By Shelby Simmons
A neighbor walked up to the Brodys as they moved into their West Central house in Spokane, Wash., and says, "Welcome to Felony Flats."
That same day, Ben, '97, and Sarah (Everett, '98) Brody realized that their garage had been broken into. They stood where the lawnmower used to be stored and wondered if they had made a mistake. They had moved to the West Central neighborhood, which has the reputation of being one of the lowest-income areas in Washington, in hopes of living out their faith and making a difference. Despite initial bad impressions, the Brodys decided to stay.
"We simply wanted to be in a community where we could serve our neighbors," Ben Brody says.
Intentional living is a growing phenomenon in the country. Interested people have found an endless number of ways to live out their convictions and faith. Commitments range from mild to extreme, with some pledging themselves to recycling or accountability while others commit to living among the poor, living simply, or living in tight community with others. Over 200 co-housing communities exist in this country alone, according to a report by the Co-housing Association of the United States.
Often, those trying to live intentionally are drawn to poorer communities where it is easier to live more simply and to have an impact on their neighbors. In Spokane's West Central neighborhood, 37 percent of children under the age of five live in poverty. That's why the neighborhood has become a popular place for those wishing to live more intentionally, including for Whitworth alumni. Some do so to live among the people; others do so to live more simply or in community, but all who have lived there have done so with the intention of tangibly living out their faith.
"The reality is that there's injustice in the way the system works. We want to witness to that and be with the people who are suffering," Sarah Brody says.
Living Intentionally: Community and Simplicity
As an expression of their faith, many have chosen to live in community with others who share their convictions. Some live near each other, while others choose to live under the same roof.
When Paige (Baker, '92) McIlraith attended Whitworth, her Bible-study group began exploring options about how to live out their faith physically after graduating.
"We all felt called to the mission of the Presbyterian Church," McIlraith says. With the help of a Whitworth professor, the five seniors connected with Westminster Presbyterian Church, located in the West Central neighborhood. The church leaders wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood and fill it with committed Christians who had a heart for serving the people in the community.
McIlraith and four other Whitworth graduates moved into the Westminster House in August 1992. After a week of clearing the house of the garbage and grime that had been left behind, they began to feel more at home.
Living in community for these five meant praying together on a regular basis and sharing most meals together. They kept each other accountable for what they did with their money, as well.
Aside from a TV and VCR, they tried to stay away from frivolous things. The ideal of living simply arose not only from the religious conviction of being good stewards of their resources, but they also wanted to avoid being "showy" in the neighborhood, McIlraith says. They wanted to live like the people around them.
Living Intentionally to Serve Neighbors
Living in community was only a part of McIlraith's and her roommates' commitment. They chose the West Central neighborhood for a specific purpose – to identify with the people around them.
Each member of the house found a part-time job, and when they were not working, they actively sought out ways to participate in the community.
"We sat out on the front porch, we baked cookies for the neighbors, and we took people to the hospital," McIlraith says.
Some housemates volunteered with the local food bank, some volunteered with Westminster Presbyterian Church and others worked at the West Central Community Center. Whether it was through an established organization or simply through spending time with people down the street, members of the Westminster House were dedicated to serving their neighbors.
Only two years after the project got under way, Harry Neff, '94, spent a year in the house living and building on the foundation of its first residents. The experience had an impact on the way that Neff and his wife, Kari (Matson, '94) Neff, choose to live today. The Neffs are raising their children in the West Central neighborhood, and they continue to look for ways to serve the community.
"We were drawn to living amongst people who were not involved in society," says Kari Neff. She works as a substitute teacher for local schools.
Harry Neff works at the Spokane-area Youth for Christ, an organization in West Central that evangelizes to youth and offers a drop-in center and free tutoring sessions. Through his work as ministry director, he has built relationships with many of the teenage residents in the area.
On their own block, Harry Neff also spends time with a man addicted to drugs. He has opened up to Neff and even shared some of his struggles with him.
"It's easy just to dismiss people like that," Neff says.
The Neffs try to help build community not only by living and working with the people, but by hosting the annual block party.
Living Intentionally: Families in Community Leads to Simplicity
Serving the community is only a portion of the commitment that the Neffs have made. For nearly 18 months before moving to the West Central neighborhood, the Neffs brainstormed with Scott and Julie Kolbo about how to be more intentional in the way they lived.
It was time to "bite the bullet and do something," Julie Kolbo says. Both families committed to living in a low-income neighborhood, making smart decisions with their money and living in community with each other for at least five years.
"We wanted to live with integrity," Julie Kolbo says. "We wanted to find a way to sync our spiritual, political and social beliefs."
In the summer of 2004, the Neffs and the Kolbos moved to the West Central neighborhood together and bought houses next door to each other. They ignored the two La-Z-Boys on the neighbor's porch and the rusting car parked across the street. Instead, they got to work ripping out the dividing fence in the backyard and fixing up various neglected rooms in each of the houses.
Living in community for them does not mean sharing every meal together and having full access to each others' checking accounts. It means supporting each other in times of need and sharing things that most families use but do not necessarily have to own. They share a lawnmower and a barbeque, and in their joint backyard sits a vegetable garden tended to by both families.
Sharing certain items and keeping each other accountable has allowed the Neffs and the Kolbos to live a simpler lifestyle and spend less money on material items. Part of living intentionally for them includes being smart with their purchases. They occasionally check in to see if the other family is doing what they ought to be doing with their money.
"You have to be intentional about what you do with your money. It's so easy to not think about what you buy and just become a mindless consumer," Harry Neff says. He sat on one of the Neffs' two mismatched couches facing the black chest that doubles as a coffee table.
In addition to sharing, both families managed to scale back in one of the most difficult ways a family can: They bought small homes.
The couples' neighboring houses are each less than 2,000 square feet, which is relatively small for the United States, Harry Neff says. "It's a good reminder that we have more than enough space."
Buying a smaller home allowed the Kolbos more freedom. "So many people spend all their time trying to buy a house. This was one way to be able to live off one income," Scott Kolbo says. Without the pressure to work for pay outside her home, Julie Kolbo has more time to spend with her children and to volunteer.
Living in community allows the families to interact with each other nearly every day, but they decided against setting up a formal arrangement. It would have been too confining, they says. They would rather have their interactions flow naturally. Both families agree, though, that the experience has been a learning process thus far.
Living Intentionally: Becoming Part of the Neighborhood
The Kolbos and Neffs chose to live in community for a number of reasons, one of which was their mutual desire to serve their neighbors in the West Central neighborhood. With an unemployment rate of 45 percent in West Central, the two families had no intention of turning the neighborhood around overnight. The Kolbos wanted to have an impact on the people around them, but they decided to take a less direct approach than the Neffs had. They believe that being present and available to the people around them is their ministry.
"What we're most comfortable with is just being normal people," Scott Kolbo says.
Kolbo is an associate professor of art at Whitworth, and Julie Kolbo is attending nursing school. Their full schedule has prevented them from volunteering with many formal organizations in the area, but that doesn't mean that their presence isn't known in the community.
"There have been a number of times that people in need have just come to us," Scott Kolbo says. "But it seems weird to make a big deal of it; it just feels like normal neighbor stuff."
But that's just it. The Kolbos know that people in today's society, particularly in urban areas, rarely find neighbors they trust. The Kolbos' hope is to gain the trust of their neighbors in tangible ways and eventually to gain their trust in spiritual matters, as well.
The Kolbos feel privileged to have ended up on their block; their neighbors are trustworthy and kind. However, the problems in the community remain clear to them. After dark, the park around the corner is off-limits due to drug trafficking. They have also seen some domestic violence and evidence of neighbors with mental-health problems, but none of it has scared them away.
"Most people are just working," Scott Kolbo says. They are convinced that the neighborhood does not live up to its horrible reputation. In fact, they met some of their closest friends in the neighborhood.
Ben and Sarah Brody live just a few blocks from the Kolbos and the Neffs. Like the Kolbos, the Brodys moved to West Central in order to live among the residents.
"We came feeling like we were going to build community, but there was already a community in place when we moved in," Sarah Brody says.
They were welcomed into the neighborhood, and it wasn't long before the woman up the road was babysitting their two sons and the man across the street was taking care of their plumbing needs.
Since that summer day in 2003 when they moved into "Felony Flats," the Brodys have settled down and started a family in the neighborhood. When their children are old enough, Ben and Sarah intend to send them to Holmes Elementary School, where more than 90 percent of the students qualify to receive free and reduced-price lunches.
"We wanted our kids to grow up around kids who weren't like them," Ben Brody says. "There's an assumption in the church that your needs are going to be met by people like you, but if you're just with people like you, you're not going to grow like Jesus wants you to."
Three-and-a-half years after moving into the West Central neighborhood, the Brodys couldn't be happier with their living situation. They are comfortable in their community, they love their neighbors, and they have no problem calling "Felony Flats" home.