Shane Claiborne recalls the seemingly ironic way his intentional Christian community The Simple Way was born in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood 17 years ago.
“Our community was born out of the experience where homeless families were being evicted from an abandoned cathedral in 1995,” said Claiborne, a best-selling Christian author and speaker who has now brought The Fuller Center for Housing into the city. “That was the catalyst for what started our community, so we’ve been concerned about housing from the beginning.”
Though The Simple Way has worked ever since to help people obtain decent homes in the Philadelphia neighborhood, it wasn’t until September when Claiborne came to speak at the Clarence Jordan Symposium in Americus, Ga., that he finally found the program to do it most effectively.
Already an admirer of Jordan and Fuller Center founder Millard Fuller, Claiborne was well aware of the Christian-based affordable housing movement that sprang from seeds the men planted decades ago at Koinonia Farm. But while waiting for a pre-Symposium chat with former President Jimmy Carter, he learned more details about The Fuller Center’s work from Symposium chairman Kirk Lyman-Barner, The Fuller Center’s Director of U.S. Field Operations.
Lyman-Barner explained that his parents lived in the similar Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia and that he understood the problems Claiborne works to address in Kensington. And as Lyman-Barner talked about The Fuller Center’s work and the Save a House/Make a Home initiative that turns vacant properties into homes once again, seeds Jordan and Fuller planted at Koinonia were about to sprout — decades later and 950 miles away. Claiborne decided to invite The Fuller Center into his community and is the first president of the Simple Homes Fuller Center for Housing.
“Even the language that y’all use is the same language that we use,” said Claiborne, whose mission work has taken him from the dirt roads of his native Tennessee to the filthy streets of Calcutta to work alongside Mother Teresa and everywhere in between. “We’ve said that building a house isn’t the same as building a home. The language of ‘building a better world one house at a time’ or one home at a time really resonates with us. We talk a lot up here about practicing resurrection and bringing dead things to life and making ugly things beautiful. That’s a big part of what we’ve been doing over the years.”
The way Save a House/Make a Home makes use of vacant properties clearly struck a chord with The Simple Way.
“One of the things that we talk about and value in our core commitments is moving into the abandoned spaces, so almost all of our homes were formerly abandoned or drug homes, and our gardens used to be vacant lots,” Claiborne said. “That’s why this is such a natural friendship.”
Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell sees The Simple Way and The Fuller Center as a kindred spirit uniquely primed to maximize the Save a House/Make a Home initiative and to involve churches and faith groups in the work.
“Our partnership with The Simple Way is like finding a sibling we were separated from at birth,” Snell said. “The Fuller Center is more a collaboration of like-minded folks than an organization, and the philosophies we share with The Simple Way are profound — it’s a providential confluence.
“We are both committed to making houses into homes and to retaining the dignity of those we work with,” Snell added. “We are both committed to putting the gospel into action. And we both believe that the work we do manifests itself in the relationships we create, not just in the houses we restore.”
JUST ENOUGH STRUCTURE
One of the reasons The Fuller Center for Housing does not give away homes is to help people retain their dignity as full partners in the process. And by paying zero-percent, no-profit mortgages that go into a fund to help future homeowner families, they get the greater blessing of being able to give to others. It’s a “hand-up instead of a handout” method that walks a fine line, Claiborne said.
“We’ve got to figure out what God’s Kingdom coming into our neighborhood looks like,” Claiborne said. “And it looks like people having dignity and being able to contribute to the common good. That’s what we believe. I’ve written pretty critically about brokerage where we just broker services or broker houses or resources, and if it’s not done out of relationship and in a dignified, life-giving way, then it’s still empty.”
Not only is The Simple Way motivated to put Save a House/Make a Home into action, but the city of Philadelphia itself is fertile ground for such a needed program. Claiborne said there are more vacant homes (20,000) in Philadelphia than there are homeless people in the city. The Simple Way has received donation of vacant homes in the past and already has secured a foreclosed home and identified a partner family for its first Save a House/Make a Home project.
What The Simple Way has lacked, however, was a structure. Part of that came from a reluctance to put red tape around their relationships with people in their neighborhood and city. The Fuller Center offers a tested vehicle for delivering a housing program with just enough structure and plenty of love.
“We’ve found it very tricky to be friends and landlords at the same time,” Claiborne said. “So that’s where I think The Fuller Center can help us create a good process for creating homes for friends here in the neighborhood where the structures for that are not the enemy. The world needs structure, and the neighborhood needs stability. And there’s a place for processes in that.”
And being the accomplished writer and orator he is, Claiborne metaphorically explains the complicated quest for proper structure in — naturally — a simple way:
“I describe it as like the trellises of a garden,” he said. “If you don’t have some structure, then your tomato plants just rot on the ground. But if you have too much structure and bureaucracy, it’s like having too much trellis and you’re gonna suffocate the tomato plants rather than free them up.
“So that’s what I look forward to with the Simple Homes, figuring out what’s enough structure what’s enough to get people into a stable, healthy home and neither have the bureaucracy be our savior or our enemy but to use it to try to free people up to the life God has for them.”
Claiborne recently co-authored a book called “Red Letter Revolution” with the subtitle “What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said.” It’s a title designed to be provocative but promote the direct teachings of Jesus found in His own words, which in 1899 began being printed in red in many Bibles produced. Claiborne strives to follow those red-letter teachings in everything he does, in an effort to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
On page 184 of “Red Letter Revolution,” which he co-authored with well-known Christian author, educator and commentator Tony Campolo, Claiborne writes of one way of going about just that:
Our goal is to seek first the kingdom of God. What would it look like if Jesus were in charge of my block, of our city, of our country, our world? That’s what we get to imagine when we dream dreams of the kingdom on earth.
For Claiborne and many others, bringing about the kingdom of God on earth is easier when you break it down neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, house by house and person by person. But whatever the method, love is at the core.
“We like the idea of let’s do one house, one family at a time, he said. “Scriptures say we can sell everything we have and give it to the poor, but if they don’t have love, it’s nothing. So our motto around here is let’s do small things with great love.
“The 2,000 verses that talk about how God cares for the poor inspire us every day to keep doing it,” he added of his biblical inspiration. “So we know without a doubt that this is the work of God and a way that we can flesh out the good news and not just speak it with our mouths but embody it in our community.”
Of course, “Red Letter Revolution” co-author Campolo has an even longer association with The Fuller Center. Campolo was a longtime friend of Millard Fuller and spoke at the memorial service for Fuller in 2009; and he wrote the afterward for Fuller’s posthumously published autobiography about his early days in the affordable housing movement, “Beyond the American Dream.” Campolo and Claiborne engage in lively back-and-forth discussion throughout “Red Letter Revolution” and are good friends. Being so closely associated with Campolo would be more than enough to show Claiborne is a good fit to join The Fuller Center. But Lyman-Barner saw that with his own eyes during a November stop in Philadelphia on his way to survey Hurricane Sandy damage in New Jersey.
“When we walked down Potter Street where the Simple Homes Fuller Center has already secured a foreclosed house and identified a prospective homeowner family, I watched the people of the neighborhood stop and greet Shane and how he was truly interested in what was going on in their lives,” Lyman-Barner said. “And I met members of The Simple Way community, beginning with morning devotions in which we read from a book Shane co-authored with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called ‘Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals’ that beings with the story of Koinonia Farm.
“I’m certain that Clarence Jordan and Millard Fuller are absolutely looking down and smiling with great joy on this new partnership and effort to carry on the vision of the Fund for Humanity in Philadelphia.”
VIDEO: Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo discuss "Red Letter Revolution":