Laying the Foundation

Laying the Foundation

Pictured above: An excavator lies still at the site of Esperanza Health Center’s forthcoming parking structure. Work is well underway at the bank building nearby, the building that Esperanza Health Center will move into in the spring. They’ve now turned to digging huge holes in the ground and preparing to lay the foundations for what will be a parking structure. I’ve stood watching diggers dig, move dirt, rubble and all sorts of debris from the remains of the buildings that once stood in the same spot over ten years ago. It’s strange to survey this liminal space, remembering what was and imagining what will be, even though the space currently houses nothing but machinery and holes. As I’ve watched, I’ve thought about how the process reveals some of the hidden realities of life. First, there’s always more under the surface than you think. Second, it seems true that the weakness or strength of any structure hinges on its foundation. The foundation supports the load of the entire building, keeps it standing when forces of nature come to wreak havoc, and it keeps ground moisture at bay to protect the structure’s integrity. If the foundation fails in any of these areas, the building will sag, putting anyone inside, and structures around it, in danger. The Simple Way has met a lot of immediate needs for folks over the years, but the longer we’ve been here, the more we’ve looked for ways to support neighbors in finding greater stability. This stability comes through access. Access to food, healthcare, safe and affordable housing, and places of belonging. Each of these represents a crucial elements of stability, a foundation upon which neighbors can build a full life. As part of our communal life here in Kensington, we seek to find sustainable ways for neighbors to meet those needs with dignity, a way for them to lay a firm foundation in their lives. Sometimes The Simple Way feels like a construction zone, too. But as I stand here, holding memories of what has been and hopes of what will be, I smile at the small ways we are contributing to the long-term strengthening of our neighborhood.
Balancing Work and Ministry

Balancing Work and Ministry

Mother Teresa once encouraged us that God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful. As a CORE Member of The Simple Way, neighboring is very important to me. But most of the time I feel like I’m failing, priorities falling through the cracks between my finite fingers as if I were desperately trying to hold onto sand. Sometimes I’d rather forget it all and Netflix myself into oblivion. Can you relate?

In my situation, I work full-time at a nearby Christian health center. The work has been deeply meaningful, and also challenging. As a Behavioral Health Consultant, I’ve been able to learn conversational Spanish, accompany patients through life’s difficulties, and pray with others.

At the same time, the job is very emotionally draining and takes up so much of my days. I’m not able to spend as much time with neighbors and friends anymore. It’s like logistical Tetris trying to also fit in spiritual practices, self-care, and prophetic activities to resist systemic sin and injustice.
Whether you’re trying to manage full-time work, parenting, care-taking, chronic illness, a disability, or any other life situation that makes you feel limited, it can seem like you’re never doing enough. Meanwhile, other people appear to have it all together, maintaining a full life while looking flawless doing it, curated by social media.

There’s probably resources you can find that teaches strategies for time management, organization, and other life skills that I haven;t figured out yet. But I sense God beckoning me to turn away from the individualistic, performance-oriented mentality prevalent in our culture so that I can focus on God’s loving presence in my day to day, whether I’m at the clinic or on my block.

By being fully present in the moment, attuned to God’s voice and movements, I can gain clarity on how God is inviting me to join in.

We are not our own, but part of the Body of Christ. In The Message, Romans reads, “Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. Let’s be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”

By being true to our limited, finite selves, we remember that our significance does not come from our individual achievements, but from being lovingly woven into the larger story of God’s redeeming work in this world.

Maybe someday my Google calendar will be perfectly cataloged with color-coordinated blocks of intention. But for now, I’ll be content in remaining open to the invitations that lie in every greeting from a neighbor, each tear shed by a patient at work, and every interaction God meets me with daily.

– Sueihn Lee, CORE Member of The Simple Way

Sharing Food Together

Sharing Food Together

For the past twenty years, The Simple Way has always had some form of food distribution. And we are glad to share food with friends, neighbors, and strangers. In recent years, an ever-increasing number of folks have been lining up in sweltering heat, below-zero cold, and all the in-betweens to receive a bag of food.

Meanwhile, The Simple Way community and organization has experienced transition over the past years. While we’ve continued to share food, we have not been able to be as thoughtful or creative about it as we would’ve liked.

But that changed last month!

As we have found ourselves anew, established a sense of purpose for our current realities, and restored some stability, we have been able to listen to our neighbors, go and visit other organizations, get some training, and think critically about how we want to share food in meaningful ways. We are excited to share that we started a new food cooperative and a food choice pantry this October!

The food cooperative is replicated after Urban Recipe located in Atlanta. We have a small group of neighbors who meet together on a biweekly basis to share their lives, participate in unloading the truck and stocking the shelves in our food pantry, and share food with the group so that each family goes home at least 50 pounds of food. It’s a model that builds relationships and supports food security.

Our food choice pantry is open weekly, and our neighbors are welcome to come in during their appointment time to ‘shop’ for food according to the allocated point total. In our first month since opening, we have filled every slot! Visitors no longer have to wait outside in the elements for over an hour to receive food. They are now able to arrive at their designated time and choose the food their family needs and wants.

These changes have opened more opportunities for us to be with folks in the ways that invite deeper relationships and greater community. It has given space for neighbors to see, listen to, and support each other in beautiful ways. These changes have also given the staff and volunteers encouragement as we work to move toward a greater sense of mutuality.

Thank you for making this work possible with your gifts and donations!

Simple Way Scholars: Introducing Desirae

Simple Way Scholars: Introducing Desirae

At the Simple Way, we love seeing local leaders emerge, people from our community owning and honing their gifts as they take ownership of the neighborhood. This vision propels the Scholars Program, where young people from Philadelphia can attend university with both financial and relational support (like care packages and phone calls!). We have four scholars in the program at a time and work to add a new one each year. The Scholars Program helps these students get books, housing, tuition, and social support necessary to thrive throughout school.

One of our students, Seth Ortiz, graduated this past May! Since he has completed the Scholars Program, we have gladly received Desirae DeJesus as our new 2018 scholar this fall! We caught up with Desirae, who currently attends Eastern University, to hear more about her experiences so far.

“The professors at Eastern develop great relationships with their students and want their students to succeed in life. The community at Eastern is amazing and the atmosphere so peaceful. The people, the family-feel– it all encourages me to become the best person I can possibly be.

To get there, I’m studying Psychology and Pre-Medicine. In 2015, I went on my very first missions trip to Honduras, and I was inspired to help others around the world. Medication is improving every year, and I want to become a part of that process. I love science and people, and what better way to express your love for both science and people than becoming a doctor!

I dream of becoming a pediatric physician in the missionary field or back in Philadelphia. One of my greatest dreams is to create an office on wheels. I want to supply basic needs, like check-ups and vaccinations, for the those in the Philadelphia community who lack health insurance. I believe this dream will become a reality one day.

The most challenging part of school is being away from my family. I miss my mother’s cooking, my father’s jokes, and my siblings’ tall-tales. Even though I am welcomed here, at times I feel out of place because the way my Philadelphia community carries conversation is completely different from Eastern.

But I know this University shapes me for the real world. I am excited to see what it brings for my future.” – Desirae

We couldn’t be more excited for Desirae’s future, either. We’re grateful to welcome her as a Simple Way scholar.

This is OUR Neighborhood

This is OUR Neighborhood

On the last Saturday in August, we threw a big hurrah to end the summer break with our neighbors. And, thanks to many of you, we gave out backpacks full of supplies to help kids prepare for a new school year.

During the event, I found myself at the end of our block managing the entrance to a bouncy house. At one point, there was a group of six kids happily bouncing, a line of 12 kids not so patiently waiting in anticipation and my co-bouncy house bouncer watching the timer for the end of four minutes. As their time expired we helped them out and my son, who was one of the six, exited. He informed me that he wanted to go talk to his mama. I looked down the and block saw her carrying our 1-year-old in a front pack, happily bobbing around. So I told my son where she was, and I watch as he wandered down Potter Street through so many of our neighbors and friends all enjoying this celebration of the end of summer and the start of a new school year. That moment reminds me of how fortunate I am to live here in this community surrounded by neighbors where I can watch my son stroll down the street to find his mama. I don’t have to worry as he disappears into the crowd. This is our neighborhood. This is his community.

Not the opioid epidemic created by the pharmaceutical industry.

Not the trash lying on streets because of an underfunded Public Works Department.

Not the system of oppression and poverty that’s existence is denied by our current administration.

Instead it is six teenagers jumping and laughing in a bounce house like they were seven years old.

A neighborhood block party with dancing, music, and celebration.

Students receiving book bags that give their parents one less thing to worry about.

A community joining together to welcome in the new season.

-Mike Tod-Pearson

God is Doing Something Redemptive and Wild

God is Doing Something Redemptive and Wild

The Simple Way is celebrating 20 years in 2018! We’re inviting some early members to share their reflections on where these 20 years have led them. This month’s thoughts are from Jessica Shoffner.

You’re not in Kansas anymore! is something I heard often when I first moved to Philadelphia. The transition from rural Kansas to Kensington holds so many memories for me. Summer on Potter Street was full of hot days working in the garden and incredible amounts of hospitality. Being The Simple Way’s garden intern in the summer of 2008 was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but the relationships I built with folks from the neighborhood and my housemates made it all worth it.

Finding commonality with people who were also trying to figure out what it means to have an active faith in our current culture was both encouraging and disappointing. This experience was my first big adventure after college, and it’s only gotten more and more wild! God is doing something redemptive and extravagant everywhere. I just found myself in the currents of it here in Kensington.

For me, 2018 marks ten years in Kensington, and I’ve been reflecting with gratitude. It hasn’t been easy, to say the least. People around me are still struggling with addiction, poverty, and homelessness. Violence is still present and possibly even more so with the heavy divisiveness looming over our world.

We are meant to come together, not continue to separate! I am encouraged by the moments of connection, the boundary crossing, and the times of reconciliation. This work starts within myself: confronting my own prejudices, owning my baggage, and understanding the power of my privilege. I am thankful for the beautiful and kind people with whom I get to do this neighborly work.

I’m grateful to have found spaces – big and small – to garden in the neighborhood since my first summer on Potter Street. Currently, we are tending a nine-lot neighborhood farm! We need help protecting our sacred green space, and ask you to please consider partnering with us. When you’ve grown roots into a place, you can feel that gravity by the relationships you’ve built and the pull of their love. Being outside regularly has given me many opportunities to build relationships over the years.

I am also lucky enough to say that my employment is really where many of my passions collide. I’ve been working at Circle Thrift for over nine years! Circle Thrift is a partnership between Circle of Hope church and the Mennonite Central Committee. Creating a neighborhood hub of energy and love takes a lot of work. The staff and customers at the store are really doing it. We encourage each other to know our customers’ names and stories. Sometimes I’ll admit I’m not in the mood to listen to someone, or my patience is just minimal. I have to stop and ask the Holy Spirit to wake up in me or to move from my heart or depths to my outer body and consciousness.

The reality that we need God and not just each other is true. God is working in this kind of alternative economy. The generative business we have together is truly a miracle. Some of my favorite things about Circle Thrift are finding cool knickknacks (and things you need, too!), building community with regular customers, and sharing the proceeds with our neighbors and people around the world!

God is doing something redemptive and wild everywhere. Be present to it.

The Simple Way is You

The Simple Way is You

Above: The Simple Way founders: Joe Strife, Jamie Moffet, Brooke Sexton, Michelle and Michael Brix and Shane Claiborne.

Our 20 Year Anniversary celebration was an evening full of sweet moments. Friends and neighbors who’d once lived among us returned with hugs and high fives! A kid who grew up on the block and now towers over us at 6’7″; Tony Campolo, who was an influential college professor for the founders; our friend and supporter Sister Margaret, an 88-year-old nun who leads a small recovery community; and five of the six founders were some of those in attendance.

As I welcomed people and wandered among the guests, I saw folks laughing and reminiscing, connecting, and noticing changes in each other and in our work on the corner. There were people who were around twenty years ago, and people who we’d just met, celebrating with songs, stories, and hot dogs! It was beautiful.

Shane dug through a treasure trove of mementos and found photos, clippings, old protest signs, the old house meeting minutes, and other house items to form a museum of sorts. It was fun to watch former house residents look back and remember.

As the current director of the organization, I was reminded that The Simple Way is not any one thing–it’s all the things and all the people. And while there is a physical building and day-to-day life happening here in Kensington, The Simple Way is living and breathing in everyone that was there. And it’s present in you.

The Simple Way is love. It’s generosity and justice. It’s advocacy, empowerment, kindness, and creativity. It’s hard work, grace, and second chances. It is both hope and lament.

As the evening’s events ended, I left with a deep gratitude for what has been and a big yes in my heart for what is to come. Celebrating the first twenty and looking ahead for the next twenty.

– Caz Tod-Pearson, Executive Director

Let Everything Happen To You

Let Everything Happen To You

I was around when the Spirit was pulling those who would become founders of The Simple Way together. It was 1995, and more than ten homeless families had taken over a closed church in North Philadelphia as winter approached as a place to live. The juxtaposition of coming Christian celebrations; available, vacant space unused by the Church; and families with small children seeking shelter was haunting. No one could shake the sense that Jesus was at everyone’s shoulder, watching what the Gospel meant to those of us who said we followed it. No one could forget the refugee child born in a stable because his family was not given shelter.

Especially some students at Eastern College who kept coming in to support, dwell with, and provision these families. When they graduated, six of them would found The Simple Way as a ministry of presence in one beautiful neighborhood that had its struggles.

But it was almost 12 years before I joined that group. I came to help envision and to edit CONSPIRE! magazine. We saw all the amazing intentional Christian communities springing up in different places and imagined a publication that would tell stories of what we were learning, connect some of these communities, and empower people in the vocation of building community.

I loved the work, very similar in vision to the writing work I had done at The Other Side magazine for 20 years prior. I loved the neighborhood also. But after five years, I realized it was time to launch a new dream, which became the Vine and Fig Tree community. Located in my own Germantown/Nicetown neighborhood, where I have lived for 30 years, it was also an intentional faith community based on a cohousing model, where five families (16 people) share one property, each family in their own unit.

Our commitments are environmental and land-living, regular prayer, celebration, hospitality, and supporting each other as we work in the world for justice. At this time, we are half adults and half kids. We have a loose common life together and every year, things shift. Our hope is to model an affordable housing situation that supports people over time, as well as to experiment with different models of community that might accommodate families as easily as individuals.

We are only three years in now, and I know that the dance of the Spirit has endless permutations. This current form will also shift. Sometimes this is unsettling. As for most of us, change is sometimes disconcerting to me. The wonderful thing is this: God gives each of us vision. God gives each of us a passion for justice. If, through the power of the Spirit, we can hold all things lightly; if we can offer up even our most precious thing ”security, family, ego” to God, anything can happen. So travel lightly, for the long haul.

I love this end of a poem by German poet Ranier Maria Rilke:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

May we all let everything happen to us.

– Dee Dee Risher

Love is a match in Wisdom

Love is a match in Wisdom

At a recent Passover Seder, someone said that love means embracing complexity. I didn’t think that was true 20 years ago.

I thought (as The Simple Way name suggests) that love was simple. You just love.

When we started The Simple Way, I could see the path clearly. We would love. We would love each other, our neighbors, our enemies. When things were hard, we would love more. When we were hurt or vulnerable, we would love like Jesus loved and trust in the resurrection.

One of our dearest friends from those early years passed away recently. Casey was the perfect example of a good man addicted to heroin. I can’t count the number of times he cleaned the kitchen when I was exhausted from a day of cooking for whoever had come to the door.

Sitting on the steps, we would talk as much of my struggles and relationships as we would his. We drove him to countless rehab facilities and welcomed him back over and over again. We visited him in jail and went with him to identify his wife’s body at the coroner’s office. He held me when I cried, and he stole the Cuisinart my parents had given me for Christmas.

It was complex.

After a couple of years at The Simple Way, I would have told you that life and love were simple but hard. Now, I tend to think they are complex because we are.

I don’t think my young adult self was wrong. I’m thankful for the open trust she had, the community that held her up, and the love she was able to give and receive. But it wasn’t until I embraced the messiness, the unfairness, the ugliness, and the bittersweetness of loving people that I was able to actually do it.

Casey got out. He got clean. He moved away and got a job. Then, he reunited with his daughter and married again. Every morning, he would get on Facebook and greet the day and his friends with joy.

I’m thankful we shared our lives together for a season or two. Grateful he stole things from me and that he helped me. He taught me love does not grow by being subservient to the idea but by engaging with the person. He taught me how to light a match in a windstorm.

Learning to Be a Neighbor

Learning to Be a Neighbor

Seventeen and a half years ago, my wife Lara and I, along with our 11-month-old baby, moved into The Simple Way neighborhood. As we drove down Westmoreland with dreams of intentional community and a desire to change the world, we couldn’t get down the block. It was blockaded as a result of a drug bust.

I’ll never forget my father-in-law turning toward me and asking, Does this always happen?

I replied, Who knows? I’ve never lived here before!

Immediately upon our arrival, I took our toddler on walks in the neighborhood, and we met many people. I quickly learned that the greatest security system you can have in the hood is to get to know your neighbors!

As we invested in the neighborhood, we developed relationships with people in our church and in the community. The romanticism of our move to the city and our life in intentional community quickly faded. But those first couple years with The Simple Way stretched us, and we learned the importance of being a neighbor.

Long story short, my wife Lara is now a community health nurse visiting at-risk moms and babies in Kensington and Frankford neighborhoods. And I am working with Timoteo Sports, a mentoring program in the neighborhood. Our toddler is now an 18-year-old woman in her final year of high school. And we have also been raising her 15 and 11-year-old sisters.

The greatest joy we have is to see the values our children hold as a result of living in Philly. To see our kids have a heart for justice and to see them embrace people different from themselves. We are grateful for our time with The Simple Way and our time in Philly.

Chris Lahr