The settlement house movement is the foundation of public welfare in the United States. Beginning in the early 19th century within the immigrant enclaves of New York City and Chicago, this movement was led predominately by white middle class Christians who relocated to these communities to live together, serve, and evangelize the poor. During this period the immigrant enclaves of America's major cities were the abandoned places of the empire. The settlement house movement was the foundation for the field of social work and quite possibly the earliest form of "inner-city ministry." Out of this work of relocation and social service came the "settlement house," which was an institution that provided for the social, physical, and spiritual needs of the immigrant poor. The "settlement house movement" became very popular during this era, and some of these institutions have endured until today. I spent many summers working for Hamilton Madison House, one of New York City's oldest and largest settlement houses. My work at this institution gave me the opportunity to serve immigrant populations who were facing the same issues of poverty that my inner-city African-American community faced.
Though the settlement house movement provided a great deal of desperately needed services to underserved populations and laid the foundation for the social work field, there are still many internal critiques of this movement. Settlement house workers were not sensitive to the cultures of those they served. Rather, these workers sought to convert immigrants to a Victorian way of life. The settlement house movement did not seek to build leaders from among the immigrant poor they served, which prevented the communities from becoming self-sustaining. Most importantly, the settlement house workers did not seek to tackle the structural causes of poverty.
As a dual social work and divinity student at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, I am studying both the settlement house movement and various examples of Christian social justice. From my studies I see important similarities between the settlement house movement of the past and the New Monastic movement of today. I think that by examining the settlement house movement, New Monasticism can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
In spite of the obvious similarities between these two movements, I do recognize the ways in which New Monasticism is different from the settlement house movement. New Monasticism practices more cultural sensitivity than the settlement house movement, has a much needed critique of the empire, and does not seek to convert the poor to the "American" way of life. Additionally, activism is at the heart of most New Monastic communities, which was not the case within the settlement house movement. I applaud New Monasticism for these strengths, but I still think that there is a danger of repeating the mistakes of the settlement house movement.
The current dialogue about issues of diversity, indigenous leadership, and class within the New Monastic movement, though uncomfortable, is needed. The Holy Spirit nudges us from time to time, giving us the opportunity to pause and evaluate our lives, our ministries, and our movements; might this dialogue be one of those times? I know in my personal faith journey my first inclination is to avoid the times of discomfort, but Christ has continually used these times to develop my character and teach me his ways.
[to be continued...]
Onleilove Alston is a former Beatitudes Fellow at Sojourners and a current student at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University School of Social Work. She serves on the Servant Leadership Team of New York Faith & Justice and organizes with The Poverty Initiative.