Radical writing

Author seeks spiritual revolution, ministers to New York City’s poor

Oct 20, 2014 by and

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Jason Storbakken’s journey to the faith of his Anabaptist ancestors took him not so much to church on Sunday mornings but on a global tour of faiths, classes and cultures.

Jason Storbakken speaks during a chapel service at The Bowery Mission, which serves homeless people in Brooklyn, N.Y., and offers three services a day in addition to a weekly Bible study. — The Bowery Mission

Jason Storbakken speaks during a chapel service at The Bowery Mission, which serves homeless people in Brooklyn, N.Y., and offers three services a day in addition to a weekly Bible study. — The Bowery Mission

The destination he reached — a revolution of simplicity and repentance for collusion with worldly powers — is outlined in his new book, Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revolution (Orbis).

Storbakken is cofounder with his wife, Vonetta, of the Radical Living Christian community in Brooklyn, N.Y., and chapel director of The Bowery Mission, which serves homeless people. He is ordained through Mennonite Church USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference, where the Radical Living intentional community is a member.

But before the ordained life, he grew up in trailer parks and public housing with his teenage mom. He did drugs and occasionally heard tales of long-ago Anabaptist martyrs from a grandfather who left pacifist Hutterite and Mennonite Brethren roots for the certainty of Baptist fundamentalism.

Finding little compelling in his sporadic visits to church, Storbakken sought out meditation, mystics and marijuana. He traveled the world, crossing paths with Hare Krishnas, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafarians and, ultimately, a New York City subway preacher who got through to him with a message that a church is not in a building but in people. Occasional flirtations with Christianity — he was baptized by a Mennonite Breth­ren uncle in India — twirled with ancient writings. Some of them were Jack Kerouac, some were King James.

“I think every step was important,” Storbakken said in a telephone interview. “And I look back when I was with Muslims in Morocco or Hindus in India, there are still things I gleaned from their insights and wisdom teachings that I still apply to my Christian teachings today.”

Digging into faith

Coming to a serious embrace of Christianity relatively late in life, Storbakken — who is 37 now — and his wife began attending a Brooklyn mega­church.

“It was good for my early spiritual formation when I returned to the faith,” he said. “It was good teaching on Sunday mornings for a while, but you hit a plateau, and I knew I had to move.”

Digging into the Bible, testaments Old and New, Storbakken discovered a God angry at injustice and oppression, as well as a complacent America. Politics is a doomed system of division. Empire tempts with comforts and status, much of it racially charged.

“We deny the resurrection when we choose to participate in culture wars rather than the life of Christ,” he writes. “When we blame the poor and oppressed for their situation rather than look deeper for underlying causes; we reject the resurrection when we participate in social and economic systems that dominate whole segments of society.”

The “revolution” the couple discovered was actually a return to radical sentiments of early Christians, a diverse cross-section of society that confronted social injustices. They founded an intentional community in 2007. He began working at a mission for the homeless. Radical Spirituality is a handbook for Radical Living’s outlook on community — counter-cultural fellowship in Christ.

Warren Tyson, Atlantic Coast Conference executive minister, said Radical Living is the conference’s first intentional community. The group lives in a collection of houses and apartments in about a one-block area. Members work to engage the community and meet regularly over prayer and potlucks.

“Jason’s book seems to have opened many doors of ministry and connection well beyond Vonetta and Jason’s original vision of developing an intentional Christian community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn,” Tyson said.

Touching on themes common to writers like Shane Claiborne, Mark Van Steenwyk and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Radical Spirituality, according to Storbakken, probably approaches more directly issues of sexual minorities, race and even class.

“My story is a bit different from theirs,” he said. “I didn’t grow up middle-class, my mom wasn’t Christian, I only went to church with my grandpa, so it’s an outsider perspective. In a way, I was radicalized at a young age because I had a single mom.”
Empire’s injustices drum a steady beat throughout the book. Banks prey on the poor with high interest rates. Wealthy Christians are unconcerned about the homeless.

Racial identity opens doors for certain people and shuts others out. Christian faith is a brand to be marketed. Yet Storbakken’s mood is optimistic.

“Like the kernel coming from the husk, the scriptures are just so clear that we are working with God — for some reason he has decided to partner with us to work with all of creation — so I believe change is happening,” he said. “But we must repent. We have to be angry with injustice but hopeful that God is in control, that there is a resurrection. If I didn’t have faith in the resurrection, it would be very easy to slip into indifference or depression.”


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