The Common Good

My Struggle with New Monasticism

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

I am grateful to Jason and Vonetta Storbakken for sparking this conversation and for all those who have responded. For about four years now, my husband and I have continually struggled with an ever-strengthening call to New Monastic life. Perhaps, then, the best way for me to participate in this conversation is to identify how New Monastics might help people like me discern and follow the call into the movement.

1. Narrate New Monasticism as freedom for life. As Shane mentioned, the language of voluntary poverty is not attractive in the least for people who have recently climbed out of poverty, are still entrenched in it, or provide emotional and/or financial support to poor kinfolk. Many of us, particularly middle-class African Americans, have replaced the chains of Jim Crow and poverty with the chains of consumerism. Not only do we need the "Theology of Enough," but we need to understand that attachment to material goods impedes our ability to minister as God has called us - whether this be with our families, churches, neighborhoods, or the global village. A gift of New Monasticism is freedom from materialism's bondage.

2. Involve us in the conception of new communities. There's a certain multiple personality disorder in New Monasticism. On the one hand, there is sincere valuation of racial reconciliation, commitment to diverse communities, and willingness to hear the voices of people of color (hence, the invitation extended to an outsider like me to participate in this conversation). On the other, when people of color are invited to be part of New Monastic communities, it's on pre-established terms. That is, the communities in which you live are not of our making. People of color are not unaccustomed to living in multifamily households. For many of us, the idea of shared space is fraught with loaded memories, including traumatic ones. Consequently, many of us will never be attracted to the structural conditions of many New Monastic communities. We might be more inclined to consider communities that provide private units for families centered around shared community space and common life. I'll be the first to sign up when someone's ready to replicate the Bartimaeus model in North Carolina. But invite me at the beginning, not when the structures and rules are already in place.

3. Address white privilege and family life. My husband and I expected to have embarked upon mark #1 of New Monasticism - relocation - by now. But this year, we began our transition to parenthood and our plans faltered. Adoption is part of our call to hospitality. And we've thought seriously about what it means to raise children in "the abandoned places of empire." Our children will not be identified as the kids of "those white Christians who live in that house together." We will be raising little brown children whose skin makes them indistinguishable from their neighborhood peers. The drug dealers, police, and even some teachers will not care about their parents' education, income, or calling.

Even in our suburban enclave, we'd have a hard time battling popular society's monochromatic image of young black men - the combination athlete-rapper-criminal (our now 3-month-old son's future as a rapper is already being predicted by some whites). Do we really want to put them in the 'hood where they can be up close and personal with real-life imitations of BET and MTV?

Moreover, what is our responsibility to our son's birth mother, who chose us as his adoptive parents partly because of our access to middle-class privilege? What of the future children we will adopt from foster care - do they need the suburb's shelter to heal some of the traumas they've experienced, to expand their imaginations about the world, and their future in it?

These are just some of the questions and issues that I have in my struggle with New Monasticism. Since my introduction to the movement, I have slowly, and reluctantly, come to see it as one of the best expressions of the gospel among us today. But its promise hinges on its ability to break through the walls of race and ethnicity.

Chanequa Walker-BarnesChanequa Walker-Barnes is an assistant professor at Shaw University Divinity School and a board member for School for Conversion. She lives with her family in a cookie-cutter suburban development that's just close enough to the 'hood to keep her from feeling like a total sell-out.

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