I met Shane Claiborne last December in New Orleans. I was there for a conference on stewardship, and it was the first in a string of events I’ve attended in the past year.
Hosted by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center, the New Orleans conference was one of the best I’ve been to, small yet meaty, and interviewing Claiborne was the gravy on top.
If you followed my Ordinary Radical column in 2015, you’ll know that I’m quite taken with Claiborne and his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. In it he talks about his vision for living in community and a reordering of society that more closely reflects what God intended for creation.
Hearing him speak for the first time in New Orleans, I was struck by his Tennessee drawl and his goofy, hearty laugh—something that followed his one-liners and numerous funny stories. A loose bandana tied over messy hair, baggy brown pants that he sewed himself, and a black hoodie helped him look the part of his Simple Way persona. Claiborne, of course, founded and lives at The Simple Way, an intentional, interdependent community in inner-city Philadelphia.
“I’m always careful not to prescribe how to live, but I can identify trends or threads of the gospel that call us to different things,” Claiborne told me. “There is the sense that family is bigger than biology. A lot of our neighbourhood families [in our community in Philadelphia] are blended—dad is locked up; mother suffers with an addiction, whatever. And we become family.”
The central theme in Claiborne’s message of justice is relationship; that our world’s many ills can be solved if people—particularly people from different social strata—simply take the time to get to know each other.
“I think we overthink a lot of the opportunities that are available,” he said. “I met a suburban couple once who were really putting into practice Jesus’ words to love your neighbour as yourself, and for them that meant they would create a scholarship fund for a kid [in need] for every one of their biological kids they sent to college. And it was done in the context of relationship; they got to know the family and the kid. It was a symbiotic relationship.”
Of course not everyone has the means to give other people’s kids a post-secondary education, but this sort of creative thinking—of doing what you can with what you’ve been given—is central to Claiborne’s community work.
“I think a lot of times, the obstacle is not generosity, it’s relationship. And people don’t know where to start. It may be good for us to be the minority sometimes. That makes us uncomfortable at first, but … it broadens your outlook on life, and our kids are better off for it.”
He tells of a group of home-schooling moms who, as part of a class for their kids, went to the park to eat with the homeless people there.
“It turned out to be a class on justice,” said Claiborne, his voice growing more animated as he tells the story. “In a city where it’s against the law to feed the homeless, these moms were telling their kids to do what’s right even if the laws are wrong. I wouldn’t have thought traditional, home-schooling moms would be going to go meet people on the street—and they were not going to feed them, but to eat with them.”
Claiborne is an only child; his dad died of multiple sclerosis when he was just nine years old, and his first stepdad “wasn’t so great” and left the family after a short time. His current stepfather, who has been with his mom for 20 years, “is a great, great dude,” and he’s close with his mom.
“My family were always very incredibly generous people. I learned that from them.”
Kelly Johnson was the second keynote speaker at the conference in New Orleans. She’s a professor at the University of Dayton and author of The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. She agreed that family plays an important role in cultivating a true spirit of generosity and hospitality in children.
“It’s really about what the parents do,” she said. “It’s the air they breathe.
“It’s about listening to what others need, rather than ‘I’ve got something that will fix you.’ And kids pick up on it.”
And then she said something that has stayed with me:
“We have to say, ‘I’m not expecting you to be the person who goes out and fixes the world; I’m expecting you to be someone who goes out and listens, and to let people into your heart.”
The next time I saw Claiborne it was at the Way of the Heart conference—an international event held just outside Toronto last June, marking the 20th anniversary of author Henri Nouwen’s death.
Claiborne spoke of much of the same—the need for community and relationships; the need to move outside our comfort zones and forge friendships with those we normally would not associate with.
But this time, on the University of Toronto at Mississauga campus, Claiborne’s words took a different spin, modelled after Nouwen’s common refrain of bearing fruit and being authentic—of showing our weaknesses. In so doing, we create the close relationships needed for real change.
“We can’t pretend to be perfect,” said Claiborne. “We need to own our brokenness. Our bruises and scars can be our credentials.”
Carolyn and Geoff Whitney-Brown, authors of The Road to Peace, were neighbours of Nouwen’s when he lived at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto. (Founded by Jean Vanier, L’Arche communities bring people who are living with various disabilities together with those who are not.) They were also workshop speakers at the event. “Henri knew that the [awful] stuff in your life—your weakness, your suffering, your sin—is what makes you human. It’s what connects you to others. It’s what makes you real. And it’s what transforms you.”
“Perfection,” they said, “is being on the journey.”
Living from a place of authenticity then, and seeking relationships that are equally real, is what allows change to take place. It invites others into your life, and seeks to be a part of theirs. Then, when you see your neighbour and friend suffering, when you know they are victims of violence or injustice or hunger, you act to change it. In Claiborne’s words: “It messes you up.”
“Jesus never asked us to be productive,” Claiborne said, quoting Nouwen. “He asked us to be fruitful. And fruit comes out of broken ground. When we live our lives in love, we can trust that we will bear fruit.”
“The world is longing for Christians who are filled with love,” he continued. “Find one person who you can love well. We do for one person what we wish we could do for everyone.”
I sat at the back of Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago at the tail end of September. It was a Eucharist service with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber presiding. From my viewpoint, at the edge of the ridiculously long aisle that made me want to get married again just so I could walk down it, when I looked all the way to the end, there stood Bolz-Weber. A Lutheran minister at the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, and author of Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, she’s about six feet tall in her chunky heels. She’s wearing faded skinny jeans, a black, sleeveless shirt and clerical collar; a stole is draped around her neck as she presides over the sacrament. Her hair is dark and closely cropped. Dark-rimmed glasses frame her face. And tattoos. The tattoos! Standing against the imposing and uber-traditional organ and altar of Fourth Presbyterian, the result is almost comical. Yet reverent. The ultimate juxtaposition. I didn’t take a photo. It seemed invasive. But I wish I had. The new standing amidst the old—modern and radical set before the staid and stuffy.
I was in Chicago for the Why Christian conference—an event about welcoming. About openness. About honesty. About all the people of God.
“This is an open table, without exception,” Bolz-Weber announced before the sacrament began, almost daring someone to say anything different. “Because it’s not our table, it’s Jesus’ table.”
Numerous speakers shared their personal, and often harrowing stories during the two days of the conference. Women sharing stories about being women. Black women sharing stories about being black. Men sharing stories of once being women. Gay men sharing stories of being violated, abused, raped. Of being hurt by others.
Of being hurt by the church.
Not exactly light stuff.
But the sharing of these stories, these heartbreaking experiences, are exactly what Claiborne and Nouwen stressed as so dearly important.
“We’re not the sheep who never stray,” said Bolz-Weber. “But the jagged edges of our humanity are what connect us to God and to others. It gives us something to grab on to.”
It’s difficult, of course, to share these jagged parts of ourselves.
“But the truth is still the truth, whether we hide it or not,” she said.
“Why am I Christian?” Bolz-Weber asks. “Because I believe that the self that God has a relationship with is my actual self.”
I can’t help but come back to Claiborne’s words, and his absolute insistence on real, vulnerable, reciprocal relationship as the key to the creation of the kingdom—right here and right now.
“I think what we all need is a group of people to journey with, who keep stirring us on,” he said. “Community is about surrounding yourself with people who are like what you want to become. So if you want to be more courageous, hang out with courageous people; if you want to be more generous, hang out with generous people. We need to seek those relationships out—especially with people who have different social, cultural, economic backgrounds than us—that’s how we see better. Love’s made complete among us, and community is a big part of it.”
Simply put: “It’s a Christianity that looks like Jesus again.”
About Amy MacLachlan
Amy MacLachlan is the Presbyterian Record's managing editor.