Open Friendship in a Closed Relationship

Perhaps every writer is inexplicably surprised when their work is actually read, but I did not expect this blog to reach as wide of an audience as it has. Following last week’s blog on fatherhood, the link to this blog (shared only once by me) began to circulate amongst the Haven guests. Happily, the response was uniformly positive and one of excitement, but this has raised some important questions for me. Even in the anonymous blog world I am not entirely separate from my summer work. At the request of a guest, I gave out my blog link. It seemed like a flattering request at the time, and I was eager to share my thoughts and experiences with them in a different light. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the link spread. This week has become an exercise in exploring boundaries and connections set up between myself and the Haven guests with whom I work.

The most apparent theme weaving all my readings together is the theme of relationality, and the ability of authentic, personal relationships to effect change. People in crisis can see right through false intentions. The effort to build and maintain personal relationships also seems to be a central theme in the work of my intern colleagues, Reilly and Kate. Their wonderful posts include references to creating trust and friendship with those they serve, and all three of us acknowledge the difficulty of creating, nurturing, and maintaining these relationships in the short span of a summer internship. With the desire to create these authentic relationships, the thought of consciously applying boundaries and limitations to these relationships seems incongruent, yet this is where I have found myself.

Encouraged by my last post, in which he was featured, my new friend R poured his heart out to me this past week. He told me the entire tale of his years on the road, crisscrossing the continental United States from west to east. His voice and stories spoke yearningly of acceptance and affirmation—and most essentially—security. At the heart of this monologue was R’s desire to find a romantic partner who would support and comfort him. The direction of the conversation was predictable. At the conclusion of his monologue, he asked me to give him a chance and go on a date. Naturally, this is not territory I can enter as part of my internship and education in relationality. Heart sinking, I had to explain that I couldn’t engage with him the way he was asking me to. All I could do was be somewhat of a professional friend: be a supporter and cheerleader in the evolution of his life, but resolutely on the sideline. My unwillingness to engage R in a romantic relationship is, I believe, an occupational hazard of being a listening ear to people craving stability. As a Haven staff member put it, the talker tends to perceive a kind listener as a revolutionary way to access healthy romantic relationships—the kind of model with which they may be unfamiliar. For my own wellbeing, I have had to maintain a professional distance from the men that I serve. In theory, this is far from ideal because it technically means that am creating conscious distance between me and those with whom I wish to relate. For me, staying safe in my relationship building is the opposite of radical hospitality; it is selective and limited. And if building relationships is the best way forward to healing, what am I doing putting up barriers?

In his book, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, Peter Slade discusses the need for a barrier-less theology of friendship. If we wish to break down long standing social and religious barriers, he argues, we should take inspiration from Jürgen Moltmann’s theology, which calls for the emulation of radical and indiscriminate friendship demonstrated by Christ’s life. Moltmann harnesses the power of hope inherent within potential friendship and the hope actualized within the body of friendship. Inspired by the contemporary political and racial climate of the United States, Peter Slade adopts Moltmann’s call for open friendship in context of racial reconciliation in contemporary Mississippi. Slade’s book studies Mission Mississippi, a statewide Christian initiative that aims to promote social progress by nurturing individual friendships among religious people of different races. Slade quotes British theologian Liz Carmichael: “Where walls of division have been put up, we should ask ourselves and the others: what do friends do together? And start doing these things at every level” (187).

I want to create open friendships, but don’t know how to navigate my role as a professional (or semi-professional); I am the intern emulating a service provider role. I do feel that I have created authentic relationships with people at the Haven this summer. I truly do feel that I have reached the point of trust and openness with many guests that they have little hesitation confiding in me or reacting to my presence. I’m not sure how to reconcile this necessity for professionalism and call for friendship. In terms of what “friends do together,” my days are filled with conversation with guests at the Haven, but our lives part when we leave the Haven campus. We do not go out to eat and I do not invite anyone to my home. Should I? Much of the reading I have done this summer seems to suggest that I need to open my home and life to those in need to be fully engaged in theological change. I struggle with feeling that this is the best way for me to engage.

For Slade’s purpose, the “friendship” is literal, as Mission Mississippi calls for white southerners and African-Americans to form authentic, personal bonds over a common theology. My interpretation of Moltmann’s theology of friendship is closer to Slade’s application. This summer, I have worked among and alongside people I normally would not encounter in my “normal” social reality. Unlike Mission Mississippi and Peter Slade, I consistently struggle with being completely open and available to those I wish to serve. As I will remain in Charlottesville for at least another year, I have the unique ability to continue these relationships once the summer is over. It is my hope that the balance between professionalism and friendship will become easier to navigate when I am out of semi-staff position and can focus on connecting to Haven guests as a fellow community member with less conditional strings attached.

A snapshot of the artist studio at the Haven. Photo credit: Haven website



When Capitalism and Christianity Collide

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” Acts 4.32

Urban Hope is a business camp. It was born out of felt-needs community development, out of the conviction that in order to build up a community we must focus on their needs and desires, their strengths and not their weaknesses. It is focused on what the people of Walltown believe the focus should be, on their thoughts and dreams for this neighborhood, on Christianity and financial literacy. Urban Hope is a camp committed to teaching and practicing Christian ideals, another felt need and desire of the community in which it exists. It is a camp dedicated, among other things, to entrepreneurship, to equipping and empowering campers with the necessary skills and resources to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of capitalism and the free market economy that profoundly influences our lives as Americans.

We live in a society whose economic system has incredible wealth generating opportunity. Our brand of capitalism values and encourages virtues such as working hard, perseverance, and creativity, but also others such as greed, ambition and, at times, exploitation. Capitalism’s strength lies in generating wealth, but not distributing it. And, of course, it values private property, a phenomenon considered by many to be vital to the success of free market societies. While these things are not the only focus of Urban Hope, they inevitably enter into the conversation as economics are discussed.

Above I have quoted a verse from the book of Acts that has profoundly influenced the way that I have approached money, ownership, and capitalism. In this verse we find a description of some of the earliest followers of Christ, men and women we presume to have had possible direct contact with Jesus, or at the least only a few levels of separation from Christ and his original disciples and apostles. We see a radical Christianity, one that practices a vision of community that shares everything: thoughts, desires, passions, and possessions; all were of one mind, heart, and material. While I find the first two important, it is this last thing that has always struck me as the most profound, the one that is perhaps the most difficult to achieve.

When I first got to Urban Hope, I was a little confused. As I mentioned at the beginning, Urban Hope is a camp focused on business, committed to teaching our campers financial literacy and equipping them for success in a life inextricably bound to our economic system. I understood the concept of felt needs, and that financial literacy was a need of this community, yet I couldn’t silence the voice in my head that kept reminding me of that verse in Acts, and honestly many other verses in the Bible that appear to me to condemn many of the practices and attitudes found in capitalism. There seemed to be a tension: when a distinct, felt need does not line up perfectly with the practices of the Bible, how do we reconcile them? And another, perhaps more pertinent question is can I, as someone who has grown up in a context with extensive knowledge of the details of business, make a decision that this felt need should or should not be legitimately pursued? For a good portion of this summer, I felt this tension, and often during the economic development time I would feel a deep unease as I heard some of the values of capitalism being taught at a Christian camp.

I was able to talk to Jonathan and his wife Leah about this question, who have both previously worked at Urban Hope. They acknowledged that this tension does in fact exist and is something that they had both noticed. Yet despite recognizing this tension, both had been able to reconcile it with the themes of the Bible. Leah, at one point, offered up a pragmatic piece of wisdom: “Well, they’re going to learn about the economy from someone. Why not let it be us?”

The simple reality is that capitalism is inescapable; our campers, like Leah said, are going to learn about it from someone. They could learn from school, a setting that does not simultaneously emphasize the values of humility, love, community, and many more found in Christianity. Or they could learn about it in “alternative economies,” with black markets instead of free markets, in a setting wholly unsafe and disconnected from the dreams and desires of this community. Both of these situations result in our campers learning about the economy, yet both are outside of the context that results in the complete flourishing of our campers and, by extension, this neighborhood.

It became clear, through this conversation, that there is room for reconciliation and proper empowerment between the tension of two seemingly different ideas. On a personal level, this required an understanding of the incredible complexity of development and the various questions that I must ask myself when working in a community. First and foremost, I realized the deep need to acknowledge the realities of a given situation, rather than focusing on the theoretical; the youth of Walltown are going to learn about capitalism and its values from someone at some point in time. Through Urban Hope, we can focus on the good of capitalism as well as the good of Christianity, and walk with them to combine the two into a coherent worldview.

I think the further beauty of this approach is that it forces the cohesion of my religious beliefs and the actions that I take in a community. It is a frightening moment when we abstract our religious beliefs away from the context in which we find ourselves, and equally disconcerting to divorce our work from our beliefs and focus on the former. To fully engage, and enrich, a community, both our beliefs and the wants, needs, and desires of the people we are serving should influence each other. At Urban Hope this means economic instruction that focuses on the positive aspects of capitalism and its possible benefits, all taught through a Christian lens, one that recognizes the importance of humility, generosity, and love for our brothers and sisters.

This is the approach employed at Urban Hope and I am now able to see the felt needs of this community addressed and reconciled with our Christian ideals. The result is a camp committed to Walltown and committed to Christ, a camp that addresses true wants and needs of this community and stays true its beliefs. And I am glad to be a part of it.


‘We Have Done It Ourselves’

A few years ago I spent the summer working on a farm in Benin, West Africa. I lived with a missionary family who had been in Benin for nineteen years and at the time of my trip they were just about to leave, headed back to the states after a long time abroad. They were turning over their non-profit, their seminary, and their agricultural training center to the Beninese; nineteen years of work was being passed on to men and women with whom they had shared life their entire adult lives. I remember as I left, just days before they themselves were to leave the country, I was talking to Matt, the father of the family and executive director of the non-profit. He said that all along, this had been the plan. The project to which he had dedicated much of his life was never about him, he said. In order for his work to truly make an impact he had to step aside and let the Beninese take ownership of the organization, to be the ones in control. As long as he, an outsider, was in charge, it wasn’t fulfilling its purpose of equipping and empowering the Beninese. Now, a few years later, the project is still running, directed and maintained by Beninese, as it was intended from the beginning.

This story strikes me as quite similar to my experience this summer. While I am in no way implying that I have spent as much time or effort as Matt did in Benin, I do think that Matt’s experience can help inform the view of my work this summer. Here in Durham, I am an outsider. I see myself as an outsider in more ways than one, but most easily as a non-Durham resident. I traveled here from Virginia to work alongside organizations in a specific community, working to empower a specific group of people: Walltown. While I think it is important to fight hard against an “us” vs. “them” mentality, which I may potentially reinforce by calling myself an “outsider”, I think it is still crucial to understand my true position. At our roots, we are all humans, children of God; there can be no “us” or “them.” Yet recognizing that I am myself an outsider, someone who has come to this community from elsewhere, helps ensure that I do not harm the very people I am seeking to serve. I think this is critical to community development.

The question that guided me toward this belief is simply, “how should I interact with the community in order to ensure that my actions have positive consequences?” John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) answer with a Chinese Proverb and I believe it to contain strong words by which to work and live:

Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Love them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have
The best leaders, when their work is finished
Their task is done
The people will need to say ‘we have done it ourselves’

It is the last line that I see as the most important, but also the most difficult to accomplish. What good is our work if we do everything for the very people that we are serving? As an outsider, my role in community development is not to implement, but to empower, to cultivate autonomy rather than dependency. Too often the temptation is to use our knowledge, resources, or power to accomplish tasks for the people we are serving. We look at solving a problem as the desired end and worry not about the specific means used to solve it. As long as the issue is resolved, we have done our work well, even if the “community” in which we are working played no part in achieving it. The danger here is that we end up doing the work for the people we are “helping,” creating a cycle dependency that in can in no circumstances be mistaken for “development.”

If we’re honest, many people practice this view, yet it should not be the approach of community development. What, then, should be? To employ a well-known cliché, community development, simplified, can be equated to teaching folks how to fish. Obviously the approach is more nuanced than this simple analogy, but a community is not developed if outsiders continually bring in loads of fish and merely drop them at the community’s feet. They may be well fed, but they are not developed. Community development is, to continue this analogy, working alongside the people to not only teach them how to fish, but also to work together towards buying a fishing pole, driving to the pond, and digging, together, through the dirt to find some worms. Never once, however, do we do anything for the people that they can do themselves, for that would only hurt the community.

I often wonder what this means for Christianity. For those interested in development, the Bible does not provide too many detailed approaches. There is no commandment that explicitly states how one should walk the fine line between helping too little and helping too much. Rather, biblical advice on aid seems broad and simple. In James, for example, the author writes, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2.15-16). Similarly, in Matthew 25, the righteous give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and clothes to the naked. One could, very easily, use these verses to justify an approach where we, as the provider, do everything for a passive and merely receptive “needy” person or group.

These verses provide a great opportunity for us Christians to truly examine the social consequences of our religious beliefs. To merely provide, without any degree of empowering, creates dependency; it should be avoided at all costs. Can we, as Christians, take these verses and further flesh them out them to better suit development? John Perkins, the CCDA, and many other Christians appear to think so. It seems to me that our responsibility as Christians, especially ones involved in development, is to first understand our purpose. If we are truly seeking to better communities, not by merely addressing surface level issues but by truly desiring for them to thrive, we must do what works. We must equip, and to achieve this we must move beyond away from provision and into development. We must work so that the people can truthfully say, “we did it ourselves.” Through this, I think, we are better displaying our love for these communities, which is, as far as I can tell, the heart of Christianity.

This approach to community development, while deeply necessary in broad circumstances, can be just as helpful in personal, daily interactions. At Urban Hope we focus on business and entrepreneurship. Twice a week my group, made up of fifth and sixth graders, has “economic development,” a time when they learn about various aspects of business and the economy, often with the help of a School House Rock video. Recently they learned about savings and interest, a concept that they can practice with the “Bull City Bank,” a camp bank only for them. Each camper has a job, and each job has a salary. If they do their jobs, they get paid and can deposit and save money in the bank. On Thursdays the campers calculate interest and decide if they want to withdraw or continue to save; the choice is theirs.

Some of our young, aspiring entrepreneurs.

This week, as Thursday rolled around, the time came to calculate the interest earned. Since the campers had just learned how to do this, we decided to let them practice calculating their own interest. Interest is confusing enough to me, but for a fifth grader, it’s beyond tough. As we were sitting around watching them work, the campers would come up exasperated and, dropping their pen and paper in my lap, ask me to do the math for them. As I sat there, I realized how easy it would be to pull out my phone and quickly calculate their 20% interest. We could finish early, the campers would happily have their money, and I wouldn’t have to struggle through teaching them about decimals. But the last line of that proverb crossed my mind, and I imagined the campers crunching the numbers on their own and exclaiming, “we have done it ourselves!” I decided to work with them, not for them, to calculate their interest and after a while we finished. The campers successfully tallied their earnings by themselves and took away at least a slightly broader understanding of how things work in the business world.

I understand that this is a small example of the important approach outlined in the proverb and practiced by many in development, but I believe it points to something bigger. As Christians, we must be mindful of our work. When we go to a community, when we love them, when we learn from them, only then we can hope to help build them up. Yet we must not build them up upon ourselves, for as soon as we leave the foundation disappears, the people come crashing back down to where they were. Rather we must work together to build upon a solid foundation, one that does not disappear, so that when they stand upright and smiling, they are perched upon their own handiwork. When they look back over everything that they’ve accomplished, they can say to everyone who asks, “we have done it ourselves.”

Thoughts on Fatherhood

Fatherless families have an unfortunate association with poverty and homelessness. Although an uncomfortable reality, popular culture tells us that poor or homeless families are not as likely to remain intact (i.e. all young children with two parents). The stereotype of the deadbeat dad permeates our understanding of the reality homeless children experience. A good portion of the Haven’s guests are single men, as in unaccompanied. The “single” does not necessarily mean they are unmarried. Many Haven guests are parents, even if their children are not, physically, in their daily lives. But just because their children are not with them at the Haven, in Charlottesville, or even Virginia, does not mean those children are not constant realities in their lives and minds.

Fatherhood is a curious topic at the Haven. We see new fathers made every month, as young men discover they have a baby on the way, and we hear stories of children left behind in another town or another life. A few recent conversations have made me think that the longing of fathers to be beloved by their children is an insatiable need that only intensifies with absence.

The warm, summer months are good for traveling and living outdoors, and the Haven has seen an upswing in the number of travelers visiting with us. The transient population is far smaller than the familiar faces of Charlottesville’s homeless I have come to know. Travelers are usually young, probably not too far from my own age, many speaking of journeying across the country to disappear. Others are eager to get home.

One of these new summer faces was R, who arrived at the Haven with his travel companion hoping to get directions and bus fare to the Social Security Administration Veteran Affairs Regional Office where he could fill out paperwork to get his veteran ID card and sign up for veterans benefits. When I thanked him for his service, he started to cry. R rolled up his sleeves to show me two matching tattoos on each forearm with the names of his children inked in newsletter script. R explained that in New Mexico, earlier this summer, someone mugged him on the road and stole his new backpack containing his laptop and most of his money. He said,

“I could have gone after him. I could have fought back. I had an eight inch Army knife with me, but I knew I couldn’t do that – couldn’t risk being in trouble, even for self defense. I need to get back to my kids in Oregon and I can’t do that locked up. I have to get my benefits, get a job, make some money that I can send back to them so they know how much I love them and that I’m not a dead beat like those other guys. You know, their mom and me, we just didn’t get along. It’s not their fault.”

Another man in his thirties, an artist, told me his whole summer plan revolved around getting back to Waynesboro to be close to his three young kids. The only reason he was in Charlottesville, thirty minutes away from home, was because his job at a construction company paid so well during the summer rush. A phone the call the night before our conversation had cut his construction plans short; an eight year old boy asking his dad not to miss his upcoming baseball game was the linchpin that convinced this particular guest that working three 14-hour days a week in Charlottesville with a weekly commute was better than working five 8-hour days and no kids. Yet another young man, M, told me his daughter’s mother got a court order against him after M threatened the new boyfriend in her life. M said he was infuriated that another guy was “pretending to be [his] daughter’s dad.” A few minutes later, M called me over to the computer to show me pictures of his daughter playing with stuffed animals. Given that M admitted that he has a violent history, maybe the mother’s protective order wasn’t completely unwarranted. But the only time I saw him smile was when I asked him about his daughter, and the eyes with the teardrop tattoos crinkled with delight.

There is an immense, perhaps desperate desire to prove their love as fathers, either with monetary support or by lashing out at others they fear will take their place. These men are heartbroken with love over separation from their children. There is, of course, the foil father figure to these anecdotes. There is the father who owes $125,000 in back child support for eight unpaid years and five children, or the one who leaves town upon discovering his girlfriend is pregnant. So, what does “family,” or at least caring for one’s children, mean in this variable context? In Shane Claiborne’s immensely exciting book, Irresistible Revolution, he calls upon Christians to construct family in the way Jesus did, by leaving behind societal and familial attachments as a demonstration of the willingness to craft a new community. Claiborne quotes Mark 10:29-31:

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life….And there is also an omission from the second list: fathers. As we are reborn, we leave our biological families. Now we have sisters and brothers and mothers all over the world. And yet the omission of fathers is consistent with Christ’s teacher in Matthew that we should call no one father but God (23:9). In an age in which fathers were seen as the lifeline of the family, the seemingly indispensable authority and providential centerpiece, this statement is God’s final triumph over patriarchy (174-5).

I always prefer to think that Jesus didn’t command his disciples to totally renounce and sever bonds with their families at home (though in a world without Skype and email, it would have been challenging to stay in touch!), but rather expand their notions of immediate family to include essentially the whole world. In another chapter, Claiborne writes, “Rebirth is about being adopted into a new family—without borders. With new eyes, we can see that our family is both local and global, including but transcending biology, tribe, or nationality, a renewed vision of the kin-dom of God” (200). I think this is the key to sustaining familial bonds across time and distance. For some guests, the Haven is their family. For others, friends made on the streets become dear brothers and sisters. The Haven family invites anyone to be a member; it doesn’t matter if they have another, biological family far away or if all they know are brothers and sisters from the Charlottesville streets. In a theological sense, we are all loved by the same Father, making us part of the same family. Claiborne writes, “we are made in the image of a God who is community, a plurality of oneness” (134). Fatherhood may be an imminent concern for some male guests, or it may be only a memory of a distant relationship, something absent from their daily vocabulary. In God’s plurality–His life in every man and child—fathers, sons, and daughters are still connected.

Shane Claiborne is all about relationality, and the radical togetherness and interdependence required of a justly Christian community.[i] Fathers separated from their children by unhappy choice or circumstance may use the Haven as a place to express grief and to cry out for forgiveness. With their explanations of why they had to leave and reiterations that they are “not that kind of deadbeat dad,” they ask the listener to affirm that they themselves are not unlovable. Other fathers may use the Haven as a place to create new family that knows nothing of the old. We are all looking for a home. We are all sons and daughters of the same community, united by kinship that may seem accidental. Truly, it is not.


[i] I found Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution, particularly inspirational in its unexpected coalescence of the work done by all the summer PLT interns. Reilly’s work at the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina and Kate’s partnership with the Catholic Worker Movement in England contribute to two specific initiatives happily discussed by Claiborne.

Safe Places

For a long time, I have believed deeply that the church must be a model of diversity, of a group transcendent of society’s established race lines. Any church or group that appealed to one ethnic group prevented the church from becoming a truly diverse “melting pot” of an institution. Thus, ethnically homogeneous churches and institutions, regardless of the ethnicity, hindered Christianity.

Soong-Chan Rah, who offered a lecture at UVa last semester, on “Race and the Gospel,”  sees the role of ethnic-specific religious groups—churches, campus ministries, etc., differently, and his comments proceeded to completely break down my approach. He said that sometimes non-white people in the United States need a place where they aren’t in the minority, a place to recharge after a life filled with face-to-face experience with their “otherness.” If I were confronted six days a week with my status as a minority, must I also, on Sunday, enter into a culturally different, and possibly uncomfortable, atmosphere in the name of diversity? That was the consequence of my view before hearing Rah speak. The worshipping community, however, should be a place where I can simply be myself, fully at ease with my religion and those around me. What Rah was appealing for was a safe place for my non-white brothers and sisters, a context in which they can be themselves.

Urban Hope recognizes this reality and seeks to establish a safe place. The second half of Urban Hope’s mission statement is that we are “creating safe places in our neighborhood to grow together into wholeness.” This idea of a safe place is, I believe, vital to the success of any organization or program that deals with community development. In a work rooted in relationships, people need an opportunity to flourish, and to do this they need a context in which they are comfortable and safe.

We can imagine the effects of the opposite context, one in which we don’t feel safe. All of us have experienced a time of discomfort, a time when we did not feel particularly at ease, whether it was caused by the physical atmosphere or the people around us. Few, I think, would say that they were themselves; we put our guards up and steel ourselves so that we hopefully escape the situation unaffected, or at least not as affected as if we were completely open. This is the human condition, rooted in self-preservation, and it would be wrong of us to expect anything different. The safe place, then, offers that context needed for people to be at ease, opening the doors for the building and maintaining of genuine relationships. Only through this can we hope to affect change.

A “safe place” can mean multiple things, as I believe it does in the Urban Hope mission statement. Perhaps most importantly we want to provide a place that is physically safe for our campers. While I do not wish to overpaint Walltown as a relentlessly violent neighborhood, violent action does sometimes spill onto its streets. Last week I had a conversation with a camper where she informed me of a shooting that had happened earlier that day, not two short blocks from my house. She was not indifferent in her telling but neither did her tone suggest that such shootings were complete anomalies in the neighborhood. This is not the only reality of Walltown, but we must acknowledge that it does exist, and at Urban Hope we seek to provide a place of refuge in which the campers can feel safe from harm.

In addition to physical safety, a safe place must be one of personal, emotional comfort. The implications of Rah’s stance on this issue speak directly to my work here at Urban Hope. If we are seeking to establish a safe place, does my presence as a white male in a predominantly black context hinder this? Can the kids truly feel at ease as long as I am here, given that I come from the majority group? Every part of me wants to say yes, and ultimately I think it is possible, but those implications are not easily dismissed. How, then, can I make certain that my presence does not prevent the development of a safe place at Urban Hope? What steps can I myself take to ensure that these kids can grow despite the challenge that a diverse atmosphere presents?

Luckily there are many people here in Walltown who have successfully navigated this tension and cultivated safe places while simultaneously adding to the diversity of the community. Through listening to and observing these people, it has become apparent that a main step toward maintaining a safe environment is to submit. Coming into Urban Hope my first actions must be to let myself grow into the existing culture in order to preserve its “safe” status. Rather than assume that I have the answers or the means to achieve a certain end, I must instead, with as much humility and grace as possible, actively seek to allow this culture, and by extension the comfort of those who live here, to flourish. This is one possible way to create a safe place.

But is an ethnically homogeneous group the only type of safe place? If so, this would present a bleak future for reconciliation, a process that aims to bring two groups to each other, rather than merely forcing one onto the other. I think Soong-Chan Rah has great wisdom here but there must also be a way to cultivate an ethnically diverse safe place. Through this question we return, I think, to Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis, the two people responsible for integrating Durham Public Schools. Both sides ultimately learned that the key was to listen and through that attentive practice groups could be brought together for a common good. And like Ann Atwater taught, once we’ve helped our brothers and sisters get halfway to what they want, we tell them our needs, and then we work together to achieve it.

I think the second scenario fits more closely with Urban Hope and it is the one that guides my actions here. There is a richness, and utility, in diversity as we understand that everyone has something to contribute. But we must acknowledge the importance of letting flourish the other cultures and practices of the groups with whom we work and, at least in my situation, ensure their safety. It’s definitely a process, and it may take time, but the result, an ethnically diverse safe place where we can “grow together into wholeness,” is well worth it.

Hope on a nature hike at the Eno!

Reconciled Space

When Tom Shadyac purchased the Haven’s building in 2007 for $2.15 million, the building was just like any other traditional, Southern church. Formerly known as the First Street Church, the historic church building was renovated and transformed into a new kind of community-gathering site for TJACH (Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless) and its clients. Like many downtown Charlottesville buildings, the old First Street Church building has lived through many political and social ages. The current building is recorded to have been built in 1920 (City Records), but one Haven guest I spoke with said his grandparents attended the church during early Reconstruction. The guest, Mr. B., spoke of his own childhood attending the church, where he recalled being frightened by the “spitting and yelling of brimstone and Hell,” but how the non-denominational church taught him to take religion seriously. That congregation relocated to a building in Keswick, a rural hamlet six miles from Charlottesville and known for its vineyard and idyllic farms.

As a double major in Religious Studies and Art History, I am constantly fascinated by how the architectural and visual shape of the space we inhabit informs how we feel and what we believe. Even following extensive renovation after TJACH’s acquisition, the space of the Haven resonates slightly out of tune between its original, liturgical context and its modern purpose. The Sanctuary is used by the Haven as a place of quiet contemplation and relief from the hubbub of the Day Haven. Community groups can also rent out the space for weddings, concerts, and events. It is a place where many voices join together in silence and in discussion. The interior space is exquisitely lovely, covered in stained glass windows and stately pews. The balcony in the back of the Sanctuary has an unspoken history; this is where the African American congregants sat during services.

The small staircase leading up to the Haven’s sanctuary balcony seating.


The upper deck is accessible only by a very narrow staircase on the right hand of the foyer. Worshippers using the staircase to get to their seats would not have even entered the main space of the sanctuary or touched a pew. The relegation to this secondary space denied tactile access to the sanctified space. Congregants seated in the rear balcony have a great view of the rafters, but could not easily access the altar or choir. People sitting behind and above the congregation seated on the ground level would have been intentionally out of eyeshot. Today, the balcony is only used for roof access and to hang decorations. Events or gatherings held in the sanctuary have one seating option: all people together. In its contemporary use, the Haven’s sanctuary has been more than integrated; it has become a reconciled space. Once a mark of social hierarchy, the building now architecturally expresses the constant effort of restoring hope and the reconciliation of the invisible with the public. In its current state, the Haven’s public gathering space is just a more perfect expression of the wholeness innate in beloved community.

View from the balcony seating. The hung images are part of an ongoing photography festival in Charlottesville.

View from the balcony seating. The hung images are part of an ongoing photography festival in Charlottesville.

When the building was renovated in 2007, a four-story annex was added to house service-provider and Haven staff offices. This architectural update purposefully expounded upon the Haven’s collaborative atmosphere and made philosophy of community concrete in its bricks. The upstairs office room, where Haven staff call home base, is one open room surrounded with windows with vista views of Charlottesville proper. Each staff person has his or her own desk (until a certain summer intern needs to borrow a table) in this communal room. The openness facilitates pithy conversation, musical and intellectual musings, and presents the staff as a unified team to anyone who walks up the stairs looking for guidance. The redesigned spaces of the Haven’s building embody a healthy “confluence of optimisms,” a phrase Charles Marsh borrows from John Howard Yoder in his explanation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s formation of beloved community in the segregated American South (49).[i] MLK’s “confluence of optimisms” is the fortuitous meetings of the “kingdom of God…[and] the American dream,” and the aims of the Haven are not too different (49). All who visit and work with the Haven pursues the restoration of hope in self-sufficiency, wholeness and economic stability.

Unity is a happy byproduct, if not crucial element, of beloved community. By creating an open space, both physically and in philosophy, the Haven creates space for healing and resolution. By transforming the old First Street Church building into a community center, the Haven fosters an experiential and potent vitality Marsh describes in Clarence Jordan’s theology. An open workspace for staff and a purposefully integrated sanctuary space invites “experiences that are often more formative than participation in the sacraments” (59).

One of the main beneficial elements of maintaining an open and unified space is a suppression of latent violence. The Haven is a low-barrier shelter, meaning anyone in any (non-violent) state is able to walk in off the street in search of respite and support. Guests are not required to navigate a screening process or pass through metal detectors. Instead of imposing limits and strict guidelines to receive care, guests and staff voluntarily maintain an atmosphere of mutuality and trust. In a historic parallel, Marsh illustrates King’s developing sense of place for coercion in enacting political and social reform. Niebuhr, who argued, “coercion was a practical necessity in view of the collective selfishness of groups” became untenable with King’s later tendencies to change by example and nonviolent guidance (26). MLK felt the stirrings of nonviolent necessity when his parsonage was bombed in January of 1956. MLK calmed the tense crowd with a call to forgiveness and patience, urging his supporters not to resort to retaliation, but continue to extend hands of peace and friendship: King said, “The spirit of God was in our hearts, and the night that seemed destined to end in unleashed chaos came to a close in a majestic group demonstration of nonviolence” (38). As a low barrier shelter, the possibility for unleashed chaos is not absent from the Haven. However, the visiting crowds of guests and volunteers are committed to peace and coexistence. The thoughtfully-designed open spaces of the Day Haven, the unfettered access to staff, a beautiful sanctuary welcome to all, and a collaborative workspace produce a sense of architectural wholeness and a clear invitation for the formation of peaceful community.

“While the church as a worshipping community exists for the specific purpose of confessing, proclaiming and worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord, the beloved community quietly moves from its historical origins into new and unexpected shapes of communion and solidarity” (208). Marsh refers to the abstract church, but I believe this statement applies to one tangible church architecturally converted into a space for collaboration and radical unity on the corner of First and Market.

[i] Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Visual Expressions of a Community

My internship through the Project on Lived Theology at the Catholic Worker Farm has provided a unique opportunity to combine academic and personal interests through study, writing, and daily experience.  I have an interest in social justice due to personal religious convictions, and I study religion in an academic setting, but this summer’s opportunity is the first time these two spheres of my life have overlapped with one another.  I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to approach my interest in social justice with an academic lens by using theological writings to reflect upon my personal experience within the Catholic Worker movement.  Furthermore, in my initial proposal for the summer, amongst reading about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and interning at the house of hospitality outside of London I also included a desire to produce artwork based on my experience.  Studio Art is my other area of academic study in addition to religion, and during the previous academic year much of the artwork I produced was as a result of reading theological works.

At the Catholic Worker Farm we provide accommodation for and live with homeless women, and I find living together with volunteers and the women in our community to be one of the most interesting and influential though often ambivalent, aspects of the summer, as well as a topic I would like to address in my artwork.  However, how does one create art about experiences with the homeless?  It seems to me to be a tricky territory, as I do not wish to stigmatize the women as homeless more so than they already feel.  My initial desire was to begin with an informal interview with women who were willing, and also ask if I could draw a portrait of them.  However, another long-term volunteer informed me that many volunteers, interns, and friends have wanted to create artwork about the homeless guests at the Catholic Worker Farm over the years, and he thinks the women might be tired of it, as often they feel as though they are being used simply as material for artwork.  Working in this way would be contrary to Catholic Worker theology.  Emmanuel Mounier, a 20th century French philosopher who greatly influenced Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, writes that if another person is treated merely as “an instrument at my disposal,” one is “behaving towards him as though he were an object, which means in effect, despairing of him.”1

Furthermore, while I understand that the distinction of “homeless” is one that can’t be ignored, I would rather focus on the women as people; as women who are homeless amongst other things.  Recently I have viewed the work of some artists who have photographed homeless people in order emphasize their poverty and the terrible condition they face on the streets.  From November 2012 to June 2013 the Saatchi Gallery exhibited “Case History,” by Boris Mikhailov, a set of 413 photographs taken from 1997 to 1998 of the homeless in Ukraine following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.   Recently in the media photographer Lee Jeffries has received recognition for his portraits of the homeless in major cities in the US.  Both of these artists seek to bring awareness to the people that are often passed by without a glance; these images provide an opportunity for the public to look into their eyes.

I think there are different ways to bring attention to poverty and marginalized communities within the realm of art, and it seems to me that Mikhailov and Jeffries’ portraits call the public to action or to sympathy as a result of their documentation of the dire conditions of the marginalized.  I would propose that Peter Maurin however, might provide a different approach.  Dorothy Day described Maurin as articulating his vision in such a way to others that “he did not begin by tearing down, by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world,” but rather, “he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment.”2  While the intense picture of misery is a necessary one to tell, for this project I hope rather to provide a snapshot of the community at the farm of which our homeless women are a part of, and to affirm the women’s dignity by allowing them to define themselves within the artwork.

In a sense, entering into the lives of marginalized persons in such an intimate way as Mikhailov and Jeffries can be done only if the subjects give permission for the artist to do so.   I do not think that initially I would receive the same permission, and I hope to take a different approach.  Rather than focus on individual women and their distinction as homeless, I will instead highlight the Catholic Worker Farm as a community.  In our community I see our homeless guests as housemates with whom I am trying to love, and at its most basic level I see our houses of hospitality as groups of people just trying to live together.  There’s a balance I’m discovering between the need to recognize the distinction between the women as “homeless” and myself as “volunteer,” and also to view each of the women individually as a housemate and as a person.

Sometimes it has proven useful for me to act based on what one might assume to be the tendencies of homeless people, other times it has backfired.  Embarrassingly one time I vocalized my assumption that one woman only wanted something from me when she had sweetly greeted me in the morning, and she was hurt that I had automatically assumed she was being insincere.  In regards to acknowledging the person as an individual, a volunteer at the farm expressed the gratitude she feels when members of the local community take a personal interest in her, rather than only associating her as a part of the group of volunteers at the Catholic Worker Farm.  I see this volunteer’s gratuitude for personal recognition as connected to my desire not to create work about “the homeless” but rather about the women as individuals whom I know as a part of this community.

Emmanuel Mounier’s notion of personalism is the inspiration behind the work I hope to make.  Mounier proved to be inspiring to Peter Maurin too, as he regarded himself as a “personalist.”  Mounier wrote about a Christian “philosophy of engagement,” which he called personalism, the basis of which is the conviction that Christians have the responsibility to “take an active role in history even while their ultimate goal is beyond the temporal and beyond human history.”3  Mounier’s writings about the nature of the person, and how persons should treat each other provide inspiration for how to create art about a marginalized group and how to recognize each person as more than their association with the particular marginalized population.  Above I quoted Mounier on how treating a person as an object is to discredit them, and he continues, “but if I treat him as a subject, as a presence – which is to recognize that I am unable to define or classify him, that he is inexhaustible, filled with hopes upon which alone he can act – this is to give him credit.”4


In order to address the tensions, the categorizing, and the ideologies of the house, and to empower the women in the creation of this artwork, my work will be a collaboration with women who are willing to participate.  Rather than conducting an interview with the women and drawing their portraits, in which I would choose how to portray them, I will instead attempt to practice Mounier’s idea that I am unable to define or classify the women with whom I live and alternatively invite them to add to the artwork in their own way.  The art pieces will be multilayered, with a first layer of drawings of the spaces in our houses.  I plan to place the drawings in common areas for the remainder of my stay at the farm, and invite the women to add whatever they would like to the base layer; for example, comments and text regarding the space they occupy here, memories about the spaces, habits, desires, preferences, feelings about the Catholic Worker House, or drawings.

Mounier writes that, “real love is creative of distinction; it is gratitude and a will towards another because he is other than oneself,”5 and that to understand another involves not “seeking to know another according to some general knowledge… but accepting his singularity with my own, in an action that welcomes him, and in an effort that re-centers myself.”6  Instead of taking full control of the artwork and in order to give the women the opportunity to define and express themselves, I will extend an invitation to them to take part in the creation of collaborative pieces.

1 Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2005), 99.
2 Mark and Louise Zwick, 97.
3 Mark and Louise Zwick, 98.
4 Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.: England, 1952), 23.
5 Mounier, 23.
6 Mounier, 21.