Author, activist Shane Claiborne visits Peninsula

An African American Harvard Law School graduate who chose a career in criminal justice rather than a high-paying office job. A Philadelphia-based massage therapist who takes a day each week to massage the feet of women involved in the city's sex trade. Both are examples of generosity Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne used when he relayed before Soldotna churchgoers Sunday.


"It's not whether you're going to be a teacher, a doctor or a massage therapist," he said, "but what kind of teacher, doctor or massage therapist you choose to be."

Claiborne visited the Central Peninsula and spoke with members of the Soldotna United Methodist Church, as well as a group of prisoners at Wildwood Correctional Center. At the church, he argued his case for loving your enemies and overcoming societal obstacles to helping the needy. At Wildwood, his stories touched on overcoming life's hardships.

He has authored and co-authored five books, the latest being "Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals." He also is a founding member of The Simple Way, an inner city grassroots effort to help the poor in Philadelphia. 

For 14 years, Claiborne and others have ministered and served hot meals to the poor in the down-and-out neighborhood of Kensington.

The author dresses in a modest manner, a reflection of his beliefs about America's "obsession with things," or consumerism, and passers-by rubberneck at the sight of Claiborne. He's lanky, with a head full of nappy dreadlocks.

Church leaders at United Methodist welcomed him with open arms, however.

"He has been judged on his appearance, his beliefs, out of ignorance," said Karen Martin, the church's pastor. "His actions demand us to think outside the box, and think it good."

Using stories to express his beliefs is nothing new. In his book "The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical," he wrote, "People are fascinated by real life and ordinary people ... So that's why I write autobiographically, not because I am somebody so spectacular that everyone needs to hear what I have to say, but just the opposite: I think my experiences have come to exemplify and caricature the struggles and ironies close to many of our hearts."

In March 2003, as bombs dropped on Baghdad, Iraq as part of former-president George Bush's Shock and Awe campaign, local Iraqis received help from Claiborne and other visiting Christians. The group gained access to the country after prolonged arguments at the border.

Upon leaving the city, the group wrecked their car; some of them were injured. Stuck in the desert, he said they felt doomed. The first car to appear languidly out of the heat waves, however, picked up the group.

The driver took them to the village of Rutba. The villagers were unable to use the hospital -- it had been closed because a bomb fell on the children's ward. Instead, the village's doctors invited the Americans into their homes.

Claiborne detailed the extremes and violence experienced by Rutba's villagers and eluded to a common idea: if there's a God, why is the world full of injustice?

"Well, God doesn't want to change the world without us," he said.

The church sat in silence as Claiborne recounted the many roadblocks experienced at The Simply Way. The collective's members have gone to court for breaking the city's brothel law, more families than allowed by law were living in one household; and for feeding the poor, illegal at the time.

Judges, however, have recognized that Claiborne and others break the law, but the court considered the rightness of their actions. They haven't lost in court, yet, he said.

"Christians at their best have been holy troublemakers who try hard to shape the world in God's vision," he said.

Church member Michele Vasquez, of Soldotna, expressed her concerns to Claiborne that large church organizations are moving away from their original intent -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, finding shelter for the poor, she said -- and becoming more politically involved.

She said she believes the country will reach a tipping point, and people will step up and commit to helping people in a similar vein as Claiborne.

"Something is going to give, and it won't be the church simply stepping up," Vasquez said. "It will be people of faith, as well as people not of faith all coming together and saying it has to stop. We need to do more for each other; exactly what he's talking about."

During the car ride between Soldotna and Wildwood in Kenai, Claiborne said he's unconcerned about being judged by Christians or non-Christians. Organizers have cancelled events with the activist because they saw him as too liberal; the same has occurred because he's too conservative.

"I just want to be true to who I am and the message that's in my heart," he said in the backseat of a SUV. "I'm not ashamed of the things I know to be true and the things that I'm passionate about."

People shouldn't shy away from hard conversations, he added.

He likes to focus on what people have in common initially, rather than build walls and push buttons. Topics like war, militarism, immigration and sexual minorities are also important, however.

"Jesus spoke about day laborers, unjust judgments, orphans ... the real stuff of the world he lived in, so that's what I'm interested in talking about," he said.

Church volunteers who accompanied Claiborne to the prison began by singing a few songs to the inmates, ending with "I'll Stand by You."

Claiborne began his speech by again sharing the beginnings of The Simple Way. He then told a story about The Avenue -- Kensington Avenue. The Avenue is known as an outdoor market for sex and drugs, he said. It's also where The Simple Way set up shop.

He and another member of the collective walked down Kensington Avenue one night to buy some items at the store. Along the way, a prostitute offered her services to Claiborne. He refused and went on his way. They ended up having to go back to the store, and on the way back, saw the same woman slouched in an alley, shivering.

They invited her back to their apartment where she warmed up and ate a hot meal. She cried in disbelief at the two good samaritans' generosity.

The woman returned to their apartment one random night and handed Claiborne a box of cigarette points -- those little barcodes smokers collect for cigarette brand hats, coats and other items. She said she found God again since they took her in and came to give her thanks, Claiborne said.

"The church isn't meant to be a country club for saints," he said to Wildwood's inmates. "Sure, we're hypocrites, but do we have room at the table for another hypocrite?"

Wildwood inmate Frederick Tukle, Sr. said he liked Claiborne's message, and he saw it as a new way of living a Christian life. He wasn't sure about the new community initiative, like that seen at The Simple Way, but added he knew little about it.

He also said he sees a troubling cycle in many of the prison's inmates.

"Once you get away from drugs and alcohol, the tendency to lean toward religion in the system is very high, but when they get out they move away (from religion), and then it repeats in that same pattern," Tukle said. "I see that in myself, as well as with others. But that's what a lot of us in here struggle with, and it's good to hear a different take on how to use religion in our lives."

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at

Editor's note: Spelling errors in the first paragraph have been changed.