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.

By , Staff writer

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    Higher education: Kim Conrad (sitting, left), Caitlin Turpel (standing, center), and another tutor hold a weekly ‘children’s church’ for young people in Dorchester, Mass. The tutors, young Evangelicals, live in the neighborhood and help the kids with homework and other things as part of an outreach program.
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DORCHESTER, MASS.
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.

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.

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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.

In Dorchester, the team focuses on young people. They help with homework and try to broaden the kids’ horizons with hikes and trips to the aquarium. As they build a rapport with the teens, they become mentors, teaching good behavior and self-esteem. Though the tutors work in schools and nonprofits during the day, weeknights and weekends are devoted to the kids, who come by regularly to get help with math or science or just to hang out.

“We’re just trying to expose them to a much more positive environment,” says Beidler. “A lot of it is just opening the home and keeping the door open.”

Already they’re seeing some improvement in grades and attitudes. Some of the tutors have become big brothers and big sisters to the kids, hugging, tossing them in the air, and, when necessary, telling them to settle down.

Garnering that trust took time. “As is always the case when outsiders come into a place, there’s a natural rate of wariness,” says Bobby Constantino, who moved into the house as a New Monastic in 2006 and started an organization that helps kids in the criminal justice system. “That mistrust slowly goes away,” he adds, as people realize “we want to help.”

Many adults in the neighborhood have come to welcome Beidler and her fellow monastics.
“These girls have been in every house in this community – they’re welcome in every house in this community,” says Darnell Booker, an energetic woman who lives across the street and who looks after several neighborhood children. “These wonderful people [are] always doing something for the kids. Kids are hanging all over them.”

David Hamilton, a single father of three, agrees. “It’s nice to have some people get involved in something they’re not responsible for,” he says. “It takes a lot of people to raise a child. The more the better.”

That’s often how it works in tight-knit “Dot,” as Dorchester is sometimes known, and the Evangelicals here have won their way in by sharing the responsibility. They also benefit from a connection formed years before they arrived, between “Ma Siss,” a neighborhood matriarch and the owner of the house they live in, and Aaron Graham, then a Harvard graduate student pastoring at a nearby church. In 2003, Ma handed Mr. Graham the keys to the house so he could fill it with Christians committed to serving the community.

He’s since moved away, but seeing people like Mr. Constantino and Beidler take his place is “my dream come true,” says Ma, whose formal name is Idene Wilkerson.

Some neighbors feel more ambivalent about the newcomers, but appreciate what Ma has done. “They’re nice to me, and I’m nice to them,” says Fatima Pimental, adding that Ma Siss is “very good.”

The newcomers have their own perceptions to overcome. “You slowly begin to realize you’re going to end up learning way more than you’re actually going to teach,” says Constantino. “It’s an amazing, warm, welcoming community, and you’re like, ‘This is not at all what I’m seeing in the newspapers. In the newspapers, I see shooting, drugs.’ ”

Safety isn’t actually a big concern for the women: They learned quickly which streets to avoid after dark. Their biggest challenge is the emotional toll of listening to kids tell about drug abuse at home or their fathers in prison.

Dorchester is “the most underprivileged place I’ve lived in my life, but it’s also brought me the greatest joys,” says Ms. Conrad. Her most rewarding part: “When they get that they’re loved, that God loves them. You can see it in their eyes.”

•••

Turnover is a problem among the New Monastics, who often find the life of an urban shepherd too hard or simply decide to move on. The women here originally agreed to stay at least a year.

Several months in, Conrad wants to commit for a decade. Beidler may stay a couple of years or move back to Haiti, where she once worked with youths. Ms. Turpel has already left. Her friends say she felt burned out.

“Obviously it’d be great if everyone could make a 10-year commitment,” Turpel commented at one point during her time here. In most households, you can’t change “100 years of history,” she added. But the effort here still showed “what a little love and dedication can do in one small community.”

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