We hang out with kids and help them with homework in our living room, and jump in open fire hydrants on hot summer days. We share food with folks who need it...Folks drop in all day to say hi, have a safe place to cry, or get some water or a blanket. Sometimes we turn people away, or play Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who answers the door on tired days. We run a community store out of our house. We call it the Gathering, and neighbors can come in and fill a grocery bag with clothes for a dollar or find a couch, a bed, or a refrigerator. Sometimes people donate beautiful things for us to share with our neighbors; other times they donate their used toothbrushes.
We reclaim abandoned lots and make gardens amid the concrete wreckage around us. We plant flowers inside old TV screens and computer monitors on our roof. We see our friends waste away from drug addiction, and on a good day, someone is set free. We see police scare people, and on a good day, we find an officer who will play wiffleball with his billy club...[We] mourn the two people who died in this property...We try to make ugly things beautiful and to make murals. Instead of violence, we learn imagination and sharing. We share life with our neighbors and try to take care of each other. We hang out in the streets. We get fined for distributing food. We go to jail for sleeping under the stars. [My emphases]This is part of Claiborne's recitation of "an average day" at Simple Way, the community house he's a part of in Philadelphia. The book is full of passages like this. He describes miracles to which he's been witness and then he recounts spending the summer in Calcutta working in Khalighat. He recounts one night when he and some friends sent a demon in the form of a little old grandmotherly type skittering from them in shrieking horror by humming "an old worship tune." Then he describes the patient, gentle, "careful" way he dresses a leper's wounds in Khalighat, and is rewarded with "Namaste." Of course he has to add that he whispers back, "Jesus."
Perhaps you see why this book troubles me. It's the mix of the true--the tired days when they turn people away, the friends dying, the used toothbrushes--with the stuff in there because the book is published by Zondervan--the miracles, the shrieking demons, whispering Jesus' name. I am having a great deal of difficulty from page to page determining whether to toss the book far away from me or to keep reading.
What is probably most troubling to me is that I suspect this is Claiborne being true to himself, this mix of the worst stereotypes and heartfelt experience. It is a self-image mirrored by both the photos inside the back covers where he is presented as a willowy, do-ragged, barefoot, geeky white boy and on the Simple Way's website where the simple community is composed of Boards of Directors and Chairs and Controllers and Claiborne even has an assistant. It leads me to uncharitably point out that Jesus didn't have an Executive Director. But to be fair Jesus wasn't operating a 501(c)3 either.