The Simple Way

I didn’t have a date for any of the Inaugural balls, so I just hung out in Philadelphia, which is home to the first co-op in U.S. history: In 1752, Benjamin Franklin and other citizens started the Philadelphia Contributionship to insure against fires. Ben was always a smart one.

I had a short but sweet visit to the Simple Way, a New Monastic community. I arrived just before their weekly food handout. There were already a couple dozen people lined up in the cold, and I felt awkward about cutting through the line to get in the side door. Every Tuesday at 4:30 the community hands out bags of donated food that they gather during the week: day-old deli sandwiches, loaves of bread, soy crisps, fruit loops, and whatever else they can scrounge up. I was on the bucket brigade that shuttled the bags toward the door so the line could keep moving smoothly. As it turned out, we had exactly as many bags as there were people in line. Beautiful.

It was great to visit this community, because it was co-founder Shane Claiborne’s book that originally got me thinking that maybe – just maybe – evangelical Christians were not all scary right-wing capitalists with big hair (although Shane does sport some serious dreadlocks). Even if you aren’t personally interested in this spiritual path, it will open your eyes and mind to something important; oddly, I was originally given the book by a friend who follows the Baha’i faith

I encourage everyone to read The Irresistible Revolution to learn about a way of following Jesus that will probably be too radical and challenging for you to adopt for yourself. I think Shane phrased it something like “really following Jesus will ruin your ability to lead a normal suburban American life.”

That ruining is on regular display at the Simple Way, which is housed in a strange row-house attached to a narrow (45 degree) corner room that was not quite a storefront and must have once been the office of an attorney or accountant. It is a natural power spot.

After we handed out food from the office door, a couple of community members came in with paint rollers and freezing cold hands, having just covered over some fresh graffiti. The building reminded me of various punk rock houses of my anarchist days, with holes in the plaster where lights had been jerry-rigged, and a “sophisticated grey water system” in which the bathroom sink drain has been routed into a bucket that is used to flush the toilet. There were some challenging words posted about clean water issues to encourage contemplation while on the pot (with perhaps a more biblical emphasis than the Minneapolis anarchists would have used).

But there were many parallels between my old crowd that tried to get rid of all rulers, and this community that tries to be ruled only by Jesus. Back in the day (1993-5) I was involved with an anarchist space that provided free clothes, food, and childcare to the neighborhood, and despite my distaste for religion at the time, I have to say I was practicing some of the same selfless principles that are on display here. However, what really impresses me is that after a shift of dealing with the daily mix of attention-starved kids, drug addicts and con-artists, I could go home; these folks live here.

The Kensington neighborhood had more litter on the ground than anywhere I’ve ever been. It was almost like fall in some warped world where candy wrappers grow on trees, and disheartening to think that there was such widespread discouragement. There were some stretches where there was only the usual amount of trash, but it mostly looked like people just don’t care. 

At one point in the evening, there was conversation about whether Kensington is the “worst” part of Philly. This brought up various metrics, including number of abandoned houses, poor people living in houses, crime, drugs, gangs, etc.  Other neighborhoods nearby are worse in various ways, but all are pretty unpleasant. And one of the worst problems is discouragement. People here are mostly used to things being rough, and often don’t have hope that it will change.

We talked about models for addressing this kind of “generational poverty” and I have to admit that I’m a bit stumped. Co-ops are great organizing tools for people who are newly poor due to financial crises (like the Great Depression, our ongoing rural economic challenges, or the Argentine collapse of 2001-2). But there has to be hope and motivation and trust, and these are often eroded by entrenched poverty and neglect.

Successful cooperation generally has to come from within the community. This motley assortment of mostly middle-class white kids from the suburbs or the South or Kansas can certainly help alleviate symptoms in Kensington, but it isn’t clear that they can organize the community to create effective cooperatives. Of course, it seems like they are willing to try, and their willingness to stick around and become a part of the community is an essential step. There were some great discussions about how existing projects (like a thrift store) could move in a co-op direction.

There is also some hope of taking initiatives that have already made great progress in community revitalization, and applying cooperative principles to help distribute and retain wealth. One example that I briefly witnessed in Chicago is the work done by Lawndale Community Church. Another (which I unfortunately missed during my visit to Boston) is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

After a night sleeping under an elephant-shaped bunk bed and a morning of conversation about the challenges of community and undoing hierarchy, I hopped on a bus to Charlottesville. I had a bonus rush-hour transfer in Washington, where the Obamarama was winding down. At various booths around town, in a big swap-meet-like cluster, and even at the bus station, they had deep discounts on all the various accoutrements to commemorate this glorious moment before the new president gets down to the hard work of governing. I’ll be interested to see how long the honeymoon lasts.

Now I’ve got some down-time, which I’ll probably use to weigh in on some of the first actions of the new administration. Stay tuned…

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One Response to The Simple Way

  1. Susan McLeod says:

    And speaking of hope, I have great hope for the new administration to guide our country in the right direction. I am reading President Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father, at the part where he is a young man trying to do community organizing in Chicago. It sounds very discouraging at this point. It is relevant to your work.

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