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The beauty in the mess

Following Jesus and finding community

by Sarah White

Belonging to the community of faith:We value integrity in relationships and mutual accountability in an atmosphere of grace, love, and acceptance.

I was born in Santa Barbara, California—gorgeous, clean, sunny Santa Barbara. Eight years ago, I bought a home in Kensington, a notoriously poor and drug-ridden section of Philadelphia, Pa. For the first few years I lived here, trash would rain into my backyard from neighboring rooftops (cereal boxes, half-eaten chicken wings, used diapers, you name it). I’ve been asked countless times why anyone would leave Santa Barbara for Philadelphia. The answer, paradoxically, is that Jesus invited me into something richer.

I was first exposed to the concept that Jesus can be seen in the face of the poor when I was 16. Four years later, in college, I started attending Circle of Hope and found a common mission for peace and social justice, living simply, living in community, and caring about the poor. A year or so later, a number of us bought houses in Kensington to plant another congregation and build a communal life together.

We transformed an abandoned dental office into a place of worship. We cleaned out thousands of old dental records and swept up rat and pigeon skeletons. Our first public meeting was in January, and we didn’t have any heat, so we bundled up around a couple of space heaters and worshipped God.

At first, it was very challenging to live on our block. Our neighbors seemed, and most likely were, suspicious of us. It was hard for me to sleep at night. There were so many noises that were unfamiliar, the most bothersome of which was the sound of neighbors fighting. One night we watched from our third floor window as a group of teenagers broke into and hot-wired our housemate’s car; we were too afraid to go outside and ask them to stop. And then there was the time—rather, two times—our neighbor’s house was set on fire by an angry tenant. I remember standing outside our house as our neighbors poured out onto the street, seven fire trucks came to the scene, and black smoke spilled out the front windows of our neighbor’s home. I was scared. But I was not alone.

We, our community of faith, were together in this. There are at least 50 Circle of Hope members within six blocks of where I live. Neighborhood disasters, small and large, are significantly more bearable in this context. We belong. We face the realities and brokenness of our neighborhood and ourselves with openness and grace. We are neighbors and friends. We watch each other’s kids, bring new parents meals, participate in block clean-ups, mourn losses, express frustrations, encourage face-to-face dialogue around conflict, and gather to watch ridiculous television shows.

Part of belonging to a community, for me, is accepting its messiness along with its beauty. Accepting that I will be disappointed by people, and that I will disappoint others. But I’m in it for the long haul. And I anticipate, confidently, that Jesus will continue to meet us here.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Sarah White

Sarah White is a doctor of clinical psychology, wife of a tattoo artist, mother to a 4-year-old and second child on the way, and a covenant member of Circle of Hope Frankford and Norris (Philadelphia, Pa.).

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