Vol 2, Num 17 :: 2003.09.12 — 2003.09.25
What brought you to live here?
I was a Montana farm boy who became a Christian. I was never really part of the evangelical frame. I went to a Christian college, Gordon College, on the east coast, and I couldn?t take it. I couldn?t handle the whole experience of the evangelical sub-culture, so I bailed out the middle of my sophomore year. I heard about this place and, without telling a lot of people what I was doing, just went.
Back then, this community was dirt poor. It might look like we?re not super well-off now. I mean, my wife and I just have this room. We don?t own a car, don?t have a bank account. But, compared to how it was then, this is like the Ritz.
It was in this building?
No, it was actually two buildings ago. It was on Paulina Street. It was an old six-flat that we cut up into all these little apartments. There were big dorms with twenty or thirty bunks for the singles. So when I came in, I was in one of those dorms. Nobody had stereos. We had little mono tape players so we could play teaching tapes. We were definitely hard-core Jesus Freaks.
How many people were there at that time?
There were about 160 people when I joined in January of 1977.
How long had it been going before that?
Well, it actually came out of a group called Jesus People, Milwaukee, which had only existed about a year before it fragmented up into these different pieces, of which this ministry was spawned. It originally traveled around in a school bus. So there were only like 30 people in this school bus, traveling around the country. This was in ?72. And in ?73, they ended up in Chicago, after traveling around Florida and the East Coast. They ended up in Chicago and lived in a church basement for about a year and a half until they finally got the 4431 N. Paulina house. And I came on the scene later on, while they were still there.
So, at the beginning, were there a few writers and speakers that really were influential for the group?
We were very predictably a Jesus Freak type people. A lot of the Jesus movement was influenced by the charismatic world. But, to balance that, we were also influenced by C.S. Lewis?the patron saint of the evangelical world (even though he probably rolls his eyes, he has to put up with us). Yeah, Lewis was read from the get-go. Francis Schaeffer?s stuff. Os Guinness. The thinking writers were popular right from within the evangelical camp. Jim Sire, his different books: Universe Next Door, but that came later down the track. Some of the Catholic mystics, Fenelon. But then a lot of the charismatic writers right from the beginning: Jamie Buckingham, Merlin Carouthers, Juan Carlos Ortiz. But as time went on the charismatic movement seemed like experience-chasing to us. Our doctrine to this day is very open to the gifts of the Spirit, but we wanted to see the gifts for a purpose. We felt like the gifts of the Spirit were there in order for us to serve and in order for us to evangelize. That?s what you find in the Gospels.
Was part of the choice to be in this area of Chicago to serve this community in particular, or did it happen to be a location that worked?
We always loved Uptown. But when we actually moved into Uptown, we moved into a building on Malden Street. When we moved in, it was an absolute wreck?it?s all yuppified now?the buildings were trashed. The poorest of the poor were living there. There were lots of gangs. One gang was a KKK gang that burned crosses. There was a black gang. The Latin Kings and The Disciples. We had already been serving the poor there by coming into Uptown, giving them clothes and donations. We used to get donations of bread from Jewel Food Stores and we?d take the excess bread and hand it out to poor families. I remember going over to a single black mom?s house and the only way she could heat her place was with the stove?so there were six to eight inch flames coming off the burners. That was extreme poverty. So that?s how we got involved in people?s lives here in Uptown.
But a year after we moved into the Malden building, Reagonomics kicked in and the homeless population swelled to more than twice the size it had been before, which was pretty sizeable. And the people who were homeless were moms and dads. Whole families went out on the street, all of a sudden. It was bad. So, amidst all of that, we found ourselves serving the poor. The homeless would come to our house in a very impromptu way just to eat our dinner meal with us. But, very quickly the word got out on the street and all of a sudden we had seventy guys showing up to eat with us and there wasn?t room any more. So one of the homeless guys said, ?Why don?t you have us come earlier so that you?ll have more space, because we?re crowding you out here.? We thought that sounded like a good idea, so we started doing that. And it was up to 200 to 300 people a day, right away. And there were so many homeless women and kids that the city of Chicago pretended didn?t exist, and so we started housing them ourselves. We laid out some mats in our all-purpose room and let them stay overnight. I remember coming in late at night, because I?d work late at night on the Cornerstone magazine, and I?d have to step over all these sleeping bodies to get to my bed. So, our experience has been that the social implications of the gospel kind of come to you. If you start helping the poor, you don?t have to work at the philosophy of it. It comes to you.
So when did you buy this building?
We bought this building, the 920 Wilson building, in 1990.
What types of people are living here?
Here, it?s mostly people who are committed to being missionaries for either a long or short period of time. And what we mean by missionaries is people who feel like, for whatever amount of time, the Lord has called them to walk together with us here at JPUSA. We have term commitments we ask people to make. That doesn?t mean it?s binding. It?s a way to conceptualize life here so you can make plans and we can make plans. But we have Seniors, homeless, recovering drug addicts in the various buildings we own and in the ministries we provide.
How do conflicts between residents get resolved here? Do you have many conflicts between people here in the community?
Wherever there are human beings, there are conflicts. There are people who come here all ga ga, who think we?re super Christians, living in community, so self-sacrificial, but I always tell people that, first of all, I like living this way. I can?t claim that this is so hard, living without lots of the material possessions most Americans have, but I?m glad not to have most of those. Maybe that?s peculiar, but it is me, and I enjoy that part of it. The second thing I say to those people is that ?You?d better know that community is hard. And the hardest thing about community is us.? It?s like what they say about communism: Marxism was a great idea if people weren?t involved. It sounds so beautiful on paper. Well, Christian community is the same way, but we?re more realistic because we take into account the idea of sin.
The core of community, really, is forgiveness. I already know ahead of time that if I?m in a relationship with you for any length of time, I?ll probably sin against you in some way. But this forgiveness is necessary. This is what goes on with husbands and wives, the Bible’s first community with Eve and Adam. When you watch a good Christian couple, you?ll see they don?t always jibe. They don?t always treat each other as they should. But they?re fairly quick, if they?re a mature couple, to say ?I?m sorry.? They?re not super defensive all the time, like ?I?m always right.? They have a certain humility in the midst of being imperfect. And I think in community, it?s important that each individual tries to cultivate this kind of humility. Through that, you can become transparent. And transparency is really what everyone wants, or thinks they want, but they don?t know what that?s going to cost.
What kinds of structures does this community have in place to help support the process of resolving disputes?
We make a distinction between doctrinal and behavioral disputes. We try to avoid doctrinal disputes that are more peripheral. We want our focus to be about loving one another, loving Christ: the central doctrines of Scripture, not the peripheral ones. We kind of have a sense of what our collective story is, and we don?t want to keep anyone out of our story, but if someone is saying something that doesn?t fit our story, we have to let them know. It doesn’t mean we’re right, they’re wrong, but it might in major cases mean it would be best for each of us to go our separate ways in serving Jesus.
But with behaviors overtly sinful, when someone blows it, we have to recognize if someone is trying to overcome their sins. They?ll get chance after chance after chance here. We might ask someone to leave if we realize that we?re not helping the situation. We help a lot of people. But there are lots of people we can?t help. But we try to work with them, counsel them. Try to have them read good books, keep accountable to others in the community, and maybe they?ll eventually come out of it. But there is the other person who is hurting the community with their sin. Like if someone?s involving other people with drugs or sexual misconduct, they will be shown the door more quickly. There just isn?t much of a high tolerance for that.
So, we have a board that works by consensus, not majority rule. They talk it over until they all agree. I know a lot of people might get frustrated with such a process, but the majority of the time the decisions that are made are much wiser than it would have been had it been a snap decision.
So if there?s a problem, one of the members of the community would go to the board and then the board would make the final decision?
It works sort of like interwoven knots. It looks kind of like a celtic circle rather than a flow chart. I always hate those flow charts because they?re really power charts so you can locate where the power is. There?s the old fashioned way of thinking about the family, you know, where the dad is the power center. The father gets the power from on high and tells the mom. And the mom tells the kid and the kid tells the dog. But we?re really trying to act out the Ephesians 5 passage about submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ. So the ideal is that, while you?re acknowledging that there are certain offices in the church?there are certain people that are placed in authority positions?it?s always a two-way street, even in that situation. Ideally, the youngest guy in the community can walk up to a pastor and say ?I question what you said or what you did.? So we don?t like the hierarchy idea. The pecking order is not the kind of power structure we go for. We like it more diffuse.
Having lived in this community for over twenty years, what are the rewards of living this way?
I think living in community is a lot like marriage in that it?s as close as you can get to seeing faith made visible. I?m putting my faith in something that?s really kind of weird. It?s almost like a Kierkegaardian kind of a thing. I really feel like it?s a little bit of a leap in the dark. If I really think about it, I could almost talk myself out of it. I mean, why would I entrust this much of my life, why would I be this transparent, with this other person or with these other people? That seems so stupid. Wouldn?t it be better to just keep my hands closed and my heart closed just a little bit so I have something to hold on to for myself? So I don?t risk too much?
What I?ve come to realize is that I love accountability, even though I hate it. I don?t think anybody should start being accountable to someone without getting to know them first. We shouldn?t just blindly tell anyone all of our inner secrets. That?s a dumb idea. But if you can find a group of people, whether in a mainstream church or communal setting like this, that you can be accountable too, that?s rewarding?for both people. It?s very rewarding for someone else to know your inner workings and what you struggle with. And ideally, accountability should work both ways. Mutual submission isn?t a one-way street. It?s two humans struggling together, you know? Struggling together, bringing sin out into the open demystifies evil. It takes spiritual struggle out of the category of something you want to hide, which is how most of the evangelical church likes to deal with it. But do it carefully. Make sure you?re accountable with people who will treat you with respect and who you will treat with respect.
And the reward of that is a deeper relationship with other people that you might not have had if you weren?t part of this community.
And a deeper insight into yourself. I don?t consider myself a major-league saint, but I consider myself a moderately mature Christian. And I know that whatever good is in me, I could only have gotten inside this context. I was one of those people that really needed this kind of context to sort of put me under the lens, so to speak. Living in community here has really helped me see who I am as a Christian. Hopefully, it has also made me more productive as far as producing fruit for the kingdom of heaven. I may not be a sixty-fold or hundred-fold kind of guy, but maybe my thirty-fold wouldn’t have been even that without this wonderful, infuriating thing called Christian community!