New hope for Christian ashrams movement

The term “Christian ashram” sounds arrestingly odd, if not downright implausible, along the lines of “Buddhist revival” or “Muslim camp meeting.”

But Christian ashrams have been around since 1930, when E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), the great Methodist missionary, preacher and author, adapted a spiritual renewal practice he encountered in India.

At their height, when Jones was still helping to lead them, Christian ashrams were occurring regularly over much of North and South America, and on other continents. But the movement has been in decline, and recent years have seen fewer than 40 events, with smaller and older crowds.

The California Winter Christian Ashram, held Feb. 16-18 at Camp Maranatha in Idyllwild, Calif., drew a diverse group, but also several families. PHOTO COURTESY TOM ALBIN

Now, a comeback may be in the works, thanks to two developments.

The first is that United Christian Ashrams, the nonprofit organization affiliated with the E. Stanley Jones Foundation, has a new top leader after more than three years without one. The UMC’s General Board of Discipleship has agreed to let the Rev. Tom Albin, dean of Upper Room ministries, give 40 percent of his time to United Christian Ashrams, and serve as its interim executive director.

At the same December meeting where details of that arrangement were being worked out, Anne Mathews-Younes, granddaughter of E. Stanley Jones, arrived with news of a $100,000 gift for United Christian Ashrams.

The anonymous donor had heard that efforts to kick-start the movement were underway, and wanted to help.

“We have interpreted this as God’s affirmation that we were moving in the right direction,” Dr. Albin said. “The gift is also a reminder that God can and does supply the needs of a ministry through the faithful and generous stewardship of ordinary people.”

The Rev. Roberto Escamilla, board chair of United Christian Ashrams, said the need for Christian ashrams is clear.

“There’s no other event that I know that is as intentional about enabling lay people to go back into their local churches and make a difference in terms of evangelism, but also social concerns,” he said.

Changed lives

E. Stanley Jones remains revered within Methodism, particularly by those who knew him. Dr. Escamilla travelled with him in Jones’ later years, serving as interpreter for visits to South America and Puerto Rico.

“He was preaching two or three times a day, and he would wear me out,” Dr. Escamilla said. “I remember him as a versatile man with great insight and an amazing commitment to Christ.”

Jones’ books are still read, and United Methodist seminaries have professorships named for him. But the Christian ashram (pronounced “aah’-shrum”) is a key part of his legacy.

In effect, Jones—a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt—Christianized the Hindu practice of going away for a period of spiritual discipline and renewal under a guru’s direction.

Tom Albin

Christian ashrams tend to occur at camps or retreat centers over a weekend, but can be longer and shorter. They are ecumenical (though Methodist representation is generally strong), and families with children are welcome.

The structure is bookended, with participants stating a spiritual need to the group at the outset (such as for more patience or greater capacity for forgiveness) and at the end saying what they’ve gained from the experience. In between, there’s Bible study, teaching, singing, services of healing, periods of silence and periods of working together on chores, such as serving meals and cleaning up afterwards.

The leader is known as the evangelist, though Dr. Albin said a more accurate title now would be spiritual director. His or her teaching is adapted to the stated needs of the participants.

“People can manage to get themselves all fouled up, and the ashram is a pretty good place to get all that sorted out,” said Russell Gregory, who organizes the annual summer Christian ashram near Marshall, Texas. “I’ve seen people turn their lives around. I’ve seen families turn their lives around.”

The Texas event has been going since the late 1940s, and last year drew 217 people. But crowds have been much larger in years past.

The death of Jones definitely hurt the movement, Dr. Escamilla said. Dr. Albin believes competition from other spiritual renewal events—such as the Emmaus Walk and the Academy for Spiritual Formation—also has been a factor.

But they insist the Christian ashram format offers something unique.

“It helps people to internalize and incarnate the answer to their needs, their problems,” said Dr. Escamilla. “Brother Stanley used to say, ‘We don’t give you an answer. We enable you to be the answer.’”

Dr. Albin was to lay out a plan for United Christian Ashrams at an April 3-6 meeting in Ruston, La., where the group is based. He said the plan would include recruiting and training more event leaders, overhauling the organization’s website, generating more publicity for events and seeking donors to match the $100,000 gift.

Mr. Gregory, for one, was delighted to learn of the surprise donation.  But he sees it as a mustard seed.

“We need about $10 million more!”

shodges@umr.org

 

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Ron Friesen
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I am interested in the Christian Ashram movement. Is there anything happening in Phoenix, AZ?

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