By John Fitch
I'm a Quaker pastor from Richmond, Indiana and I'm working on a doctorate in Neo-Monastic studies. The new monastic moment is not really all that new. Bonhoeffer coined the term Neo-Monasticism in 1945 and lot of people have been experimenting with the idea of divesting and moving in with the poor to pray with them and serve them as an equal. The idea really comes from the Gospel following Jesus' example of living amongst the poor and outcast and being totally dependent on God for he and his disciples needs.
For me it happened spontaneously. I became a starving student again in 2000 when I chose a mid-life career change from Social Work to ministry and started at the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. By necessity I moved into the poorest neighborhood in Richmond and I decided to do my ministry internship at the Episcopal church one block away from my house. During my internship I got to know my neighbors who didn't feel right about going to the Episcopal Church because they didn't dress like the Episcopalians who drove in from the suburbs - and some of them didn't smell so good, which was a problem. The neighborhood people did feel comfortable at my little condo and it became a hub for social gatherings, prayer services and meals together. My table was made for six people and when the thirteenth person came I knew we would need a bigger place. I found the right place around the corner form my condo. It was a huge 100 year old house built for entertaining with two gigantic dining rooms and five bedrooms upstairs. I knew right away I was supposed to buy it and start my ministry there.
The only problem was I only had $312.00 in my checking account. The realtor convinced me I could get 100% financing so I put in an offer. It turned out I would need a $10,000.00 down payment and I said to myself, "there's no way." Then the miracles started to happen. Two days later another relator knocked on my door and said she sold a condo in my building and has two other buyers who missed out and wanted to know I would sell mine for $7,500.00 more than I paid for it. I went back to the bank to see if they would take that for the down payment and I got a resounding, “No, you need $10,000.00, or no loan”. As I left the parking lot I paused for moment with both hands on the steering wheel. I said, “God I think you want me to do this, but your going to have to help me out by finding me another $2,500.00”. Thirty seconds later I got hit by a car. Nobody was seriously hurt and because it was not my fault I got a settlement from the insurance company for $2,500.00. I bought the house and with the help of friends from ESR we named it Renaissance House. We hung our shingle out on the porch and the ministry took off like a shot.
I've had a lot of careers. My first one was trade school when I was teenager. I learned home improvement and repairs and made good living with my hands while I took classes in junior college at night. After competing my general education course work, I transferred to San Diego State and majored in Social Work so I could work as a drug counselor for troubled youth and mentally ill people. My spiritual journey took me to Nicaragua to do peace work during the Contra war and after that I relocated with my wife and kids to Missouri where became a dog trainer. My last job was teaching in Puerto Rico with Catholic nuns who inspired me to be a minister.
I'm now using all the skills I've learned along the way. I use my handyman skills to renovate the houses and I hire out some to help support us which also give the younger guys some work as I often need a helper. I help Spanish speaking people with translations especially when they go to court. I lead the prayer services and help cook and clean. I'm the neighborhood chaplain. I do weddings and funerals, and I visit people when they are in jail. I provide a safe haven for people being beaten or abused everyone knows if they are in trouble they can run to my house and nobody will follow them in.
The rooms in my house are filled with mentally ill men - couples and women live in the apartments next door. We are sponsored by the Quaker and Episcopal churches and attend services at both. We get some funding for utilities from the Quakers but are primarily self-supporting through the rent payments of those who have and income, as well as some money I raise doing handy work. We do dog training and everyone is given a dog to care for while they are at the house, just like in the New Skete monastic community. We also have morning prayer services and breakfast for everyone as well as a mid week Common Meal and worship.
I am currently spending a year living at the New Skete community, to learn about dog training, but especially about how to be a monk. I want to take the monastic way of being back into the world and be a Quaker monk. People say to me all the time. “I didn't know Quakers have monks”. To which I say, “They do now”.
John Fitch is the founder of the Renaissance House community and is an alumnus of ESR. He is currently studying in the Doctor of Ministry program at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology and is participating in a one year internship with the monks of New Skete training dogs and learning about traditional monasticism. In his spare time he enjoys photography.