Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” Fourteen years ago, Shane Claiborne and some friends moved into Kensington, an area of Philadelphia with abandoned factories and high unemployment, because they wanted to live Christianity. When asked if the intentional Christian community they created is “evangelical,” Shane responds affirmatively. “We want to spread the Kingdom of God like crazy!” Most important, the members of The Simple Way, want to do what God did. God did not save humanity from on high. Jesus moved into the neighborhood.
Students from RRC came to Kensington to learn about Christianity. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the traditional time of Advent in the Christian calendar, seven rabbinical students are participating in a half credit course entitled “Hands on Christianity.” They have toured Kensington in a van with Shane Claiborne. They will study the four Gospels with Will O’Brien (a Simple Way ally who works for Project H.O.M.E) and Christians in the Alternative Seminary (also a local ally of the Simple Way) and they will spend a day joining the community for prayer and helping out with their Christmas store. In between, the students are organizing a new toy collection, hoping to engage the rest of the RRC community in a small way in their involvement with The Simple Way.
During our tour, Shane showed us the landscape of a post-industrial slum: the hospital where half the staff has been laid off, the challenges of accessing fresh food, the problem – of personal relevance to us after a few hours – of no public bathrooms. He also showed us the places where co-conspirators of The Simple Way were reclaiming the blighted landscape with sculpture gardens and murals, running a free medical clinic, working with people battling drug addiction. Throughout, he told his story without self aggrandizement. It was always about community, and it was not about big, splashy victories. Shane and his friends first came to Kensington as part of a dramatic take over by homeless people of an abandoned Catholic Church. The story made the newspapers. Since then, however, it has been a quieter kind of religious testimony: rehabbing houses after a fire, creating a summer camp by closing down a street to traffic and playing with the kids, creating a collective health insurance pool with neighbors.
John Dominic Crossan, a world famous scholar of the New Testament, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper, San Francisco, 1995) tells about a dream he once had in which Jesus comes to him and says, “I have read your book and it is quite good. Are you ready to join me and my vision?” Shane Claiborne tells how he had dinner with Crossan once. “As we shared with him our feeble attempts to follow after the peasant revolutionary he wrote about, his eyes gleamed with excitement.”
As we embarked on this hands-on learning experience with Christians who take a hands-on approach to their faith, our eyes, too, were gleaming.