Beta

God is in the neighborhood

(Christine Mi/YH Staff)

(Christine Mi/YH Staff)

There is an email in my inbox, subject line: “from the desk of Gideon Mausner.” The irony (and for all his profound sincerity, Gideon does do irony) is that the sender doesn’t spend much time at a desk—or, for that matter, any office at all. Gideon, PC ‘11, is a missionary, and missionaries like to get out and about.

His email is a bulletin to a list of undisclosed recipients, and I wonder how long the list must be: my own friendship with Gideon amounts to half a dozen conversations, and a handful of failed attempts to meet and catch up. Indeed, the “update” required for some is not insignificant. “For those of you who don’t know,” Gideon writes, “a couple years back I had the profoundly life changing experience of meeting my maker, the God of love who dwells quietly below the surface of all existence.”

This much I know already, because Gideon told me the first time we met two summers ago. He was retrieving a stockpile of Odwalla smoothies—the bounty from his latest dumpster diving trip— from the house I was subletting near downtown New Haven, where he had once lived. Gideon had just graduated from Yale, in May 2011, and was in the middle of moving from the well-insulated neighborhood of off-campus student housing to his new house on Kensington Street. He called it “the most dangerous block in New Haven”—and this was a point of pride. Pride is a loaded term in the Christian lexicon, but Gideon was boastful in a way that would never have struck me as sinful: like the luckiest of college graduates, he was filled with excitement for the new adult life he had planned. His was radically different from most—the call of ministry has little in common with banking or teaching or freelance writing—but giddiness is giddiness, profession be damned.

There were three things I learned about Gideon almost simultaneously. The first was that he had sawed a bike in half lengthwise and was holding onto it until he found the right person to give it to. The second was that his stomach housed extra strength bacteria, built up through regular consumption of dumpster-salvaged foods: semi-sour hummus and tray upon tray of ground beef that was browning at the edges. The third was that he was raised Jewish in Westchester County, but now loved Jesus.

Here was an easy, if eccentric, picture to latch onto. Rich kid turned poor. Boring life turned radical. The story of someone who went a little crazy—but not, in the end, a kind of crazy we haven’t read about before. In a country with tens of millions of Christian evangelicals, who doesn’t know about being born again? If you haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid, you’ve certainly heard about it.

But the story “from the desk of Gideon Mausner” is not a bulletin from the deep end. If you are concerned about the tunnel vision of certain Jesus Lovers (I am), here instead are the measured reflections of someone who likes to think out loud, listen and learn from “wise people,” and get ever closer to humbly answering his questions about the world. Here is someone who shares nuanced thoughts like this in unexpected (and unexpectedly profound) emails: “I have become increasingly convinced of two distinct truths about influence and responsibility over the course of the year.”

This is not just faith, this is philosophy—the kind of insight gained through the process of what Gideon calls “intentional community ministry.” His is a mission to “extend God’s family,” which, as it turns out, requires an unusual type of parenting. He is a missionary three blocks from his old home, with a life and faith that look radically new.

***

The“truths” Gideon’s email describes have come in large part by way of Terrence, a 15-year-old boy who likes playing basketball, hates violence, and is always welcome to spend the night on Gideon’s couch. (Gideon has asked me to change the names of the young people in this article in order to protect their privacy.) Because in addition to becoming a missionary, Gideon has become one of Terrence’s primary guardians—as Gideon says, “not his dad” but “the closest thing he has to one.”

Gideon met Terrence five years ago, when Terrence was a troublesome 10 year old at Wexler Grant Elementary. Gideon and Terrence had been paired together through a Yale-run mentorship program, which meant they got together two afternoons a week for some combination of multiplication practice and jump-shot practice. From the beginning, Gideon went above and beyond when it came to being involved in Terrence’s life. When Terrence was told he should repeat eighth grade, Gideon scheduled a meeting with the principal to make a case on his behalf.

Their mentorship relationship came with an expected expiration date: that day in May when Yale seniors move on and move up. The promotion from mentor to guardian is not the one most of Gideon’s former classmates are looking for. They have entered a world where afternoon tutoring no longer counts as doing good work.  But Gideon has watched the expiration date come and go, and has put down roots in New Haven—because this is precisely the good work he believes God wants him to be doing.

Two years later, Terrence is in high school. He lives with his mother and grandmother, and sometimes stays with Gideon. Because, as Gideon says, “Terrence cares about material things,” Gideon provides more than just homework help or spiritual counsel. He bought a family cell phone plan and added Terrence to it. He pays Terrence $7.50 an hour for odd jobs around Kensington Street. Terrence is not a good student (he now attends a high school for remedial performers), but he is a determined one. Gideon puts it this way: “I say ‘if you go to college,’ and he says, ‘you mean when.’

There is something terrifying about this arrangement, and Gideon knows it. A white boy from wealthy New York pitches in to raise a black boy on one of New Haven’s poorest blocks. “I have realized how unprepared I am to discipline well, set and hold consequences, set boundaries, and even affirm him,” Gideon says. “I have thought, ‘what am I doing?!’ many a time.” On the one hand, Gideon says, “I have come to believe I am incredibly powerful.” He is a 23 year old strongly shaping a 15 year old’s life. For any aspiring change-maker, surely this is the paramount sensation: he is truly at the steering wheel. And yet, Gideon writes, “I have come to see that for the most part I am completely powerless.” Above all, Gideon identifies not as a mentor of children but as a follower of Christ—and the humility of powerlessness will always, I come to learn, be his bottom line. God is the change-maker here, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Terrence is part of a problem that many people are talking about. The U.S. Census reported that in 2010 a third of American children were living without biological fathers, and 22 percent more were living without married parents than were half a century ago.

Gideon is part of a solution that nobody is talking about. It takes place on just two blocks, with just 22 children. Its leaders never thought they would end up here, but they believe the Lord has delivered them for a reason. Gideon Mausner and his mentor Lenny Hernandez are here to introduce a fatherless youth to a Father who really means it when he says he’s here to stay.

***

The two blocks of Kensington Street that Gideon and Lenny have chosen for their “intentional community ministry” bear few obvious signs of being in the “hood,” as Gideon half-jokingly calls it. Around the time school is dismissed, the street gets busy: kids in uniforms, boys on bikes, women with groceries. If you’re looking, you can spot the houses in need of fresh coats of paint or mended gutters, or the abandoned chair with its seat punched out that languishes in a side yard. Which is the better augury of the future ahead—bustling sidewalks or busted furniture—is hard to say, though Gideon and Lenny believe this neighborhood is on its way to becoming a real community.

Gideon and Lenny live on separate floors of a cheerful pink house. Lenny and his wife Britney arrived in the spring of 2009 at the behest of a pastor who persuaded the couple to uproot from their comfortable condo in Branford, Conn., a shore town 20 minutes (and a whole different lifestyle) away. Their new block was considered one of the top five crack spots in the city, and had once been the hub of a violent branch of the New Haven Bloods.

They moved in April, and rented the entire house to make room for as many missionaries as they could recruit to their cause. Lenny might have blended in easily as a new neighbor on the block; he is Latino in an area split roughly evenly between black and Hispanic households. But he is also a pastor, and therefore an outsider. To get inside this community, and in turn to bring it together, he and Britney began their ministry fast and strong. King’s Keep, as the ministry is called, is meant for children, though Lenny’s early efforts were intended to earn the trust of all his neighbors. For six straight weekends, he hosted elaborate block parties in his backyard, where music, free food, and sometimes just free stuff attracted even his more skeptical neighbors.

At a certain point during each party, a blue tarp would be brought out and the Bible teaching would begin. This, of course, is the most important part. “I can give all these clothes out,” Lenny says, “but for me, if I don’t present the gospel of Jesus Christ, then all I am is a humanitarian. And I’m not a humanitarian,” he adds, “I’m a preacher.”

Gideon arrived at the pink house a year later. He belonged to a group of missionaries organized by his church pastor, another Yale graduate whose mentorship first shepherded Gideon into the Christian fold. He was eager to join in Lenny’s efforts, which seemed to Gideon like a bold approach in keeping with his own affinity for radical communal living.

It was a challenging new place to be, and Gideon’s enthusiasm didn’t preclude a fair share of anxiety. He says he spent that first year “wringing my hands and hoping I would be able to meet people.” Gideon talks about these early days as someone who has learned better. “Part of my reason for wanting to move to Kensington was not for godly reasons, but because I wanted to be radical,” he admits. “I thought, we have to move to the toughest neighborhood and see God do transformation.” (The syntax of “doing transformation” is clumsy, but when Gideon talks, there is no verb God cannot gracefully perform.) Gideon has dispensed by now with the hubris of amateur do-gooding, and is quick to insist that his hands aren’t, of course, the ones that really matter: all the work that gets done here gets done by God.

When Gideon first settled into Kensington Street, he was disturbed by one feature of the backyard where Lenny hosted his parties: dense barbed wire covered the fence on all sides. The wire offended a piece of scripture that Gideon cares about deeplyand paraphrases often: “in Christ, all dividing walls have come down.”

For a white suburban boy searching for a home on Kensington Street, this is an important mantra. There are plenty of barriers that will need to be torn down. Gideon didn’t know how to remove the wire, but he worried and prayed about it. It had been there for 50 years, and there didn’t seem to be much of a chance of it ever coming down. Then, one day, within nine months of his arrival, the barbed wire disappeared, taken down by someone else in the neighborhood. Gideon never lifted a finger. “We chalk that up to God,” he says. “Light shines in darkness, and the darkness just disappears.”

Soon, Gideon started work on a community garden behind the house. Kids on the block come to help him plant and water, and beautiful caterpillars have latched onto the stalks of leafy greens. This fall, he went around distributing vegetables. The mothers on Kensington Street are impressed, and Gideon is finally at home in the yard.

***

Most people on Kensington Street believed in God before Lenny ever got here. As he puts it, the kids who sit obediently on his blue tarp “already know the protocol [of Christianity]: what to say and when to say it.” This is what Lenny and Gideon call “legalism,” the rules and regulations that get packaged up and presented as good Christian faith.

The kind of faith that abounds in the pink house looks and sounds very different. On the door into Gideon’s living room is a hanger that reads, “Caution, Prayer Warrior Inside.” The kitchen is stocked with Ezekiel 4:9 (the only cereal, Gideon tells me, with zero grams of sugar). The bookshelves in his bedroom are filled with titles like The Prodigal God, Mystical Prayer, and (Gideon’s favorite) St. Francis of Assisi. There is, in short, not a single corner that God has not filled, and that is precisely the point. “The same God we worship on Sunday is the same God we wake up to on Monday morning,” Lenny says.

The point of this faith, however, is not just its hugeness. The heart of being a Christian, as Lenny and Gideon see it, is developing a personal connection with Jesus Christ. It means being his best friend. If this sounds quotidian, it’s supposed to. Gideon talks to God—conversationally—every morning, and God usually talks back. (God once urged him to help out a friend and “be her number one cheerleader.”) Twice as I sat across from Lenny at his kitchen table, his eyes welled up with tears and he was unable to finish a sentence. “Jesus,” he said. “Thank you, Lord,” he said. And I couldn’t help but wonder what conversation I was interrupting.

But both Gideon and Lenny admit that getting to know Him in the first place is hard—especially for the children of Kensington Street. “Most kids have grown up in church,” Lenny acknowledges, “but have never made that connection of what it means to know God.” Not only are they lacking relationships with Jesus, they tend to be lacking lasting relationships of any kind. Raised without fathers, the children of this community are, Lenny diagnoses, “physically and emotionally bankrupt. They don’t know how to be sons, they don’t know how to be fathers, they don’t know how to be men. People say I’m here for you, but how can they be trusted, when the first five, maybe six people said the same thing?”

The consequences of this social trend are not usually measured in terms of its effect on God. But for Lenny, faith is the most important measurement of all. “How can you connect with a Father who is good, perfect, greater than you can imagine, when you don’t even have a biological father?”

Before King’s Keep can make any inroads toward real faith, then, it must make progress toward cementing real families. Britney puts on her wedding dress again and again and shows off for the kids, because gauzy veils and long white trains are part of a fairytale that doesn’t get told here. When the household next door crumbled apart (a long-term boyfriend walked out, a young mother’s life reeled) Lenny reached out with support. A few months ago, the mother announced she had decided to baptize her daughter, and asked Lenny to be the godfather.

If their mission sounds like social work, Gideon is quick to insist I’ve got the wrong idea. “I don’t need to be the best service organization for these people,” he says, “because as far as I can tell they don’t need services.” Gideon has not started reading parenting books at the age of 23 because he wants to mend the social fabric of America—though, all things considered, he wouldn’t object to some more widespread repair. Parenting gurus provide as much spiritual fodder, it turns out, as practical advice, because faith and family are so inextricably intertwined. “God’s justice doesn’t necessarily look like a secular vision of justice, and it definitely doesn’t look like a law and order version of justice,” he explains. “What it looks like is family.”

Gideon insists that he is “not talking about family values at all”—though Lenny’s talk of reestablishing marriage can seem to tend in that direction. In Gideon’s paradigm, loving relationships are the only foundation and definition of family that matter. As he puts it, Gideon gravitates toward “the forgotten places with the forgotten folk: to live amongst them, love them, and be their brother.” Find the prodigal sons of the modern world, the mission seems to be saying, and welcome them in. Gideon says he is searching for “the uncle whose relatives say, ‘oh yeah, we haven’t seen him in years.’”

“These people come from somewhere,” Gideon insists—and they can be found.

***

The somewhere Gideon comes from has little in common with the pink house and its surroundings.  Yet in many ways, Gideon grew up with precisely the kind of family King’s Keep is trying to model. Most weekends of his childhood, Gideon’s family went to synagogue. His dad may have dozed off, his mom may have tried a little too hard to seem peppy and spiritually engaged, but there they all were: one family, before God. Add in the New Testament, and what more could Lenny ask for?

It wouldn’t be fair to say their normalcy was a façade, but the backstory to this picture of stable family life is a complicated web of religious narratives. Gideon’s mother grew up Catholic (her own mother occasionally spoke in tongues), and grew into an eclectic blend of Christian Holy Spirit and hippie free spirit—a strange hybrid that, by ’60s standards, was hardly strange at all. It didn’t take long for her to drop folk masses in favor of just plain folk, and, a decade later, she had somehow wound up arranging the carpool for Hebrew school. Gideon’s father, by contrast, has almost always practiced a blend of Judaism and Marxism. He holds a doctorate in psychology and philosophy, and considers himself an atheist.

As a child, Gideon grudgingly tolerated Hebrew school but had no patience for religion in heavier doses. Most of his mother’s relatives had been born again—‘Jesus freaks’ of the evangelical movement that took off in the ’70s. Teenage Gideon had a hunch that “no one believed in God anymore, except these conservative people who were very strange and weird,” and his relatives confirmed his unkind suspicions. He was convinced they were out to convert him, and quickly decided religion was not only dumb but dangerous. Gideon refers to this period as the heyday of his ‘militant atheism.”

Gideon admits there was something pleasantly clarifying about rejecting the beliefs of others; his “identity was based on being not things.” But if his life as a teenager was defined by contrarianism, Gideon’s life as a college student was shaped by exuberance for extreme ideology. He got involved with a union organizing group at Yale and a racial equality initiative on campus. In both places, he met radical leftist Christians—a category of believers he knew nothing about.  Gideon started learning about the politics of Jesus. He knew Jesus as a word you said when you stubbed your toe. Jesus Christ. Now he knew Jesus as a community organizer, radical thinker, and promoter of change: hardly things he would take in vain.

By the end of the year, Gideon says, he “got a little bit down on atheism.” Books and drugs were changing his mind about big things. He read about feminism and Ubuntu, about Marxism and New Age paraphernalia. He “tripped balls,” decided science was “suspect,” and “touched plants.” He was never a stoner, but sometimes sounded like one. “At a certain point, I thought: I’m communing with a goddess when I’m smoking salvia.” He spent a semester studying in southern Mexico and fell in love with the way things were done there—farming, educating, protesting, and organizing all looked better when it was hands-on and communal. He came home with a zeal for spreading the Zapatista message, and made his “first converts” preaching new ideas to old high school friends.

Urged on by Christian friends, Gideon started taking classes at the Yale Divinity School, where he found he could turn an academic lens on his new fixation with community. The first syllabus he received explained that seminar discussions would be devoted to learning “how to be a better lover.” (In the Christian sense, of course, this objective is anything but corporeal.)

But it wasn’t until one evening at a New Haven prayer meeting, that the whole way Gideon felt was transformed. He’d been coming to the “home group,” as these informal gatherings are known, for a few months at the invitation of a mentor he’d met at Yale. Gideon was tentatively calling himself a Christian by this point, but God the Father still sounded conceptual at best, patriarchal at worst. But that January evening, a well-known pastor was visiting the group from out of town. He offered to close the meeting with a prayer of his own, and the small group bowed their heads as he worked his way around the circle, pausing at each person to lay a hand on their backs or offer a word in their ears. When he touched Gideon’s shoulders, Gideon felt heat suddenly flood his body.

“At first I was skeptical,” he says. “Just because I wanted certain things doesn’t mean my scientific side wasn’t incredibly skeptical of anything supernatural or out of the ordinary. But then: it was awesome. So I just let it come.” This was the Holy Spirit: “The heat was not just physical, it was emotional, it was everything at once.” When the pastor lifted his hands and moved on to the next pair of shoulders, the warmth was gone, but Gideon’s skin didn’t stop tingling for nearly an hour.

***

There is a serious pitfall to the work of surrogate fathers like Lenny and Gideon. Perhaps they too will one day up and leave, and Kensington will become another closed chapter in their mission to spread the good news.

This fear is not totally unfounded: pastors come and go in the pink house. A new roommate has just moved in, and outgoing boxes are stacked in a spare room I can see from the kitchen table. The shuffling will no doubt continue, and it seems likely that the boxes will one day belong to Gideon. For now, he sleeps on a thin futon on his bedroom floor and hasn’t yet found his “desk.” He might marry his girlfriend; they might found a school together. Gideon insists his uncertainty is not the ambivalence typical of many recent college graduates. It isn’t that he doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life; it’s just that he has to wait for directions from God.

When Gideon was a freshman at Yale, he sometimes tutored elementary school students at the Dwight School, and he has always remembered two of his students in particular. They were full of spirit and tended to misbehave. Gideon felt an instant connection. When he moved into the pink house four years later, he discovered that one of the boys, Anthony, lived right next door. He was troubled and troublesome, and he knew it: he often introduced himself as “a bad kid.” He chafed at authority. Gideon suspects he knew demons. Then a few months ago, he came over to the pink house while worship and song were in full swing. Everyone in the room could suddenly feel God’s presence, as if he was right at hand.

Something happened that evening. Anthony is “not an angel”—because no teenager is—but ever since the night he stood in Lenny and Gideon’s living room, he has been a new person. “Anthony is someone who has known spiritual things all his life,” Gideon says. “The devil has spoken to him, invited him to be part of his schemes, and he has said yes. And now God has spoken to him, invited him to be a part of his schemes, and he has said a bigger yes.”

Anthony has found a new father, and has become a new child.

***

For Gideon, however, there is another question that awaits: what if these children do not become men? Because, he says matter-of-factly, “there are a lot of adults who are still boys.”

Nowhere is this question more pressing than in Gideon’s relationship with Terrence. In some regards, Terrence is now just one of the many boys that Gideon mentors. Still, as Gideon says, “I have in my head a responsibility for him becoming a man.”

Gideon has devised what he calls “manhood project,” which he plans to introduce to Terrence in a few weeks. There will be benchmarks along the way to maturity, and the project’s completion will be marked with the gift of driving lessons. When he agrees to begin the project (it is a contractual affair), Terrence will get an iPhone.

Gideon’s story makes it tempting to believe that identities can change in the blink of an eye. If Gideon can become a Christian because of the right pastor, why can’t Terrence become an adult because of the right mentor?

A few weeks ago, Terrence and a friend were on their way to play basketball in East Haven when they spotted an elderly white woman who had fallen down on the opposite side of the street. Terrence, whom Gideon describes as a natural “peacemaker,” insisted they cross the street. As the two boys helped the woman to her feet, she told them that dozens of cars had already driven by without stopping. To Gideon, this is what “doing transformation” is all about: “This is East Haven, one of the most racist towns, and here are these two black boys helping this old white lady. And maybe they are transforming her idea of race.”

Gideon, too, has crossed a few streets and stopped to help. He may not be able to make Terrence and the boys of Kensington into men. But when driving lessons begin in a few months, he will put Terrence behind the wheel. There is no telling where Terrence will steer—away from God, or toward Him—but there seems to be a good chance he’ll be the car that pulls over when someone else is in need.