Cross-cultural Urban Monasticism

I’m not really sure what this term means, but I think it’s supposed to be part of the emergent church movement or something. Anyway it doesn’t really matter, because I’m forming some ideas on what it might mean in a cross-cultural context.

I have, in my mind, the image of a traditional “monk,” someone that commits himself to celibacy and being set apart from the world for an extended period of time, in order to devote himself to the study of Scripture, prayer, fasting, works of mercy, service to the poor, etc… Traditionally, this happened in a monastery, and with a community of other like-minded folk.

Things seem a little more different nowadays. This type of experience might happen to some degree during college or seminary, or a few months or years on permafarm. There are some approximations we have. Let me combine a few of these to incorporate ideas of “urban monasticism,” “cross-cultural experience,” “study of scripture,” and most uniquely “simplicity.”

The idea is simple. I’ve been designing in my head a “plan” for living in an urban slum. Let me first throw out a few explanations as to why this would work, and also… ways in which it could not be pretentious.

Firstly, and most importantly, the ideal transition into urban poverty is invitation by the community. If you don’t have anything to offer, or if you aren’t wanted there, or if its conceivable that you might actually bring danger or threat to the community you move into… better think twice. Most likely an unwise move. However, if you know people in the community and can move in based on relationships… you might be onto something unique, not just by defying cultural or class barriers, but also in that this is an invitation that is personal and specific. Even better, if you are able to move in with family, this is an unmatched opportunity.

Secondly, as inferred above, relocating to an urban slum can be an incarnational critique of generally held notions of poverty, class, race, ethnicity, and security. In my mind, this is probably the greatest barrier an “urban pilgrim” is up against. Such a move makes absolutely no sense (I dispute this, it actually does make sense and I’m trying to illustrate that, but at face value it is extremely offensive to the dominant consciousness of general society. Let’s just put it this way – if anything goes wrong and it turns out God was not the motivating factor behind the move, there will be lots of people saying “I knew this would happen,” and far more thinking it). But it does make sense, if you actually feel some sort of reverse oppression from the objectifying nature of class and ethnic divisions, if you feel trapped in the complexity of overabundance and yearn for simplicity, if you feel isolated in a comfortable suburban neighborhood  I will cover this in more detail under the simplicity section, because I truly do believe there are rational/psychological/scientific/religious cause-and-effect reasons one might decide to breach this gap.

But I divert from the point, and that is that in a very real and consecrated way it is possible to think of relocation into urban poverty as an act of nonviolent protest against said evil. This is a hazy concept that, as mentioned above, teeters on the ledge of pretentiousness, but I only wish to suggest that this type of monasticism can be done authentically in obedience to the call to follow Christ. And I wish to explain how it might be done. And of course, I believe that it should be done – more often than it is, but again, it is by no means God’s call for everyone.

How, exactly, does relocation to the fringes of urban settings critique issues of inequality and injustice? How exactly can it be seen as a compassionate response to poverty and oppression? Especially since according to the design I am proposing, there is little “alleviation” brought to the community, which is the traditional method of working for the poor. The focus is shifted from what can be done for the marginalized sectors of society to what can be done with them. This is a good question… an important question, to identify concrete ways in which this type of commitment benefits the community. For now I will leave open for the time being to tackle in a following post. In my mind this “incarnational” approach, as missiology or christology might phrase it, makes a lot of sense, but at the moment I can’t think of practical, down-to-earth ways of defending it.

For one thing, this can be seen as a particular type of relief work. This isn’t disaster relief in the sense that it’s an immediate, urgent, targeted, and sudden response to a natural disaster (like a hurricane). But it is a response against structures and designs that are processes, mindsets, and historical-structural anchors that are woven inextricably into the fabric of society and culture. These sorts of threats are not developed overnight, but gradually over decades or centuries. And thus, the solutions are often not overnight patches. Poverty alleviation and social justice cannot be stinger operations. It can’t be an in and out operation, or a quick band-aid stuck on decades of structural violence. Solutions must be prepared to invest inordinate amounts of time. Money and force can’t be the main tools used to fight these structures, because both are quick solutions to immediate problems, necessary in some situations but not in the ones we’re discussing. Neither money nor war will solve the problems of violence, inequality, and poverty our world faces.

As I briefly touched on above, there are a slew of reasons such a transition might possibly be reasonable for the individual or small team relocating to an urban slum. I actually believe in a number of ways this is advantageous. To explain this, let me analyze more closely commonly held assumptions about security, comfort, psychological well-being, and money.

First of all, let’s look at the benefits this approach brings to “security.” The idea is to go in living humbly and simply, taking nothing that would draw attention to your presence or that you are concerned about loosing. This rules out most technology. But you could take specialized equipment that requires specialized training – like well-digging equipment, for instance, but the idea is take nothing that will be worth stealing or threatening you for. There are two ways to be safe – build up more protection, or carry have nothing to lose. Where you’re planning to live, it is not likely people will go out of their way to sneak into your neighborhood from the outside and rob you. For example, in international urban areas there are often richer areas that are targets for burglary. Living in a poor barrio will keep you from being in a targeted area for outside break-in. However, if you start accruing wealth and people in the community notice you’re getting ahead and not sharing, you might begin to fear your community – not the idea here. Pour all your development into shared spaces, like schools, churches, parks, a community meeting room, a public computer lab, etc… Not only will you personally have less to loose, but it’s likely the community will begin to catch on that you aren’t there to build yourself up, but the community.

The topics of psychological well-being and comfort are a little more complex. Psychologically, it is assumed that the urban monk is seeking refuge from the oppressive burden of unmanageable choice and complexity. I’m assuming here that the discipline of simplicity is like a deep breath of fragrant clean air, and it is one of the key personal motivations behind the transition.

I constantly find my life too busy, too cluttered, and that extends to where I live. At one point I considered living in a monastery for several months, to bring virtually nothing and focus on thinking, praying, writing, reading, and corporate worship. I never did it, but the first time I spent the night with a family in the slum, I experienced a similar experience. I prepared myself for that night with a completely different mindset, by shedding off all unnecessary burdens and just taking what was needed. I felt like David going to fight Goliath, rejecting the clunky king’s armor and picking out 5 small stones – only what was necessary. I carefully and deliberately selected a handful of coins with which I was prepared to do magic tricks, and went with little else. In that manner I went down completely prepared – with nearly nothing.

I had a similar experience when coming to Costa Rica, when I decided to prepare myself not by thinking “What might I need?” But instead I asked myself – “what will help me build relationships with people, develop a love for the land, continue my walk with the Lord, and give me peace of mind?” My packing list was considerably simplified, and arriving in this manner also caused me to start more conversations with others to find where things I needed were. The point is, simplicity is something to work toward, and something blatantly baffling and absurd to dominant Western thinking. One must think more of selective dependence rather than complete independence. Relocating to a slum area can be an “opportunity” or “excuse” to purge and consecrate oneself and get rid of all the clutter holding us back. (There are a few hybrid solutions to this, such as moving or donating one’s possessions to a shared place – a church, a school, an office, etc…) Simplicity will make you bored with isolation. Things like iPods, laptops, etc… seem to lure us into spending time alone and away from everyone. On one hand, I can’t begin to express how important (especially in an urban slum) it is to have a way to relax and have personal time – the concept and possibility of this is nearly nonexistent. This is another area which needs development and refining – how can one cultivate “me-time” in such a setting. Although – is it any more difficult to get alone time in an urban slum than it is in corporate culture with cellphones, messenger, e-mail, pagers, etc…? How often do we really get away time anyway?

Comfort and health is a big one. It’s important for the community you live in and for your own well-being that you develop an almost regimental health and fitness plan. Urban slums are often located in environmentally hazardous situations, places no one else chooses to live, but where the marginalized are swept out of sight. You have to become the spitting image of healthiness before exposing your immune system to unfamiliar foods, germs, air quality, etc… It is sometimes argued that there are environmental factors that can hinder one’s mental alertness, physical performance, psychological well-being, factors common in the area you might be moving to. Is it near a polluted river, a trash dump, poor sewage treatment, dangerous electrical wiring, unstable construction, a place with landslides, fires, or earthquakes, etc…? Put yourself through boot camp and a regimental diet to whip your physical and mental body into shape before getting into anything like this. And try to find ways to continue those practices when you relocate.

Also be conscientious about food, nutrition, cleanliness, and hygiene. In another undefended generalization, people living in urban fringes often have access to food – but not enough time or education to prepare food properly and feed their families nutritiously, causing now a problem with heart disease, mental problems, and diabetes in urban slums. Don’t risk your health; the community doesn’t want just another poor, sick person they gotta take care of.

And money. This is a big one. And complicated. I don’t claim to have any fixed answers on these issues, but just thought-raising topics I think might be important to think about when considering this type of life.

Missions work has changed drastically, and many decisions are not based on love or compassion or even charity or a sense of penance and guilt, but are driven more by issues of money and cost-effectiveness, sometimes even greed, competition, and some twisted sense of feeling one merits a comfort-filled, pain-free, blessed life for choosing to serve the Lord. The market and availability of donations is used to determine whether something should or should not be done.

Urban monasticism offers a few ways to counter this… but each situation is different. If you are starting out independent, design a budget and try to stick to it (but do try to include safety nets for things like medical issues and travel – again, try not to be a burden on the community). If you are supported as a full-time missionary or minister, create a budget for living based on what people in your community make, and be creative if you are left over with an inordinate amount of money to deal with. Ideas of things to do with the excess?

  • Practice irrational generosity.
  • Save it and invest it, preparing to send someone to college or invest in a future community project.
  • You might decide to resist the urge, because it will be strong, to pour all your money into the needs that you are faced with daily, and you might be selective in choosing one or two local “investments.” Or, you might completely give in to a compassionate response to give all you have to the poor and follow Christ – this may not be the command for all, but it is certainly the command for some. Blessed be that person and may I continually learn from her generosity.
  • If you are a missionary, you will likely have an office. And if you live in a poor area, especially an immigrant shantytown, you will find that a large portion of the community works hard – probably way harder than you or any other missionary you know. Learn from this, and to some degree do the same. Bus into work each morning, and come back at night. Your life is still anchored is still anchored in the community, and you can perform your mission requirements from 8-5 in the office, just make sure they are specific and clear on what is expected of you. Although an employer shouldn’t really have any influence on what happens outside of the workplace as long as it doesn’t affect your work performance, a mission agency will certainly try to stick its nose into that. Depending on your missions agency, mixing organizational interests with your living situation may be to your advantage or not. In missions work, it’s practically inescapable, so keep this in mind.

Hopefully these thoughts are helpful in forming a pathway to cross-cultural urban monasticism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *