Here’s a really good story by NPR’s Tom Gjelten on the Ben Op community in Hyattsville, Md., in the DC suburbs. If you read The Benedict Option, you’ll remember these folks. NPR’s Tom Gjelten digs deeper. Excerpts:
At a time of declining church attendance across America and growing disenchantment with traditional religion, a Catholic parish in Hyattsville, Md., thrives by embracing the very orthodoxy other congregations have abandoned.
St. Jerome Catholic Church and its affiliated school, St. Jerome Academy, have both experienced dramatic growth over the past few years, largely due to an influx of families drawn to the parish’s reputation as a haven for conservative Catholics seeking to live among others who share their values.
“The parish life was very important to us,” says Daniel Gibbons, 40, who teaches at Catholic University in nearby Washington, D.C., and moved to Hyattsville with his young family four years ago. “I know from my own childhood that it can be very hard to raise children as a Catholic if you don’t have a community of other Catholics who are trying to make the faith real in their everyday lives and raise the children in ways that are harmonious with their faith.”
Several of the new St. Jerome families previously had been home schooling their children, after disappointing experiences in both public and parochial schools.
“Faith-based education was very important to us,” says Julia Dickson, 37, who moved to Hyattsville with her husband two years ago from a Baltimore suburb. “There was no [private] school that I felt was any different from a public school with a religion class tacked on,” she says. “I wanted something with the Lord as the center of the entire day.”
St. Jerome School is at the center of a walkable community. More:
Most of the families live within a 2-mile radius.
“Our kids are continually at each other’s homes,” says Michelle Trudeau, 48, a mother of six who home-schooled her four oldest children before enrolling them at the parish school, where she is now the assistant principal. “As parents, we know we can trust what’s going on in that other house,” she says. “We know that if something goes on with our kids, other parents are looking out for them. We all become parents of each other’s children.”
The tightness of the Hyattsville Catholic community developed deliberately, not accidentally. The key figure in its growth was Chris Currie, a former nonprofit executive who moved to Hyattsville 20 years ago and now serves as director of institutional advancement at the parish school.
“It started with me inviting people I knew to come here,” he says. “My sister’s family was the first to move here, followed by a couple of friends. Other families came here to become part of the foundation, and then by word of mouth people heard about it and came here because of the heightened community life.”
Read — or better, listen — to the whole thing. One more bit:
Whether the community reflects Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a matter of some dispute, however, in part because many of the Hyattsville Catholics are deeply engaged in the broader society and say they do not feel marginalized, angry or alienated.
Well, if someone doesn’t want to consider themselves part of the Ben Op, that’s fine with me. No need for them to feel that I am co-opting them. I will say, though, that being angry is not a requirement of the Ben Op (I believe that whether we feel like it or not, we will be increasingly marginalized and alienated). Here, in this passage from my book, is a big part of why I chose to include the St. Jerome community in The Benedict Option:
Living so close to “the imperial city,” as [Chris] Currie calls Washington, means that most of his community members work in the nation’s capital. Their close-knit Catholic neighborhood gives them the nurturing they need to be strong witnesses to the faith in the secular city. “We’re not battening down the hatches, hunkering down, and keeping quiet about our faith,” says Currie. “We don’t do it in a belligerent way, but we are not ashamed of who we are.”
He believes the St. Jerome’s Parish community has been called to be a presence in the greater Washington area. The only way they can resist the pressures of worldliness and secularization is by living near each other and reinforcing their religious identity through life lived in common. Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it. Striking the balance between being an evangelical presence to the wider community while protecting what makes them distinctly and authentically Christian is difficult—but Currie believes that this is the Gospel’s calling.
“Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society,” he says. “We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.”
Hey, I really want to encourage you Christian readers to drop a note to reporter Tom Gjelten on Twitter, and thank him for this piece. It was very fair and thorough, I thought. One doesn’t often see or hear conservative Christians portrayed in the national media, much less portrayed favorably. When it happens, be sure to praise the reporter for doing a great job. @tgjelten is his Twitter handle.