Shane Claiborne lives in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Kensington. The neighborhood used to be a thriving industrial district, but now it’s known for poverty, for the drugs and prostitution that fill the streets, for abandoned factories and homes. Claiborne says that locals call it “the badlands.”
“I tell them, ‘You better be careful if you call some place “the badlands,” because that’s exactly what they said about Nazareth, and look what showed up!’ That Jesus came from a neighborhood where they said nothing good could come from has a lot to teach us,” Claiborne told a capacity crowd in Glenn Memorial Auditorium during his October visit to Candler.
Claiborne, a best-selling author and sought-after speaker, rose to prominence with his 2006 book, The Irresistible Revolution: Life as an Ordinary Radical, which chronicled, in part, his life in Kensington. As a college student at Eastern University in Philadelphia, he became involved in advocating for a group of homeless families who were living in an abandoned Kensington cathedral and facing eviction from the archdiocese. He then took up residence in the neighborhood himself, as he and a group of friends bought an abandoned house and formed an intentional community known as The Simple Way.
“People ask me, ‘How did you choose Kensington?’ Kensington chose me,” Claiborne said in an interview after his lecture. “I fell in love with the families in the neighborhood. I fell in love with these people’s struggles and had a desire to make them my own. I saw unfulfilled hope. There were glimpses of the kingdom, but it wasn’t fully present.”
“Unfulfilled hope” isn’t a phrase you find in many Realtors’ sales pitches, but Claiborne said that adversity makes his community—and the people within it—stronger.
“I’ve heard it said that strength in neighborhoods creates competition, while weakness in neighborhoods creates community,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some studies show the wealthiest neighborhoods have the highest rates of suicide and loneliness.”
Though Claiborne often hears gunshots or arguments from neighboring row houses, he takes comfort in actually knowing his neighbors—a rarity in many urban areas in this day and age.
“One of the things that’s true in our neighborhood is that you can’t hide,” he said. “If someone is fighting with someone else, it gets into the streets; it gets into the air. But that protects people. Our neighborhood has come together to disarm conflicts and help people in bad situations. When we know what happens behind closed doors, we can get things resolved without things like guns and jail.”
But he was quick to point out that it’s not all doom and gloom, despite Kensington’s impoverished and crime-ridden state. Claiborne said that block parties and Bible studies are frequent happenings in the neighborhood. Those who are able come together to work in community gardens and help local kids with their homework.
Claiborne said that this style of neighborhood living reflects what he learned from the book of Acts about the early church: Everyone shared what they had so there was plenty to go around. Those ideals inform his definition of a good neighbor.
“A good neighbor is taking care of other people as you would want to be taken care of. Neighbors take what they have and give it to others. We can all offer something. Mother Teresa said once that it’s not how much you give, it’s how much love you put into giving it, and some of the most generous neighbors give small things with great love.”
Claiborne referenced another book of the Bible when asked what he hopes his neighborhood will look like in a decade.
“I think of the verses in Revelation about the New Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s powerful that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, a city brought back to life. In New Jerusalem, the gates are left open. There’s no fear. There’s freedom for everyone to share. There’s no hoarding of resources. It’s a beautiful thing to worry less about locks, gates, security. To know people have enough and don’t have to worry about stealing or being stolen from. I’d like to grow more food, ride more bikes. I love seeing abandoned spaces come back to life.”
Moving into an abandoned house in a rough neighborhood isn’t for everyone, but Claiborne offered these words of advice for people in more stable communities: “Get out of the house, get out of the cubicle, get beyond the picket fence—beyond these real and artificial layers of insulation we have. It’s going to involve exercising new muscles, which might feel awkward at first. We’re not used to people mowing our lawn, bringing us cookies, sharing what they have, but in doing those things we create cracks where love can get in. We all long to love and be loved.”
Shane Claiborne’s favorite spot in Kensington is his roof, where he can see the whole neighborhood and hear the local kids playing.