And the desert shall bloom

Sr. Margaret McKenna at one of the New Jerusalem Now houses in North Philadelphia

I have a dear sister soul-friend I've known for over 40 years. Her name is Margaret McKenna, and she inhabits an urban monastery in the heart of drug-infested North Philadelphia.

I first met Margaret during my young nun sojourn with the Medical Mission Sisters. I was enchanted by her wide knowledge of Scripture, her work for justice, her zany sense of humor and a certain wild abandon that characterized her God quest.

Margaret's search would lead her on a merry chase. She entered Medical Mission Sisters in 1948 at the age of 18. She completed a bachelor's degree in English and then worked as director of novices and an artist, designing the lovely stained glass windows adorning the sisters' chapel. For her master's degree, she wrote a thesis on women in the early church. It was later published under the title Women of the Church: Role and Renewal and is frequently cited even today as a seminal work in the field.

These early accomplishments would have been enough for one lifetime, but Margaret was just getting started. She studied Scripture in Jerusalem at the renowned École Biblique, learning French, German and Hebrew in the process. During the Vietnam War era, she taught at Philadelphia's La Salle University and became involved in all things peace and justice. Later, she would be arrested numerous times for joining the Plowshares' antinuclear protests.

But always, Margaret had this restlessness, this inner yen for solitude and the contemplative life of a hermit. Surely, this would provide an even greater closeness to the God she ceaselessly sought. After completing a doctorate in Scripture and Christian origins at the University of Pennsylvania, Margaret moved to Israel and lived in a Benedictine monastery for a time. She returned to the United States confirmed in her love for monasticism but unsure how to live it in a broken world, so beloved by the God she pursued.

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After living in a hermitage and serving jail time for antimilitarist activism, Margaret and a colleague, Richard Withers, purchased a broken-down shell of a house in North Philadelphia. The area was infamous for poverty, crime, and rampant drug addiction. Both Richard and Margaret shared a passion for justice and for the desert spirituality of the early church.

"We had these conversations about, 'Where is the desert today?' " she said. "We figured either it's in our remaining wildernesses, or it's in our abandoned inner cities." In 1989, they moved to the urban desert of North Philadelphia.

In those early days, I sometimes took vacation time to camp out (literally) and help Margaret and Richard repair their dilapidated building. This was a big challenge, since tools and materials disappeared nearly every night -- stolen to feed the neighborhood's burgeoning drug addiction. While Margaret and Richard eventually parted ways, the vision of God's presence in an urban desert would soon flourish in the form of New Jerusalem Now, a residential addiction recovery community.

Margaret founded New Jerusalem to meet the needs of relapsed addicts after working with a former addict turned visionary preacher, the Rev. Henry Wells. Wells was the founder of Philadelphia's first successful recovering addict community, One Day at a Time. New Jerusalem would adopt the addict-helping-addict community model that Wells pioneered.

For over 25 years now, Margaret has sought and found her God in beautiful and often abandoned people struggling mightily to get their lives back. New Jerusalem lived up to its prophetic name and made the desert bloom. This year, the prize-winning community garden produced an abundance of tomatoes, green beans, herbs of every variety, summer and winter squash, broccoli, lettuce, collard greens, Swiss chard and melons. Just around the corner, New Jerusalem members created a huge and colorful building-sized mosaic and peace park. Margaret's creative eye found a new avenue for praising God through the hitherto-unrealized artistic gifts of the down-and-out.

There are now five buildings that house 20 to 25 recovering addicts at any one time. Two of the buildings are "basic recovery" dwellings for women and men in the initial stages of recovery. The two "advanced recovery" houses are for people working to sustain their sobriety and become independent through full- or part-time education and employment. Margaret lives in a small trailer adjoining the original building, which serves as an administrative and central gathering space.

New Jerusalem does not receive any government funding. Instead, it relies on modest monthly rentals from each recovering addict (about $175 each) and occasional donations and small grants from various benefactors. An important key to sustainability is the donated "community service" required of each member. This can mean repairing houses, working in the vegetable garden, organizing regular food and fresh produce distributions on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, and other needed services as they arise.

What makes the program work, Margaret says, is the focus on community. "Recovery is not an individual experience. It is the support of the whole community that makes it successful, makes it powerful." Recovering addicts themselves interview and vote whether to admit a new member or not. Each must be drug-free and fully committed to recovery, and remain so for the duration of their stay.

The first 60 days are a blackout period in which newbies cannot use the telephone or go anywhere unless accompanied by a community member further along in recovery. This is to help the new member disconnect from his or her former drug-ridden environment. A significant number of applicants do not make it through the blackout phase. Of those who do, an estimated 50 percent remain clean for life, an excellent success rate.

Some former residents have returned to assume permanent leadership roles at New Jerusalem. One of these is Gary Robbins, who helps with operations. Sr. Sylvia Strahler, a Medical Mission Sister and midwife who spent many years in Pakistan, also helps out. Strahler describes her job as "an all-around handy lady." She says she never knows what the day will bring and jokes, "Some things don't get done -- but then, some do."

Each day begins with a 7 a.m. Bible sharing. Other priorities include Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Alternatives to Violence (AVP) training and multiple house meetings. "AVP is an important alternative to street culture," Margaret says. "As people study social change and change attitudes, soon they can no longer buy into the false philosophies that surround us. This generates a spiritual witness."

One of the things I love best about the New Jerusalem community is its holistic approach. New Jerusalem is part of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign and is helping organize a special Social Forum in Philadelphia in the summer of 2015 to raise awareness about issues affecting poor people. According to Margaret, "Working for social change is a powerful therapy for addiction. Personal change and social change are different dimensions of recovery and the healing process. It helps people start to care and makes them different. They're not the typical addict anymore."

"So what role does God have to play in all of this?" I ask her.

"Everything," Margaret replies. "As they recover, people begin to meet God in their own evolving healing process. Once they begin to appreciate and identify God within new insights, experiences of beauty, and nature, they recognize that this is the real high. They discover that this is more powerful than drug addiction, and it motivates them for the rest of their lives."

Whenever I visit Philadelphia, I always try to attend the morning Bible study. In the front room, you can find hundreds of books about Scripture, the prophets, Sufi and Christian mystics, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. You might think that Margaret would give a scholarly exposition about whichever biblical text is being studied. You would be wrong. Instead, she presents a brief and interesting synopsis connecting the biblical texts to today. She then opens it up for discussion. Lots of laughter, and sometimes tears, ensue as community members tease, confront and try to help each other begin another day without drugs.

My friend Margaret has finally found her contemplative home. Gazing at a God who is quietly working miracles each day is enough to make any hermit happy, enough to make any desert bloom.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years.]

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