Secretary And Founder
President and founder
Epiphany 2006 Building a Community
by Russ Carmichael
I came to New London, Conn. three years ago, interrupting my journey to a monastic community of which I am an oblate member in St. David, Arizona, where I had planned to spend my declining years. I came because my daughter had been seriously injured in a sports accident ten days after entering the U. S. 'Coast Guard Academy. Annjea represents all I have left in this world, and the last of what I have to let go.
Because of medical problems of my own I was advised not to make the trip. More concerned with the welfare of my child than my own, I came anyway. I drove straight through from Seattle, Wash., to New London. When I arrived, I had no money and no place to stay. My disability checks would not catch up with me for another three weeks and I had no base from which to support my daughter.
She had totally shattered her right wrist, was under the influence of extreme medication, and had gone through surgery to rebuild the wrist. All kinds of metal equipment were drilled into her arm to keep everything in place.
Meanwhile I was seriously distressed. My health was causing me trouble and I had used up the three days at an inexpensive motel that I received from benefactors. I prayed earnestly to Christ to help me get through. I feared I would have a breakdown without His help. What I received in answer to my prayer was something I neither expected nor wanted.
I was spiritually - directed, at two 0' clock one morning, to dress in clerical clothing and go downtown to a park I had never seen, to people I did not know. I was directed by the One I call Holy Spirit to minister to the people who were there. From this beginning (unbelievable to some) has come the development of a coalition ministry of homeless and marginalized people in New London and the building of a spiritual/Christian community.
I was glad to be asked to write an article about the Homeless Coalition as a community in the light of the Word of God, the Gospel, and to have the chance to explain how I chose this Christian frame of organizing and living. For many it is hard to understand why I have been blessed to effect change in people who have been cast aside by our society, how this change lasts, and how the community members try to live in obedience to God's call.
I started effecting change in people and communities in the prison movement in 1968, and continue to this day. In the early days I did not know what I was doing. I studied the Bible as an atheist. I was an, abused Roman Catholic who left the church and God behind in my teen years. I hated all priests, nuns, and other religious figures and felt they were fools who believed in fairy tales. I did study enough to learn that a man named Jesus had lived in the first century and been executed for treason by the Roman Empire. But I could quickly point out that the gospels were not written until at least 90 to 150 years after he died, by anonymous writers who certainly were not folks this Jesus had hung out with. But what I liked about this guy was that he was an organizer and he clearly changed the world, developed a great crew around himself to carry on his radical work, so whether fairy tale or not I could learn something from his organizing ability and use it for my benefit in the crappy prison system I found myself and my associates in.
While studying Jesus, I found he did everything upside down. He was not organizing the rich or the middle class, he was dealing with the poor; the labor class. He was not affecting the healthy, he was going after the sick, the disabled, and those in need. I liked this guy. They called him God. As I studied, I would think this is the kind of God I need, someone who could guide me, help me, get me out of this crappy life I had built for myself.
He said the Kingdom was now (Matthew 13). So I took it literally and said I could change this prison and get the things I needed. I just needed others to help me. To make a long story short, I got help and we made a prison movement that got a lot of change. But it was about us, not Jesus. I got to be a leader in the prison movement in the late '60's and through the '70's. I liked serving others, and I went along liking the man Jesus and his Way.
Becoming a Disciple
In 1974 Jesus got me! I had a Damascus Road experience. Why me? To this day I do not have the answer. But that experience gave me the understanding and belief not by faith but by knowledge born from experience that God is, God exists. It has taken me another thirty years to grow into a disciple of Christ. I took and still take the call to "follow me" literally (Mark 1: 1620). I was aware this call was not for everyone, for "many are called, few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14). The story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30) helped better understand what following Jesus meant: not just loving him but giving up all for him.
Core Community/Radical Community
When I originally did this article there was no need for me to write about the core community I build through Christ. Dr. John Vincent, of the Urban Theology Unit, University of Sheffield, England, describes perfectly what we do and how we try to live in his book Radical Christianity: A Manifesto and Guide Book. He, of course, derives his description from the same source we developed our community from: the Bible. "All who trusted were together and had all things in-common. They sold their possessions and goods, and gave out the proceeds to others, as according to needs. Daily they were together in the temple" - our work is the expression of our worship! - "and then they would break bread together at their homes, eating with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having everyone's goodwill" (Acts 2:44-47).
We are a family, a body of people dedicated to Jesus and his work. Through this dedication comes change in persons and places. The model of what John Vincent calls "Kingdom-style" community is not new, nor do we attempt to re-invent the wheel. Our core community that lives in common requires a very serious commitment to following Christ, leaving everything behind and focusing on the world of helping the poor and marginalized. In this walk we support one another. All our people at one time or another have been homeless, several suffer from disabilities. The whole community shares in the care of one seriously disabled individual. As yet we do not live in a common house; our goal is more of a cooperative apartment style situation.
Our Greater Community
For all of us, our greater community, extended family if you will, is the movements we are involved with politically and the service we do with our brothers and sisters who are in prison, homeless, and marginalized. Christ said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick," and, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:12-13). We serve those in need. We are all outcasts from our society in one way or another. But we build on the “Kingdom of God” in the here and now. We do not wait on God's return. Jesus is here and fully present to us every day. Many of us don't attend any church, but we gather daily in his name and do the work he asks of us.
"Follow me," he said.
Russ Carmichael is founder and president of the New London Grassroots Homeless Coalition and a leader in the homeless ministry St. Francis House is privileged to be part of.