East Tennessee swelters in the summer. Everywhere there are mosquitoes and sunburns and the constant clamor of air conditioning. But in a particular valley last June, a new sound joined the cacophony.
At a farm just south of Knoxville, radical sermons mingled with the sounds of avant-garde music, a “bartering barn” overflowed with the trading of folks interested in creating an alternative (cash-free) economy, and the sound of celebration—of a raucous family reunion—filled the fields.
The reunion was called PAPA Festival (People Against Poverty and Apathy), and the family consisted largely of “New Monastics,” a movement of young people gravitating toward intentional, communal living in America’s inner cities.
It is an extended family of people such as Leah Eads, of Evansville, Ind., a soft-spoken young woman who finds herself frustrated with the disconnect between the things Jesus preached and the way mainstream churches in Evansville choose to follow.
“Big, rich, white, suburban,” she says of many churches in her hometown. “[They have] the best intentions, don’t want to be greedy, but somehow [are] pretty isolated from the poor and real needs. It’s easier to give a check in the offering plate, which ultimately goes to pay the electricity and the air conditioning for the building and the huge staff, and doesn’t do a lot for the poor in your own community, much less the rest of the world.”
Leah shades her face from the pounding sun and smiles at the concept of New Monasticism being, in fact, new. “I think there’s always a pocket of this,” she says, referring to the New Monastic emphasis on unplugging from societal structures while simultaneously trying to change them. “My parents brought me up this way so I’m thrilled to see so many other people. At the same time it still feels like a very small group.”
BUT “SMALL” IS always a relative term. Leah was one of 500 attendees at the PAPA Festival, most of whom share a concern both for people who are poor and for the direction of mainstream churches.
“I really feel like Jesus had a message of radical lifestyle that a lot of Christians aren’t living out,” says 18-year-old Jeremiah Barker, of Derby, Vt. “And I feel that the communities that are represented here actually do.”
Barker is referring to communities such as the Simple Way in Philadelphia and the Rutba House in Durham, N.C., places where people have renounced the materialism, violence, and individuality of mainstream culture by committing themselves to simple, intentional living based on a set of 12 “marks of a new monasticism” (see page 35) adopted at a 2003 gathering in Durham. The word “movement” has been attached to the communities and created enough buzz to grab the attention of mainstream media and church leaders around the globe.
The festival gathered Monastics and similarly minded friends from as far away as Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Belize. Sermons, learning sessions, and music threaded through the weekend and covered such diverse territory as “The Social Ethics of Hospitality,” “Earth Care in the Language of Economics,” and “Introduction to Straw Bale Building.” Shane Claiborne, one of the founders of the Simple Way and a self-proclaimed “theological prankster,” taught attendees how to juggle, and Aaron Weiss, lead singer of the band Me Without You, walked a group of eager listeners through the process of converting a diesel vehicle to run on recycled kitchen grease.
The festival married the color and energy of a carnival with the fervor of a revival service. Replacing the particular asceticism of “old” monasticism were dreadlocks, rock music, and lots of tattoos.
Many festival attendees lamented over what they perceive to be a significant disconnect between the mainstream church (an institution from which many of them came) and the ideals they see represented in the gospel. Some wandered into the world of secular activism but were equally discontent.
“Before I was a Christian, I was into environmentalism and political ideas and I never felt really complete,” says Weiss, whose band tours the country in a bus running completely on bio-diesel. “And then I became a Christian at a church where there was no focus on any of those things, or on any of the social justice issues. It was just about going to heaven, you know? It’s like trying to walk with one leg. Pick one or the other.”
Weiss, whose band graces the airwaves of MTV and radio, speaks humbly and with candor. A “Love Wins” bumper sticker is stamped onto the front of his inside-out T-shirt. He sees both activism without faith and faith without activism as empty and believes Jesus modeled something far different from the lifestyle of the average American Christian.
According to Weiss and the New Monastic community, Jesus was a homeless radical who railed against the rich and befriended the poor and destitute. If Christ were to come back today, the thinking goes, it’s likely he would feel more comfortable in the streets and inner-city alleyways than in the many megachurches sprouting up around the country. Yet talk of throwing in the ecclesiastical towel was largely absent at the festival. Despite their frustrations, New Monastics are more interested in reform than removing themselves from the institutional church.
“Sunday morning really is the climax of my week,” says a grinning Barker, of his Congregationalist church in Vermont. “I’d like to see that congregation and the people of Derby more devoted to the lifestyle Christ demonstrated.”
ALTHOUGH THE FESTIVAL was populated primarily with young faces such as Barker’s, older generations also participated and added perspective to the movement. Troy Jackson, pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, sees similarities with the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. But there are distinctive aspects of the New Monasticism, says Jackson, citing the way a radical social change agenda is integral to the community.
“I’m optimistic,” says Jackson, sweating in the shade of a tree after giving a workshop on the politics of Martin Luther King Jr. “I’m optimistic about the 18- to 25-year-olds in my church who are so radically different than I was in terms of their concern about global issues, their concern about poverty, about social justice. It isn’t just something they hear about at a conference once in a while from Tony Campolo. It’s part of their dialogue. They’re thinking about Rwanda, they’re thinking about Darfur, they’re thinking about Iraq and poverty.”
Jackson sees many college-age people and twenty-somethings embracing a new understanding of what it means to be a Christian in America. But the problem, he says, is turning that understanding into something tangible. His is a question being asked among many at the PAPA Festival: “How can we develop models to capture some of this new energy?” asks Jackson. “And not just get people talking and thinking differently, but acting and behaving and actually transforming their local communities?”
It’s a tough question to answer. And those in the trenches, such as Chris and Cassie Haw of the Camden House community, say there is no simple formula for turning their theology into lasting change. “A big criticism we have of our own communities is that we’re not diverse,” says Cassie Haw, whose city of Camden is one of the most environmentally devastated urban areas in the country. “We are, for the most part, young and white and single. So we’re ‘in’ with the kids, big time. But it takes, I think, years ... to be able to make really strong, lasting relationships.”
Yet many New Monastics are dogged in their attempts at genuine relocation and relationship among the poor.
On a sweltering weekend in late June, Leah Wilson-Hartgrove sits on the Rutba House porch in Durham, swatting mosquitoes and describing her dreams of community. She and husband Jonathan returned from a Christian Peacemakers trip to Iraq in 2003 and started the Rutba House (named after an Iraqi town that showered them with hospitality when a car in their convoy was in an accident). Kids from her neighborhood fill the kitchen and spill out onto the porch, and she waves at neighbors who pass along the cracked sidewalk. A tall African-American man from her predominantly working-class neighborhood hops onto the porch and interrupts her in mid-sentence, asking if someone from the house would be willing to help fix his bicycle tire. He is interrupted by the loud ring of his cell phone.
“Hello?” he says. The person on the line asks where he is. “I’m over here at my friends’ house,” he responds. My friends. To move beyond being a neighborhood novelty or a giver of charity takes time, creativity, and, above all, commitment. But judging from the energy and focus of PAPA Festival 2006, there is a growing community of young people who are seeking to live lives both incarnational and relevant.
“Going to sleep and hearing people talk about Jesus all around me; it was the most beautiful thing,” says Amy Chafey, an attendee who works and lives in an inner-city neighborhood in Indianapolis. The hope and challenge of New Monasticism will be continuing to turn that talk into sensitive, effective action.
“There’s an opportunity for what’s going on now to be listed as a great social movement in history,” says Troy Jackson. “But we’re far from there. The way we’re going to get there is by … marrying the stuff going on in D.C. and public policy with really nurturing and developing these grassroots efforts.
“We need to reimagine and reapply some of the lessons of the civil rights movement,” Jackson concludes. “The lessons of really engaging communities and grassroots organizations are going to be critical if we want this movement to have a lasting impact on our society.”
Josh Andersen, a former Sojourners intern, is a student at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa.