The Simple Way

| August 29, 2018 | 0 Comments

Fuller Center riders enter the offices of The Simple Way.

At the start of each day on the Fuller Center Cross Country Bike Adventure, we have a “circle up,” where we get basic information about the ride ahead and, sometimes but not always, information about where we will be staying, which is almost always a church.  As we get to the end of the ride, my senses are heightened.  I begin take in the neighborhood to get some idea what the next 12 to 15 hours will be like.  I generally hope we will be near a commercial area where the basic needs are within walking distance, particularly things like IPA beer and ice cream.  You know, the staples.  I will also be interested in learning about the accommodations.  Will this be a big church with lots of room for our sleeping pads?  Or will we be tightly packed?  Will it have a lot of electrical outlets for all our rechargeable electronics, bike lights, smart phones, Apple watch, bike speaker, supplemental batteries, etc.  Will it have air conditioning?  How many bathrooms?  In-house showers or will we be shuttling offsite (and will the showers have hot water)?  A kitchen?  Will there be a welcoming committee of church members who can tell us about the town?  Will they be serving food?  Or will we just be handed the key and told to lock up when we leave?

The fact is that, after riding 70 plus miles on a bike, the answer to these questions are mostly academic.  It’s nice when we have a lot of creature comforts, but mainly what I want at that point is to stop riding a bike. Everything else is gravy.   For me, the exception is cold showers.  I HATE cold showers.  Every ride I’ve been on has had one or two.  It’s almost enough to keep me from coming back.  Almost.

For the most part, however, even the most Spartan accommodations are completely satisfactory.  If it has a clean place to lie down, a hot shower, either on or offsite,  and an edible meal, I’m happy.

As we circled up in Phoenixville for the ride to Philadelphia, we had some clues that this stay was going to be different.  We were told that we’d be staying at a “place of business” instead of a church.  But we got no information on what type of business.  Our host would be an organization called “The Simple Way,” a covenant partner of the Fuller Center, located outside the center of Philadelphia.  That was it.  No problem.  So, we got on our bikes for the 68 mile ride at about 8:30 am.

Riders circle up in the garage where we slept

I arrived at the destination at about 2:30 pm and it was an auto repair shop in a very depressed neighborhood of Philadelphia called Kensington.  We walked our bikes through a garage bay into a side room with a set of somewhat rickety stairs to the second floor where we would be staying.  The top of the stairs was a very dusty attic-like room that was completely unfinished.  A couple of ancient Mac computers sat on a shelf, some rusted signs hung on the wall and various other debris was strewn about on the floor.  My heart sank.  I couldn’t imagine getting a night’s sleep in such a place.  Fortunately, we kept walking through a set of double doors and entered a finished office space with some cubicles, wall to wall carpeting and air conditioning.  Completely comfortable.  Whew!

There was a lesson in this that I had to keep learning for this particular stop.  “Things are not as they seem!”

As always, the first order of business is showers.  We set off from the garage to the offices of The Simple Way, located in a townhouse about half a mile away.  I was still processing first impressions, mostly negative.  There was quite a bit of trash littering the sidewalks and many of the residents sitting on their stoops fanning themselves for relief from the 90 degree heat.  Honestly, all the people I saw seemed damaged in one way or another.  Some were obese others emaciated.  Near The Simple Way office, a hydrant was opened providing a makeshift water sprinkler for the children.  It ran continuously the whole time we were in the neighborhood.

As I waited my turn for one of the two showers available I began to get acquainted with the staff of The Simple Way.  Maria, a transplanted New Yorker with the accent to prove it, handled administrative tasks for the organization and many of its clients.  She also prepared our lunch and dinner later that evening.  Miguel was described as an “elder” of the neighborhood, though he was a young man, maybe forty years old.  He has the distinction of living in the first “Fuller Center house” in Philadelphia with his teenage daughter.  He’s also the chief builder, electrician, plumber, carpenter, etc., etc., etc.  And he is the quintessential Fuller Center homeowner in that he has “paid it forward” by investing in each of the subsequent Fuller Center homes in Philadelphia.

Shane shows us a construction tool they made from a melted-down assault rifle

After my shower, I rejoined some of the other bikers across the street from the office in the townhouse where Shane Claiborne, a founding partner of The Simple Way, lived.  Shane is a tall Tennessean in his forties with a very easy manner.  He wears black rimmed glasses and sports a goatee.  His wife, Katie is a small, spritely young woman with a vivacious personality.  Both have Southern accents that locate their origins  outside Philadelphia.  Yet, both are fully and tightly integrated into this community which becomes readily apparent when you walk down the street with them and observe the nonstop greetings from their neighbors.

As we walked back to the garage, I asked Shane to tell me his story.   How long had he lived in Philadelphia and what brought him there?  He went to college at Eastern University in Philadelphia and fell in love with the community of Kensington and stayed.  He’s been there for 20 years.  As I looked around at the decrepit houses, the dirty streets, the damaged people, I was puzzled.  “Fell in love”?! I didn’t know whether to genuflect before him or recommend counseling.  I had already forgotten the lesson of the garage accommodations and was soon to learn that Shane’s community was among the most extraordinary places I had ever visited, on or off the bike.

Shane is the embodiment of the phrase “Think globally, act locally.”  We are conditioned to measure the success of an organization by its rate of growth.  Many nonprofits we admire started small and grew either financially, geographically or by some other quantitative metric.  I asked Shane what the size of his service area is?  He said, “Walking distance.”  After 20 years?  The Simple Way does not go wide, it goes deep.

It is impossible to capture the beauty of The Simple Way in a blog post.  I lived with them for 36 hours and my view of the organization and the neighborhood was transformed during that short time.  As the name implies, The Simple Way is less a service organization than a “way” of life.  Shane, Katie, Miguel and Maria have committed themselves to this small neighborhood and are determined to improve the lives of the people who live there.  The stories are remarkable and involve challenges both big and small.  Among the big challenges was the resilience they showed 10 years ago when the neighborhood suffered a catastrophic fire that destroyed 5 houses on one block.  the city set up a temporary shelter to house the victims. But, as a result of The Simple Way’s community-building, nobody showed up.  Neighbors welcomed all the victims into their homes.   The stories also include daily expressions of love and kindness.  The joy I witnessed during my brief stay was extraordinary and affected me deeply.

For our part, the Fuller Center riders offered a day of service to The Simple Way, which they accepted

The Fuller Center Demolition Team with Shane in the middle

gratefully.  One group gave out groceries.  Another worked in an urban garden. Mine was the “demolition team.”  We prepared an abandoned house the organization had acquired for renovation, which meant stripping it to the studs and transporting a half a ton of refuse to the dump.  It was hard, dirty work done on a hot day.  And it was very gratifying.

I can’t stop thinking about The Simple Way.  It had a profound effect on what my thinking about what is important in life.  As I have aged, I have come to the conclusion that giving of oneself to others is the surest path to happiness and joy, in the spiritual sense.  What The Simple Way taught me is that scale does not matter.  We all want to have a large impact in this life, but the size of the impact is less important than the depth of our commitment.  Even if our efforts only help those within walking distance.




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