Downward mobility reflects radical faith
Rejecting the American Dream, choosing downward mobility and intentionally seeking diverse community are not popular decisions. But those are some of the very things Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger set out to do.
Arthur and Wasinger, who attend and teach at Sycamore Creek Church, a multi-campus United Methodist church plant, in Lansing, Michigan, coauthored the book A Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press), which details their journey in practices of new monasticism.
These practices, also referred to as the "marks" of new monasticism, include emphases on location, hospitality, justice, reconciliation and community, and how they affect humanity's relationships with God, others and creation.
In engaging diverse communities and living into the practices of new monasticism, Arthur said it's important to understand your role and God's role.
"I had to change my sense of what my presence means with those who have a vastly different background than I do," she said, noting that she isn't bringing God with her to these diverse interactions. "God's been there all along. Jesus is there already, and you have the opportunity to bear witness. That's your job. You're getting to watch."
Desiring to pursue a lifestyle that embodies the gospel, Arthur and her husband, the Rev. Tom Arthur, who serves as lead pastor at Sycamore Creek, set out with their friends – Wasinger and her husband, Dave.
In accountable friendship and with the support of their church community, their families ventured into a year-long covenant together. As outlined in their book, this covenant pushed them to:
- develop spiritual friendship that would further their commitment
- welcome Christ in the stranger
- reject the American dream
- reclaim shared spiritual practices
- resist consumerism
- set apart Sabbath
- strengthen their vows
- be planted in a local congregation
- grow in faith as a family in the current season
- recognize humanity's relationship with God's creation
- view self-care appropriately, and
- live justly.
In living the gospel through practices of new monasticism, embracing difference is key. For Wasinger, being in community with people of diverse backgrounds helps her grow.
"When you're in small group with someone who struggles with homelessness, it opens your eyes," she said. "But it also causes me to reflect on how I can be more loving and more like Jesus to them. It makes me much more aware of people as human beings with their own stories."
When her family moved to Lansing, Wasinger said they were seeking a church "that was really intentional about forming relationships. Sycamore Creek is one of those places," she said. "There are so many people from so many different walks of life."
On any given Sunday, Wasinger said attendees might sit with people who ride the bus from the homeless shelter or someone who has lived in the suburbs their whole life. "I like that diversity," she said. "I feel like that's important."
For the Arthurs, living in the suburbs was a major change from their previous inner-city neighborhood. Prior to moving back to the Midwest, the Arthurs lived for three years with friends at Isaiah House of Hospitality in Durham, North Carolina, sharing a home with homeless guests, cultivating the land and being an extension of the local church in their neighborhood.
When they moved to the Lansing suburbs for Tom's pastoral appointment, Arthur said it took discernment and creativity to determine how to embody Christ in similar ways in this new context.
Though sometimes living in suburbia gives Arthur the sense that "you can't be downwardly mobile, even if you feel called to be," she sees opportunities for being creative in following Jesus and extending hospitality to those who are different.
"Instead of suburbia being the place where I create my own castles, it becomes a prosperous monastery where guests are invited in," she said. "You can find healing and rest and welcome and the sense that you are not a burden. You get to participate in a household where your gifts and strengths can be used."
In Lansing, the Arthurs leverage their large home – and their cars, too – as resources for those in need, housing the homeless and offering transportation to those without a vehicle.
"What do you do with space," she said, "when you have this sense that your home is God's home? It's not really yours."
Arthur said she learns much about faith from people whose life experiences are different from her own.
"I have met more homeless people who trust God with every minute of their day than I have sometimes in churches," she said. "There's this incredible humility and awareness that they don't take a breath apart from the sustaining presence of God."
After The Year of Small Things was published, Sycamore Creek engaged in small group discussions and a sermon series to get the larger church community thinking more deeply about these ideas. Wasinger and Arthur were careful to encourage discernment, rather than suggest a particular method of living into this calling.
"How does that get interpreted into your unique context and your strengths and how you feel called?" Arthur said, referencing Hebrews 13 as a basic guiding framework.
No individual person can fully embrace all the marks of new monasticism on their own, Arthur said, but a supportive community helps everyone flourish as each person utilizes their gifts for the good of others.
"How can you support them in the good practices they have?" Arthur said. "The whole congregation is winning when we are supporting each other in practicing downward mobility and radical faith."
The Wasingers and Arthurs support one another by offering honest accountability and recognizing their different resources. The Wasingers don't have as much space in their house, for example, so they love people in their neighborhood, participate in church community with those who are homeless and help refugee families.
"We were a mentor family for a refugee family," Wasinger said. "For the first four months they were here, we were their close friends who helped them navigate things."
Currently, the Wasingers – who both studied journalism – serve refugees by helping them tell their stories.
In addition to cultural and economic diversity, Wasinger said she believes learning from other generations is also important.
"I think intergenerational diversity is as important as a lot of other forms of diversity," she said. "People my age don't tend to interact with people who are older. The older people have definitely been the most influential in developing my faith."
Arthur agreed, remembering some women she knew in North Carolina.
"There were little old ladies living in my inner-city neighborhood who had been praying for that city since before I was born," she said. "I had more to learn from them about who Jesus is than I had to share with anybody."
One key to healthy diverse community, Arthur said, involves being intentional in shaping a perspective on ministry.
"We're not in ministry to the struggling," Arthur said. "We are called into friendship with those who are struggling. That is a whole different thing. If we're really investing in long-term friendship with those on the margins, it changes our whole posture of doing life with them."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other online and print publications.