Your community, The Simple Way, has expanded in the last several years, even in terms of physical space. What used to be one house is now six residences. I imagine life at The Simple Way has changed quite a bit. How has it changed from its humble beginnings?
We are turning into a little more of an intentional village than an intentional community. We had a big fire about four years ago that burned down our main house and community center, and it caused us to step back and think about where we are headed together. Instead of building back the center, we decided to buy up some of the abandoned and troubled houses on the block and grow into them — and to build a park on the old land where our houses used to be.
What’s cool is we are a little more decentralized and sprinkled in the neighborhood. It is less about a house on the corner with a bunch of missionaries and more about a neighborhood that is on a mission together. So now we still gather for prayer and meals, but it is just as much neighbors as “relocaters” to this neighborhood.
What’s it like living there now?
Growing a community is sort of like raising a kid; there are different stages. Each has its own charm and its own awkwardness. We continue to stay true to our original vision: “To love God, love people, and follow Jesus.” But now, we are not a bunch of young folks in one house. We like to say we are a web of subversive friends plotting goodness together with an open invite for new conspirators. In fact, you can have a bunch of folks living in a house and not have community, and you can have community without all living in one house. Things are still hubbed out of our neighborhood here in inner-city Philadelphia with the gardens and murals and open fire hydrants on hot days, but all sorts of stuff has been born, provoked, and inspired by the story here in Philly. I like to believe we are still committed to doing small things with great love. After all, Mother Teresa’s mantra has always been close to our heart: ‘We can do no great things, only small things with great love.’ What is important is not how much we do but how much love we put into doing it.
What’s gained and lost with this type of success and growth?
The world is infatuated with success and growth, bigger is better. So we started The Simple Way as a prophetic critique, calling ourselves a 501c3 anti-profit organization. I guess The Simple Way is less simple now. Ha ha ha. But no less fun. Now we just get to give more money away. We are helping to rebuild a hospital in Iraq that was bombed by the U.S. and that I visited again this year in January. We have a football league now where young men are being mentored and learn character (and conflict management!) on the football field, with over 150 kids on a dozen teams, each sponsored by a local congregation. We still get to help kids with homework, but now we also get to see some of them beat the odds and actually make it through high school and even to college. So we are doing all sorts of new stuff in the neighborhood. And around the world.
We have a magazine now called Consp!re magazine and a directory of communities called Community of Communities. I suppose the great thing is it really does feel like a movement. After all, we are not spreading a brand or a franchise but just want people to inspire each other to live meaningful lives that are not centered around themselves but around God and neighbor. Just as important as choosing a campaign or issue or cause, it is important to choose relationships with real people. We will not “Make Poverty History” until we “Make Poverty Personal.” And, unfortunately, it is often more popular to talk about poor folks as it is to talk with poor folks.
You cited Martin Luther King Jr. in a previous conversation with Krista: “‘We’re called to be the Good Samaritan and lift our neighbor out of the ditch.’ But after you lift so many people out of the ditch, you start to say, ‘Maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be transformed.’” What does that road look like today in terms of a sustainable, self-reliant community?
Yeah, we can’t just swat at the mosquitoes, we have to do something about the swamp that is producing them. As long as we uncritically care for victims, the systems will continue to produce victims. That’s why charity has to lead to justice, otherwise we just end up accommodating injustice with our philanthropy and volunteerism. In fact, sometimes charity is a way we quell our guilt but do little to change our lifestyle, much less challenge systemic injustice or take on the principalities and powers.
As we mature, we get to ask new questions, deeper fundamental questions about poverty and violence — and not just respond to the symptoms. For a while we were giving people food, then we started asking why people are hungry. You know the old give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish they eat for their life — and then there is more. You start saying, “Who owns the pond?” “Who polluted the pond?” “Why does a fishing license cost so stinking much?”
The great thing about community is that we can feel like we are part of something bigger and more holistic than ourselves. We are more together than any of us is on our own. Some folks will love feeding people. Others will love tearing down the gates around the pond. Regardless, we celebrate that each is critically important and incomplete without the other.
One of the things we have really wrestled with this year is the gun violence. In 2006, guns murdered 27 people in Australia, 59 folks in England, 190 folks in Canada, and 10,177 people in the U.S. We have nearly one homicide every 48 hours in Philly. So we are trying to teach kids conflict resolution and nonviolence as we see it exemplified in Jesus and the cross. And eventually, after you hold a kid as he bleeds from gunshot wounds, as I did a few months ago, you also start to ask, “Where are they getting the guns?” And the answer is that there are a few notorious irresponsible gun shops in Philadelphia. So we have begun to approach the owners asking them to sign a voluntary code of responsible business that our mayor and 300 other mayors insist would decrease gun violence. When they refuse, we have gathered outside the gun shops and held vigils and prayer services, even direct action putting our bodies in the way of the trafficking of guns. And it seems to be working; the worst gun shop in Philadelphia closed down last year, but we have many more to go.
We also see things like the bio-diesel coop creating jobs for formerly homeless folks. It’s all about having imagination and creativity as we interact with the patterns of injustice and oppression.
You travel and speak quite a bit, and you’ve been invited to speak in a dozen countries in the upcoming year. What are you learning from other communities that you’re taking back to The Simple Way?
It’s funny. Four years ago when I wrote my first book, the publisher said, “Social justice books don’t really sell, but we like yours because you don’t argue people into social issues. You story people in.” Now after about half a million sales, it seems like I get a social justice book every few weeks to do a foreword or cover-blurb for. There is a new Christianity emerging in post-religious right America. And it is arising from a generation that is convinced that we cannot settle for a Christianity that uses our faith as a ticket into heaven and an excuse to ignore the hells around us. And it comes from a growing movement of Christians that not only care about people, but are genuinely and intimately in love with Jesus. People care about the fragile world we live in. They are reading the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other and asking, ‘How does my faith affect the way I live?’
Can you share a story that illuminates what you’re learning?
What’s beautiful is there are many different expressions. Protestants and Catholics are living together in Northern Ireland. Black and white South Africans are raising their kids together outside Johannesburg. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are fighting the home demolitions together. Christians along the U.S. border have created sanctuary houses in places like Arizona and are helping folks get proper documentation and confront terrible laws (We even met folks that had organized worship services along the wall with Christians living on both sides serving each other communion by throwing it over the wall.). That is what I see. Christians living with brilliant courage and creativity and whose faith causes them to engage the world and the injustices facing our world.
I am excited as I see these sorts of communities because they catch people’s attention. And I believe the Gospel spreads best not through force but through fascination. In the past few decades, much of Christianity has become less and less fascinating to the world. But I see so many signs that this is changing, and there is a whole new crop of Christians that are reading the words of Jesus and asking, “What if he really meant the stuff he said?”
Conversely, faced with these commitments that take you away from Philadelphia and The Simple Way community, how do you stay connected to the people you care about and love? What have you learned from them as your stature has grown publicly?
Actually one of the things that’s really hilarious is seeing neighbors who I’ve known for years stumble across a story I’ve done in Esquire magazine or see me on CNN and come over hooting and hollering. The cool thing is, after we laugh it off, we go right back to jumping in the fire hydrants or weeding the garden. One of my favorite moments this year was getting to take a ton of my neighbors along with my family from Tennessee to commencement at Eastern University where I got an honorary doctorate. It was the most beautiful site to see kids I had mentored, and had seen grow up, with my mom and pop and some of my favorite scholars. Then a couple of weeks later I got to go with kids here to the high school graduation around the corner and celebrate them. There are lots of heroes here.
In the end, community keeps you pretty grounded. People who know you well are not overly impressed by you. Ha ha ha. I have a quote on my wall that says:
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too highly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking too lowly of myself.
Dear God, forgive me for thinking of myself too much.
Is it vital that you stay grounded in The Simple Way community so that your message stays true to how you’re actually living? How does this message deepen as you live and work?
We are always tempted to abandon the small things in pursuit of the big things — to leave community for the sake of the movement or to leave the grassroots to lobby on Capitol Hill. There are book deals and TV shows and clothing lines. Oh my… We can convince ourselves that there are more important things to do than help Tyreek with his homework or sit on the steps and listen to Betty talk about her husband beating her up again. But those are the important things.
As I look at Jesus, one thing that strikes me is how He is constantly present with pain and struggles around him. The Gospels are filled with interruptions and surprises — someone whose daughter just died, a party that ran out of wine, someone pulling on his shirt or asking him for something. He lives in those interruptions, the very things we don’t have time for and try to squeeze out of our predictable routinized lives.
I love trying to connect my public vocation with my life in the neighborhood. I’ve gotten to travel with families here and take homeless folks to Yosemite as I travel. And I continue to try to have integrity with how I travel — having folks offset the carbon footprint and insisting on staying in homes not hotels so I get to meet real people and save real money. Ha ha ha. I am grateful for a community that supports me as I do that.
I also find it utterly important not to think too highly of ourselves if God should graciously use us. One of my friends has reminded me that there is a story in the Old Testament where God spoke through a donkey. He says, “God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and God has been speaking through asses ever since.”