The move to New Haven from the West Coast was my third away from everyone and everything I knew. As many recent graduates can attest, these transplants are often disorienting, anxiety inducing, and lonely. Pockets of connection are difficult to find, and even more difficult to generate de novo. I was arriving from a small, Quaker liberal arts college in Oregon with a “Be Known” motto that left me craving authentic connection. So I sought out an intentional living community to join, discovering through the process the newly formed Borden House, a network of houses and people in the Newhallville neighborhood created in response to the oppressive structures of racial and economic segregation in the area.
Borden House is named after Bill Borden, a young millionaire who came to Yale as an undergraduate in 1905. Profoundly affected by the proximity of poverty and privilege he witnessed in New Haven, Borden moved into the middle of an impoverished neighborhood and began to build relationships with the poor and marginalized, and helped meet their spiritual and material needs. He eventually bought an entire apartment complex that became a halfway house known as Yale Hope Mission. The purpose of Borden House is different than Bill Borden’s—to wit, we aren’t millionaires or missionaries—but the founders wanted to rehabilitate his spirit for 21st-century New Haven.
Any moral enterprise is fraught with risk, and Borden House is no different. Throughout the country there exists a problematic pattern of white return to predominantly black urban neighborhoods, altering their aesthetic, importing a different sense of value, and inflating the price of the land. The greater trends of gentrification that threaten to displace local residents are a constant topic of internal and external conversation. Without intentionality, members of Borden, the majority of whom were Yale graduate students, could easily have become unwitting accomplices in perpetuating these injustices.
Instead of remaining aloof and cloistered, we sought to be neighbors and partner with those already in the community. Our house was home to two other families with small children but owned by a slumlord who refused to meet the basic standards of cleanliness and livability. The conditions were so bad they were considering leaving but, through a combination of pressure and persuasion, we convinced the owner to sell to another, who promised to retain the current residents and clean the building.
When Stephanie Washington, a young black New Haven resident, was shot by Yale and Hamden police a few blocks from our house, many of us rallied to protest and wrote letters of support. As a Yale student living in Newhallville, I felt a confusing mix of responsibility and anger. There are many invisible boundaries that confine Newhallville residents to their neighborhood—borders that are policed to keep people like “them” out and people like “me” free to move without restriction. Compounded with Yale Police Department’s ability to push the line deeper and deeper into neighborhoods in which they literally have no business, the mistrust and even resentment many feel living in the university’s shadow is unsurprising.
My first Sunday in New Haven I went to the Elm City Vineyard Church, and I heard a message on First Corinthians 12:12–26—unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Despite the numerous times I had heard the passage preached, never before was the command to treat with special honor the “seemingly” weaker parts contextualized as it was that Sunday, with explicit reference to the vulnerable black and brown lives in our community. Although the pastor was referring to Elm City, the sermon could just as easily have been referring to the greater New Haven context. Our support for and solidarity with Stephanie, her boyfriend Paul Witherspoon III, and the Newhallville community was according to the apostle Paul’s injunction: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”
Perhaps the least recognized aspect of Paul’s theology of the communal body is that it really matters which “body” you identify with. If the circle you draw encloses only your family and close friends, the discussion of every person’s unique role and the subsequent explication of love will sound hollow and narrow rather than radical and capacious. The purpose of the Borden House is to draw the circle wider and include those who are routinely excluded from consideration. By doing so, we alter our moral calculus and place ourselves in the admittedly precarious position of claiming a dual citizenship.
There is nothing ideal about living in community. In fact, ideals are more often the source of a community’s destruction than they are its foundation. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting on his time leading an underground, residential seminary in Nazi Germany, said, “Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive.” Bonhoeffer knew idealization leads to disappointment, disappointment to accusations, and accusations to resentment.
I nearly fell prey to the process of destruction outlined above. Moving from an idyllic suburb into a gritty urban setting induced a sense of disillusionment that Bonhoeffer thought to be healthy, except instead of moving into thankfulness, forgiveness, and peace I remained in the pit of frustration. Much of that dissatisfaction was produced by my classes at the Divinity School, where we speak loudly and often about historic economic and racial inequalities and injustices yet are blind to what is happening in our backyard. Additionally, I discovered myself to be a limited being with a finite amount of financial, emotional, and temporal resources—who knew?
False idealism is a black hole, collapsing all reality in on itself. When present, all light and truth bends to its will. It sucks all grace, forgiveness, and thankfulness from the room. And a community absent these virtues will fail. When I arrived to Borden, I thought I had realistic expectations. I knew I was joining something that previously did not exist and recognized it to be the experiment that it is. Yet somewhere along the way I began to believe in Borden’s mission and saw in my mind’s eye its potential to be an island of authentic connection in a sea of disconnection, only to be carried away by the current of my own expectations.
After half a year of struggling through the limits imposed by class schedules and our (lack of) diversity, Borden has been able to welcome a number of non-Yale students into its fold, making the community a much richer and more integrated whole. This presents new challenges, but they are ones that we are eager to embrace. Borden will not “neighbor” everyone in Newhallville; we do not seek to impose any vision of flourishing on any Newhallvillian. Rather, the hope is that within Borden we can be true neighbors to each other and, in the process, be a community that bears witness to the possibility of crossing seemingly unbridgeable divides.
Joshua Cayetano is a member of the Borden House and a graduate student at Yale Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshPCayetano, where he posts regular commentary on politics and religion.