I had just been planning to post some reflections on Shane Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution, when I learned that Shane and his community, the Simple Way had been caught in a terrible warehouse fire that has burned for several days this week in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and temporarily displaced over 100 people and close to 30 families. At this point eight families lost their homes. Among those affected were members of the Simple Way . Two members lost all their belongings. In addition a community center, an after school program, an arts center, and a t-shirt micro-business all connected the Simple Way were lost in the fire. A full description with video can be found on the Simple Way’s web site: (http://www.thesimpleway.org/).
For those who are not familiar with Shane Claiborne or the Simple Way, let me provide some background. Over ten years ago a group of Eastern University students got involved with the Kensington Welfare Rights organization during an occupation of an abandoned Roman Catholic cathedral to protest the lack of affordable and available housing for the poor. The students were so changed by the experience that upon graduation they relocated to Kensington to form an intentional Christian community. Their purpose was to live in community with the impoverished people of Kensington, to try to be a positive influence in the neighborhood, and “to discover another way of doing life.” The Simple Way is part a movement called the “new monasticism,” a network of small house churches and groups across the country who have sought to integrate a concern for positive social change, solidarity with the poor, intentional community and classic Christian spirituality. For ten years the Simple Way, who calls it self an “a 501c3 anti-profit organization” have lived and worked in that community.
In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne tells the story of the Simple Way, and raises some poignant and powerful questions about the nature of our society and the implications of our lifestyles and value choices. I have been challenged by the book and was going to share some of my struggles, but then the fire hit. So I will save those thoughts for another day.
One of the things that impresses me about the new monasticism in general and the Simple Way in particular, is that they are not just another group of liberal Christian do-gooders come to “help the poor.” Claiborne does not talk about “serving the poor” or ‘helping the poor,” but rather about living in interdependent community with the people of Kensington and loving them. He makes the point that poverty is not an abstraction, but rather people with whom one shares life. He says that the tragedy of economic disparity in our country is not merely the maldistribution of wealth, but also that poor people and rich people do not know each other because they literally live in different worlds. If the poor, middle class and rich all lived in proximity, redistribution of wealth would happen more naturally and spontaneously. As he writes:
“I am not a communist or a capitalist. As one person put it: ‘When we truly discover love, capitalism will not be possible and Marxism will not be necessary.’”
Unfortunately, the risk of living interdependently with poor people in the current economic environment is that one suffers the indignities and vulnerability to tragedy that poor people face every day.
Thus, the Simple Way lost everything in the Kensington fire because they had consciously committed themselves to be part of the fabric of that community, and now that fabric has been severely damaged. Because of its worldwide network of friends and supporters, the Simple Way will be able to generate a great deal of support for the people of Kensington, and will most likely find a way to regroup and start over. Having experienced a similar fire 30 years ago (though not the personal loss) when I was living in Boston, I know that the emotional trauma of such an event is as difficult to overcome for a community as is helping people regain some material and financial stability in their lives. But in time, if they choose to do so, the people of Kensington and the Simple Way will be able to move forward with their lives.
The sad thing is that if it were not for the Simple Way, I and thousands of others would have regarded the Kensington fire as just another tragic and awful event that daily occur in low income communities across the nation and world… and then we would have gone on with our lives because we weren’t affected. Ironically and sadly, the Simple Way’s tragedy has brought home the very point Shane Claiborne makes: that we who are middle and upper class are largely disconnected from those folks who are poor, and do not see or appreciate the humanity of those folks who live in places like Kensington.