I’m a journalist with experience reporting all over Chicago, so it wasn’t unusual for me to send up a few prayers as I boarded Philadelphia’s public transit system on my way to interview author/activist/peacemaker Shane Claiborne at his nonprofit, “The Simple Way,” in North Philadelphia. I tried to keep facts like “Philadelphia is one of the most violent cities in America” and “there have been over 100 homicides this year” out of my mind as I kept a kung-fu grip on my Jansport backpack holding over $1,000 worth of recording equipment.
“It’s okay to be scared, but fear is different. Fear is when we let being scared prevent us from doing what love requires of us.” –Mairead Maguire
Shane quoted Mairead and several other wise women and leaders during our two hours strolling the streets of North Philly together Saturday afternoon. As we dodged empty bags of chips, candy wrappers, pop cans, and plastic bottles on the way to the Simple Way’s neighborhood headquarters, he was greeted by over a dozen community members via verbal “hellos,” head nods, car honks, and “hola!”s. He introduced me to more people than I could remember names, and we even helped a woman find her lost cat. All that to say, his humility and confidence in the Gospel were inspiring and convicting–I never would have known he’s done crazy things like spend 10 weeks with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, been on peace committees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and been arrested for “disorderly conduct” while sleeping out in a Philadelphia park if I hadn’t stalked him online before our physical meeting (if you haven’t already, check out his best-selling book, The Irresistible Revolution, or read about “the New Monasticism” movement he helped launch).
“It’s okay to be scared – the world is a pretty scary place,” Shane told me. “But love drives away fear so we can live with the courage that comes from our faith and from our community. When we live with courageous people, it makes us more courageous, and when we live with timid people, it makes us more timid.”
As we walked around the triangle the Simple Way inhabits at the intersection of Potter, Westmoreland, and H Streets, I took in the sights, smells, and impressions of the inner city, and thought about the Simple Way’s impact on the surrounding area: the nonprofit hosts two public parks, a community garden, thriving after-school tutoring programs, a gardening project, flag football league, and a food bank–all in addition to daily morning prayer, evening prayer once a week, and a weekly community Bible study. Plus an affordable housing project called “Simple Homes” (taking abandoned/burned out properties and flipping them for no profit as affordable housing on the block).
“It’s like you’re planting the Garden of Eden in the middle of Philadelphia,” a neighbor said to Shane.
“That’s what we’re trying to accomplish — that’s why we do what we do,” Shane said.
His connection to Chicago? He interned with Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington (he’s speaking at Willow Creek North Shore Tuesday night), and took some courses at Wheaton College (my alma mater). Here’s a glimpse into my time with him, his wife Katie (who he started ‘dating’ during a temporary vow of singleness he took while studying with a monk that was broken after a long exchange of Romeo-and-Juliet-esque correspondence with his beloved), and their dog, Bella, in inner city Philly: they have pet rabbits (“We use their poop as compost for our garden”), worms (“He talks to them every day,” Katie says), and a greenhouse that operates on solar power and “Aquaponics,” housing thyme, asparagus, carrrots, and over 1,000 tilapia.
“Come back and visit us again, you hear? Stay a bit longer next time!” Katie said.
Until then, I’ll be writing up a story about Shane, Katie, and the Simple Way for Today’s Christian Woman, and will be praying for the courage to stir up some divine mischief–the kind that Shane encourages wholeheartedly.