The Simple Way is part of a growing movement of mostly young evangelical Christians and Catholics who are dedicated to taking the Gospel—not Genesis— literally. The group makes common cause with Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and dozens of other alternative communities that operate below the radar of American Christianity. In 2004 two community members took a year-long trip across the United States visiting many of those groups. Some are animated primarily by environmental activism, or anti-war activities, or inner city challenges. All of them strive to build a City of God on earth, according to the values of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.
They call themselves the New Monastics and they take their cues from the Desert Mothers and Fathers—fifth century mystics who searched for a truer Christianity when the early church was being co-opted by Rome. For founder Shane Claiborne, the comparison is apt. An evangelical Christian who attended Bible college and interned at a megachurch, he sees Christians seduced by the new Rome: the American Empire.
Taking Jesus’ Message Seriously
“I was attracted to The Simple Way because I wanted to see what it could be like to live as a Christian. What if we took Jesus seriously?” said Amber Christis, a 24-year–old community member with a pixie haircut who has lived at the house for four years. Christis’ path to The Simple Way is unique in that she wasn’t raised Christian, she says as she lounges on a battered sofa. She was a feminist and anti-globalization activist first, but felt a lack of spiritual nourishment. Her first encounter with Christianity was beautiful, she said, but without a social context. “Everything was a very pie in the sky when you die sort of theology,” she said. Then she discovered The Simple Way.
“As I’ve tried to study a little bit and looked at the New Testament, a lot of it has to do with economics. When you look at what Jesus said, you’ll see a lot of things about economics and how you treat your neighbor.”
In a typical week at The Simple Way members pack bags of donated groceries for their hungry neighbors, tutor kids in an after school program they run from a rehabbed squat down the street, tend a community garden on a vacant lot and worship together in morning prayer or alone in a chapel in the basement. On a recent Saturday, the thrift shop they operate out of the corner of their ramshackle row house was open more for barter than commerce, members prepared for a camping jamboree that was to include dozens of similar communities, and a visitor was getting an orientation on the work and prayer that animates the community’s life.
The Founder’s Tale
Claiborne recounts the founding of The Simple Way in The Irresistible Revolution. As a student at Eastern University, a Christian college outside Philadelphia, Claiborne began visiting the city to spend time with homeless people. Sometimes he and his friends drove into the city with backpacks full of sandwiches to distribute. Sometimes they simply sat with people on the street, listening to their stories and sharing friendship. When homeless families and their supporters set up camp in an abandoned Catholic church to draw attention to the lack of affordable housing and to keep out of the cold, Claiborne and his friends joined them. The scales fell away from Claiborne’s eyes when he saw that the Catholic diocese was summoning its power not to house the people, but to evict them. It was the beginning of a truly engaged Christianity, he says in The Irresistible Revolution. From that radicalizing experience, Claiborne linked up with homeless advocates—Christian, Catholic and secular—who were involved in the fight for the abandoned cathedral. A few years later, after a detour to Mother Teresa’s Calcutta hospice and after finishing college elsewhere, Claiborne and friends wanted to continue their adventure following Christ into the most forgotten places. Philadelphia felt like home.
The Simple Way originators found an abandoned row house which they bought outright, putting the mortgage on one member’s credit card and soliciting donations from friends. Later, they took over another house down the block, this time buying it from the city through a homesteading program designed to free abandoned homes from city control and place them into the hands of homeowners, Christis explained.
The second home was a squat. Simple Way members walked across rooftops from their own house and climbed in the squat’s ceiling. The house was filled with debris, drug refuse and tragedy. Two addicts had died inside. Over several years The Simple Way reclaimed it, putting up walls, painting murals, installing safe electricity and converting the ground floor into an arts center for local kids.
As the community continues to find its path, its message of truly life-changing Christianity is finding followers. The Simple Way has been deluged with requests from individuals and groups requesting a visit. And Claiborne’s book, which reads as a manifesto of the New Monasticism movement and a disarming memoir of his own spiritual development, ranks 50th on Amazon’s Christian booklist.