Following on from our stay with the Simple Way, we visited members of InnerChange, also in Philadelphia. For the first time since arriving in America, that meant our drive between communities was just 10 minutes – a refreshing change from full days spent on the road.
Joen had been ill for two days in Charlotte, slowly getting better by Washington, but remaining very moany, unsettled and miserable for around 4 days. When we arrived at the Chris and Sam’s home, we were in desperate need of the feeling of “home”.
As we walked into the Baker Evens home we were offered a cup of tea: homeliness was definitely on the cards. Chris and Sam are long term members of InnerChange, an organisation under the general umbrella of our mentors at CRM. We immediately hit it off with them, with conversations about environment, vegetarianism, healthcare, what really constitutes a treehouse (it needs to be fully supported by the tree, concreted support beams are cheating), and other deeply important topics.
Their area was interesting: it reminded us of Jackson and LaGrange: clearly a poorer area, but not as dense and overwhelming as Potter Street, even though it was only around 15 blocks away. We talked about this, and Sam’s reply echoed the words of so many of our friends over the last month:
“We knew this was the right place to move into because so many people warned us not to… People called it ‘a developing country’.”
Sam Baker Evens
Much as Joshua said in Danville, Sam laughed as she talked about their choice of location; “We’ve been disappointing our parents for 20 years now”. We discussed the difference between where the Simple Way is based, the neighbourhood around Hawthorne Street, and our own setting in Boston, UK. Chris summarised it in one word: “Sustainability”.
“I don’t think there’s an answer to whether one needs to be in a financially poor environment to reach your community – its situational. Ultimately, you need to leave fuel in the tank for family: the constant relationship of community engagement can be very draining.”
Chris Baker Evens
We discussed the challenges that more intense environments can have, especially for families and the differences between organisations like InnerChange and others like Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor.
Servants have often moved to the very poorest areas, but stayed there for less long periods. InnerChange has always aimed for a long term approach, which leads to a different type of person getting involved: the situation that’s sustainable for a family is very different to that for young singles.
After many years as part of the InnerChange Cambodia team, the Baker Evens recently spent a fallow year in a Quaker retreat centre, before embarking on life in Philadelphia, where Sam is training as a Nurse Practitioner.
Various factors contributed to their needing to stay in the USA, but it let to a range of emotions – “We can’t move to the suburbs, that would be death for our family!” – and, as ever, lots of interesting questions:
“What does it mean to live justly in the heart of empire?”
Chris and Sam are at an ideal place to be asking questions: they are currently an InnerChange “exploration”, a process that usually involves being involved in an area for a year, meeting stakeholders, praying and trying to discern God’s will. I asked them about the the idea of being “invited” in to an area. Its commonly held to be a key part of community development, part of becoming welcomed and integrated, rather than intrusive.
“Its a very fuzzy concept. No one gives you a piece of paper inviting you in”
This mirrors some of my own thoughts on the matter. At the Simple Way, I spoke to two of the local community members about their feelings on idealistic white middle class people coming in to the community: expecting a mildly negative response: but both responded with enthusiasm about people choosing to invest in the area. Perhaps the loving behaviour we inhabit, once we arrive, matters more than the history behind our move?
InnerChange believes God is working in the neighbourhood, and we are trying to find out how to work alongside that.
On our second day, Joen had improved his mood dramatically – no doubt helped by his first experiences of MineCraft and a herculean quantity of Lego – so we visited Philadelphia city centre. A day of salad, sweet potato fries, ice cream and water fountains was just what the doctor ordered, and we returned to the house, with Joen especially happy. Thanks to everyone who prayed for him!
Being of a medical bent, both myself and Sam hijacked the conversation at every opportunity – anyone who has ever spent time with medics will have experienced that – but it led to talk of vocation between all of us. Our friends in Soshanguve, Paul and Debbie, mentioned that InnerChange is experimenting, especially in Glasgow, of bivocational ministry: several of the team there work part time as GPs whilst also participating in community life.
I’m not a huge fan of the term “bivocational”, simply because it can give the impression that working in a conventional job isn’t mission minded. I have one vocation, with different expressions.
Aside from joking for a few minutes about alternative Christianese buzzwords – we decided replacing “bivocational” with “multimodal vocational expression” was best, although I prefer “omniexpressovocationalism” – the topic remains very close to heart for me. Amongst the many questions floating around my brain, “Is medicine for me?” keeps bumping up against my furrowed eyebrows…
“We meet a lot of professionals looking to live incarnationally alongside their career.”
We ended with chatting more about the concept of community: We agreed that “intentional community” is an elusive ideal, but Chris recalled a quote he’d heard somewhere that put more meaning behind the term:
Intentional community is the byproduct of common commitments
They talked about how their understanding and experience of community had been an evolving one. Often, the more they’ve wanted deep community, the more its felt harder to get a real grip on:
Community is a gift, its something that comes and goes. Whilst family dynamics change over time, they have a permanence that is always with you. Chris
We ended the evening talking about how to meet people in our neighbourhood. Chris’ recommendation was not the most serious – “you need to burn someone’s house down, and then everyone will come out” – but it did highlight the value of big communal events; street parties, barbeques. Sam told us about a city council scheme to plant trees when invited, and how she used it as a great reason to knock on doors and get to know people.
As with all our hosts, time flew by, and it was all-too-soon time to jump in the car for our final journey – to New York City. We said our goodbyes, took our final photos, and made our way. I will leave you with a parting quote from Chris:
Intentional community runs a risk of picking and choosing people you most want to live with. But Jesus didn’t say love your community, he said love your neighbour. You don’t choose your neighbour – you may not even like your neighbour!