A Post Evangelical Pilgrimage, Part III

Christian Peacemaker Teammate Art Gish in Hebron in 2003 standing in front of an Israeli tank to try to stop it destroying a market in the Old City (AP Photo).
Christian Peacemaker Teammate Art Gish in Hebron in 2003 standing in front of an Israeli tank to try to stop it destroying a market in the Old City (AP Photo).
We mislead ourselves and others when we try to play down the extremity of the Christian vocation and the total demands it makes.
John Main

*This is the final post in a three-part series exploring more compelling ways to follow Jesus.

During the summer of 2013, Lindsay and I took a 75-day, 12,000-mile road trip. We simply wanted to meet people whose lives of faith were compelling. We wanted to get a taste test of what some might call “Movement Christianity” or “Radical Discipleship” (radical in Latin means “roots”), a particular strand of faith and action that goes all the way back to the roots of Judeo-Christian faith: Moses’ contemplative meeting with the Divine at the burning bush and his ensuing confrontation with the beastly bastards of Egyptian Empire, calling the underdogs out of enslavement and into a whole new Way of being.

These followers of Jesus meet God in the quiet of the Land and it leads them into a Life of contextual, creative and consistent engagement with the Systems (whether family, church, corporate, government, etc) that exploit all God’s creatures. This minority report within the Christian tradition has always been alive, yet often overlooked and/or discounted.

Many of the people we met on our trip have made major financial and social sacrifices as a direct result of what their faith in God has driven them to do. Indeed, this is hard, unheralded work. Here are 10 things that continue to resonate with us on our spiritual Journey:

1. A Circular Church

Many of the communities we connected with literally sat in a circle for their times of worship, but many had more traditional seating. All of these groups, though, were adamant that power was shared among all the people. Sure, there was a leader or facilitator, but it was clear that she was not the Bible Answer Woman. Some communities, like the Catholic Spiritus Christi in Rochester, have been excommunicated from the larger body because of the stances they have taken on women in leadership, eucharistic practice and the full dignity of gays and lesbians. Most of the others just do their thing, committed to being an alternative in an otherwise male-dominated, jack-of-all-trades pastor-oriented society.

The more than 100-year-old Calvary Baptist Church in Minneapolis has a time of sharing called “Praise, Pain & Protest,” where members of the congregation are invited to stand and share from their hearts. Communal prayers are offered after the sharing ends (many of the communities had a very similar, vulnerable time of sharing, including Reba Place in Chicago, Faith Community in Greensboro, Seattle Mennonite and 1st Mennonite in San Francisco). The truly indigenous church setting of Eloheh Farm (“the Jesus sweat”) had a structured time of prayer where every member of the circle offered a prayer and then (another time around the circle) every member offered a sharing of what was fermenting in their head/heart. The Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis & Jonah House (below) in Baltimore read Scripture out loud and had a free time of Spirit-led sharing.

2. A Contest Within The Bible

It is evident within Movement Christianity that the Bible is vital to the identity and vocation of individuals, couples and the communities they covenant to. Scripture, for these folks however, does not have One Clear Voice. It is not a set of inerrant timeless truths and principles that makes obedience a self-evident practice. For these leaders, activists and scholars, the Bible is a contextual compilation of many diverse voices from all over the theological-political spectrum within Israel and the early Christian movement. There are prophetic texts that call for an overturning of the wayward status quo. There are priestly texts that call for order and discretion.

The Seattle-based biblical scholar and cat-whisperer Wes Howard-Brook (below) famously calls the Bible a contest between those who advocate for an indigenous “God of Creation” and others who propagate a triumphalistic, patriarchal and vengeful “God of Empire.” The key for Howard-Brook and Movement Christianity is the Jesus of the Gospels. What Jesus says and does puts a stamp of approval on what is Real. Jesus keeps us accountable to the violence and colonizing and hoarding that, historically, far too many have justified from within God’s Word. But, in Jesus, we find the very God of the Universe enfleshed as a Way of enemy love, non-violent resistance to evil, power-and-possession sharing, a rugged solidarity with the poor-and-oppressed, a willingness to be arrested for civil disobedience and on and on and on.

3. Manna, Not Mammon

None of the Movement Christians we met were living in luxury. Many, in fact, were living in intentional community (Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago; Jeanie Wylie Community in Detroit; Jonah House in Baltimore; Romero House in Toronto; Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis; Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in D.C.; The Simple Way in Philly), sharing meals, while some even had a community purse. They served up potluck style and many emphasized the local and organic ingredients used (a “tour of the table” is how Heidi Thompson put it in D.C.). Everyone was tremendously hospitable and it was obvious that this ministry of “taking in” the sojourner was a part of the heartbeat of what they do in real-time. Many did not own a car and it was obvious that they didn’t pay a whole lot for their clothing. Just sayin’.

4. A Contemplative & Indigenous Spirit

Prayer and Scipture reading, both individually and communally, are at the heart of these communities. Many of these spiritual pilgrims are committed to yoga and meditation. There seems to be a strong pull towards “getting back to our roots” in regards to honoring traditions of Native American/First Nations traditions and staying connected to the Land. Over and over, we encountered lucious backyard & community gardens and gardens like the Jeanie Wylie Community’s in Detroit (below), encroaching upon the urban jungle with native veggies and fruits. It was clear to us that these spiritual practices weren’t a reflection of what is hip or trendy, but, in fact, deeply theological. These were quite simply a natural outgrowth of what it means to follow Jesus: the One who spent 40 days praying and fasting in Nature and, indeed, the One who used all sorts of lessons from the plant and animal world to bring alive the Way of hope, joy and liberation.

5. A Knack For Creative Expression

Movement Christians aren’t afraid to take plenty of inspiration from art, music, poetry, food/drink and every other form of beauty and goodness all around them. Their homes were beautifully decorated and we were inundated with recommendations and samples of great music, movie and book recommendations. They were quick to offer advice on the best restaurant, coffee, beer or wine in their neighborhood. Perhaps the pinnacle of artistic expression was the spoken word poetry of Jim Perkinson (below) after a pizza dinner and then, the next morning, the tour that Bill Wylie-Kellermann gave us of the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. The DIA is Bill’s House: it was as if we walked into the living room of this scribe of the kingdom of heaven as he unveiled treasures old and new for an hour.

6. Taking Personal Inventory

We were deeply impressed with how emotionally attuned these new friends are. Many of them often refer to the Enneagram and/or the Jungian Myers-Briggs test. They are sensitive to the pain, struggle, woundedness and imperfection of their lives. They don’t hide from it. Many go to a therapist. There seemed to be a strong realization that too many activists burn out because of their idealism, lack of boundaries and abject failure to connect with their internal lives. Many of these Movement people, like Clancy & Marcia Dunigan (below) who participated in the original Bartimaeus community in Berkeley in the early 80s, spoke of what they’ve learned about themselves over the years and decades. They all took their unique vocations seriously, but laughed quickly and heartily and, most often, at themselves.

7. The Politics of Courageous Confrontation

A key theological concept for Movement Christians is the “principalities and powers” language in the letters of Paul. Although generally rendered as demonic or Satanic spirits by most Christians, the work of theologians like Walter Wink, John Howard Yoder and William Stringfellow has captured a more compelling and contextual understanding that these Powers are the systems that organize our world and, inevitably and idolatrously, use their power to oppress and enslave humanity and the rest of God’s Creation. These Powers, like Moses and Jesus, must be nonviolently confronted and creatively exposed for what they are.

The Catholic nuns at the Jonah House confront the atrocity of nuclear weapons by walking onto military bases and pouring their own blood (in the shape of a cross) on nuclear warheads. They use hammers to symbolically beat them into plowshares (see Isaiah 2:2-4) until they are arrested. Sister Ardeth served 40 months in federal prison after their last action in Colorado Springs.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann calls this “public liturgy,” taking the work of the church outside the building into the sacred struggle of good and evil in the real world. Kellermann himself stopped counting the times he’s been arrested for civil disobedience after he hit 50. One of his recent arrests came during a Detroit City Council meeting where all elected city officials were stripped of formal power by the governor: Bill led a group of activists in singing spirituals and anthems for more than 90 minutes. A year later, he and eight others, sat down in the middle of the road to block trucks that the city contracted to shut-off water of low-income residents.

Eco Faith Recovery in Portland is an ecumenical project taking the economic and ecological addictive cycle seriously. These folks are taking personal inventory and organizing for action against the coal trains running roughshod along the beautiful Columbia Gorge. As the earth heats up, they are preparing themselves for a deeper engagement with the corporations and the state to witness for a better, more sustainable Way.

Seattle Mennonite Church (photo of retired pastor Weldon Nisly below) goes to the Federal Building on Good Friday for a Eucharist service. Why? According to their website:

We gather at the federal building because it is the local parallel to where Jesus was held and abused: the Roman governor’s local head-quarters. Then, as now, the central government claimed the power of life and death, while so often doing the will of the wealthy elite. Our federal government, like that of ancient Rome, blatantly serves corporations and banks while taxing and exploiting the poor and middle class. We stand in its shadow to announce God’s Victory over this system of global oppression and empire

8. Surrounded By A Cloud of Witnesses

Movement Christians honor their saints and feed off their teachings and lifestyles. They take great care to faithfully inhabit the Tradition of Moses, Jesus, Francis, the early Anabaptists, de las Casas, the abolitionists, the woman suffragists, Bonhoeffer, King, the Berrigans (below), Day, Jordan, Merton, Stringfellow and Zinn, as well as living exemplars like Grace Lee Boggs, Bill McKibbon, William Barber, Wendell Berry, Cornel West, Jim Douglass, Kathy Kelly and, of course, Bradley Chelsea Manning. This selection of saints, perhaps, tell more about the Radical Disciplehip Movement than anything else.

9. A Commitment to Social Analysis

These spiritual pilgrims read and study the signs. They seek a deeper understanding of current events. Particularly, we were struck by the fact that these folks had very complex understandings of the highly sensitive systematic racial, gender & ethnic issues, as well as a thorough analysis of the causes of poverty, income inequality and other economic maladies. They are fully committed to learning just how overpowering and unaccountable the U.S. military-industrial-complex has become. They take seriously the ongoing effects of King’s “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” They live out Karl Barth’s vision, carrying the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other (below: in Philly with Will O’Brien of Alternative Seminary & Tevyn East of Carnival de Resistance).

10. And It’s OK to Have Some Fun Too…Dammit!

We’ll never forget our time getting to participate in worship and common meals with the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis and then joining them in their Sunday night ritual: karaoke. Mark Van Steenwyk belted out delicious samples of Garth Brooks and Weird Al, while we made complete asses of ourselves stumbling through the lyrics of Paul Simon and Carly Rae Jepson. We’ll never forget joining in on the laughter, passion and great beer at the round table discussion at the local brewpub in Winnipeg with Ched & Elaine and their entourage (including Geez Magazine editor Aiden Enns and Canadian Mennonite prof Kenton Lobe). We’ll never forget reading Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s basketball memoir published in a local Detroit newspaper a few years ago during the Final Four. We’ll never forget swigging beer with Bill Heffernan and then watching him perform live at the Hole-In-The-Wall in Toronto. We’ll never forget the blend of laughter (and tears) shared during lunch with the leaders of Ripple, an urban Mennonite Church in Allentown, PA (below). We’ll never forget Sister Carol telling us about the weekly tradition of beer, popcorn and movies every Friday at Jonah House in Baltimore. We’ll never forget our impromptu dance party with the children of the Wilderness Way community in Portland.

Truly, the communities that we got to visit are the tip of the iceberg of the Radical Discipleship Movement in North America. See our Communities of Discontinuity page for research more or visit one in your area.

3 thoughts on “A Post Evangelical Pilgrimage, Part III

  1. Kim Redigan

    Tommy, I really enjoyed reading this. I allowed myself to vicariously join your inspired road trip – a good way to start the morning.

  2. Bill Wylie-kellermann

    And now you are Detroiters to be sure. Nothing less. Being apostolic west and east. What providence to be a pilgrimage destination and find such love rooted among us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s