Letter

New monasticism, also known as ordinary life in the neighbourhood

In the Fall 2009 issue of Geez, Nate Buchanan challenged the “poverty tourism” model of consciousness raising for privileged people (see “Changing the story of change: God chooses new protagonists”).

His critique narrowed in on new monasticism, a movement which brings together a commitment to communal life and care for disenfranchised people. He argued that the book School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of the New Monasticism articulates an approach that keeps middle-class Christians “at the core of God’s activity in the world,” pushing the marginalized back to the margins despite its attempt to focus on social justice. Geez invited some new monastics and others to respond.

See Leroy Barber and Eliacin Rosario Cruz’s responses below. See responses by Shane Claiborne here, and by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove here. – Aiden Enns, Editor, Geez magazine

New monasticism, also known as ordinary life in the neighbourhood

Southwest Philly to Atlanta by Leroy Barber

I am an African American man who grew up in Southwest Philly, whose mom raised four boys alone for a lot of my childhood. At my first glance at the new monasticism I, too, was appalled and thought, “here is power and privilege, overhauled.” When I took a deeper look, I began to see strands of something that connects with the movement Dr. King talked about, beloved community.

Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr. explain it as follows: Behind King’s conception of the Beloved Community lay his assumption that human existence is social in nature. “The solidarity of the human family” is a phrase he frequently used to express this idea. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This was a way of affirming that reality is made up of structures that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that human beings are dependent upon each other. Whatever a person is or possesses he owes to others who have preceded him. As King wrote, “Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’” Recognition of one’s indebtedness to past generations should inhibit the sense of self-sufficiency and promote awareness that personal growth cannot take place apart from meaningful relationships with other persons, that the “I” cannot attain fulfillment without the “Thou.”

The 12 marks are played out in my neighborhood everyday by poor people that care deeply for one another. I have neighbors that choose to stay in their neighborhoods after evictions because of relationships they have. These people share whatever small resources they have and open their homes to one another in crisis. These are normal occurrences that emerge in the life of under-served communities. We learn to care for one another. This is the history of oppressed people learned by the new monastics as they become neighbours in under-served communities.

I don’t believe in colour blindness or pretending we are all the same, but we are one needy human race. We all really need to be looking out for one another. We are a Beloved Community, one that needs to show love and grace for one another.

Leroy Barber is a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia and author of New Neighbor: An Invitation to Join Beloved Community.

El Barrio by Eliacín Rosario Cruz

I lived most of my life in el barrio La Plena, in the small southern town of Juana Díaz in Puerto Rico. I also lived in el barrio Pastillo of the same town. I encountered new monasticism while in college in the early 90’s when I discovered the powerful poetry of Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, who founded a neo-monastic community in the island of Solentiname in Nicaragua. Right now I’m living with my family in a neo-monastic community in Seattle, Washington.

Growing up in my barrio I witnessed many acts of evil and wonderful deeds of love and compassion. I lived among the poor, I was one of the poor. We were poor together. We knew it but we didn’t pay much attention to it, because we had to live. We couldn’t sit around discussing how political, religious or other people’s movements could influence and inspire us in our desire for liberation from poverty. We worked, loved and tried to make sense of our experiences as people – not poor people, simply as people.

While growing up, playing, studying, being mischievous and riding my bike in the barrio, I saw my parents creating a space where neighbours, friends and relatives where always welcome, sometimes at the expense of my bedroom. My mother always cooked more food than we would eat – even when it was just rice and beans – because, as she said, “You never know who might come for dinner.” If no one showed up, she would give it to our next door older neighbour, who always welcomed food he didn’t have to cook for himself.

My father worked in a mattress factory during the week (for 35-plus years). He spent many of his weekends helping out with the house projects of los vecinos [locals]. Many times I served as a gopher, bringing tools, making lunch and cleaning. I have wonderful memories of being woken up by the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and the sounds of my mother whispering her prayers over her open Bible as she would do her morning devotions. These and many other practices would nowadays be called new monastic rhythms. But for us it was just normal life lived by ordinary barrio folks.

Like you, Nate, I’ve pushed back on the U.S.-American expression of new monasticism, especially on issues of race. We still have quite a bit of work to do.

Now, will you allow me to push back on you a bit? I think it is interesting if not ironic that you, as a self-identified person of privilege, are the one writing the article, rather than Shante, and that it was you who was tempted to write some new “poor-centric” marks. In our societal constructs, privilege is not an absolute. (I might be on the “underside” as a person of colour, while being on the upside as a heterosexual man). The question is our awareness of privilege and what we are we going to do about it.

Ultimately, the 12 marks are not the only expressions of neo-monasticism around. People like my parents and other sisters and brothers have been living kingdom-saturated lives for longer than the name new monasticism has been coined. We need to differentiate between a way of living and one expression of that way of living. The movement needs some time to grow, to allow what we know in our heads to move into our hearts and become who we are. The 12 marks can serve as points of inspiration, but not as the definition of neo-monasticism, or as a litmus test of what “serving the other” is. As always, the kingdom is much bigger than this new expression of faith and praxis.

Eliacín Rosario Cruz lives in Seattle, Washington. His blog is kingdom praxis, found at eliacin.com:http://eliacin.com.

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