Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interview with Mulberry House

The following is an interview conducted by Lyndsey Gvora, for Cedars, the student newspaper of Cedarville University.

By Lyndsey Gvora

When Cedars spoke to Jack Legg in September of 2008 about planting an intentional living community in Springfield, his plans were little more than a well thought-out vision. A year and a half later, the vision has become incarnate.

This past December marked the one-year anniversary of Legg’s time in the house. Since moving in, Legg has been joined by fellow CU graduates Voltz and Tim Miller.

Situated on the south end of the city, the Mulberry House is a community of Christ-followers who have committed to a lifestyle of simplicity, service, outreach, and fellowship. In keeping with other communities surfacing in the new monastic vein (spearheaded by Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way), the goal of the community is to build relationships – both inside the house and in the city at large in order to shine light in a city overrun with poverty and crime.

Whatever you do, don’t call their undertaking a “ministry.”

“I feel like that would be a misrepresentation of what’s going on here. We’re a house,” said Tim Voltz.

“It’s more of a focused, faithful effort [to live like Christ],” said Legg.

Legg, Miller, and Voltz agreed to talk with Cedars more about the ideas that have driven their lifestyle, and the experience of building community in one of Ohio’s neglected neighborhoods.

CEDARS: If you’re being good neighbors to people, you could do that anywhere. Why here? And what is different about what you do here that can’t be done by a Christian anywhere?

JL: Well, there’s not. There’s not something we’re doing here that can’t be done somewhere else. But, at the same time, there’s something to be said about the idea of relocation – relocating to the places that have been forgotten or abandoned by society at large.

TV: In this past decade, Clark County’s had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. People board up houses in this neighborhood and move out, constantly. Everyone’s leaving. So the mentality of people in this neighborhood, then, is that this is not a place worth being. This idea that we try to get people out of their situations and into a “better place,” or that suburbia is a better place for [Christians] than the urban center, is not an appropriate model, I think, if we’re followers of Jesus. We want to change that mindset. Mulberry Street and its surrounding neighborhood is a place where Jesus dwells, and where people should want to live in community.

JL: And along with that, [there is] the idea of bringing life to dead communities, bringing hope to communities that are marked by despair, bringing light into dark places – all these radical notions that sound almost Scriptural. In terms of what we’re actually doing, in being committed to moving in together, sharing our resources, walking through our faith with each other and with neighbors – you can do that anywhere. Anybody could do that. But there’s also an aspect of our personal discipleship, where we have found that relocating to such a skeleton of a place is essential.

TV: To be honest, the three of us are much more comfortable here than we would be doing this in a suburban location.

CEDARS: Do you feel that it’s difficult ministering to a multicultural neighborhood, being white people?

TV: Our neighborhood’s more multicultural than anywhere we grew up, but it’s not a place where we, as white guys, stick out. Reasons we do stick out are: all three of us have full time jobs, which is a rarity. Over 1/3 of the people in this neighborhood are unemployed. Most people have children in this neighborhood. All three of us have vehicles. So there are things that definitely make us stick out, but it’s not necessarily the color of our skin.

JL: Where it gets hard is, we are people who come from the majority culture, where we are typically in charge of everything and we are expected to have all the answers. When you step into a context where you don’t so much anymore -- where the problems are at such a deep level of brokenness that the only real solution is Jesus – it creates an interesting atmosphere. For example, when someone is knocking on your door who’s addicted to meth, and you can see that he’s slowly dismantling his life, and that he’s on his way to death, there’s only so much you can do about it. I say that in response to your multicultural question because there’s a very real culture of poverty, just like there’s a culture of middle class or of upper class. There are certain barriers and walls that are already up that we have to break down, which is challenging.

TV: Because if we were to, say, come in once a week to run a soup kitchen or a clothing closet, we could then retreat from that to our own homes and escape from that reality. Here, you never really escape it because the doorbell still rings at 2 A.M. after you’ve shut your day down, and the guy’s still outside running around, clearly out of his mind, on drugs, outside of your house. Your house can be broken into, your car’s broken into, your CD player is stolen – there’s always a constant reminder of where you are. You don’t retreat out of it. And so you have to be intentional about daily being a disciple of Jesus in the context of this neighborhood.

JL: It’s not so much about doing these big grandiose miracles as it is about being committed to the idea that faithfully living out the ideas of Scripture and seeking ways on a moment-by-moment basis to do so is actually subversive and crazy enough to radically alter the world that we’re living in right now.

CEDARS: Can you give an example of one of these moment-by-moment ways of living intentionally?

TV: For the majority of the summer and most of the fall, we had a meth addict in the neighborhood who got to know us really well, and at any given time during the 24-hour period that you call a day, he felt free to ring the doorbell [asking to] use the phone, or get a glass of water. And so every time you open that door to talk to him, it is a very taxing experience, because you’re trying to sift through, “How do I love him, without simply giving him the ability to continue in his addictions?” And you can choose to ignore it and not answer the door, pretend like you’re not at home. Or you can be rude with him or tell him straight up, “I don’t want to talk to you right now.” But every day you have to make a choice, a conscious decision that you’re going to be Jesus today to your neighbors, whatever that takes.

CEDARS: How would you go about sharing the Gospel with a guy like him?

TV: Well, you’re talking about a guy who’s heard the Gospel probably since he was a little kid. We’ve discussed faith openly with him, but as far as “looking for decisions,” it’s not really something that you do because this neighborhood has been so saturated with the Gospel message (although, maybe not Gospel living). Everyone knows how to say what you want them to say in order to get whatever it is that you’re giving.

TM: Tribes in Africa learned quickly that when Christian missionaries came in, they would all say, “Hey! We love Jesus!” and then [the missionaries] would hand them a Bible, and then they would leave. So that’s what got them to leave, and then [the tribe] would go right back to what they were doing before. Not to say that you can’t [pass out Bibles] here, but we don’t want to come and be like, “Here’s a Bible. You need to get saved right now!” [Because] they’ll be like “Yeah, yeah! Amen!” and then you’ll leave, and they’ll go right back to what they were doing before. We want to live relationally and live the Gospel – because they’ve heard it preached.

TV: This house has existed for about a year now, I mean, as far as the people who inhabit it anyway. So we’re not in a hurry to run in and fix all the brokenness. The idea of three young white guys with college degrees running into a neighborhood and telling everyone about all their brokenness and how they’re going to fix it has proven time and time again to be a flawed approach to discipleship and to following Jesus. We’re here first and foremost as learners – to know our community, to learn about our community – before we ever try and do anything to save our community.

JL: The idea is to take ourselves out of the traditional mold of ministry, which is, “I am the minister who comes into a neighborhood and serves at a particular time in a particular way.” When you’re involved in a program, there are these nice, neat little dividing lines. I am the Food Pantry Guy, and so my relationship to you is the guy who brings food. Because of the program we’ve set in place and the boundaries that we have, I give you food and you take food and that will be our relationship. Now, when you take the program away, and there are no real boundaries, it becomes a little bit messier, because now we’re not people who are serving in the context of “program.” We’re people who are serving in the context of “neighbor.” This is the notion that Jesus calls us to a way of life as opposed to certain segments of our week in which we take part in activities [like feeding the poor].

TV: The food pantries have been very good to this neighborhood. But food pantries put a band-aid over issues that need to be corrected at a much deeper level. Passing out food in this neighborhood is never going to fix the brokenness of this neighborhood. Only Jesus can do that. But Jesus moves through relationships, not through religious exercises.

JL: [It’s] a commitment to inhabiting Gospel as opposed to just preaching the Gospel. [A commitment to] being the ones who live the transformed lifestyle, who have a commitment to social justice, to loving our neighbor, to hospitality, to peacemaking – to the things Jesus designed his Kingdom to follow.

CEDARS: What do you find most difficult about community living?

TM: We are all very similar. We’re all young, white guys with degrees from the same college. But we all have our own quirks, and I think I’ve found that the people that tend to move in the direction we’re going tend to be very weird people. We’re all very, very weird people, and we all have our own quirks. We all have different ideas – so there’s kind of a strain. While we’re great with activism [in the neighborhood], in the house we need to learn to be more of servants and be more humble – I think we can all have egos.

TV: As much as we talk about humility, we’ve all come in very idealistically. And when your common bond for moving in – not that it’s the only thing we have in common – but your common bond for moving in is the idealism behind it, you overlook the personality differences. And so sometimes, I’m sure we do things that irk one another, but it’s like, “Well, we’re in community, so I’m just going to overlook it, I’m not going to mention it, and it’s going to be fine” – but then on the inside, it’s just grating on you. One of the hard things for us is communicating those things openly, because we feel like it is so small or so petty, we shouldn’t be talking about it. We should be talking about grander things, or bigger things—

JL: More spiritual things.

TV: Like the neighborhood.

JL: Not, “Who ate this one Pop-Tart and left the other in the package?”

-Laughter-

JL: What it comes down to is this: when you’re living by yourself, you’re always first. Things are always done the way you’d like them to be done, and you don’t have to have any accountability to anybody else. It’s never messy; it’s nice and neat. But when you’re together with other folks claiming to live out your faith, it’s a lot more in-your-face when you’re not doing so hot. When you’re failing to live up to that ideal that you’re claiming, it becomes easier to pinpoint.

CEDARS: How is God blessing your efforts to follow him and live like him?

JL: Well, for me, he’s stretching me in interesting ways, which I think is in itself a blessing because that’s when growth happens – when you are confronted with things that are so drastically different from everything else. I know we’re not blessed in the sense that people are throwing money at us.

TV: We’ve had a few visitors.

JL: That’s a good blessing. We’ve been able to collaborate and interact via the “interwebs” with other communities from around the nation. We have a blog, and our house is listed within a nation-wide network of people who are living out intentional communities, so as a result of that, people find us and come visit us. Some guy from Knoxville, TN was in town and he stopped to have dinner with us because he wanted to do something similar in Knoxville.

TV: He challenged us and he encouraged us, and it was good to have someone outside of the immediate network come in and share with us, to see a bigger picture of how God’s at work around the country and around the world.

JL: To see that the Body of Christ is bigger than our own particular congregation, and that there’s an actual trans-national body of believers is very cool.

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