Three weeks on the road is definitely an action packed experience. A few days ago, we said goodbye to our new friends at Grace & Main in Danville, then stopped over briefly in Washington DC, before driving for another 3 hours further north.
The last 2 days we have been in Potter Street in Philadelphia, visiting the people and neighbourhoods of the Simple Way.
Most of you reading this will be familiar with the Simple Way: made internationally famous by Shane Claiborne’s book “Irresistible Revolution”. Pretty much every single person we have talked to on this trip has read it, bringing it up on a have-you-read-it par with books by John M Perkins (who we visited last month!), the Bible and Harry Potter (everyone has read that). Moreover, almost everyone we’ve spoken to about it has cited it as a key influence in their journey towards intentional community.
More than 10 years after the book, the Simple Way is still located in the same place, in the heart of the same neighbourhood, but the “intentional community” of 20-somethings living in shared houses is no more.
The Simple Way start with a group of young people moved by their relationships with young women and their children experiencing homelessness nearly 20 years ago. What that has meant and now what that looks like has changed tremendously in that time.
Caz Tod-Pearson, Director of The Simple Way
We stayed with Caz, her lovely husband Mike, and their incredibly cute 9 week old. Given that we’ve been on the road for 3 weeks with two young children, and they have a 2 month old, its fair to say that everyone was completely exhausted: so we are especially grateful to them for having us.
Much of our first evening was spent talking about our American pilgrimage, and our evolving thoughts on community. Caz was candid about the experiences of those living on Potter Street:
Community is hard. Very very hard. It’s as intense as marriage: unless you are willing to confront each other, and deal with your own brokenness, you’ll struggle to succeed.
She explained that the success of the book, and the inspiration effect it has had, contributed to some of the difficulties for a young community. “The intentional community struggled with so many people coming and going. There were lots of young people, but not a lot of long term experience of community. There were people with a strong desire to help, for example, to care for people experiencing homelesness, but limited understanding of how to do that with dignity, and the pressure to keep up an image.”
Gathering wisdom is a passion of ours – as we shared in our post at the start of this journey. One route to that is gaining insight from a diverse set of people, as Caz said:
I long for older people: intergenerational community has become really important to me.
So, Simple Way as an intentional community really ended in around 2010. Its taken years of asking questions and discerning, but Caz feels they now have an identity that is starting to look like its goals:
We are an organisation that works with the neighbours to develop a neighbourhood everyone can be part of and proud of, that cultivates belonging, and rhythms of communal celebration.
Part of this process involved stripping away the many projects that didn’t really fit with that vision, downsizing the number of staff, and, along the way, seeing a transformation that brought integrity to their dreams of community. Most of their key work, such as food distribution, is completely run by neighbours.
“The Simple Way used to be a bunch of white middle class 20-somethings. Now, its a much more diverse group of people, taken from across society.”
Alongside the simplification of what the Simple Way stands for, a heart for intentional community still shines through. There is a core of around 6 people not originally from the area – commonly referred to as “relocators” – Caz and her husband part of them. They live on the street, invest in relationships, join the local rhythms, and yes, participate in much of what the Simple Way does. But the difference is that they aren’t here to be part of the Simple Way: they are here to be part of the neighbourhood.
“I don’t want an organisation to tell me that I have to open my door and share with my neighbour, I want my faith to tell me that.
I want us to be asking, in our life, ‘How do we live here together, and change this, together, for all of us?'”
Our conversation moved onto questions, the core of this American journey for us – our initial post was called “Seeking Questions”. Part of Caz’s work involves managing a programme called Mission Year (see their website at missionyear.org). As she said;
“Our aim is to get people to start to – and continue to – ask questions along the lines of ‘What does radical Christian living look like in our context?'”
She explained the concept of turning to wonder instead of judgement. Instead of “I can’t believe that man is selling drugs?!”, it becomes “I wonder what leads that man to sell drugs?”. That leads on to questioning the issues beyond his control that restrict his choices, his understanding, his life.
The more I turn to wonder, the more it’s helped me to be compassionate, and to ask more questions.
- with Maria, who runs the food distribution, talking about generally favourable local opinions of outsiders moving into the neighbourhood.
- with Mike, who, amongst over things, oversees the gardens, on how they set up and maintain their hydroponics garden. He also manages to be treasurer for seemingly dozens of local community organisations!
- with Susan, a local lady who came up to us in a coffee shop, offered to buy drinks for our children, and ended up having lunch with us in a local diner.
Alongside our time at the Simple Way, we spent an evening with the second year interns from Mission Year, when they kindly had myself and Neriah over for dinner – she was very excited about their pet tortoise. The second evening, our friend Adam, from Mission Year, invited us to join him at dinner over at Camden House Community. As he said:
“We’re really just a group of people trying our best to follow Christ’s example in a neighborhood that most people don’t want to be.”
We nearly tried to stay with Camden House, so it was nice to meet the people at another intentional community (bringing us to 7 so far!) They told us a similar story of maturing as they’ve aged, initially housing around 10-12 people in the house, they now focus on having around 4-6 adults, giving them more space to enjoy relationship.
We also spent a surprisingly large amount of time talking about composting, lawns, rolled steel girders and mulching. One striking problem they have in their local area is a liquor store across the road that functions as a focal point for crime, drug dealing and violence. It acts as a counterpoint to the good work they try to do in their neighbourhood; but its not as simple as trying to end the problem: the people on that street corner are the community. As Caz talked about with similar issues on Potter Street:
“Yes, there are drug dealers here. But they also sit on the street corner all day, and are really friendly. When they are the only income for a family of 7, its difficult to say that calling the cops is the right response. Ultimately, it all changes when you are in relationship with people.”
As we said our goodbyes, and moved on to our next hosts, also in Philadelphia, I’d like to end with a final statement that Caz made:
Questions are really important. I’m not going to lie: living here is really hard… but I love that we are invited into people’s lives.
When we think about the future, and reflect on why we are staying, we come back to questions: Are we thriving? Do we have diversity? Are we contributing to the pride of the neighbourhood?