Lunch. Simply lunch, spurred into being by that announcement at Asbury Temple UMC.
Innocuous enough, and yet life-changing for the Arthurs. I won’t go into how we fell in love with not only the household but the vision, how we prayed, and talked, and came over for more meals. Suffice it to say, by fall semester we did not renew our lease on the one-bedroom near Duke.
We moved into the ‘hood–and stayed. For three years we shared a household with other community members committed to simplicity, hospitality, sustainability, and reconciliation—as well as with women and children in transition out of homelessness.
You could say Isaiah House of Hospitality was new monastic before new monasticism was invented, and they certainly are a quieter version of spokespersons like Shane Claiborne.
In fact, we lived across town from another key spokesperson and founder of the new monastic movement, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his community at Rutba House. We occasionally engaged in shared life (meals, activism, hospitality) with them: one of my favorite memories involves the Christmas when one of our homeless guests, who had lived both at Rutba and with us, decided Isaiah House should sing carols for the folks standing in line at the downtown rescue mission—this, despite the fact that I was the only one who could carry a tune. If Jonathan hadn’t shown up, hymnal in hand, humbly joining in with his solid Baptist tenor and the occasional grin of delight, it would have been one big, new monastic fail.
In short, new monastics are our people, Tom and I. If there’s a book Jonathan and Shane have written, we’ve probably read it. The streams of Christianity that have influenced new monasticism—the Desert Fathers, medieval monasticism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, etc.—have more or less influenced us as well.
For the past ten-odd years, the twelve “marks” or practices of New Monasticism have been continuously in the background for us, and sometimes in the foreground, including the first mark: “Relocation to abandoned places of Empire.”
So, what happens when the place where you find yourself–indeed, the place where God has sent you– is not one of the urban deserts of this struggling nation, but the very suburban heart of the American Dream?
That Memorial Day in Michigan, we learned something. We learned that love transcends zip codes. It even transcends whatever “rules” or “marks” you seek to live by. That day, smiling, generous people gave up their holiday to unload our stuff, set up our house, feed us and all the workers, and pray with us–breath-taking hospitality to the stranger on a communal scale.
Situational culture-shock aside, I’ve never been given a spiritual community so instantly, without guile or pretense, people determined to love us despite our panicked expressions, cases of crap, and occasional superior asides (“Oh, we won’t be using the dishwasher because [insert self-righteous moralizing about our previous lifestyle in a new monastic community combined with barely informed commentary about the global water crisis and probably something else about sustainability here].”)
(We use the dishwasher now.)
Suffice it to say, we spent several agonized years over this and many other suburban issues. And it was about so much more than just personal values: we had actually made commitments to some fellow seminarians to live simply, and they had made commitments to us about similar things, and we had formally organized to keep each other accountable through video-chatting every other month.
On those video calls we couldn’t help but compare our former life to this new gig, this strange new world of mowed lawns and helpful appliances, a two-car garage (for what was, at the time, our one car), and an empty basement waiting to be filled with kitsch.
Was this really it? Were we doomed to be former radicals who, once upon a time, had something interesting to say about following Jesus but now just loaded our dishwasher like everyone else? And if so, what did it say about our faith now?
The finale of a three-part series detailing Sarah Arthur and her husband, Tom’s, journey from Durham, NC, to Lansing, MI. Expanded from the book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press, 2017).