Sunday evening Alden and I met with some wonderful people from The Gathering, a United Methodist Church in St. Louis. This small group has been meeting for a while discussing various potential intentional living situations. As a part of that, they’ve been inviting people from different communities all over St. Louis to come and answer questions about what community life is like. It was a joy to share with them about our life here at the Lotus House.

One of the things that we were asked about was what it means for us when it says in our rule that we commit to live in “an area neglected by the Empire.” This language is derived from the first of the “12 marks” of new monasticism. We talked a little bit about how the north city of St. Louis has many issues related to the collapse of community life. Over a few short decades a number of factors, some active and some passive, contributed to the decline of the north city.

We talked about the problem of abandoned housing and services. Everywhere you go in the north city you see abandoned houses, vacant lots, empty churches, and boarded-up school buildings. Alden recently attended a meeting for the urban planning of St. Louis. At the meeting, they distributed maps highlighting with pink the public owned vacant properties (perhaps Alden will post about this in more detail later). There was barely any pink in the south city, but north of Delmar Boulevard, there was pink everywhere. All of this visible abandonment speaks to the reality in north city.

Our street is one of the few stable blocks in the neighborhood, but all around us there are people struggling with financial difficulties, with familial dissolution, with addictions, and with the effects of violence. In the midst of all of this, here we are, one small house on the corner. It is hard to feel like something big is happening here. We are just a few people who live together, pray together, eat together, and work together. Can we really restore an abandoned place of the empire? Can we really overturn the whole society in this place so that love and faithfulness embrace, so that justice and peace kiss? For, looking around, that is what we need, not small changes, but big ones—not cosmetic adjustments, but resurrection.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the need given our own smallness. But it’s essential to remember how God works, oftentimes not through those who are powerful and in control, but for those who are small and overwhelmed. The words of Fr. Gerhard Lohfink, from his incredible book, Does God Need The Church?come to mind. Scripture, Fr. Lohfink argues, should push us to be completely dissatisfied with the way the world is, with the abandonment of people and places like north St. Louis. At the same time, he holds that Scripture should also push us to pursue a different kind of answer to this problem than the world can conjure. In Scripture, God works by calling a people through the obedience of one man and his wife. Through generations, this people becomes a community capable of receiving Jesus Christ, thereby overturning the death that had reigned in the world. God has a long view. As we eagerly anticipate the unveiling of Christ’s already-present new age, God is still working through small people in small places. Fr. Lohfink writes,

God, like all revolutionaries, desires the overturning, the radical alteration of the whole society—for in this the revolutionaries are right: what is at stake is the whole world, and the change must be radical, for the misery of the world cries to heaven and it begins deep within the human heart. But how can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom?

It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have an opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed.

Clearly this change in the world must begin in human beings, but not at all by their seeking through heroic effort to make themselves the locus of the new, altered world; rather it begins when they listen to God, open themselves to God, and allow God to act.

Here at the Lotus House, we do not try to change everything that is wrong with our neighborhood, as though through herculean effort we could recreate the north city. Such a task is too big for our small hands. Rather, we simply try to become a place marked by hospitality, grace, laughter and prayer; we try to be a place where the salvation of the world becomes visible in meals shared and in songs sung. We try to open ourselves to God, trusting in God to transform us over time into what the world is supposed to be.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Mark 4:30–32