In my role as a writer–and especially in my role as an editor–I get to interact with a lot of interesting and admirable people. I get to read a lot of important books and learn from others about what God is teaching them and what he calls us to. This is one of the things I love best about what I do.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of interaction with Jamie Arpin-Ricci, who definitely fits in both categories: interesting and admirable. He’s also engaged in some high-commitment ministry among brothers and sisters affected by mental illness, and I wanted to learn more about that, so I interviewed him.
Jamie is pastoral leader at Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg. You can learn more about him (and his challenging book) at the end of this interview.
Tell us about your church, Little Flowers Community.
Little Flowers Community was something of a miracle. We didn’t set out to start it, but rather made some commitments to live life in certain ways in our inner-city neighbourhood, namely by practicing hospitality–finding ways to open up our homes and our heart to others. The church just seemed to happen after that.
While we are far from perfect, Little Flowers has been the most genuine experience of church and community I have ever had–and it is perhaps those very imperfections and how we navigate them that make it so special. While our weekly worship gathering (with a shared meal as the center of that time) is important, our church is defined by a deeper commitment to share life together. To that end, most of our members live in the neighbourhood and more than half choose to share life in some expression of intentional community (i.e., co-housing). So if there is one word to describe us, I think it would be fair to say it is “belonging.”
In your book The Cost of Community, you confront the Western church in several ways. One is this: “Fueled by consumerism and bolstered by individualism, we have truly become enslaved to another master.” You dig deep into the Beatitudes to understand Jesus’ counterculture perspective. How can understanding the beatitudes serve as an antidote to our largely unquestioned pursuit of wealth?
With over-familiarity, Scripture often loses its edge for us. When we read the Beatitudes closely, Jesus can come off sounding a little crazy. Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who suffer? His words are not only counter-cultural, but they are counterintuitive. And perhaps that is one of the most important things to realize: that our natural impulses, which seem reasonable, seem to be the things that Jesus often confronts.
Consider this: It is only logical that a small amount of contaminant in our water supply taints all the water. This sound logic extended itself into concepts of spiritual purity for the people of Jesus’ day (as it still does today). Yet Jesus frequently reversed this logic. Where once people would have to be pure and whole to enter into the temple–into the presence of God–now they are made pure and whole by the very act of entering God’s presence (Matthew 21:14).
In the same way, our inclination is to rely on material wealth for both protection and pleasure, which seems to be only logical. Yet Jesus invites us into a life of radical obedience–of generosity, self-sacrifice and service–which requires that we follow a path of contrite repentance. The Beatitudes invite us into that journey.
Little Flowers has recently launched a new initiative, intended to support people with mental illness. What is Chiara House about?
As I mentioned earlier, co-housing is an important expression of community that our church encourages. As our church continued to build relationship with people in our neighbourhood, namely those living with mental illness, the appeal of this kind of supportive community was evident. Yet our capacity in the few houses we had was maxed out quickly.
As a small-inner city church that only opened a bank account four years into our time together, the idea of providing such housing seemed impossible. But we put the dream out there and were amazed at how the wider Christian community has come together to make Chiara House a reality. We are renovating a small apartment building in our neighbourhood which will offer affordable, safe, and dignified housing. A third of the suites will be designated for people working towards greater stability with their mental health. And another third of the residents will be Christians who voluntarily choose to share life there, to be supportive neighbours and friends. Of course, as is often the case, those boundaries are blurred and many of our most supportive residents are those living with mental illness themselves, a beautiful witness to the power of God to transform lives.
We are still renovating and need a lot of support. You can find more information at ChiaraHouse.ca/.
What drove your community to pursue this new ministry?
As I mentioned earlier, the nature of our church has been one of hospitality, where a huge emphasis is placed on inviting people to genuinely belong. For many people with mental illness, this a rare thing. Their friendship has taught us so much, playing a huge role in our plans for Chiara House.
However, there were two men who made the deepest impact. The first was Andrew, a member of Little Flowers who lived with untreated mental illness. Early in our church’s formation, Andrew’s illness overwhelmed him and he publicly took his own life in front of several of us. It was heartbreaking, but drove home the need for the church to get past the ignorance, fear, and stigma around mental health.
The second person is Jimmy, a homeless young man who chooses to live his life on the road, hitchhiking across the country. Jimmy also lives with untreated mental illness, making it difficult for him to get into programs and shelters. When we first met him, it was winter in our city–and we live in the coldest city in the world with more than 500,000 people, in other words, deadly. We invited Jimmy to live with us instead of on the street, which he has off and on for several years. When Jimmy saw that we loved and accepted him despite the oddities and difficulties of his illness, he embraced us as his community. When he is in secure and supportive housing and community, his mental health stabilizes dramatically.
It is because of these two men–and others like them–that we have embraced the vision of Chiara House.
What do you hope Chiara House will accomplish, and how do you think this ministry might influence Little Flowers? might influence other churches?
Our hope is that Chiara House will extend the stability and welcome of our hospitality to more people in our community. As the influences of gentrification begin to displace low-income people from the neighbourhood (which exacerbates the instability of those with mental illness), we hope to counter that with more places of constant stability.
Further, the building will become something of a hub for our service and ministry to the community. We have put in two full bathrooms in the basement across from the laundry room, providing us with the means to invite people in who need to get warm, clean up, and get some food. One suite in the building will be designated as a hospitality room–that is, it will be available for those in need, whether it be an abused wife needing secure housing or a friend like Jimmy, passing through but needing a safe, welcoming place to sleep.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is a writer and inner-city pastor whose passion is to pursue radical faithfulness to Jesus in the context of true community. He is the author of The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press), in which he invites readers into a life of obedience to Jesus? teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, exploring the text through the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his church, Little Flowers Community. You can learn more about Jamie here.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.