A Shift Towards Sustainable Community

golden calfAn update from Mark Van Steenwyk, the co-founder of the Minneapolis Mennonite Worker:

I’ve gotten a few comments and messages expressing the assumption that The Mennonite Worker is closing, or has closed. That isn’t true (in one way), but it is true (in another way). Let me explain.

We launched the Mennonite Worker (originally called Missio Dei) in 2004. We started as an urban church with a strong commitment to living out the way of Jesus in a particular area of Minneapolis (mostly around the Cedar Riverside neighborhood). Within the first couple of years, we began a strong radical shift towards becoming an intentional community that lived more deeply into the sorts of radical practices Jesus calls us to embrace: hospitality, peacemaking, prayer, and simplicity.

The shape that has taken has shifted. At times we’ve centered our lives around one community house. About four years ago or so, we operated three hospitality houses simultaneously. At our busiest we had two dozen members living with as many as a dozen guests, as we offered several weekly meals, a weekly worship service, grew food, fixed bikes, raised chickens, dumpster dove, protested…etc.

A good chunk of our community worked during that time. But not all of us. And we were so committed to radical hospitality that we, perhaps recklessly, continued to welcome folks even when we couldn’t make ends meet.

And, speaking personally, as the only staff person in the community, I felt stretched thin. I had a new child (he’s 8 now), and was trying to lead our community (in a confusingly anarchistic way), while I was also writing, speaking, and facilitating various conferences and events. It was during some of our busiest times at the Mennonite Worker that I was acting as an editor at Jesus Radicals, doing the Iconocast podcast. I wrote a couple of books during that time. Somewhere in there I even worked part time for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference networking with radical communities. It was a full but intensely busy time. And, throughout it all, my income has averaged about 12,000 a year.

The Mennonite Worker wasn’t sustainable. And neither was I.

It wasn’t until after we raised the funds to buy Simone Weil House (thanks to the generosity of many supporters and the partnership of the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing) that things began to move towards greater sustainability.

But we still couldn’t pay the bills. The ratio of contributing members to long-term guests made things shaky. And so, we sold one of our two remaining community houses (Clare House). It was a difficult time. We kept Clare House up and running way too long. And folks who were around at the time (like Sarah Lynne Gershon) will tell you that I fought to keep Clare House when it wasn’t wise. I was so worried that folks would end up on the street that I kept fighting. It took a toll on our viability as a community. And it pushed me well past burnout. I had to step out of stuff that I really enjoyed (like Jesus Radicals and the Iconocast) and limit my travels. And my family went through some difficulties during that time.

After we sold Clare House, I went on a long-overdue sabbatical. Simone Weil House still operated, just on a diminished capacity, during that time. It felt refreshing, but I didn’t realize at that point how much damage the stress of the previous decade had done to my body and soul. And so, just a month after returning from sabbatical, I entered into a time of severe depression. I don’t want to go into details (feel free to ask me about it sometime if you want), but I shut down. My body and mind needed more time to heal.

I’ve been past the worst of it for a number of months now. This spring we began to scheme together as a community. We put a pause on hospitality (which was hard, but necessary) and started to ask: “What is next for our community? Do we all still want to be here?”

The answer has been: We still want to be here, but if we’re going to pursue a shared vocation together, we need to take time to do it sustainably.

If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking it out. This may be the longest post I’ve ever written on Facebook. 🙂

So what does this shared vocation look like and how do we do it sustainably?

Underneath all of our activity for the past 12 years has been a commitment to discipleship–the radical Jesus stuff. And the way we’ve lived that out has been to invite folks (mostly younger folks) to come live with us as we do radical hospitality, pray together, eat together, protest together, and live simply together. We have been a school of sorts, showing people a radical approach to Christianity. And it is that work…of revealing a different way of following Jesus…that is the center of our vocation as a community.

But, for the most part, we’ve (ironically) been unintentional about discipleship. I think a lot of that was rooted in my own anxieties about being a leader. About putting myself in the role of guiding and teaching people. I let my anarchistic convictions obscure my own anxieties. Instead of dealing with my insecurities (because being an example and teaching people hard truths is terrifying), I said “I’m an anarchist, let’s just let things develop organically!”

I’m realizing now that more structure would’ve helped. And finding a way to do discipleship that didn’t require folks to move in with you would’ve helped. And making sure we had a way to pay the bills before over-extending ourselves would’ve helped.

In this season ahead, we are re-clarifying our vision: to help folks turn from the false promises of empire and embrace God’s vision for the world. This is always why we’ve existed. We’re now asking ourselves “how would pursue that mission in an intentional way that is broader than just those who live with us in a way that is sustainable?”

Here’s what we’ve come up with: In October, we are relaunching as an new organization: The Center for Prophetic Imagination.*

So the name “Mennonite Worker” is going to go away. But we’re still going to be here, living in intentional community in Simone Weil House. However, the intentional community will be just one part of the Center for Prophetic Imagination. We are going to develop a number of other initiatives that will serve our proposed mission to help folks turn from the false promises of empire and embrace God’s vision for the world.

These are the six proposed initiatives of the Center for Prophetic Imagination. The first four have already existed in one form or another and will simply be re-launched with better support:

Initiative 1: Simone Weil House. There are 7 of us living in the house. We’ll still have a guest room (and part of our lower-level library can accommodate guests). We’ll have times of prayer and meals. It will continue to live into the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement, which has been our inspiration for as long as we’ve been an intentional community.

Initiative 2: The Gene Stoltzfus Library. The lower level of Simone Weil House houses the Gen Stoltzfus Library. It is a lending library with over 1200 titles, a place for monthly documentary viewings, and a space open to groups needing somewhere to scheme and dream. Most recently, we’ve welcomed Neighborhoods Organizing for Change to use the space as a launching space for local canvassing in the fight for $15 minimum wage.

Initiative 3: RDC. We’ll re-launch “Resistance to the Dominant Culture”. RDC exists to help each of us become fully alive and to share the possibility of more aliveness with those who long for it. It is a weekly 12 step program for those addicted to Empire. By changing our own ways of being, we bring change to our world.

Initiative 4: Schools for Revolution. In November we’ll hold our third “School for Revolution.” Schools for Revolution are three day retreats, offered in collaboration with the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing, that help participants break free from the dominant scripts of our imperial culture. This is a first step for those who want to explore how they can more practically follow the way of Jesus in the midst of imperial culture.

Initiative 5: The Turning. We’ll launch “the Turning” in November. Quarterly, we bring together artists, musicians, poets, and preachers to help us encounter the queer, poor, brown Jesus. The Turning is a spiritual gathering that amplifies LGBTQ+ voices. As the seasons turn, we too will turn to experience the Christ dwelling within each other. This is going to replace our weekly worship services. We’re no longer going to self describe as a congregation, but will, instead host these quarterly worship gatherings drawing upon a lot of wonderful local people. The members of Simone Weil House will worship regularly in local congregations instead.

Initiative 6: Prophetic Immersion. And our most ambitious new initiative has a tentative launch date of August 2017. “Prophetic Immersion” is a year-long experiment in radical education (made up of 8 intensives varying in length from 3 to 7 days each) that explores the teaching and actions of Jesus and seeks to embody them in the political and ecological realities of our region. I’ve been developing this with a research grant from the Louisville Foundation. Basically, we’re going to delve into Mark’s gospel and try to fully enact some of the actions of Jesus in the context of the upper Mississippi watershed. A sort of re-incarnation of the Gospel. Think of it as a school for prophets.

We have some other ideas, but they’re still in the idea phase and we want to start with what is manageable for now.

In order to create a more stable “container” for our work, we’re going to re-organize as a nonprofit with a board, mostly made up of local friends who don’t live in our intentional community. This will provide better structure, some helpful outside support, and will make it less likely that we’ll end up in such a precarious place as we have in the past.

Once we have our board and our re-incorporated as a nonprofit, we’re going to start raising funds to make sure we can fund our initiatives and compensate one 3/4 time staff and one 1/2 time staff.

And so, that’s it. That’s the plan. We’ve pulled back for a while and worked on other projects (like The Carnival de Resistance) so we could take our time.

*In case you’re wondering, we’re adopting the name “Center for Prophetic Imagination” for ourselves with Walter Bruggemann’s permission and blessing.

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