catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 18 :: 2011.10.14 — 2011.10.27


Outside in

A couple of weeks ago, Rob and I and our friend Tim had the pleasure of attending a gathering in Cincinnati called the Missio Conference.  In addition to being a long-awaited visit to see what our friend Larry has been up to with his Espresso Guild and other projects, the trip provided an opportunity to encounter a number of others who, like ourselves, are embedded in a particular place attempting to work out a vision for community development.  We went with our Three Rivers hats on to see what we could learn.

As a gathering intended to highlight “new forms of Christian community,” the conference featured groups like the Common Friars in Athens, Ohio and Vineyard Central in Norwood, Ohio.  There were many common threads running through our respective projects, which tend to be intentionally located in economically depressed areas.  Most of those involved are in their 20s or 30s, many with young children.  Most are living near or below the poverty line and making it work in creative ways — part-time work, shared living space, microenterprise.  Most projects involve some interweaving of agriculture, art, food, liturgy and third place.  Some, though not all, are connected to specific churches or denominations.  Overall, I was encouraged that we are not alone in our efforts to embrace and serve the Three Rivers community.  Projects akin to ours are popping up all over the place.

But there was one common thread that troubled me throughout the weekend.  Almost everyone I met was a transplant.  Somehow, in each case, a marginalized place grabbed the hearts of a few outsiders and became a group project.  In fact, I started a list of the reasons I was hearing people give for living where they do, which included reasons of:

  • Not wanting to move back in with parents after college.
  • Feeling drawn to a community of need and/or vision.
  • Seeing, tasting and feeling love during an initial visit.
  • Following friends and responding to their invitation.
  • Pursuing opportunities for inexpensive housing and unconventional work (as in, not a full-time, nine-to-five job).
  • Seeking the presence of mentors and peers in a radical vision.
  • Finding an open-ended possibility with potential long term commitment to a place.

As a transplant myself, I can identify with many of these reasons for choosing a place (or in some cases, having a sense that a place has chosen you).  But on the flipside of all of the logic and good intentions, there are significant questions we need to wrestle with.  Is a community of white, educated young people just embracing a new form of cultural imperialism by settling into an impoverished neighborhood with a vision for “saving” it?  Can the vision of outsiders ever serve as a healthy catalyst for lasting change?  How do you move forward with a project (if at all) if efforts to connect with long-term residents fail?  As much as I admired what I was seeing, these questions lurked like dark shadows around the edge of every story, including our own.  I began to feel doubtful and uneasy.  Maybe all of us strangers would be better off just going home, back to mom and dad’s house where we have a voice and a history as insiders.  Maybe we need to be content to work within our birthright.

However, a reference to Jeremiah 29 on Saturday morning graciously reminded me that the biblical narrative offers a different, more hopeful paradigm — that of homemaking exiles:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent in to exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (v. 4-7)

Now, as I read over that passage again, I think, “Sure, but can privileged white kids really be compared to Jewish exiles in Babylon?  Is this text just being twisted into a convenient excuse for gentrification?”  I think there’s precedence for considering every human being an exile from a Kingdom reality, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to discern a particular imperial context for today’s young adults, even the privileged ones.  While the empire would have them take on mountains of debt and obsess over superficialities that will drive them to consume, many are choosing to get off the treadmill and lead lives of intention and simplicity.  This choice is not easy and it often comes with family strain, personal risk and financial insecurity.  In addition, when we give ourselves over to a struggling place, the converse of the Jeremiah passage is also true: in the city’s sorrow we find our sorrow. In Beyond Homelessness, Brian Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger write, “We followers of Jesus are called to be aching visionaries.  Inspired by God’s vision of shalom and mindful of how far the world is from realizing that vision, we yearn for that realm of peace and justice and compassion and wisdom of which the Bible speaks.”

The choice to be aching visionaries in solidarity with the world’s hurting communities might just help us move from transplanted strangers to homemaking exiles, wherever we find ourselves.  As any gardener can tell you, it can take a few years for a transplant to begin to yield, for its roots to unfurl from a stressed ball into a thriving system that draws full nourishment from the soil of its new home.  Jeremiah offers clues for how to transplant ourselves well.  Form consequential relationships.  Share food. Live where you seek to serve, not in a safer neighborhood a few miles away, so that service can evolve into kinship. Plan to stay awhile.  Pray.  I would add listening to the list — listening not just until we feel we’ve earned the right to speak, but perhaps until someone who was born with that right asks us to.  I would also add: keep your word. And know the systems that oppress and liberate your neighbors.

As Walsh and Bouma-Prediger write:

All of creation waits for the children of God to be revealed as the creational homemakers that they were always called to be, because then, and only then, will creation be released from its bondage and be set free to be the home that God created it to be….  When will all of this happen?  If you take biblical faith seriously, it begins to happen now.

Homemaking exile in the world’s marginalized places is not just an identity we settle for if our attempts at power and wealth fail or when mom and dad finally kick us out.  Being a homemaking exile is not a problem to be solved.  In fact, for people after God’s own heart, it’s not optional.

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