Nonfiction Reader Challenge: Circle of Hope

Eliza Griswold, Circle of Hope (2024)

For the Nonfiction Reader Challenge category of a book published in 2024, I sampled a number of forthcoming releases, but for some reason this was the only one that caught my attention and made me want to read further. It’s a fairly up-to-the-minute story, too; it won’t be published till August, and the main action covers the last few years, up to Easter of 2023. The pandemic thus plays a key role, though one unexpected by the author when she started the project in 2019.

The subject is a Philadelphia church called Circle of Hope, which up to that point had been a remarkable growth story, at its height comprising over 700 members spread among four congregations. The founder, a “Jesus freak” from the 60s, was heading toward retirement, facing the challenge of handing his creation over to the next generation. The church had become an important source of local services and community building;. While aiming to uphold the values of the early Christians, to share resources and empower the disenfranchised, through enterprises including two successful thrift stores, it had quietly amassed $1 million in assets. An offshoot of the Anabaptist movement that emphasized the priesthood of all believers, it eschewed old traditions in favor of creative engagement with the way of following Jesus, with “love” as the watchword.

Sounds great, but there was trouble ahead. As the church was grappling with “Founder’s Syndrome” (as many organizations do when transitioning away from the influence of a strong leader), the pandemic hit with its burden of anxiety, raising controversy about how to keep people safe while still remaining a community. A legacy of racism was unearthed, and longtime resistance to affirming LGBTQ individuals surfaced as well. In an enclave of well-meaning, idealistic, liberal people, some uncomfortable truths had to be faced, including the fact that the percentage of BIPOC church members was significantly lower than in the city as a whole. As educated white people joined the church and moved into low-rent neighborhoods, they were driving out the former residents, and though they might think what they were doing was opposing capitalism, in fact they were enabling gentrification.

Griswold, the daughter of an Episcopal presiding bishop who found his own denomination deeply riven over LGBTQ affirmation, seems to have been drawn to the church out of interest in its liberal values, but found herself chronicling its demise. Over the course of just a few years, which the pandemic and general societal trends made a hard time for most denominations, it was hemorrhaging members at four times the rate of the church in general. From a “circle of hope,” its seemed to have fallen into a death spiral of dissent and internal conflict.

This is an extremely complex story. Griswold has organized it in four parts, each in turn composed of chapters that focus in turn on each of the church’s four pastors (with one exception). That means we see the same events and the same ideas from different, sometimes diametrically opposing points of view. I’m not always convinced this was the best choice. There’s a lot of backtracking and jumping around in time and place, sometimes making for a confusing narrative, sometimes there’s unnecessary repetition. I wished a timeline had been included, as sometimes it was hard to keep track of where we were in the story.

Sometimes there really were holes in the narrative. At some points events were briefly referred to, then more fully explained later — not seeming like an intentional artistic choice, but rather sloppy editing. (There’s a chance those holes will be fixed in the final version, but by this stage I would expect better continuity.) There also were people, events, and relationships that seemed important, but were given hardly any attention — like the wife of one of the pastors, whom we barely glimpsed at all. I wondered what else might have been left out, while our attention was being deflected to certain narrative threads. Would it have been better to focus on two of the pastors, with the others playing more of a supporting role, to make at least their portions feel more complete? In addition, I really would have liked to hear more from the congregation members who are the real “Circle,” but they remain mainly in the background.

What is developed clearly is a personality conflict that centers around the one BIPOC pastor. As he calls out racist tendencies in the church, his white colleagues appear to sincerely want to hear him and other members of the congregation, and to initiate change. But that proves to be impossible, in the way it’s carried out. An anti-racist consultant is hired, but soon leaves, for vaguely stated reasons.

In fact, it’s not at all clear what the anti-racist campaigners want the white members to do. The latter agree to be led into a transformative process, seeming sincere in their wish to repent and reform, but then they are scolded for asking questions, for being sad, angry, or upset about what is happening in their church, and for leaving when they can’t take the tantrums and bullying any more. (The one white male pastor, who happens to be the founder’s son, is badgered until he quits, then excoriated for “hijacking the narrative.”) Absolutely anything white people do or say can be considered evidence either of white supremacy, or of white fragility, and no practical, actionable steps are given for them to work their way out of either condition.

Meanwhile, when some BIPOC members of the congregation say they don’t feel they have experienced racism and want clarification, they’re told that those who have experienced it don’t have to explain, as that would traumatize them further. Apparently, there is only one right way to see events, and any disagreement between BIPOC members is to be suppressed at all costs.

Griswold reports all of this in a dispassionate, objective way, without giving much sign of her opinion about it all. Readers can try to make up their own mind about what is going on. Indeed, although to me the behavior of the pastor and congregation member leading the campaign seemed not only ineffective but unethical, to some they are heroes. Exacerbated by pandemic stress and everything else conspiring to unhinge us these days, the whole situation seems to demonstrate how hard it is to come together and listen to each other, even for those with the best of intentions.

Partway through this depressing tale, I was tempted to stop reading, but I was glad that I continued. Only late in the story did I start to understand how this could be happening, how when people latch onto causes with such passion, fighting a foreign, amorphous enemy — such as “whiteness” — sometimes it’s really something closer to home that they are even more afraid to face. It’s not that the cause is not justified, but their fight can’t be effective when they are blinded by what they don’t want to see in themselves, or to face in those closest to them.

And sometimes whole institutions are built around such a blind spot, and however much good may be lost thereby, they have to fall apart and die in order to reveal that weakness. Rebuilding can take place then, on stronger foundations, but only when we have the courage to face and learn from what we have done.

The church was broken, but the people remain. They will reform, reconnect, and create something new. And it is in such a dying and reviving, not a closed circle of perfection but an open spiral of becoming, that Christ can actually work. The book had to stop somewhere, but that story, the real story, has no end.

Eliza Griswold, Circle of Hope (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2024)

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3 thoughts on “Nonfiction Reader Challenge: Circle of Hope

  1. I appreciate your frank review of this book. I don’t know if it’s one I will pick up since it does sound like it lacked a keen editor’s eye. With so many books to choose from, I try to be picky. However, I’m willing to overlook a lot of errors for a good story. 🙂 And the story here does sound intriguing.

    1. Some things might change in the final version, which is not due until August. It would be interesting to see whether and how they do. However, I’m sure the basic structure of alternating between all the four pastors’ stories will stay, even though in my view another choice might have been better. It’s a fascinating story and brings up many important issues.

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