lines them all up and says, everybody is going to get a lick. He goes down the line, full circle, about 100 kids, and he comes back to me and he says, Shane, we saved you a lick too. I have this spit phobia but I did my best. But that kid knew what Mother Teresa knew, what Jesus knew — the best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them away.”

Mr Claiborne finished his time with St Teresa and left with her encouragement to “find your own Calcutta”.

Back in the US, there came a turning point in his life. In 1995, a newspaper article reported a group of homeless mostly mothers and their children, about 100 people, had taken up residence in an abandoned Catholic church in Philadelphia, and that the local archdiocese had given them an eviction notice that gave them 48 hours to be gone or be arrested. The homeless people had been unable to access affordable housing at the time, with many thousands on the waiting list.

Mr Claiborne and his friends started praying about this and wondered why God wasn’t doing something about it, but then a word came to them — I [God] did do something about it; I made you! When Mr Claiborne and his friends went down to the church, they discovered a banner across the building. It read: “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” “We knocked on the door and they invited us in and our lives haven’t been the same since,” Mr Claiborne said. They joined the church occupation, started praying with the homeless people and having services in the church. Priests and religious became involved. The action “woke up the city”. People bought houses for the homeless and they eventually left the church occupation voluntarily. “We got so inspired by those families that . . . we said we are going to stop complaining about the Church that we have experienced and work on becoming the Church that we dream of.

“We found all sorts of inspiration. Sisters who had been working in the community for years became mentors.” One sister said the inner city is the new desert.

And so the Simple Way came into being. According to its website, some of the students who had been a part of the church occupation pooled their money together and bought an old shoe repair store and made it their home. Before long they grew into other abandoned houses on the block. This was in the same neighbourhood as the occupied church.

The Simple Way has taken as its inspiration the early Church in the book of Acts, where the early Christians shared all their possessions in common, gave freely to those in need, and met in each other’s homes for worship.

The Gospel was lived out of dinner tables and living rooms.  

According to the movement’s website, The Simple Way members are all committed to building a neighbourhood they are proud of.  

The website states: “We have a cluster of about a dozen properties on the same block — houses and gardens we share. We are building a park and a greenspace where a fire burned down part of our neighbourhood in 2007.  

“We paint murals, help kids with homework, share food, host neighbourhood celebrations, and try to live as one big family . . . which means eating together, praying together, doing life together.  

“We also believe in challenging the systems and structures that hold people down, squash people’s hope and destroy people’s dignity. That means we care about things like racial justice, mass incarceration, gun violence (and all violence!), inequality between the rich and poor, and all such things.

“For us, the Kingdom of God is not just something we hope for when we die but something we are trying to bring on earth as we live . . . in fact, we’re trying to bring God’s dream to north Philly.

“So that’s The Simple Way.”

At Owairaka, Mr Claiborne shared some of the ventures that the Simple Way has instigated, such as holding a Good Friday service outside a notorious local gun store — during the service women who had lost their children to gun violence shared their stories — and melting down guns people have given up and turning them into garden implements. “We see a lot of hope in our neighbourhood,” Mr Claiborne said.

“Even as there is abandoned space and abandoned buildings. Some of the folks around Philadelphia call our neighbourhood the ‘badlands’ and I always correct them. Be careful when you call any place the ‘badlands’, because that is exactly what they called Nazareth. They said nothing good can come from there and look who showed up.

“I’ve seen God in the neighbourhood and I’ve come to see that there is a lot of space for Resurrection. With all the abandoned buildings, we are able to bring things back to life.  We also see community, we see community happening in the streets.”

The movement has also helped organise a sweat equity type of scheme which has seen families able to get their own houses.

Mr Claiborne’s social activism has seen him arrested, and he can testify that he knows what the inside of a jail cell looks like. At Owairaka, Mr Claiborne quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “First I was troubled going to jail, but then I went to history and found that I was in really good company.”

The Simple Way community responded to local laws against feeding the homeless by having picnics in areas where the homeless were and this led to some arrests.

But a judge recognised that the protest action was against a bad law and found for Mr Claiborne and his companions.

Mr Claiborne, who travels for 10 days a month, went to Iraq in 2003, and was in Baghdad in the midst of “shock and awe” bombing. But he was moved by the faith of local Christians. One local bishop said that the cross teaches us we can interact with evil, with violence, without mirroring it. The cross teaches us that we can see what love looks like when it stares evil in the face.

Mr Claiborne gave his Owairaka audience some examples of social activism in his home nation, notably from people of faith, and he predicted there “is going to be a lot of holy mischief”. “People who refuse to accept the world as it is, who lead the world towards how it should be.” He mentioned some of the responses to the current immigration “crisis” in the US, such as providing sanctuary for targeted migrants.

During question time after his talk, Mr Claiborne described The Simple Way as “really a collective”. “We have got Pentecostals, we have got Quakers, we have got Catholics, that have all been a part of our community. But in common is we are all participating or are encouraged to participate in local congregations. We really believe in the ‘big Church’. So for my wife and I, we go to Mass quite often, I’m not a confirmed Catholic but I really feel at home there. I also go to a charismatic church on a Sunday night. We have got a very beautiful Catholic parish that we are part of.”

Mr Claiborne spoke of the different “layers within our community”.

“We have often talked about it like an onion, . . . there’s volunteers, people who help within the neighbourhood. It isn’t necessarily the language we would have used when we were starting, but some folks have called it new monasticism because it does look sort of like a third order Franciscan type of shared beliefs and practices that we hold, but . . .  there sorts of layers within that.

“There’s sort of a magnetism, when we see the Spirit work and we are just drawn to it. That’s what happened to me.”

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Michael Otto

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