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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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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