What New Monastics Can Learn from History (Part 2)

By Onleilove Alston 10-17-2008

[continued from part 1] Out of a general respect for anyone who seeks to serve the inner city (I grew up in the housing projects of Brooklyn's equivalent to Kensington), and with an excitement for the church's renewed dedication to preaching "the good news to the poor," I humbly give a few suggestions for how New Monasticism can avoid repeating the past mistakes of the Settlement House movement.

1. Seek creative ways to recruit people of color and poor people to the work of this movement. For example, if your community lacks racial diversity, consider going to historically African-American theological institutions such as Palmer Theological Seminary to invite students to join your work at a career fair, or speak about your work during a chapel service. Speaking at career fairs and chapel services may not seem like an exciting way to subvert the empire, but when Jesus was looking for people to join his movement, he did not wait for them to come to him. Jesus went where the disciples were, inviting them to join him in building the Kingdom. Additional places to find Christian minorities who are dedicated to social justice are: The Hispanic Theological Institute, The Hispanic Summer Program, The Campus Crusade for Christ Impact Conference, or the Asian American Christian Fellowship.

2. Make sure a vital part of community life is reading books on racism, class, and sexism, even if these works are not purely theological in nature. Peggy McIntosh's article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," is a great place to start and the foundation for many anti-racism training classes and workshops.

3. Do not racialize poverty! In many ways we promote dangerous stereotypes about the nature of poverty by not discussing the diversity of the poor. By focusing on inner-city poverty with no discussion of white poverty or the working-class poor, we simplify the issue and prevent a wider movement to end poverty from developing. New Monastic communities can do just as much good in Appalachia as in the inner city. As my friend Sharaya Tindal so eloquently put it in a previous post, "go where you are called (by God), not where you are drawn."

4. In the words of Jane Addams: Don't forget the women! Much of the literature and preaching coming from the New Monastic movement is dominated by men. Though I am aware that women have been an important part of this movement, from its inception they still are not a major part of translating the message of New Monasticism to the church. We need more women speaking and writing about this movement. Women disproportionately suffer from poverty when compared to men, giving great value to the insights women can bring to this movement.

I offer these suggestions as someone who has visited both New Monastic communities (being warmly welcomed to visit the Rutba House in the summer of 2007), and homeless shelters (as a resident). The dual realities I live in have allowed me to develop a unique perspective. I pray that as the Holy Spirit continues to nudge all of us (especially myself), we will examine the church's legacy of reform and activism to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Finally, let us keep the liberating love of Christ at the center of all we do.

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.

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

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