The New Friars: Evangelical Youth Living Among the Poor
Trudging up a mountainside in Caracas, Venezuela, 29 year old Lila Blanchard approaches the squatter settlement she calls home. Noisy children and dogs come alive as she passes the small brick houses piled on top of each other facing the wood shacks which make up this desperately poor slum community. But to Lila, these arenít "the poor." These are the people among whom she lives and works Ė her adopted aunts, uncles and cousins.
What is it that motivates this young, American evangelical graduate of San Francisco University to set aside the opportunities for wealth and privilege to live among the poor and marginalized? Itís the call of Christ to live a simple, communal life as a servant to the poor. The same call that captivated Celtic youth and medieval youth as they flocked to the missionary-driven monastic orders.
Growing numbers of highly educated, evangelical youth are saying "no" to comfortable salaries in exchange for the privilege of living in slum communities in the developing world. Seeking lives of simplicity, purity and devotion, these young, evangelical Friars are joining missionary orders that are devoted to ministry among societyís dregs. Are we witnessing the emergence on an evangelical monastic movement?
InnerCHANGE is a Christian order composed of communities of missionaries living and ministering incarnationally among the poor. "What we do is substantially different from most mission agencies." Says InnerCHANGE founder, John Hayes, who planted himself among the poor of south central LA in 1984. "Most agencies working incarnationally among the poor have a high degree of burnout. Our impulse to become an order was to create a structure among the poor that people could join for a lifetime and thrive." To do that InnerCHANGE weds the contemplative, prophetic and missionary traditions of the Church.
"I longed for a deep and consistent spirituality," says Lila of her decision to join InnerCHANGE four years ago after hearing John Hayes speak. I knew that I needed some help and some rhythms for that to happen. I also resonated with the commitment to community that InnerCHANGE holds, I knew that I could not grow or stay long as a missionary without that. I wanted to learn how to serve the poor in a way that was not a band-aid solution. I wanted to learn how to walk with and be close to the poor."
Youth Movements to the Poor
A recent visit by Hayes to Wheaton College surfaced about 100 student interviews for InnerCHANGE. Rich kids in their twenties forsaking comfortable lives in the suburbs in order to live among the poor shouldnít be too surprising. Giovanni Bernardone, or Francesco as he was called, was only 25 years old when he deserted his life as a wealthy playboy and began the Franciscan order. Many mission-focused monastic orders were essentially youth movements Ė started by youths, run by youths and perpetuated by youths. Of course, Francis didnít really set out with the intention of founding a monastic order. In fact, he was quite happy living the life of a spoiled rich kid before he experienced profound encounters with God and with the poor
Francis left his comfortable home to live in a broken down chapel after hearing God ask him to "rebuild my house." Soon some of the idealistic and disenfranchised youth of Assisi began to gather around him. They began with the simple quest of reconstructing chapels as broken as they were and ministering to the poorest social strata of Italy Ė mainly lepers.
Young men were not the only ones who found Francisí calling attractive. An 18-year-old girl asked him if she could join. It was from this teenager that the Poor Clares, the female Franciscan order, began.
Funny how a group of youth considered "fringe" could start what would become the greatest organized movement to the poor to come out of the Church. But something very similar is underway among evangelical youth today. At a time when the Church in the West is dwindling in membership and drowning in wealth, there are signs of altruistic passion for the gospel to serve those living at the margins of society.
Word Made Flesh (WMF) is an evangelical order among the poor begun in the late 1990ís. Chris Heuertz, the founder, confesses the order is a collection of broken people. They are also young. The "grandfather" of WMFís work in Romania, David Chronic, is 29. He founded the work in Galati, Romania five years ago when he was 24. But this is the norm for a mission whose members range in age from 22 to 32. Beginning in 1996 in Calcutta, India, Chris, his wife and 6 or 7 others sought simply to serve Christ, one another and the poor Ė in that order. Now with 100 missionaries in eleven cities and nine countries, Chris says they have stopped taking applicants for a season. "We do not view growth as a sign of success," he admits. WMF, however, may not be able to hold back the tide of youth longing for the ideals inherent in this monastic-like evangelical order.
While the medieval monastic obsession with a cloistered, celibate, ascetic experience is not part of the package, intense community is. With such counter-cultural values as obedience, service, brokenness, suffering and humility, WMF communities form around a commitment first to intimacy with Christ, then to the common life, and finally to the poor among whom they live and serve.
The Lost Art of Vow-making
Vows are an oddity in 21st century Western society. We almost never make vows anymore Ė at least not ones we intend to keep. Marriage vows are about all we have left and theyíre not holding up too well. Many youth are yearning for someone to set the bar higher, to call them to uncommon levels of commitment and devotion. InnerCHANGE and Word Made Flesh call their missionaries to embrace very high levels of holiness, community and service. In Godís economy vows like this have always been imperative. And when women or men want to make vows to him, he seems delighted to oblige them.
Becoming a priest in ancient Israel was related to your tribe of birth rather than an individual calling. God, however, gave opportunity for the laity to make solemn vows of devotion and service. It was all about being set apart for a particular purpose. Voluntary ostracism. In Old Testament Israel, the common person could choose to set himself or herself apart through a vow called the Nazirite vow.
If a man or a woman wanted to make a vow and be set apart for the Lord, they were could become a Nazirite, and in the book of Numbers chapter six God prescribed some ways that they might be distinguished not only from the common residents of Israel, but also from the Priestly class. God was giving space to those who wanted to ostracize themselves from society for the sake of making a solemn commitment to him. What is interesting to note is that both men and women could be Nazirites and the nature of the vow and period of the vow was usually up to them. The important thing was that anyone who wanted to be set apart in some sort of devotional way could do so. Apparently this practice did not end with the advent of Christ. Even Paul, along with four other believers, made a solemn vow to God, shaving their heads as the Nazarites would have (Acts 21:23-24).
When Martin Luther deserted the Augustinian order and condemned the making of vows, he may have left the Protestant movement bereft of an important ingredient for spirituality and service for which many youth today thirst. It is, in part, the desire for commitment that is driving young evangelicals to a handful of organizations calling them to high levels of dedication, devotional and mission.
Servant Partners, another evangelical order among the poor, urges their communities to embrace sacrificial living. "We will seek to die to ourselves in all areas of life: finances, possessions, housing, decision-making, and ministry opportunities," states one of the guiding principals for their lifestyle. "Instead of seeking status and honor among our peers, we must look to be servants."
Servant Partners was born in the early 1990ís through the vision of a handful of young InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff who were devoted to pressing university students into Godís heart for the poor in inner-city Los Angeles. Leaving their roles with InterVarsity, Tom Pratt and Will Niewowhner began Servant Partners on the theological foundation laid by New Zealander Viv Grigg, who has been in the business of beginning missionary orders among the poor since the 80ís.
Viv moved into a squatter settlement in Manila, Philippines in the 1970ís, living out a radical form of incarnational mission. He spit out a string of books and articles in the 1980s calling the church to make room for Protestant missionary orders among the urban poor. Vows would play a key role if these servant movements were to be effective. "Workers with [these movements] make covenants to live lifestyles of non-destitute poverty and simplicity for the sake of identification with the poor." (Grigg: 1985) Responding to the question of the historic monastic commitment to celibacy, Grigg goes so far as to call young people to vows of singleness, at least for a season. "The Protestant ethic, in its reaction to an errant Catholicism, coupled with the breakdown of American family structures has moved to an extreme worship of comfortable marriage that ignores the pressing urgency of the times and sacrifices needed to redeem the poor of the earth." (Grigg: 1985)
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has begun to call more if its students to Monastic-like devotion to the poor. InterVarsityís Global Urban Trek places students in slum communities in cities like Calcutta, Buenos Aires, Cairo and Manila for the summer. At the end of the summer, students are invited to stand in response to a sobering call to serve the poorest of the urban poor long-term.
David Von Stroh is one of those Global Urban Trek students to enter long-term service to the poor. Upon graduation from MIT with a degree in urban planning in 2003, David joined Servant Partners and now lives in a slum community in Bangkok, Thailand, serving the poor there. Several of Davidís Global Urban Trek colleagues are lining up to join him.
A strong sense of call to a sacrificial life among the poor has made it possible for missionaries like David Von Stroh to take up residence in a slum community. Though David would hardly call it sacrificial. As he began to embrace Godís call to a life of radical devotion to the poor during his last year or two at MIT, David felt the pressures rising to hedge his bets and double major in something on which he could fall back. None-the-less he kept on track with his urban planning major with hopes to live among the poor. "Even if I never used my major, I could always go live in some low rent, inner city Ďhood, work at McDonaldís, and share Jesus with my neighbors and co-workers. But now I have my dream job!" David admits after joining Servant Partners and moving into a Bangkok slum. Not exactly the profile of every Ivy League graduate.
Islands of Order in a Sea of Chaos
One of the distinguishing characteristics of medieval monastic movements was organization. Thatís why they are called "orders" and they tended to emerge in times of great chaos. They were places for systematization, prioritization and clear regulation. They stood out from the anarchy that surrounded them.
In the 400ís AD the Roman Empire had begun its decline. The roads in Italy fell into such disrepair after the 5th century, that they were not to achieve their same glory again until the 19th century. Thatís why we refer to this period of Europeís history as the Dark Ages. But for at least one of the barbarian tribes overwhelming the Empire, it was an age of enlightenment.
The Celtic people were the barbarian benefactors of the "Dark Ages." They were fierce savages, earning the title "barbarian." Painted blue, screaming in blood-curdling cries, running buck naked, and wielding objects designed to maim, Celtic warriors were terrifying. It must have been a frightening thing to be captured by such a people. For 16-year-old Patrick, it was life changing. But it was his conversion and mission to this tribe of warriors that gave birth to the highly influential Celtic monasteries (Cahill: 1996).
Celtic monasteries were such beacons of light with their orderliness and their love for education and the preservation of knowledge that entire towns grew up around them in much the same way that InnerCHANGE, World Made Flesh and Servant Partners are drawing the poor into their communities. Stories abound of Celtic monks striking out into the woods or shoving off in a small boat and asking God to guide them, only to find themselves months later in some dark corner of France or Scotland or Germany. Their dedication to the advance of Christís Church drew slaves of the darkness into the light of the Kingdom. Children were sent to the great Celtic Abbeys with the hope of lifting families out of their desperate conditions through learning. People admired their dedication to holiness and drive for purity in a world of failing law and growing anarchy. Then again, most mission-driven monastic movements were like that. They sought to plant themselves in some location where evil reigned and become an outpost of the Kingdom of light.
InnerCHANGE, Word Made Flesh and Servant Partners are seeing this centripetal force come to bear in the places where their communities take up residence. Of the 100 missionaries serving with Word Made Flesh, 40 are nationals who have been drawn to their highly committed communities living and serving among the poor. Many are the poor themselves whose lives these young men and women have touched.
As our age becomes marred by social decay, terrorism, ethnic cleansing and failing economies, itís time for another missionizing monastic movement. And if the emerging evangelical youth of the early 21st century are any indication, we may be on the cusp of a fresh expression of this long-standing Christian tradition.
Used by Permission of Scott Bessenecker
© Viv Grigg & Urban Leadership Foundationand other materials © by various contributors & Urban Leadership Foundation, for The Encarnacao Training Commission. Last modified: July 2010