The Common Good

Baby Steps as We Crawl Toward Reconciliation

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

Vonetta and Jason, first I want you to know that I am deeply grateful for the conversation you've invited and stirred with our private conversations and now your blog post. I take all critique very seriously, and pray and reflect on it. Probably the most personally painful lament and failure of our communities is around race and reconciliation; we are at times paralyzed by the deep history and slimy elusiveness of racial injustice and so-called "privilege." We've been trying for 10 years to figure this out. Several years ago, my mentor and friend John Perkins was at the house, and I poured out my dissatisfaction with how white the movement was. He said to me: "Teach what you know ... and it may be white folks who listen. And learn what you don't know, be a good listener." I've tried to do that, and yet it often just doesn't feel like enough. I am working on a book with John right now (his idea) about the importance of being a good follower -- as there are many books on leadership but very few on "followership" -- and as a white male, that is something we need to learn.

I want to share more publically a few things that I have shared with you in our private conversations -- though I hesitate to do so as it could come across as defensively flaunting all the "progress" we have made. That is by no means the case. I find our pursuit of reconciliation has been riddled with failure and setbacks, and a paralysis of imagination. I share this not as a boastful discrediting of your critique, but rather as a sign that I deeply honor your thoughts and invite your constructive ideas on how we can do things better.

  • Submit to leadership of color. For the past 10 years, I have been submitted to John Perkins, as a teacher and mentor. I have told him to tell me when to speak and when to shut up. For The Simple Way, the chair of our board is an African American (from Philly), a close friend and brother (and also married to one of my former housemates). He's my boss.
  • Submit to neighborhood leadership. I see myself as a learner and listener to the indigenous leadership in my neighborhood. Families on our block (even the block captain) have persistently asked me to be a block captain, but I have not assumed (or presumed) such a role, as this is a very clear way I want to continue to be led by elders in and from my neighborhood. Neighborhood renewal, as we say at CCDA, takes "remainers, returners, and relocators" -- all working together.
  • Submit to local pastors and congregations. We deliberately join the local neighborhood congregations, rather than start our own services or programs. Every long-term member of TSW joins a local congregation (such as Iglesia del Barrio around the corner from us). This has distinguished us from many other folks who identify with the Emerging Church (and put us at odds sometimes), as we say, "The inner city doesn't need more 'churches' -- it needs A CHURCH, so join the body there already at work."
  • Media Savvy. There are many journalists who want to do stories on "New Monasticism" or "The Simple Way," and we have become very sensitive to the dangers of this. Usually they want to portray the relocating white folks like myself as saints, saviors, and sacrificial heroes moving into a poor neighborhood. This is garbage and incredibly hurtful to the dignity of our neighbors. We try to be "as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves." We do not allow cameras in the neighborhood. For instance, a network has wanted to do a story for two years now, and I have insisted that we will only do the story with them if it is in our New Jerusalem community (40 people here in Philly), which is composed of and led by 90 percent people of color. The producer has insisted that they do it at our Potter Street Community (the original house, mostly white, where I live). So we will not do the story.
  • Rethinking Language. A few years into our little experiment in community, we found that much of our language was riddled with privilege and whiteness. For instance, traditional monasticism and the Franciscan love of "Blessed Poverty" and "Vows of Poverty" did not go over well with our homeless friends! We have studied and reflected on this, and articulate a "Theology of Enough" that is in much of my writing and in the core values statement of our community, summed up well in the Proverbs mantra: "Give me neither poverty nor riches ... in my poverty I may be forced to steal, and in my riches I may forget my God." So we have rethought the traditional vows and even our language around monasticism (this is not the primary language I use in my neighborhood or even in my speaking for what we do).

There are lots of other personal decisions people have made in light of the hunger for racial justice and reconciliation. In our communities folks have married across race and adopted kids from the neighborhood -- all little signs of much thought and deliberation. Later I'll share some steps I've taken that go beyond our local community in my role as a speaker.

To be continued ...

Shane Claiborne is the author of Jesus for President, a Red Letter Christian, and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

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