Christian outreach moves into the inner city
The New Monastics, young Evangelicals in the mold of early Benedictines, seek to ‘radiate’ their faith by living among and helping the needy.
Young Nadeje and her tutor, Leah Beidler, are sitting around the kitchen table as they do every Monday night. Usually, the fifth-grader from this inner-city Boston neighborhood and the college graduate from Vermont do homework.
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But tonight they’re buying iTunes, in a warmly lit room painted robin’s-egg blue, with a framed collage of smiling neighborhood kids hanging overhead. You’d never guess this cozy apartment was once a decaying crack house where the walls were black with nicotine stains.
The house is, in fact, a world away from White River Junction, Vt., where Ms. Beidler, an early education major, grew up. But she moved in because she didn’t want to “just” volunteer once a week through her church outreach program.
Instead, she and two other tutors – Kim Conrad from suburban Indiana, and Caitlin Turpel from a gated community in Florida – “took a leap of faith” last summer and moved into this gritty part of Dorchester. Together with two male tutors upstairs, they helped turn the onetime drug den into a home for themselves and a “sanctuary” for kids in the neighborhood. “I wasn’t sharing in their triumphs and suffering” as the Bible calls for, says Beidler.
Beidler is part of a new movement of young Evangelicals who are taking up residence in inner-city neighborhoods in a quest to help the poor. Called the New Monasticism, the crusade involves largely white Evangelicals who don’t care as much about “social values” like gay marriage and abortion as they do about “social justice” issues like racism and poverty.
None of them is trying to turn tenements into cloisters or throwing Bibles over neighbors’ fences. Instead, the New Monastics align themselves with what they see as a long line of nonconformist Christians – the Benedictines and Franciscans, Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis – who moved to the margins of society to serve others better.
“A community that radiates the love of God ... is the church at its best,” says Shane Claiborne, a Tennessean who has become the movement’s unofficial spokesman since cofounding a group home in Philadelphia in 1998.
Some 100 group-style homes like the one here have sprung up across the country, up from just a handful a decade ago, says Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who helped found one in Durham, N.C. As much as anything, these evangelical do-gooders want to reverse some of the socioeconomic effects and deep racial divides that came with white flight. They believe they can make a difference, if only on a few city blocks. Their faith at least compels them to try.
To New Monastics, being “born again” doesn’t mean just spiritual renewal, but also being born into a broader “family” that transcends blood, class, and race, in which everyone is his brother’s keeper, according to Mr. Claiborne, author of “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.” The house members don’t proselytize, but they’re happy to read from the Bible with the kids if asked.
Each house operates differently. Rules vary from optional weekly dinners to mandatory multiyear commitments. Most participants have day jobs. Some groups raise money to support their social work. Others pool money. The “communities,” ranging in size from three to 300 people, take up causes from refugees to war to the environment.