At the 9/24, Sunday service, I shared my testimony. I didn’t prepare notes, but most of my faith story can be found in the third chapter of my book “Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revolution,” which is excerpted below.
Those who are one with Christ in Spirit, love, and life, who teach that which was commanded by them by Christ, namely, repentance and the peaceable Gospel of grace …are the body and bride of Christ, the ark, the mount and garden of the Lord, the house, people, city, temple of God, the spiritual Eve, flesh of Christ’s flesh and bone of his bone.
My paternal lineage can be traced back to sixteenth-century religious radicals called Hutterites. Although I did not grow up in a Christian home and infrequently went to church as a child, my spiritual formation began at a tender age, and much of it had to do with Elgin Tschetter, my paternal grandfather, telling me stories of our Hutterite and Mennonite forebears. Throughout my childhood, my grandparents demonstrated the love of Christ with their life. My grandma ministered for more than twenty years to incarcerated women in the jails of southern Wisconsin and took many mission trips to India. Yet my grandfather is the one who had the greatest influence on my early spiritual formation.
My grandfather always claimed that his spiritual gift was to be a bold and faithful witness to the Gospel. Throughout my life, he has not only shared the Gospel with me, but also pointed to the evidence of God’s presence all around us. When I was a child, we often sat in the backyard and stargazed, sometimes with a telescope, and occasionally he would wax almost poetic about the creator God in a way that inspired within me a desire to participate in a holy creation. He took me to church as often as I was willing to go, and after Sunday lunch he regularly talked about the sufferings our Anabaptist ancestors endured for the faith. Although he stood in opposition to the pacifism of the Anabaptists and adamantly opposed the communalism of the Hutterites, he was proud of our religious heritage. Through stories, my grandfather connected me to our ancestral heritage and imparted to me the importance of faith in Christ.
Although not raised in a Hutterite colony, I have been formed and inspired deeply by the stories passed down to me. The Hutterites arose as a movement within the Radical Reformation. They are absolute pacifists; practice believer’s baptism, which is the practice of one’s baptism following their profession of faith; and for most of their history, they have lived communally. It was my grandfather’s stories of their total commitment to the way of Jesus that shaped my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My grandpa was raised near the Hutterite colonies in South Dakota, and he can trace his ancestry to early leaders in the movement. Our family line, the Tschetters (I have my mother’s maiden name), have been Prairieleut (noncommunal Hutterites) for many generations. Among all Anabaptists, which also consist of Amish and Mennonites, the Hutterites are the most communitarian.
The Hutterites were persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant churches, and some were even taken as galley slaves on Ottoman Empire ships. During the Middle Ages, one’s baptism into a church was akin to one’s allegiance to the state. When the Hutterites confessed believer’s baptism as the true way to express one’s allegiance to the Kingdom of God, proponents of the Holy Roman Empire as well as Protestant church-states throughout Europe deemed them subversive because they renounced their earthly citizenship, refused to participate in wartime activities or pay military taxes, and chose to live collectively. These proponents ordered Hutterites to be beheaded, burned at the stake, and driven from their homes in an effort to crush their movement.
The Hutterite lifestyle is based in large part on the biblical Book of Acts and the practices of the primitive church. The Hutterites share meals in a large dining hall, own very few personal possessions, and give their whole life to this other way of living. During the height of persecution of the Hutterites in Europe, a lord of an estate who was sympathetic to the Hutterites gave them a parcel of land and offered them protection. But when the tyrants (ordered by Protestant religious leaders, such as Zwingli, or Protestant monarchs, such as the Tudors, or Roman Catholic authorities, such as Ferdinand I, who served as Holy Roman Emperor) arrived to kill the Hutterites, they would not allow the lord of the estate’s men to defend them. They would not allow others to shed blood on their behalf. Instead, like sheep led to the slaughter, they went to the tyrants and were martyred in droves. And yet it was during these times of persecution that the Hutterite community grew. This is similar to the first few centuries of the church when, it is said, that the blood of the martyrs served as seeds for the church.
The Hutterites became a seminomadic Christian community and spent considerable time in Eastern Europe and spent nearly a century in southern Russia before moving to the United States in the 1870s. They decided to leave during the Russification of the late nineteenth century, when Russian communities were being forced to abandon their language and their culture, young men were drafted into the military, and religious freedom was severely threatened. Two men, Paul and Lorenz Tschetter, were designated to scout the United States in the hope that it would allow them to practice their religion freely. Paul (who was my grandfather’s great-uncle) was the Servant of the Word, which is a Hutterisch term for minister and leader, and Lorenz was his uncle. After visiting with Mennonites and traveling across the United States, the two men met President Ulysses Grant, who explained to them that he could make no commitment there would be no war, but that he was confident that the United States would not engage in a major war for at least fifty years, and thus they would be free from the threat of military service. This was more than the Russian government was able to offer the Hutterites, and so they migrated to the Dakota Territory.
True to President Grant’s word, there was no major war for fifty years, but soon thereafter WWI broke out and young Hutterite men began to receive draft cards. The men who were drafted refused to participate in wartime activities and were sent to prison. Some went to Alcatraz and were then transferred to Leavenworth. Several of these men were tortured and killed by government officials while in prison. They were martyred for their faith and commitment to peace and loving one’s enemies.
My first direct paternal ancestor in the United States was Paul’s younger brother, John. Whereas Paul provided pastoral (and practical) leadership to the five thousand Hutterites as they migrated from Russia to the United States, John was prophetic and visionary, experiencing ecstatic revelations. In the cellar of his home, John sought God in prayer. He claimed that a light washed over him, and it was then that he was spiritually born (i.e., born again). He had a born-again experience but did not have the language to articulate it, since the “new birth” is not part of Hutterite theology. He met with Pentecostals decades before the Azusa Street Revival, which occurred in 1906 and ushered in the current movement of Pentecostalism. John appreciated the Pentecostal emphasis on healing, the gifts of the Spirit, and end-times prophecy, but he struggled with their level of emotional intensity. He soon met Rev. Jacob A. Wiebe (for whom my great-grandfather is named) and was baptized in the Wolf Creek in rural South Dakota, which was then the Dakota Territory. It was winter and the men had to cut a hole in the ice at Wolf Creek to baptize John.
Wiebe was a Russian Mennonite who was dissatisfied with the state of the Mennonite church in the late nineteenth century. He called for greater piety and deeper devotion to Christ and his teachings. After an unsuccessful attempt to reform the Russian Mennonite church, Wiebe founded the Mennonite Brethren denomination. John Tschetter was one of his early disciples, and served as a zealous revivalist and preacher. John began to make disciples. They gathered in homes, and when the faith community grew, they moved their meeting to a barn and eventually built a church. When the church grew too large, they spawned new churches for people to gather. The goal was not to increase the membership of the church, but to make disciples.
John evangelized many of the Prairieleut and communal Hutterites, traveling to many states and even into Canada to share his experience of spiritual birth and personal relationship with Jesus. John is noted for bringing about spiritual revival and renewal across the Dakota Plains and elsewhere. Because John had such a significant impact on the spiritual life of so many, and is considered the father of many churches, he was called Johann Feta, a Hutterisch moniker translated as “Father John.” Although he passed away in the mid-twentieth century, he is still referred to by many as Johann Feta. Apart from farming, he served as founding pastor of several churches, including Bethel Mennonite Brethren Church, located near Huron, South Dakota, and Salem Mennonite Brethren Church, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2011, and is located near the Tschetter family’s original homestead. John’s wife Susana, his parents, and much of his family were eventually born again. Although his elder brother Paul remained Hutterite, many of Paul’s children had a born-again experience and joined the Mennonite Brethren.
In fact, Father John ordained and commissioned Mennonite Brethren missionaries, one of whom was Paul Tschetter’s son, to serve in Boone, North Carolina, and plant integrated churches of whites and recently freed blacks. They also founded several orphanages and schools. They were truly radical about Christ’s love and the building up of the Kingdom of God. Today, after many years of opposition, including Ku Klux Klan rallies on their lawn and death threats against the ministers, six of those churches continue to thrive.
In the fall of 2012, my wife and I and our two young children visited the region in South Dakota where my Hutterite ancestors settled in this country in the early 1870s, hoping to gain a deeper connection to our spiritual forebears and to remember those who came before us. We were able to visit the places that I had mostly only heard of. As I researched my ancestors, communalism, and models of discipleship, I discovered a deep connection to my grandfather’s grandfather, Rev. John Tschetter. We visited the first homestead and saw the cellar where John, as a man in his early twenties, had a vision of God’s light wash over him. We also visited Wolf Creek, where John was baptized, and spent time on Hutterite colonies with distant kin. We visited churches that John founded and were inspired that the last church, Bethel Mennonite Brethren, where he ministered for more than forty years, is still doing great work in their community and throughout the world. Bethel Mennonite Brethren has missionaries on almost every continent, and the Sunday morning we visited, the message delivered by Pastor Coalt Robinson explored the personal and social impacts of revolution rooted in the Gospel. The membership of the church continues to value an intelligent and informed faith, compassionate expression of that faith, and commitment to share Jesus’ good news.
It is important to visit and revisit stories and places to recognize the myriad ways that the Kingdom of God enters into this world, through individuals, families, communities, and movements. We do not need to live under tyranny and the threat of persecution to be faithful disciples of Christ. Yet it is important to remember the price paid by Christ and by all the witnesses who have suffered for the faith over the last two thousand years. These martyrs, these witnesses, point to the truth of the Gospel message. The blood of the Lamb reminds us of the cost of Christ’s conviction and moves us from a place of complacency to a place of devotion and active participation in the body of Christ.
Too often, as Christians, we forget those who came before us who lived sacrificially, who were true witnesses to a living faith. When we forget their stories, we become weak and numb and distracted. We suffer due to our forgetfulness and lack of mindfulness. It is often said that the church thrives in places where she is persecuted. It is in these places of pain and persecution where she most intimately remembers the Gospel story, and it is in these places where we are most inspired to live out even the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings.
Seeking the Other
It was these stories of perseverance in the midst of persecution, heavenly visions, and love for the oppressed and even their enemies that gave early shape to my faith. Although my Grandpa Tschetter grew up in the Mennonite Brethren Church, under the pastoral care of his grandfather, Johann Feta, he left his Anabaptist tradition as a young man and became a Fundamentalist Baptist. Unlike his Mennonite parents, he was never a pacifist and struggled with the basic tenets of the Anabaptist expression of faith. The Baptists were more in line with his religious reasoning. As a teenager, I found myself inspired by his stories of our Hutterite ancestry but at odds with my grandparents’ fundamentalism. Around the age of fifteen, I had a crisis of faith. I occasionally went to church with my grandparents but was no longer convinced by the claims of the Christian faith, or at least not how I understood them.
The hurt and brokenness I suffered as a child without the stability of permanent housing, witnessing men abuse my mother, and wondering why the church seemed so impotent, set me on my pursuit of “otherness” at a young age, whether that otherness be God or a mystical experience or anything other than the reality I had been dealt. Despite my rejection of the Christian faith that was handed to me, my soul longed for spiritual wholeness. I sought to experience the intimacy of losing myself in infinity. I hoped for visions and was open to the fantastic, and longed to encounter the Other. I began to practice meditation, which I initially learned by watching Kung Fu movies as a preteen in the 1980s. I asked my aunt, who was on furlough from the mission field in India (she and her husband have served the deaf in India since the late 1970s), what she thought about meditation. She said, “It all depends what you are meditating on.” Until that point I merely practiced the cessation of thought. I meditated on nothingness and simply sought clarity of mind, which is much more difficult than one might assume.
In my early teens, I was often in trouble with the authorities. I was a shoplifter, vandal, fighter, drinker, and drug user, and whenever the police picked me up for my outlaw behavior, I was ordered to do community service because I was a juvenile. The courts ordered me to clean city vehicles, or pick up litter in parks, but most often they ordered me to work in the public library. It was in the library that I discovered spiritual and subversive texts that gave voice to my angst and frustration. I began to read books on various types of yoga, and I especially enjoyed reading the scriptures of Eastern religions. The first Eastern script I read was the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text I stumbled across while doing court-ordered community service at the library.
It was during this time of intensely pursuing the Other that I began regularly to smoke marijuana, experiment with other drugs, and engage in sexual activity. In my reading of countercultural and subversive works, I identified with anarchists and nonconformists. Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience spoke deeply to my soul. I did not want to submit to any worldly government. “Let my conscience be my government” was my plea. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was my bible. I carried it everywhere and memorized stanzas and whole poems. I did not want to live in a world of prose but sought to dwell in poetry, creativity, and ecstatic revelation. The devotional poems of Rumi and other Sufis inspired me toward divine intoxication. I began to fast and abstain from various worldly pursuits for various lengths of time as a spiritual discipline. The purpose of religion and spirituality began to take a new shape in my life. I read the early church fathers and Eastern mystics side by side.
At the time, I listened to Bob Marley and The Doors almost religiously. Bob Marley’s message of love and justice spoke to my hope for redeeming the broken parts of my life, and the Dionysian frenzy of Jim Morrison and The Doors supported my youthful desire to experience great golden copulations of mythic proportions. I reveled in Rimbaud and to a lesser extent Baudelaire, and read the great American litany of Beat writers. William Seward Burroughs’ desire to break the mold of the human race stirred me to deep conviction, as I too sought to break the mold into which I had been cast. I plotted adventures and looked forward to when I would be freed from the confines of the small town and small world in which I lived. I desired to experience vast expanses of earth and heaven, mind and soul.
Throughout my teen years, I hoped that visions would awaken sensibilities within me to create alternate realities of my own. I spent mornings and afternoons chanting Om and other strange mantras I discovered in books. I committed to memory and often recited the Tibetan prayer, “Om mani padme hum,” which means “there is a jewel in the lotus,” but I was especially fond of the ornate Hindu mantras such as “Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya.” I experimented with breathing techniques, especially pranayama but also hesychasm. Pranayama is a breathing technique developed within Hinduism, whereas hesychasm is a breathing technique developed within the Russian Orthodox Church. Both breathing exercises are meant to provide a way toward transcendence.
Upon discovering the works of Swami Vivekananda, I gave myself over to the pursuit of psychic development and the liberation of the soul. I began to experiment with Kundalini yoga and the practice of projecting astral visions. I sat in the lotus position, eyes fixed on infinity, gazing into the middle of space, and considered deep-sky objects, subatomic particles, and universes that existed before me, within me, and within each breath. I inhaled through my left nostril, chanting and concentrating on the breath traveling down the left side of my spinal column to strike and awaken the serpent coiled near my tailbone. I then exhaled from my right nostril, chanting and concentrating on the breath carrying the serpent that traveled up the right side of my spinal column to strike my mind’s eye, and awaken hidden visions and secret intellectual prowess.
Having read that Beat poet Allen Ginsberg achieved mystical revelations while reading William Blake’s Ah! Sunflower, I, a youth in the rural country sticks of Wisconsin, broke out in search of that vision. I committed to mind and heart each verse, word, syllable, sound, and sensation of Blake’s poem. I inhaled whole consonants and exhaled vowels. I consumed the word. Other works and personalities revealed themselves to me on my pursuit. Dionysian incarnations, eastern avatars, and desert priests in ancient Persia intoxicated by the divine were contemplated and summoned. I engaged the word and responded with poetry.
I practiced imagining and reimagining the vision set before me. I deconstructed mountains and clouds, space and matter, rearranged particles, redefined terms, invented words, and developed new sentence structures. By dismantling systems, I hoped to erect and resurrect new structures and systems that offered hope and promise rather than the intellectual and spiritual oppression I had encountered in public schools, church, and society. I hoped dull, desensitized persons (such as Thoreau’s “mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation”) would awaken to the fullness of life and that dead systems and decaying structures would be cast aside so that new structures could be established.
I was convinced that old systems and depraved mentalities needed to be destroyed. Radicals and prophets, saints and holy insurgents needed to arise to subvert the system by any means necessary to make way for the new reality. And while my mind marveled at the hope of another way, I was still unable to fathom the mystery of what or who would usher in this revolution. What I did know was that this new way was all around me; I could almost touch it, and yet I struggled to enter fully in.
Two weeks after graduating high school at the age of seventeen, I left home to seek visions. I spent the next ten years traveling across North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, working a variety of jobs ranging from grill chef in barbecue joints to track maintainer for a regional railroad company to freelance writer; I studied for a couple of years at a community college and transferred to the University of Wisconsin. Along the way I participated in spiritual communities and social experiments. I lived with anarcho-primitivists in the American Southwest, Hare Krishna groups in Europe, Christian missionaries in India, and squatters in London, and as an undergraduate I participated in the cooperative movement in Madison, Wisconsin.
At the age of nineteen, I bought a one-way ticket to London. I had saved enough money from a factory job to purchase the ticket and allow me some pocket money but not much else. I knew I needed a plan. The day after I arrived, I met two Hare Krishna devotees selling books in Trafalgar Square. They were not much older than me. I asked where they were staying, and they pointed me to the Soho temple. That evening, after much waiting, I was given a bed.
In exchange for room and board, I participated in their rhythm of study, worship, and work. I read voraciously the classic texts of Vaishnava Hinduism, which is the branch that worships Vishnu (and his many incarnations) as the ultimate deity. I was particularly attracted to the stories of Chaitanya, the sixteenth-century Hindu saint who was a major proponent of Bhakti (or devotional) yoga. Chaitanya is considered by his adherents as the full incarnation of Krishna, yet—and this is where it gets very creative—he is in the mood of Radharani, Krishna’s consort (and lover). Radharani, despite being married to another man, was completely devoted and in love with Krishna. She could not resist his flute playing and, along with other maidens, often joined Krishna for rasa-lila, the dance of ecstasy.
I later found certain parallels between the theological undergirding pertaining to Chaitanya and God’s self-revelation in Christ. For example, as Krishna in the mood of Radharani is modeling for his disciples how to live a devout life, so too it is Christ, who is the fullness of God in human form, who models for his disciples how to live a holy life.
God as revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is often referred to as a groom and/or a lover. And Israel (as well as the church) is referred to as the bride and beloved. For example, in the Revelation Christ is the groom, and the church is the bride. In Hosea, the prophet is told to marry Gomer, a prostitute, as a means of representing God’s relationship with Israel (who chases after foreign gods). Perhaps most closely related to the Bhakti yoga perspective is Song of Songs, which is often interpreted as the relationship between God and Israel (or, from a Christian perspective, Christ and the church). It is of note that the lover and beloved in Song are unmarried (there is no marriage contract or ketuba, and they have to sneak around) just as Radha and Krishna are not married to one another.
What are the implications of God in erotic relationship with the collective of his worshipers? And, even if we interpret this relationship as prudent and chaste (which is a stretch when we examine the Scriptures), what does it mean when the groom and bride do ultimately consummate their wedding vows. As RadhaKrishna are often engaged in a dance of ecstasy, is the ChristChurch also called to such profound intimacy and eroticism? Where are the followers of Christ who seek him with their whole being, who suffer when they are not near him, who long for their Lord’s closeness? Might stories and theologies from other traditions serve to awaken the Christian imagination that God desires a deep, intimate relationship with his beloved?
In many ways, my time with the Hare Krishna stirred my theological imagination. I met spiritual teachers and visited the estate John Lennon donated to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the formal name of the Hare Krishna Movement. Radhanatha was the first genuine teacher of Hinduism that I met. He was one of the first disciples of Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, and is revered as one of the most influential leaders of Gaudiya Vaishnava Hinduism in the world. He was visiting the London temple for Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday celebration. Many devotees fawned over him, but because I had no concept of who he was, I was rather skeptical. One afternoon he gave a talk to a large group explaining how everyone in the room must have lived good past lives to be now a human. During the question and answer portion, I raised my hand and asked how he knew that a fly does not have the same sense of self-importance that each of us had. Perhaps it was my teen angst or spirit of seeming defiance, but Radhanatha appeared at first flustered and taken aback. After the meeting, we met again and became friends. He invited me to join him at John Lennon’s estate for the Janmashtami celebration. Upon his departure from London, he gave me the contact information for his temple in Bombay, which was the first place I visited when I eventually arrived in India several months later. During the next six months as I traveled across Europe, I stayed in Hare Krishna temples, in abandoned buildings occupied by squatters, and with new friends I made along the way. After a brief stint at the temple in Paris, I eventually hitchhiked from Paris to Madrid.
Most of the devotees in Madrid left for India soon after I arrived, and the leader of the temple asked if I could stay to help. I agreed. The two devotees who remained included a devout and disciplined young man whose father was a high-ranking politician in Spain who had disavowed his son for becoming a Hare Krishna devotee. The other young man had been a devotee for more than five years but recently had developed doubts and was in the process of moving out. The first week after the group departed for India, we spent time figuring out roles, sharing meals, and cleaning the temple. By the second week, two musically inclined Swedish brothers joined us, and we began singing Hare Krishna mantras over Nirvana music played on the harmonium and kartals in the plazas on the weekends. Our weekend chants led many young people to visit the temple during the week. We started serving free lunches in the temple, and very quickly we were filled to capacity every noon. Young people began to join, and we even created a special women’s dormitory.
We remained disciplined and woke up each morning at 4:30 a.m. to pray and meditate. We took turns teaching from texts such as Srimad Bhagavatam, and we held regular bhajjans, devotional music services. Word spread that a revival was happening at the Madrid temple, and we were visited by leaders of the organization. During my time in Madrid, I discovered truths about religious community such as the importance of discipline, study, enthusiasm, and group participation. When the devotees returned from India, I decided that it was my turn to visit the subcontinent.
Entering the Church
My grandparents helped me to purchase a one-way ticket to Bombay. Their investment would prove to be well spent. I flew from Madrid (with one layover in Kuwait) to Bombay (this was before its name was changed to Mumbai). It was 1997—the Hale-Bopp Comet was in the sky and India was celebrating its fiftieth year of independence. I was nineteen years old and still yearning for a genuine connection to God. I had made friends among the Hare Krishna and gleaned certain spiritual truths up to that point, but I had yet to encounter the Living God. I spent a few days at Swami Radhanatha’s temple in Bombay before traveling to my aunt and uncle’s mission in Ootacamund, a hill station in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu. During that time they had a school and church for the deaf. They allowed me plenty of space and did not press their religion on me. In fact, I had to ask my uncle for a Bible, which he gladly gave me.
I immersed myself in the Bible and spent much of my time talking about spiritual things with my uncle. I arrived in early December, spent the holidays with my missionary family, and then departed for the Himalayas; I spent a month there reading the Bible, smoking charas with devotees of Shiva, and visiting ancient Hindu temples. It was there that I began to leave the way of other religions and walk the way of Jesus.
When I returned to Ootacamund, I spent a day immersed in prayer and reading the Book of Isaiah. Waves of grace washed over me. I went from reading Isaiah to prostrating on the floor before God to resting in God’s presence in meditation in the forest adjoining my aunt and uncle’s house. I felt that Jesus, the fullness of God in human form, was for me. God’s choice to enter into a situation of poverty and persecution made me feel like God entered into this world for me and to identify with the poor and outcast.
The truth of the Gospel shook me to my core, and it was then that I decided to give my life to the way of Jesus. Whereas earlier in my spiritual journey I was unable to fathom the mystery of what or who would bringing healing to the broken parts of my life and the world, I now understood that it is Christ and his way of peace and justice that ushers in this new way of living and healing together. Through Jesus I was able to enter into the very presence of God, the Holy of Holies, and be shaped and formed and filled to overflowing by God’s love, truth, and beauty. I felt forgiven, and I felt that I had the power to forgive those who caused me harm. I wanted to be baptized. Easter was near, so I heeded my uncle’s advice to wait until Easter Sunday to be baptized.
I used the following weeks to prepare for my baptism. I prayed, read the Bible, and spent ample time talking with my uncle. On Easter Sunday, there were several of the older students from the deaf school also getting baptized. The water tank for my aunt and uncle’s home doubled as the baptismal font. My uncle’s co-pastor, Daniel Mani, opened the tank and found a dead mouse floating on top. He threw it out and asked with a sly grin, “Ready to get washed clean of your sins?” All the students gathered for the service. My uncle delivered a message, and then we proceeded to the baptismal font. I entered in. It was waist-deep. My uncle asked me a few questions pertaining to my confession of faith, and then I was fully immersed into the water. I emerged from the water feeling new, cleaned, and made whole. I was ready to follow Jesus.
I was in India a total of six months and away from the United States for one year. Although it was in India that I believed in Jesus and his Word, it took me a long time to understand and submit to the way of Jesus. Upon my return to the United States, I regularly attended my grandparents’ church—the same church that I occasionally attended as a child—but struggled to find people with whom I could connect. Like many churches that I have experienced, most people already had their minds made up regarding religious doctrines and political and social perspectives. I needed to wrestle with these ideas to make them truly my own. The church in North America seemed to be co-opted by nationalism and the dominant culture. I still retained my nonconformist and anarchistic convictions. The American flag waving in the church seemed an offense. Nor did I understand how a Christian could pledge allegiance to a flag or any ideology that was not centered in Christ. Eventually I stopped attending church altogether and returned to finding my main identity in the world rather than Christ.
Doing Time in South Korea
In May 2003, when I was twenty-six, I graduated with a B.A. in international studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That summer, I returned for a fourth and final season to the regional railroad company where I had worked as a track maintainer. I drove spikes, set ties, and laid rail alongside seasoned and grizzled railroaders. In October 2003, during the slow season, I requested a voluntary layoff so I could collect unemployment and pursue work related to my degree.
Since I have an international studies degree, I decided to seek employment abroad. I arrived in Amsterdam and spent most of autumn as a houseguest of Dutch friends. I passed my time patronizing coffee shops and enjoying marijuana’s legal status, journaling and writing poetry, and exploring the city’s museums and canals. I intended to find residence in Warsaw, Prague, or another large Eastern European city and write freelance articles for English-language, expatriate newspapers in the former Soviet bloc. But, as will happen when traveling, my plans changed.
As winter approached, the idea of spending a harsh, snow-laden season in Eastern Europe was replaced by thoughts of sunny Morocco, a country with a rich culture, and one that allowed me to continue cultivating a connoisseur’s taste for cannabis. I trekked vast expanses of the Atlas Mountains, spent several weeks mesmerized by the surreal nature of the sun-scorched Sahara, and rehydrated by lounging in Essaouira and other cities along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. I applied for teaching positions in Casablanca and Marrakech, and looked for Moroccan-based, English-language publications, to no avail. When my unemployment benefits expired, I returned to the United States.
I was rapidly exhausting my savings account and desperately seeking a steady source of income when a friend told me that he was considering teaching in South Korea. He said there was ample opportunity, and the money was good. Korean ESL academies (called hogwon in Korea) even paid for round-trip airfare and housing. After researching ESL academies online, I applied for a teaching position through a recruiter in South Korea. After a series of interviews, I was on my way.
My closest friend in South Korea was my co-worker, Sam, a thirty-year-old Korean American from New York City. He was a confident character with a checkered past. He had studied at NYU as part of a prisoner-education program while serving time at Rikers Island. He had surrendered his U.S. citizenship when he came to Korea about five years earlier as part of a plea bargain to reduce his jail time in America. After a couple of days, Sam asked me, “Do you smoke?” He knew I didn’t smoke cigarettes, so I understood he meant cannabis. “Yep,” I confided. From that point on, Sam and I casually smoked together. Later, I learned that Sam was a dealer and actually made more money selling hashish than he did teaching English.
Three months into my one-year teaching contract, I was sent to a detention center for nearly three months, fined thousands of dollars, and eventually deported for smoking hashish. It was a harsh experience. Dark clouds hovered low and rain drizzled on the day in August 2004 when we were arrested. At the prosecutor’s office in Seoul, we were fingerprinted and photographed. The investigator said we were facing federal criminal charges. Our arrest, it turned out, traced to a drug sale that Sam had made through the mail to a man named James. When James was arrested, he implicated Sam, who in turn gave up the names of people he had smoked with and sold to in an attempt to reduce his own sentence. I was convicted of usage because no drugs were found on my person or in my apartment. Sam was charged with possession and trafficking. We were then taken to Songdong Detention Center.
While serving my time, I read much of the Old Testament and was particularly struck by the story of Jephtah in the Book of Judges. Jephtah was the eldest son, his mother was considered a harlot, and he was deemed an outcast. He ran with bandits and adventurers (depending on the Bible translation) but eventually returned to deliver his people, the Israelites, from the Ammonites. Much tragedy befell Jephtah, but he was used by God. And so I figured that if God could use Jephthah, he might be able to still work through me. Jepthah’s story resonated with me, and I slowly began my journey back to faith in God.
Upon my deportation, I eventually settled in Brooklyn, New York. It was in Brooklyn that I met Vonetta, the woman who would become my wife. Vonetta had moved from Guyana to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn when she was eleven. At the age of sixteen she had her son, Kawansi, who is now a law student at the American University in DC. With support from her mother, Vonetta was able to study business and theater in college. Upon graduating, she worked five years as a case worker with adults who have multiple sclerosis. During that time she worked toward buying a house, and just before we met she purchased a multifamily brownstone. Vonetta occasionally went to church as a child, probably about as much as I did. She identified as Anglican, although that had no deep significance in her spiritual life. When we met, neither of us had any type of spiritual life to speak of. We lived together. She continued her work, and I found my niche as a freelance writer.
A couple of years into our relationship, I was on the A train traveling to meet with an editor when I heard a subway preacher proclaiming the good news. Normally, I would not pay attention to the ranting of what I perceived to be a religious fanatic, but he gave a peculiar message about the true church that began to awaken something deep within me. He explained there is one church, and she is the living, breathing body of Jesus Christ. The subway preacher proclaimed, “The church is not the building where Christians gather on Sunday; rather it is the Christians themselves who gather that makes the Church. The Lord does not want to inhabit a building, but wants to inhabit a people! Christians are the living stones, cut and shaped and fit together, that create the temple of the living God.” He talked about the false church that looms like a shadow over the true church, and how people have been deceived into believing that the false church is the place to find salvation. “The shadow looks powerful, but it is an illusion. The real Church is the community of brothers and sisters united in Christ serving one another, loving one another (and even their enemies), and discovering ways for the Kingdom of God to enter this world.”
It was on the A train listening to this man preach about the true church where I felt the rush of the Holy Spirit wash over me. Others on the train continued about their routine—reading papers, listening to music, chatting—as I did most days. But at that moment, somewhere beneath the East River between the High Street and Delancey Street stops, I had a profound encounter with the Spirit of the Living God. The Spirit filled the entire train car, it filled all time and space, and weighed heavily upon my soul. The Spirit, I realized, had always been fully present. It was I who lacked presence to God. I could not resist turning to my God.
It was at that moment that I had my Pentecost experience. The Spirit of the Lord was upon me. I had confessed Christ and was baptized years earlier, but it was not until that moment that I felt the fullness, severity, and implications of a life at the crux of radical conversion. The Spirit took me to a place of deep consecration, and I felt an urgency to share my experience with any who would listen so that they too might awaken to the presence of the living God. But first I needed to find a way to articulate my experience and newfound freedom. I needed to change my lifestyle and give all to God.
When I returned to the apartment I shared with Vonetta and told her about my experience, she thought I was breaking up with her because I told her I was moving out and I was acting differently. Shortly after my subway conversion, Vonetta also began to experience spiritual transformation. Although her childhood in Guyana was influenced by British colonialism and thus Anglicanism, she did not find much identity in Christianity. Upon moving to New York she attended a Christian summer camp and occasionally went to church, but that was the whole of her Christian experience. My wife had purchased a house shortly before we met, and with the great blessing of becoming a homeowner, she also felt the stress and burden that often accompanies blessing. And so she began to seek refuge and strength in God.
I did not have any Christian friends in New York, so after talking together and doing an online search, Vonetta and I decided to visit a multicultural megachurch. We started by attending a Sunday service and quickly became regulars, rarely missing a Sunday service and attending most midweek prayer meetings. We eventually became members, joined the prayer band, and were active in the evangelism ministry, in which we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge handing out tracts. On occasion, I preached on the subway. My girlfriend was baptized in the church, and we were even married by one of the church’s pastors. During our two years of active membership, we received many blessings and grew in faith.
Our time at the megachurch helped us to establish a spiritual foundation. We learned the importance of prayer, Bible reading, and worship. After a couple of years, however, I hit a plateau in my spiritual growth. I began to feel restless during the service. Church had become a distraction—the building, stage, and lights—from my worship of God.
We began to raise questions: Why was it that one person, the pastor, did the bulk of the speaking? Why did all the people in the pews face the pastor rather than one another? Why did leaders in the church encourage a passive laity, rather than encourage others to develop their many gifts? Did not the Word say that every member of the church has a gift to contribute: a song, a poem, prophecy, a teaching, or word of encouragement? Why was there a distinction between congregation and clergy, when the Scriptures describe a priesthood of all believers?
The Spirit was moving my wife and me to another place. We began to seek God in prayer and search the Scriptures for answers. I recalled the subway preacher whose words first called me back to the church: the church is the people, not the building. It was the realization that God does not want to inhabit a building, but wants to inhabit a people, that led my wife and I to consider how we might be the church, how we might participate in the living, breathing body of Jesus, and how we might help usher in this Kingdom that Jesus says is present and yet breaking in.
We considered what skills, gifts, experiences, and resources we could give to the Kingdom. My wife has a business degree and experience in property management. My experience as a young adult in the cooperative movement was helpful. In 2007, two months after we were married, we opened our brownstone home in Brooklyn to other followers of Jesus. We advertised rooms-for-rent in church bulletins and on Christian websites. We grew quickly; within a year we had three community houses. Today there are a couple dozen members of Radical Living who live in several buildings within a one-block radius of one another.
Our multifamily home quickly filled with believers, and we began to meet for shared meals, Bible study, and prayer. My wife and I decided to visit New Orleans shortly after Katrina and considered planting a church there. When we returned to the little community forming in our home, we realized that God was already doing work in our lives and had given us a ministry. We were still active members of the megachurch. Although I continued to grow in discouragement by the structures of the institutional church, this was not a criticism of just our church, but the church in North America. My wife and I had formed very few deep relationships with other believers at the church and, although the church is charismatic, I felt that my spiritual gifts were stagnated by the hierarchy and institutionalism of the church. It was frustrating to worship God with thousands of other believers in such an individualistic way. We all faced the same direction, raised our hands in worship, closed our eyes to concentrate on God, and every service the pastor would ask the congregants to shake hands or hug the person next to them. My wife and I desired deeper relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but even in the midst of thousands of worshipers, there was a disconnection with those around us.
Eventually we left the megachurch for a neighborhood church. Since we felt called to invest in our neighborhood, we decided it would be best to worship in a church where we could walk on Sunday morning. Gradually, Radical Living became our community of accountability and primary faith community.
Learning from Saints
As the Radical Living community grew, we began to study early church history and look for other communities and movements similar to what we were experiencing. The Book of Acts and letters of the New Testament gave us a view of life in the first church. We also read the Didache, and writings by Tertullian, Pachomius, and Antony. We learned that for the first three hundred years, the church gathered in homes, Christians met each other’s needs, and they sought to be of one heart, one mind, and one accord (Acts 4:32–34).
We discovered that there was a major shift in church practice in the fourth century. In 312 ce, Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. The church shifted from being a Spirit-led movement of the people to a state-funded and state-endorsed religion of empire. When Christ gave up his Spirit on the cross, the veil that separated the people from the Holy of Holies tore in half, allowing all people immediate and intimate access to God through Jesus Christ. When the church became co-opted by Constantine’s religion of empire and domination, the veil was seemingly re-placed over the Holy of Holies.
For the first three centuries, there were Christians who served in the military, but all church leaders taught absolute peace. The church that proclaimed Peace became the church militant, placing crosses on shields before entering battle. Within a couple of decades of Constantine’s conversion, Augustine of Hippo coined the term “Just War,” which was later developed into the Just War theory, the church’s most prominent position on war. A hierarchy developed; bishops, deacons, and priests were approved (and often appointed) by magistrates in the Roman Empire.
Communion shifted from a festive, communal meal to a somber religious observance. With the conversion of Constantine and the co-opting of the church, only a priest was allowed to administer Communion, thus making it nearly impossible, if not illegal, for people to observe Communion in their homes. Churches were built, and the focus shifted from the people who gather to the place where they gather. Creeds were developed in an effort to expel heresy, but there was also a clear political motive: unify the empire. It is notable that Constantine is always in the center of fourth-century artwork depicting the Council of Nicaea.
During this time many Christians moved to the margins of the empire, into the desert, because they did not believe in a so-called Christian nation. Some of these desert fathers and mothers lived alone as hermits (eremitic), but many created communities (cenobitic). The first reference in Roman law to the desert monastics is in regard to them as tax resisters. Many were also considered war resisters or bandits, and some of the women had been notorious prostitutes before joining these desert communities. These desert fathers and mothers insisted on the primacy of love over knowledge, asceticism, prayer, or any other spiritual discipline. This was not a sentimental love but spiritual identification with one’s brother and sister, taking one’s neighbor as one’s self. Vonetta and I were inspired by the practices of these early Christians and sought a return to these early practices.
In our pursuit and self-education of radical Christians and movements, we encountered Francis and Clare, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Jean Vanier, Jesus People, and the most recent incarnation of Christian community in North America, New Monasticism. When Vonetta and I founded Radical Living, we had never heard of New Monasticism, but many people wanted to join us because they had read Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution or had been learning about this movement in other ways. Though in some ways we still remain outside of and occasionally critical of movements like New Monasticism (or the emerging church), we clearly sensed that people were awakening, much as we had, to a new movement of the Spirit. It was a blessing to discover that others in the twenty-first century also felt this call to Christian community. We were glad to meet New Monastics such as Mark Van Steenwyk, Eliacin Rosario-Cruz, Karen Sloan, Shane Claiborne, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. We continue to steep ourselves in the words of our spiritual forebears to allow their rhythms to resonate into our lives. We understand that Christian community is not something new, that we have much to learn from others, yet we also understand that we are called to be faithful in our contribution to building communities.
Christian intentional communities need to be redemptive communities where all, regardless of ethnicity, national identity, or economic status, are invited to participate in the communal rhythm of Christian living. The current generation of progressive Christians has done amazing work in broadening the social agenda among evangelicals, Catholic, Anabaptist, and mainline Christians, but now it is time that we trust what our hearts and minds believe and actively pursue the reconciliation we talk about. The next step, rather than being a voice for the “voiceless,” is to hand the microphone over to indigenous community leaders and ask them to facilitate the conversation so that we might grow and deepen in relationship with one another and with God.
Every one of us in this movement needs to plead with God to make us ministers of reconciliation. We must pray for eyes to see the structural racism perpetuated by unjust policies and a shared history of colonialism and slavery. Some of us will need to repent of inaction and empty rhetoric. Others simply need to heed what the Lord is already speaking to us. All of us will need to advocate affirmative action in our communal houses and actively pursue reconciliation.
We are hopeful that the Christian intentional community movement will be a diverse, Christ-centered, Spirit-led movement. And if all of us in this conversation will extend transparency, grace, and love to one another, we will surely disable the structural racism that has infected the church for far too long. And then we will be able to truly proclaim Jubilee!