Maybe that’s not the kind of excuse you’d expect to hear coming from a bestselling author and the keynote speaker for the finale of Lake Junaluska’s summer youth series, but despite a 50,000-person following on Facebook, Claiborne comes across as anything but a high-powered public figure. Though he’s lived in Philadelphia for the past couple decades, the Maryville, Tenn. native still retains a bit of a mountain drawl, and there’s not a trace of Armani about him. He came to the Lake to talk about Christian unity and community, so his attitude is more focused on breaking down barriers than throwing up a façade.
“I’ve probably got a dozen neighbors that have keys to my house,” he said, “and they’re staying in it while I’m gone down here.”
Claiborne’s neighbors are people who call an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia named Kensington home. They range from folks who scratch out a living on the streets to doctors or lawyers who came to live there on purpose. But they’re all part of an experiment called the Simple Way, something Claiborne started back in 1995. It’s one group’s interpretation of what the kind of church modeled in the New Testament might look like in today’s world.
“We’ve got about 10 houses within walking distance of each other,” Claiborne said. “We all are building gardens and a neighborhood that we’re proud of together.”
The idea, aptly enough, is simple: to build a way of life that trades independence for community, to bring homeless people and lettered post-grads together around the same table, to discover the gift inside each person and use that gift — joyfully — to the glory of God.
“Not only is it something anybody can do, it’s something that we’re made with a desire and an imagination for,” Claiborne said.
Junaluska invited Claiborne to share that desire with the 270 teenagers who flocked to campus for the last of its series of summer youth events, bringing total summer attendance to 1,400. Though each weekend featured a different speaker, all centered on the same theme: “One Bread, One Body.” The theme points to the unity that Christians seek to achieve, and the series seeks to help teens strive for that unity through service, worship and community.
“It’s a beautiful thing that Jesus’ longest prayer in the gospel of John was that we would be one as God is one, and then you look at the church and we’ve got over 35,000 denominations,” Claiborne said.
Beyond the American dream
Claiborne’s call is for the church to get back to looking like Jesus intended it, rather than dividing forces based on trivial matters of tradition or past wrongs. And Jesus’ intention, Claiborne said, was for the church to be a group of people marked by their love for others — regardless of whether the “other” is a starving child across the world, a close friend or a homeless drug addict.
The author doesn’t think that’s something that necessarily fits into the typical shape of life in the United States.
“I’m not sure that you do it as a member of middle-class America,” he said. “I think we do it as a member of God’s holy counter-culture that’s trying to establish patterns of living different than the American dream.”
Living out the gospel requires something simpler than the American dream of job, house, property and car but meatier than simplicity for simplicity’s sake, Claiborne said. It’s more about looking at everything from the perspective of love.
For instance, he said, Oxfam International recently released a report showing that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as its 3.5 billion poorest. He’s careful to say that guilt doesn’t get anyone anywhere — it certainly doesn’t unlock the fullness of life that God intends for his people — but he also doesn’t believe that’s the kind of statistic that a Christian can read without doing some soul-searching.
“Love comes with responsibility, so to hold our possessions loosely is kind of a natural move,” he said.
Hope for the new generation
That’s an idea that Lake Junaluska made it a point to drive home to the youth this summer. The weekend programs were about more than speakers, songs and games. As part of the itinerary, the youth packed a total of 50,000 meals for the international hunger relief agency Stop Hunger Now — with money they raised themselves.
“They did all kinds of little fundraisers within the event, from selling lemonades to each other to going out in the community and talking about Stop Hunger now,” said Jennifer Martin, director of program ministries. “They just did an amazing job of coming up with a huge amount of money from just pocket change, basically.”
Each meal cost 25 cents, meaning the students raised more than $12,000 over the course of the summer. At the Friday night worship session last week, groups finalized their fundraiser plans, with ideas including a face-painting booth and an auction for church van cleaning services. The van cleaning proved a high-demand item, netting $45 after a fierce bidding war.
“We take everything we have for granted. We really do,” said Sergio Bonillia, 14, who came with a group from Homer, Ga. “Countries around the world have nothing, and we have everything. We waste. It inspired me, I guess, to help.”
Though Claiborne can’t help but be upset by economic inequality, as well as social divisions and wars within the church, he sees hope in the future of a church led by young Christians like Bonillia.
But the full process, Claiborne said, truly is a process, because imitating Jesus is more than donating to charity or having scripture quotes always at the ready. When Claiborne reads the New Testament, he sees a call to lay down independence and individual ownership and learn to live as part of other people’s lives.
“I think that independence is an American value, but it’s not a gospel value,” he said.
Reorienting life to minimize the cost — financial and logistical — of maintaining an independent life is an important step toward freeing up the time and money to make others the priority of one’s life, Claiborne said. It’s not easy, but he sees the church moving in a positive direction.
“I’m really hopeful, though, because I think that there is a new generation in the church that wants a Christianity that looks like Jesus again, and realizes that some of what has come to characterize even Christianity has not always represented Jesus that way,” he said.
“It’s not a coincidence at all,” he added, “that this worship-filled gathering at Lake Junaluska has also packed over 50,000 meals for people around the world.”
While that term “reorienting life” sounds intimidating, the beginning doesn’t have to be anything huge, Claiborne said. Just like a couch potato deciding to run a marathon, the first steps are small ones designed to strengthen those atrophied muscles for the ultimate goal. Something small, like having one shared meal a week with friends and family, can lead to something bigger, like a cul-de-sac of neighbors going in for a jointly owned lawnmower, which can lead to something even bigger, like a family opening its spare bedroom for a homeless person or taking in an unwanted baby.
“If every Christian home would take in a stranger, we would end the problem of homelessness overnight,” Claiborne said.
A kingdom of creativity
But Claiborne’s isn’t a rules, regs and duty-bound kind of innovation. Rather, his vision of the kingdom of God is about creativity, people using their strengths and assets to make something beautiful. To that end, he applauds such solutions as the local effort to transform an old prison in Hazelwood into a center for feeding, housing and restoring hurting people.
“To have imagination to say we’re going to do stuff like we’re doing in the prison I think is beautiful, especially when it’s from faith-filled community work,” Claiborne said.
To boil it down, Claiborne said, being a Christian is about recognizing the value in each person, no matter what their past, as someone God created and died for. And from there, it’s about each person using his or her strengths and assets to love courageously. That’s what Claiborne and his neighbors have going on at the Simple Way, and that’s the kind of joy he’d like to see spring up in Christian communities worldwide.
“When I look at it, it’s so beautiful because they’ve got their own unique part in the symphony of what God’s doing,” Claiborne said, “but the hope is that we’re all playing the same song.”