They started out as good Christians. They thumbed through their Bibles, were concerned with sex and feared God. Then they started taking Christianity seriously.
“This thing Jesus called the Kingdom of God is emerging across the globe in the most unexpected places, a gentle whisper amid the chaos,” writes The Simple Way co-founder Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution, his manifesto on the movement. “The truth is that much stands in the way of God’s will for our world, beasts like what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the giant triplets of evil: racism, militarism and materialism.”
But in a broken down, post-industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia, a group of young people are attempting to pave the way for that Kingdom of God.
A Look Inside the House
Founded eight years ago in an abandoned row house on a block known for drug dealing and prostitution, The Simple Way is an alternative Christian community with six semi-permanent members and a few dozen others who have passed through its doors. Members live and pray together, dedicate themselves to work with their poor neighbors, contribute part of their outside incomes (everybody has a part-time regular job) to maintain the house and generally aspire to upset the established order through acts of radical Christian love. Those acts of Christian resistance have included running an art camp for their inner city neighbors, opening the door to prostitutes in crisis and visiting Iraq to perform circuses for war-battered kids. These acts are equal parts punk rock and monastic.
The house has the laid back but frenetic vibe of a college share. The emphasis in the kitchen is on ease of use, not design, with open shelves for ready access and a massive dry erase board for keeping track of schedules. Posters and art are plastered everywhere and anywhere on the walls: Che Guevara’s iconic visage with a quote about love, an enlarged newspaper clipping about the homeless in Philadelphia, protest placards denouncing war, a prayer from Mother Teresa. On the roof they are growing lettuce and basil and tomatoes. In the basement someone is silkscreening T-shirts and fashioning the stark stencils one sees on blank walls in hip neighborhoods and at anti-World Bank rallies.
Like a Religious Order, but Not Quite
What distinguishes the house from other locales where cool, politically minded denizens split the rent is that these young adults gather expressly to share in each others’ religious lives and to follow Christ together. While members do not take vows and can stay for as long as forever or as little as a month, the best way to understand The Simple Way may be as a religious order, albeit an anarchist one with no Mother Superior and no dress code (although dread locks and piercings seem to be de rigeur). Living in community means conscientious dedication to each other’s spiritual journey. On the staircase, a diagram that looks like a brainstorming exercise from grade school features residents’ names connected with arrows and lines. This is the check-in chart, a system members devised to ensure no one got lost in the shuffle of work and life. In a religious order people have confessors or spiritual directors to advocate for them. Like everything else they do, the folks at The Simple Way are finding a way to do this in radical democracy, without soul-negating power relationships.
The Simple Way was inspired by the Catholic Worker movement, St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. Mostly though, they model themselves on the early church, a church before hierarchy, dogma and the truce Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, made with worldly power. Their Christianity is radical, calling members to live in communion with the poor and in obstinate opposition to consumerism and violence.