Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage-of-sorts to The Simple Way, a Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia described as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.”
Like many thousands of Christian millenials, I have been interested in The Simple Way community ever since I first devoured this book about eight years ago.
In The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne describes an inspiring type of Christian living: a dedicated, communal, prayerful, life of radical simplicity and activism inflamed and inspired by the Gospel.
Some time after first reading his book I remember writing Shane Claiborne a letter thanking him for his work and sharing with him how it impacted me. At the time I was new to my Franciscan community and feeling confused while I discerned commitment. I was starting to become aware of the community’s shadow sides as my idealized sense of who we are waned away. I felt uncertain whether staying with my Franciscan community would free to me to live the way I felt called to live. Plus, I was struggling with generational challenges and the impact of joining a group with a long history. Honestly, I was tempted to leave religious life and instead join a movement with the freshness and ecumenical energy like The Simple Way community that Shane describes in his book.
I must have written my thoughts all out in my letter to Shane because I still remain thankful for the gift of his response as his encouragement to be Franciscan ultimately contributed to my decision to stay with FSPA (and propelled me toward my perpetual profession of vows five weeks ago!). Here is an excerpt from the letter I still treasure and pray with:
“I admire your hope and your discontentment–and certainly the Church needs both—it is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders … Our communities and ‘new monasticism’ has its charm and fresh charism but it also has this challenge and vulnerabilities … I certainly will keep you in my prayers as you continue the work of Francis and Clare and ‘repairing the ruins of the Church.’ You are a gift to the FSPA …”
Since that first correspondence, I have remained a fan and follower of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. I have heard Shane speak in person a couple of times and I continue to be inspired and influenced by his writing and passion for being a neighbor and disciple of Jesus. I have tried to keep up with all the happenings in The Simple Way, but never before made it there for a visit.
So when a wedding brought me to Philadelphia at the end of June, I reached out to The Simple Way community to see if I could stop by. I didn’t expect to actually see or spend any time with Shane (he’s kind-of famous) but I was really interested in the current state of The Simple Way and how God was working with and through their presence in the Kensington neighborhood.
I was so excited when I found The Simple Way in Philadelphia! I really felt like I was arriving on Holy Ground, a place of faith and wonder.
There, I was hosted by Caz Tod-Pearson (the director of the organization) who had recently returned from maternity leave.
She and I had a deep conversation about The Simple Way story. She told me about the ups and downs of community life and the ways that she is working hard to help the community stay rooted and find a healthy focus.
As Caz explained in an email to me prior to my visit:
“Right now we do not have an intentional community house, or a large amount of service projects, or programs going on as we have in the past (as the stories in the book written 10 years ago speak of).
Over the past year and a half we’ve gone through some major transition, and taken a lot of logs off our fire, that had got pretty saturated, to get the flame burning again. So what happens here on a weekly basis is pretty small and simple, and has begun to look a little different as indigenous neighbors take on more leadership and volunteer roles in the work that had been done by our residents. We’ve had to say no to a lot of good people wanting to come in and help as we’ve listened and made way for neighborhood leaders to take ownership for what our neighbors need and want.
We do still have a couple of families and friends who’ve relocated intentionally, are living and working alongside us, and are sharing life in simple ways. We do still have some rhythms of prayer, shared meals and work, but to a different degree than before. We really have stripped everything back and are ‘starting again’ in a way. It’s been a difficult, yet beautiful season that we know the Spirit will continue to guide us through.”
I love the simple beauty of the main common room where we had our conversation.
Caz spoke about how fame and fire impacted The Simple Way community. In 2006 The Irresistible Revolution and The Simple Way community was put into the national spotlight. During that time Krista Tippet interviewed Shane on Speaking of Faith (now On Being). Then, on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed several properties in Kensington, including the house where Shane was living.
The effect of these two events occurring so close together was an explosion of financial support, organization, projects, collaborations, associations, press and visitors. The initial grass-roots, intentional-community flavor of The Simple Way shifted some. It is still an intentional community, but it’s not of the same type as when it was founded. The Simple Way has essentially remained in a state of discernment and transition since 2007, while still serving the neighborhood and being faithful to the Gospel.
Here is the lot that remains empty since the fire.
The Simple Way is now committed to being a loving presence in Kensington, building relationships of mutuality and establishing sustainability.
And in a place hurting from poverty and its impacts, they offer tremendous beauty and love to the neighborhood by cleaning up spaces and sponsoring artists who paint murals.
They also have a few garden projects.
What I encountered during my visit to The Simple Way was inspiring and exciting for God clearly is actively influencing the life of community. What was especially fascinating, though, were the indicators that the members of this new form of religious life are dealing with similar questions as those of us who are newer to Catholic religious life. In different corners of the country, living different forms of religious life, we all seem to be riding the same wind that the Spirit is blowing throughout God’s people who are eager to build God’s reign of peace and justice.
Just like the peers of my generation in Catholic sisterhood, The Simple Way is grappling with questions of identity and call and how to respond to the signs of these times. They are trying to discern who God needs them to be now, as they stay open to the Spirit’s work and revere the legacy of their founders. They are trying to establish relationships of mutuality with those on the margins of society and build bridges across lines of culture, class and creed (and I have also heard some of my Catholic Worker friends of my generation express the same sort of desires).
Clearly, God is up to many great things through Shane and Caz and their friends and neighbors, who are working hard to help Christ’s peace and love be known in our hurting and troubled world. Thanks be to God for how they offer themselves as true instruments of peace. Let us pray for them and support them in all the ways we are able.
They—like many other Christian millenials—are challenged by the Spirit and the signs of these times. We desire to help God’s peace and justice be known by all people, in every broken place of the world.
No matter what type of Christian community we belong to and whether we are joining a new movement of the Spirit or a 800-year-old tradition, all of us are eager to build deep relationships of mutuality and strong communities. Together we are on this journey of building hope and proclaiming peace. So, let’s pray, discern and follow the Spirit together, now matter how messy, mysterious or confusing doing God’s good work may be! AMEN!