Roommates for Jesus

Nov 11 2014 | 02:03 AM

    Alissa Moore works the griddle, preparing a batch of steaming pancakes to go with a bowl of fresh strawberries. By 7 a.m. Vonetta Storbakken is brewing a pot of herbal tea, and her husband Jason Storbakken is sitting on the couch, reading quietly. It’s Friday morning at 32 Hart Street, a nondescript four-story brownstone on a quiet, tree-lined street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the Morning Prayer meeting is getting off to a lazy start.

    “Can we lift up a prayer for my grandfather?” says Jason, a tall 31-year-old with a wide, welcoming smile. “He was diagnosed with pre-cancer a few weeks ago.”

    “In the name of Jesus, I ask that you extend my grandfather’s life like Hezekia!”

    Jason follows this up with another prayer for a neighbor whose son was recently diagnosed with lead poisoning.

    Alissa pours more batter on the frying pan, and after executing a perfect 180-degree pancake flip, asks that everybody pray for the residents of a nearby nursing home, a local food cooperative and cab drivers out in the city during their morning commute.

    “Father God, I pray for those involved in the dispute about the dog park,” pipes in Greg Halstead, 26, eyes closed and hands folded together in prayer. Greg, a young Americorps teacher at a bilingual middle school in Bushwick, arrived last, more than a little damp after an early morning jaunt in the morning drizzle with his adopted dog, Moby. “May there be reconciliation, and may you subdue some of the anger that people have about losing a bit of their barbecue space, so that neighborhood dogs have more space to run free.”

    On a bookshelf, copies of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and On the Road sit above a well-worn copy of the King James Bible and a book of collected poems by Rumi. The walls are decked out with a hodgepodge of watercolor paintings, two of which are portraits of Vonetta and Jason, painted by Jason’s grandmother. When a steaming pile of pancakes and fruit is finally laid out on the table, a hearty round of “Amens” rises up around the room.

    “I’m a pretty introverted person,” says Vonetta, 34. She’s eight months pregnant, and her swollen belly cuts a contrast to her lithe figure. The mellow lilt of her accented English betrays her roots in Guyana, where she was born, before moving to Brooklyn as a young girl. “Living in this community helps me get out of my personal space, to share more of myself.”

    Vonetta and the others are taking part in a form of cohabitation that few young New Yorkers could fathom: communal living with a religious twist. She’s sharing the experience with her husband Jason and a miscellany of 17 other working people and students, three dogs and a cat. It is a multiracial bunch, mostly made up of non-native New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties. The residents call their experiment in faithful cohabitation “Radical Living.”

    They are born-again Christians turned off by the trappings—physical, philosophical and political—of the suburban mega-church and conservative mainstream evangelism who have found each other amidst the pressures of New York City living. Dedicated to getting back to basics, to ministering the gospel quietly from the ground up, members of the group are fond of reminding each other that “radical” is a word that has biological origins, meaning “arising from the root.” While seemingly isolated and underground, this community represents an inkling of a broader shift in the evangelical movement—renegade branches of which are increasingly embracing climate change, poverty reduction and compassionate politics as their touchstone issues.

    “A lot of my friends back home, when I try to explain to them how we live, they ask, ‘Oh so you live in a halfway house?” says Matthew Holloman, 30, who moved in to the community in February, from Wichita, KS. For Matthew, the house created an immediate community and a ready-made social life in a large, intimidating city. When he found the apartment post on a Christian website, he didn’t quite know what to expect, but he’s convinced that he’s in the right place—and that God brought him here for a reason. Back in Kansas, where he and his former housemates all attended the same evangelical mega-church, Matthew began to chafe against the uniformity of opinion. The Radical Living community offers him a different kind of refuge in an often fiercely secular city.

    “Up until now, I think I’ve been living how other people wanted me to,” says Matthew. “The part of the Midwest that I’m from, if you’re a Christian, you’re a Republican. Here a lot of those things are being challenged: how to respond to war, to poverty, to abortion.”

    At Radical Living, these left-leaning political and social concerns are discussed, dissected and prayed over at the weekly potlucks, reading group meetings, prayer meetings and film screenings, all of which are detailed in the community’s online events calendar. While their website describes a group of people, “dedicated to living a meditative, prophetic and prayerful life, centered in Christ, engaged in our neighborhood, concerned with social justice, and led by the Holy Spirit,” their Facebook profile advertises an affinity with like-minded communities around the country with names like The Simple Way, The Mustard Seed House and the Ecclesia Collective.

    Like backpackers who meet each other at youth hostels, coffee shops and dive bars to share stories from the road, progressive in-the-know evangelical pilgrims travel regularly among these communities, meeting each other in these safe spaces of fellowship and devout faith. At the Hart Street house, there is a permanent “hospitality” bedroom where these “pilgrims” from around the country are invited to spend the night.

    Many of the residents hold jobs as educators or social workers and occupy their spare time with volunteer work. Jason serves meals at the Bowery Mission every Wednesday evening. Alissa Moore, 23, recent graduate of Skidmore College, volunteers at a local nursing home and for a while was organizing Dumpster dives to salvage “God’s harvest” and highlight the waste of food in the city where over a million New Yorkers rely on emergency food programs to feed their families. She is now in the process of starting up a fair-trade import company in partnership with Cambodian craftspeople she met on a recent trip there. Vonetta’s dream is to buy another property nearby and open a rent-free house for women exiting prison to help them get back on their feet. The community also puts out a newsletter called Agape Times (“agape” means “love” in Greek), which they distribute around the neighborhood.

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    The Radical Living story begins with the Storbakkens. One day in the fall of 2006 Jason Storbakken was headed uptown toward the offices of High Times, the magazine for cannabis enthusiasts, where he worked as a freelance writer and editor. At the time, he was also an occasional connoisseur of the stuff. In the crowded A train that rumbled through the bowels of Gotham during morning rush hour, an older West Indian man stepped on to the train at Fulton Street and started preaching the gospel.

    He preached about the “true church,” lamenting the fact that so many people have deviated from the path and had been pulled into the “false church.” At that moment Jason inexplicably felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in the train. While most passengers ignored the the stranger’s preaching, looking annoyed by his intrusion, Jason felt a stirring inside. It was at that moment that he decided to change his life, radically.

    Jason returned home to explain his subway conversion to his girlfriend Vonetta. She looked at him, perplexed, and then she asked if he was breaking up with her. No, Jason loved Vonetta and wanted to share this feeling he felt, this newfound understanding.

    Jason quit his job at High Times the next day—and he quit toking as well. It took a bit of cajoling, but soon the couple that had never prayed together began attending the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a nondenominational church in downtown Brooklyn. Vonetta soon experienced a conversion experience of her own; and the couple, passionate about their newfound faith, started handing out mainstream evangelical tracts on the street in their spare time.

    Sometimes Jason would feel such a “fire in his bones” that he stood up in crowded subway cars to preach to strangers. The two were married on June 23, 2007, and moved into Vonetta’s apartment on Hart Street, the basement unit of the unassuming four-story brownstone that Vonetta had saved for many years to buy while living at home with her mother and working a full-time job.

    As tenants moved out of the upper floors, Jason and Vonetta began advertising for Christian housemates on Redeemer.org, a Christian website, and at local churches. Besides requesting information about income, employment and pets, the rental application asks for a pastoral reference (if applicable) and adds: “Please tell us why you want to live in an intentional Christian community and what you can bring to the house.”

    The monthly rent, $500-$600 a room, is slightly lower than market rate in the rapidly gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but the Christian sales pitch is the most effective enticement. Room by room, 32 Hart Street filled up with new Christian housemates and, before long, the house is born again, christened by Vonetta as “Radical Living.”

    Jason currently works at a non-profit organization, but his background in cooperative living from his years studying and living at a co-op in Madison, WI, comes in handy, as does Vonetta’s background in real estate. Besides the four-story house on Hart Street, her family owns another property around the corner on Pulaski Street, which Vonetta manages for her mother. It has by now been thoroughly “radicalized” as well.

    Add to that the third, newest set of apartments on nearby Marcy Avenue, and these Brooklyn Evangelicals are beginning to look like quite the astute real-estate brokers. You won’t find them advertising on Craigslist, though. Between word of mouth, and posting on Christian websites and bulletin boards, a sizeable waiting list of young evangelicals has queued up to join the community.

    But if Jason and Vonetta are landlords by virtue of collecting the monthly rent, they’re hardly treated that way by other members of the community. Jason and Vonetta broadcast their faith confidently, but they don’t push it on others. The Storbakkens and other members of the community seem happy just to have other people around, to share food and conversation, to engage in “fellowship.”

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    “We want to identify more with the exile and moving away from the Empire. To a lot of us it seems like mainstream evangelical Christianity identifies more with Empire,” says Jason, explaining the roots of their decidedly left-leaning version of Evangelical Christianity. “We believe in prophesy in the biblical sense—prophetic in justice and compassion, engaging with social justice issues, human rights and dignity.”

    No, this is not a Trotskyite speaking. Jason and many of his fellow “radicals” regularly refer to scripture to draw comparisons between the political realities of our modern society—where mainstream evangelicals regularly work to elect politicians who support imperial wars and abandon the poor and the meek—with the life of Jesus, a rebel who spoke out on behalf of the poor and was subsequently persecuted and executed by the pagan Roman Empire. Comparisons of Caesar to you-know-who are hardly a stretch.

    So how do they make decisions about the nitty gritty involved in “intentional Christ-centered living”? How prophetic can you be when discussing dirty dishes, socks on the floor, chore wheels and recycling? How well does Scripture serve as a guide in mediating the inevitable flare ups, passions or moods of 17 young people who share space so closely on a daily basis?

    “I had a disagreement with a roommate, somebody who no longer lives here, about how our common space was being used,” says Greg Halstead. “At the time there was a lot of blame being thrown around, and a lot of things left unsaid. It reached a point where we were just barely tolerating each other.”

    Jason eventually mediated the conflict. In such a packed house, tensions between just two people have an easy way of reverberating with the community at large. The three sat together, talked and prayed.

    “I try to teach conflict resolution to my seventh grade students, and I’m still trying to teach myself. I really had to change some of the ways I was caring for my roommate,” says Greg. “I don’t think that would happen in a more traditional living arrangement. We’re learning to be comfortable together. It’s all new to us.”

    Of course, sex is another hot-button issue. Both houses are co-ed, but the floors are segregated by gender, and during the spring months many members of the community began new relationships. As a rule, these born-again Christians are dedicated to abstinence before marriage, so the group has agreed by consensus that non-married members can’t allow their girlfriends or boyfriends to sleep over in the same apartment. When Greg Halstead’s girlfriend visited from New Mexico recently, she slept over in the hospitality room.

    Which is not to say that they are total ascetics. While their potlucks are certainly devoid of pot, many a radical will enjoy a glass or two of red wine while discussing the latest signs of God’s divine plan in action. And In June they jammed out to some righteous rhythms with a backyard concert, open to the public, featuring a local Christian rock band.

    Another situation that recently forced the group to hash out their principles in the most practical, day-to-day manner, involved a potential new housemate. Melinda, a social worker who lives on the second floor of the Hart Street house, asked her housemates to allow a homeless man from her church to stay in the hospitality room for an indefinite period of time. Peter is 70 years old and had been living in his car while looking for an apartment; he needed a more secure base so he could find a job and get his feet back on the ground after a recent divorce. All of the community members sat down to discuss whether Peter should stay. For two hours, they debated which restroom he’d use, how long he would stay and how it all fit into Scripture.

    Jason cited a verse from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

    The fact that Melinda knew Peter from church for over a year and vouched for his character helped close the deal. The group decided to invite him for three weeks and see how it progressed. In the meantime, Jason and others offered to help him search for an apartment of his own.

    By the time that Peter moves out, the community will have another new member this August, courtesy of Jason and Vonetta. Their daughter Chloe, which means, “green shoot” in Greek (Vonetta means “evergreen”), has been spared the application process.

    At a recent Thursday evening book discussion, Jason, with a huge grin, held up an MP3 player, and the sound of Chloe’s heartbeat could be heard while Vonetta passed around black-and-white prints of the ultrasound.

    A young man named Chris takes a break from playing the guitar, Alissa turns the music down, and for a moment the chatter subsides in the room as everyone quiets down to tune in to the thump thump, thump thump, thump thump of the house’s newest radical.