The Common Good

Reconciliation's Challenge for New Monastic Communities

[see all posts in this conversation on New Monastics and race.]

In August 2006, before having ever heard the term "new monasticism," my husband, Jason, and I founded Radical Living, an intentional community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. When I (Vonetta) was 12 years old, I emigrated from Guyana to Bed-Stuy, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in New York City. I witnessed firsthand urban decay -- and renewal -- as well as the devastating effects of the crack epidemic.

Some of our neighbors, many of whom I have known since I was young, have been afflicted by drug addiction and poverty. They are not merely the nameless, faceless people you might read about or pass on the street. They are living souls made in the image of God. When a person applies for membership at Radical Living we explain that we want to live in community with people who desire to invest in the lives of their neighbors, regardless of their position in society. We are not interested in living with "tourists" who want to "experience the ghetto."

My husband and I are an interracial couple with a baby daughter, and it is important to us that our community, regardless of the predominant culture around us, is centered in Jesus and reflective of the diversity of the kingdom of God. Although our community -- 17 people who live in three houses around one block -- is blessed with diversity, we have a lot of work to do with regard to racial reconciliation. There are African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and first-generation Americans, and more than half our community are white folks. Although not as representative of our neighborhood as we could be, due to the rainbow of voices in our community we regularly discuss the role of minorities in the New Monastic movement. It is also due to these voices that we know how much work we have to do.

The key players in New Monasticism have made important strides in raising awareness of issues pertinent to disenfranchised members of our society, yet these leaders often make some of the same mistakes as their conservative counterparts. One of the 12 marks of New Monasticism is the "lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities, combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation." Although most do "lament" the racial divisions in our society, one is hard-pressed to find a leader in New Monasticism who is not a middle-class white male. However, the problem is not with their class, color, or gender, but that there has yet to be an "active pursuit" of reconciliation realized within the myriad of intentional communities that have sprouted across the U.S. And after some good private conversations with some those leaders, we agreed to open a public dialogue about this issue because by their very natures both this conversation and this movement aren't just about a handful of leaders. It's about every member of every community who needs to actively seek reconciliation.

Another of the 12 marks is to relocate "to the abandoned places of Empire." New Monastics have done this quite well. But sadly, years -- and sometimes decades -- after an intentional community has been planted in a minority neighborhood, the community's membership continues to remain predominantly (if not exclusively) white. What are the reasons for the membership to remain so homogenous? One thing is for certain: The idea of "us and them" is perpetuated when an intentional community does not actively seek to diversify its membership.

New Monastic communities need to be redemptive communities where all, regardless of ethnicity, national identity, or economic status, are invited to participate in the communal rhythm of Christian living. As Eliacin Rosario-Cruz, a friend and fellow communitarian, recently said, "The current wave of New Monasticism needs the life and spirit that minorities bring because it is a more complete expression of what the kingdom is, not the other way around."

The current generation of progressive Christians has done amazing work in broadening the social agenda among evangelicals, but now it's time that we trust what our hearts and minds believe and actively pursue the reconciliation we talk about. The next step, rather than being a voice for the "voiceless," is to hand the mic over to indigenous community leaders and ask them to facilitate the conversation so that we might grow and deepen in relationship with one another and with God.

Every one of us in this movement needs to plead with God to make us ministers of reconciliation. We must pray for eyes to see the structural racism perpetuated by unjust policies and a shared history of colonialism and slavery. Some of us will need to repent of inaction and empty rhetoric. Others simply need to heed what the Lord is already speaking. All of us will need to affirm affirmative action in our communal houses, and actively pursue reconciliation.

We are hopeful that the New Monastic movement will be a diverse, Christ-centered, Spirit-led movement. And if all of us in this conversation will extend transparency, grace, and love to one another, we will surely disable the structural racism that has infected the church for far too long. And then we will be able to truly proclaim Jubilee!

Jason and Vonetta Storbakken are cofounders of Radical Living. Learn more about their community in this article in the New York Press.

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