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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: Circle of Hope by Eliza Griswold 

If I were to describe the church at the center of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eliza Griswold's "Circle of Hope: A Reckoning with Love, Power, and Justice in an American Church," I would likely use a term popularized by folks like Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne - "red letter Christian."

Started by Rod White, Circle of Hope could easily have been seen as a cousin to The Simple Way, the intentional community co-founded by Shane Claiborne that burst to familiarity after the popularity of Claiborne's "The Irresistible Revolution" became a bestseller. Claiborne's was a, and still is to a degree, the kind of popularity to which Jonny, one of the Circle of Hope pastors chronicled by Griswold, would likely aspire.

It has been these kinds of churches that have drawn a broad tapestry of believers. These are people tired of church in the traditional way yet not quite ready to let it go. They want to do church differently. When White and his family founded Circle of Hope in hopes of creating just such a home, a different kind of church that would love all and include all. Words like emergent, new monastic, and others offer a way to understand these churches, but they have always tended to draw the "other Christians" - people wounded by the church or deconstructionists or people who simply believe there has to be a better way.

Truthfully, after reading"Circle of Hope" I'm starting to wonder if there is a better way.

It's well known and well documented that church attendance in America is down. Churches are dying or becoming a fraction of what they used to be.

Griswold's "Circle of Hope" immerses us within Philly's Circle of Hope, a church that began as one central body with a vision of being radically different and dedicated to living out the red letters. Pastor White was its pastor, though he enthusiastically fostered leadership growth that would eventually identify the individuals in "Circle of Hope." When White stepped down from leadership, not so much leaving the congregation as widening its leadership, it would fall upon the likes of Rachel, Jonny, Julie, and Ben (White's son) to lead the church. White had left the church at a time when four distinct congregations existed, though in theory they were guided by united pastors.

"Circle of Hope" immerses us into the the journey of this "radical outpost of Jesus followers" in Philly. They were dedicated to service, the Sermon on the Mount, social justice, and toward having difficult conversations.

Circle of Hope is not the only such church in this relatively unknown yet influential movement that exists on the edge of what is known as evangelicalism. As a church, it grew for forty years and from one to four congregations.

Then, crisis would hit - generational differences, an increasingly politicized religious landscape, the COVID pandemic that prevented gathering in worship, and a rise in activism that demanded more than simply marching. Suddenly, this church which was founded as part of the peaceful Anabaptist movement struggled to know how to lean into its values.

If it feels like this is some jaded expose of contemporary Christianity, think again. Griswold immersed herself within the life of Circle of Hope with their permission. As she notes eloquently in her final words, a benediction of sorts, it was a permission that none could have realized would end up providing an up close and deeply personal view of everything we love about church and everything that makes us need to deconstruct the church experience.

It took almost unfathomable bravery and transparency, spirit-led really, for the White family to continue participating within this project even as it began to express itself differently. It took remarkable leadership for these four pastors plus others within Circle of Hope to vulnerably continue sharing life-shaking journeys. Remarkable.

"Circle of Hope" is immersive. It is explosive. It is intimate and tender and wise and respectful. Griswold's background as a journalist is evident throughout, neither offering an overly sympathetic account nor doing some sort of journalistic body slam of this church and these lives. Instead, this feels like truth over and over and over again.

Questions of power come up over and over and over again - gender based, race based, and so much more. Vital questions are asked and the answers aren't always pretty. How do we welcome the least of these? How do we commit to one another in a fractured world? Does power have a home in the church and can it genuinely be shared?

"Circle of Hope" is a revelation. You will feel immersed in the lives of these people and these pastors. If you're a Christian, you'll likely find yourself saying "I would never go to so-and-so's church" or "this pastor sounds amazing." Griswold doesn't decide for us if there are bad characters here - she simply shares the story and immerses us in its fullness. I found myself most drawn to Rachel as a pastor, though by the end of "Circle of Hope" everyone here is richly human, undeniably flawed, desperate to be loving, learning how to grow, struggling to disagree, and both part of the problem and part of its potential solution.

If you've ever been a pastor, and I have, "Circle of Hope" will ring as familiar and yet will tug at your heart, your mind, and your spirit.

"Circle of Hope" is a must-read for American churchgoers and anyone who has experienced what is described here as a "reckoning" with love, power, and justice while learning what it means to be the Church.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic