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The Benedict Option In Hyattsville

Here’s a really good story by NPR’s Tom Gjelten on the Ben Op community in Hyattsville, Md., in the DC suburbs. [1] If you read The Benedict Option [2], 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.

change_me

“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. [1] 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.”

Agreed.

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.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "The Benedict Option In Hyattsville"

#1 Comment By Deplorable Me On April 10, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

Maryland near D.C. These folks are rich. Can you re-interview them and ask how they would feel about the peasantry joining them? Would they be willing to make affordable housing available to Christians who aren’t rich? This will become an important issue as hostile liberals surround us more and more.

[NFR: No, they’re not. They bought their houses when the neighborhood was distressed, and rehabbed them. That’s why so many Catholics could afford to live there. The area is highly desirable now, but it wasn’t when these Catholics came. — RD]

#2 Comment By Lesley On April 10, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

Hi Ron,

Do you know of any such communities in the Greater Toronto Area in Canada? I would like to know how they have organized themselves in a very multicultural area of Canada.

#3 Comment By Boz On April 10, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

Maybe you cover this in the book (sitting on my bedside table!), but I’d be interested in knowing how much of this depends on the current pastor. That’s usually the limiting factor in whether these sorts of projects endure.

[NFR: This was driven by the laity. The pastor got on board, though he was skeptical at first. — RD]

#4 Comment By William Dalton On April 10, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

I listened to the report, enjoyed hearing your voice. But the last comment was by a man who didn’t seem to understand what you are about. He accused you of standing in contrast to the very things you propose.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 10, 2017 @ 7:23 pm

Let a hundred flowers bloom!

#6 Comment By Sam M On April 10, 2017 @ 8:48 pm

“many of the Hyattsville Catholics are deeply engaged in the broader society and say they do not feel marginalized, angry or alienated.”

Well of course not. But I bet if you went to the places these folks left, people there would call them marginalized, angry and/or alienated. That’s why they left.

The old George Carlin joke applies… anyone who drives faster than me is a maniac. Anyone more orthodox than me is a joyless bible thumping busybody. Anyone less orthodox is a libertine.

This is one of THE central challenges of the BenOp. When to stick and when to leave. What if that Hyattsville family is FROM that Baltimore suburb?

The other huge challenge is tone. Look, if you pull your kids out of public school in favor of a parish school, your neighbors will see it as a critique of their school and their parenting. And… it is in a way, isn’t it? And if you yank from parish to homeschool, same thing applies. And if you physically move to be in a different community… yeah.

You can do these things charitably or uncharitably. But I think that a huge hurdle to the BenOp is the fear of giving offense. People don’t want to.

#7 Comment By Deplorable Me On April 10, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

Thank you for the update, Rod. I guess we should consider going to other distressed neighborhoods and doing likewise. We sure won’t meet too many liberals living in such an area, so that’ll help us fly under the State’s radar, too.

#8 Comment By Traveler On April 10, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

@Lesley

I’m not sure if you’re looking at any tradition in particular but I do know that the RC Archdiocese of Toronto has a number of different ethnically-based (for lack of a better term) parishes peppered throughout the GTA. That’s pretty standard throughout Canada though where one can attend Mass in a variety of different languages in most major cities, languages that reflect the different ethnic groups found in any given city. As a result, community-building (in whatever form it organically manifests) develops from these various hubs.
You might want to enquire directly with the Archdiocese of Toronto however for specifics. As a point of interest though, here’s a link to their vision statement or pastoral plan: [3]. It sounds like a St. Jerome-like community could easily develop in Toronto. It all depends on how much people are willing to work (hard) towards such kinds of built (intentional) communities.

#9 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 10, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

I see a mission field for Cosimanian Orthodoxy.

#10 Comment By Mark C On April 10, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

There is a bit of a Hyattsville-type hub in Toronto built around the two parishes operated by the Toronto Oratory, Holy Family and St. Vincent de Paul, and located in an older working class ethnic neighbourhood with strong Polish, Portuguese and Goan communities. There is a private classical Catholic school, Mary Mother of God, and a number of other lively Catholic activities, and a strong ethos of charitable outreach to the poor and recent immigrants in the community.

Unfortunately, Toronto real estate is insane, and the neighbourhoods in the area have gone through rapid gentrification. What were crack houses a decade ago go for $1 million today.

There are other Ben Op type hubs in Ontario, for example in Barry’s Bay and Combermere in rural Eastern Ontario, home to the Madonna House community founded by Catherine De Hueck Doherty and the much newer Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a private Catholic liberal arts college, and also a strong historic Polish community.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 11, 2017 @ 12:48 am

“But I think that a huge hurdle to the BenOp is the fear of giving offense. People don’t want to.”

People like that aren’t even interested.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 11, 2017 @ 12:59 am

“Unfortunately, Toronto real estate is insane, and the neighbourhoods in the area have gone through rapid gentrification. What were crack houses a decade ago go for $1 million today.”

As in Vancouver, the insane price rises are driven by Chinese investors. Canada has a very liberal immigration policy that allows those with money to immigrate and become citizens in just two years. Although supposedly China has controls on money leaving, huge numbers are bidding up real estate to the extent that the Canadian born can no longer afford housing. Is this the fault of the newly wealthy Chinese? Not really. There is an enormous trade deficit with China, which means Chinese end up with millions of dollars that can really only be invested in buying up what Canada has to sell, namely national resource companies, financial entities, and real estate. Outsourcing and offshoring have consequences with the balance of payments issues involved. The trade deals do benefit the wealthy immensely but overall are losers for the average worker. There has been a move to get into the war business however, to shore up the jobs lost. Canada too is now permanently at war overseas as a result.

#13 Comment By Lear On April 11, 2017 @ 8:29 am

With crime stats like these, why would anyone want to live in Hyattsville Maryland?
[4]

#14 Comment By jb On April 11, 2017 @ 8:56 am

If I understand correctly…seems like they incorporate some of the positive elements of evangelical fellowship with a classical education. They do not have an internal communal religious hierarchy or communal ownership of property (which as noted on this blog can easily descend into all kinds of abuse and weirdness} but remain anchored to a parish Church for the sacraments, liturgy and spiritual leadership. The live and work in “the world.” Seems like a good healthy B.O. model.

#15 Comment By Anna On April 11, 2017 @ 9:37 am

“NFR: No, they’re not. They bought their houses when the neighborhood was distressed, and rehabbed them.”

Very true. Ten years ago, when I was last there, it was a downright scary neighborhood actually. That’s why all those married grad students, etc., could afford to live there. In fact, the one thing I wondered about in this story is the description of the area around the church as “walkable.” If so, things must have changed a LOT. Yes, distances are small, but although I’m a hardcore walker and transit-user, I did not feel very safe at all walking down that street. I’m surprised if it’s changed enough that kids can do so.

#16 Comment By Traveler On April 11, 2017 @ 9:53 am

Indeed, Mark C! Actually, the Madonna House Apostolate is probably the prime Canadian example of The Benedict Option.

I’m quite sure that Mr. Dreher would be impressed not only by the community itself but also by the fact that it seems to blend aspects of Eastern and Western Christianity extremely well.

Here’s a taste of what this unique Canadian Christian community is all about:

[5]

#17 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On April 11, 2017 @ 10:14 am

Deplorable Me–plenty of middle class folks live around Hyattsville!

We just have smaller houses and tiny closets!

#18 Comment By Kelvin On April 11, 2017 @ 10:47 am

@Sam M, this is a big challenge for us as homeschoolers. We are not doctrinaire “you must homeschool or you’re abandoning your kids to the devil” types (though we meet people like that at homeschooling conventions). But just two weeks ago in our Bible study the question came up, “How do you protect your kids from the influences of the world?” For us, the honest answer was, “That’s one of the reasons we homeschool our kids.” But the group’s leader was so afraid that others would consider that an attack on their own parenting that he nearly cut me off.

I don’t think homeschooling is the only way to properly prepare the next generation–nor do I think it guarantees a successful outcome. But my own church’s discipling process for youth is sadly deficient–we have no Sunday School past 5th grade, and we know that parents (parents!) pushed back when the previous youth pastor tried to make the teaching during youth group more substantive. My oldest ages out of Sunday School in two years, and we’re really struggling with what to do then. Church leadership seems to be in denial about the challenge of grounding youth in the faith so they’re ready to withstand the onslaught.

#19 Comment By MikeCA On April 11, 2017 @ 11:37 am

The real estate demand in Vancouver has been driven by foreign investors,rows over heritage preservation & the geographic nature of the city. The ocean & mountains are beautiful but they do limit growth.
Toronto is largely a victim of its own success. It’s a great place to live. Especially when compared to US cities it’s safe,clean and in the urban core there’s great public transit. If you’re willing to go further out like in most cities unencumbered by geography you can find larger,less expensive homes. The trade off is a long commute by car unless you live by a GO commuter rail line and of course the amenities that one takes for granted in the city. People value different things and for many a smaller but more expensive home in the city is preferable to a larger suburban one. It’s becoming a problem worldwide that cities are quickly becoming bifurcated with wealthy/affluent and the poor. The middle class is being squeezed out and those who already own homes in the cities are cashing out. Grandma’s modest home in Cabbagetown in Toronto is now worth a small fortune even if it’s a gut job. Location,location,location.

#20 Comment By Anna On April 11, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

“With crime stats like these, why would anyone want to live in Hyattsville Maryland?
[4]

To be honest, that was my feeling when I visited friends in Hyattsville. Yes, they could afford a house there and had some friendly neighbors, but at what price? It’s really a pretty dodgy area – and I say that as one who never felt uncomfortable walking around in Northeast D.C. (well, except for Rhode Island Avenue. . . near the bus station. . .)

#21 Comment By Sam M On April 11, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

“Maryland near D.C. These folks are rich.”

“With crime stats like these, why would anyone want to live in Hyattsville Maryland?”

Sometimes it feels as if there’s a prior commitment to concluding that the BenOp can’t work, before people really look at the facts. People asked for specific examples. Rod sought some out and found some that, he thinks, offer some inspiration. Look, this place actually exists. You can go there. It won’t be right for everyone. But it works for them.

[NFR: The next strategy is to say that okay, it works for them, but until it can work for everybody, it’s worthless (and probably white supremacist). — RD]

#22 Comment By pburg On April 11, 2017 @ 5:14 pm

Lear,
The area of Hyattsville encompasses several zipcodes. In an urban environment safe pockets are located near what some may consider unsafe pockets. The historic district does not have a high crime rate.

But. . .

Keep in mind we’re discussing a dc suburb. Anything seemingly nicer than Hyattsville will be unaffordable or further out from the city. It’s not for everyone and some people have been turned off by the broken concrete sidewalks and chain-link fences. For those who can see past that, the walkability, charming stores, and thriving parish life make up for it. As the younger generation embraces localism and turns away from excessively large homes and long commutes, Hyattville has become sought after by both the religious and secular. So, now even the more crime-ridden sections are gentrifying quickly.

One secret to the community is that it consists of the courageous and the humble. Those who lack these things self-select out when they take a look at the neighborhood. Though, now that house prices are rising and the whole foods is opening, we’ll have to wait and see how the community changes.

#23 Comment By Lesley On April 11, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Thank you to everyone who provided an answer to my question. I happen to live in Ontario and I belong to a vibrant RC parish in the GTA. I am aware that most RC parishes in the GTA do have plenty of community activities, the Catholic school system is publicly funded (not sure how long that will last as there are constant attempts to do away with it) but I was actually hoping to find out about not simply RC communities but Christian communities, i.e. Christians of various denominations who get together and support each other.I see non-RC churches in Toronto being turned into condos and I always wish there was something the Christian community could do to support smaller Church communities.

#24 Comment By Helen On April 11, 2017 @ 9:53 pm

Deplorable Me – In addition to middle class people, there are plenty of liberals in Hyattsville.

Have you ever been to the DC area? There are rich people and poor people, and folks in between, liberals and conservatives, and folks in between.

#25 Comment By jt On April 12, 2017 @ 8:28 am

I wonder what the criteria for inclusion is? The statement “it is not right for everyone” is false and a strawman, because Christianity is for everyone. The criteria for inclusion is determined by the leaders of the group. The group exists to serve the needs and wants of the leaders. When the group is challenged group leaders fallback on “it’s not for everyone.” Which means you’re annoying and should leave.

#26 Comment By MG On April 12, 2017 @ 9:17 am

Crime: one meaning of the word “Hyattsville” is the city that the NPR article mentions; another meaning of that same word is a large area that covers a lot of Prince George’s County and definitely includes some high-crime areas. The smaller Hyattsville is mostly safe–not safe like small-town Ohio, but teens walk home from their friends houses after dark. Little kids walk to school all the time.