When A Modern Young Man Opts For ‘Poverty, Celibacy And Obedience’

Bernd Ruffing, 38, lives with a large group of people, but they’re all men, and they’re all old. His mother is appalled by the situation. But the soon-to-be monk is sure he’s doing the right thing in the right place.

Roman Catholic monks in Prague (FaceMePLS)
Roman Catholic monks in Prague (FaceMePLS)
Miriam Hollstein

SANKT WENDEL - A few Sundays from now, Bernd Ruffing will step up to the altar. He'll be wearing a suit, and he will promise to be faithful. But the 38-year-old won't be promising this to a woman: his pledge will be to God. For eight years, this Catholic has been living in a religious order. In a few weeks, he will have completed his training – and that's when the ceremony will take place, at which Ruffing will take his eternal vows as monk and missionary and thus commit himself to a life of celibacy, poverty and obedience.

A wide street leads to the premises of the missionary society in Sankt Wendel, in the German state of Saarland. On a hill, several buildings are grouped around a brick church. Towards the back of the complex is a school. The complex is home to 96 brothers belonging to the Society of the Divine Word. Their average age is 78. Bernd Ruffing is the youngest among them.

"I never had any kind of call that made me realize I had a vocation," says the large, slim man with youthful features. "I just grew into it." Ruffing is wearing jeans, a red shirt, and Tommy Hilfiger designer glasses.

He has brought cakes to our meeting, baked by his mother and aunt who live in a village six kilometers away. That's where Ruffing grew up, the second child of a quality controller at a steel factory and a housewife. His was a classic, rural Catholic up-bringing, with grace before meals and church on Sunday. In the parish his family belonged to, and where he helped out as an altar boy, one of the priests was from the nearby mission.

After graduating from secondary school, Ruffing got a job in the nursing ward at the mission. He was fascinated by the life of the order – by the tales of life abroad that the Divine Word missionaries told, by their commitment to God and their fellow humans, and by the sense of peace that radiated from most of them.

But he didn't like being so close to home. So he left, first to do community service, then to train as a nurse. He also fell in love a couple of times. "But somehow I never imagined living longer-term in a relationship." From time to time, however, he did imagine becoming a member of the order.

Getting "hooked" on the lifestyle

The finality of the decision, nevertheless, scared him, and so he took his acceptance for advanced nursing training at the University for Applied Sciences in Mainz as a sign that he was destined to pursue another life path. But as he was completing the second half of his studies, he was offered a job at a nursing school in -- of all places -- Sankt Wendel. He was by now 27 years of age. Instead of looking for an apartment of his own, he asked at the mission if he could live with the order for a while -- and moved in on a trial basis. "That's when I got hooked," Ruffing says.

In September 2011, Ruffing returned to Sankt Wendel after completing a three-year internship in Thailand, where he'd worked with patients infected with HIV either through intravenous drug use or prostitution.

The Society of the Divine Word was founded in 1875 by German-born Arnold Janssen in Steyl, in the Netherlands, which is why members of the order are commonly referred to as Steyler missionaries. Janssen wanted to help spread the teachings of Christ to the entire world. Today, the order is the seventh largest Catholic male order in the world, with 6,000 brothers in 70 countries. In Germany there are some 330 brothers at 14 locations.

The task of these missionaries is not to convert others to Christianity, only to show in every day ways that believing in God's love can make a difference.

When Ruffing told his family that he wanted to enter the order, they were appalled. It wasn't that they didn't respect the order, because they did. They just didn't see why their son had to join it. On the evening before he took his first vows, which are valid for a year, his mother was in tears: "Stay the way you are," she begged him. But both of them knew that wasn't possible. Becoming a missionary means leaving your old life behind you.

Choosing mind over matter

Ruffing lives in a 15 square meter room that looks out over a field. Like other members of the community, his day begins at 6.30 a.m. At 7 a.m., members gather in the church to pray, something that they do again shortly after noon and at 6:15 p.m. In between, those who are not retired go to work.

Ruffing, who wrote his dissertation on the aging of order members, works as a caregiver in the home run by the Sankt Wendel community for aged and infirm members of the order from all over Germany and Austria.

He says he sometimes wishes there were more people his age in the community. On the other hand, the order offers many different work options ranging from the order's own media to becoming a scientist. Another positive point is being able to wear what he wants – although that can also have downsides, since his clothes don't identify him as a monk.

His salary goes back to the order. He gets pocket money of 30 euros but has to furnish receipts to show what he spends it on. However, there are extras – theater lovers will be given money to buy tickets, for example, and there's even cigarette money for those who can't kick the habit.

On the subject of celibacy, Ruffing says: "Being celibate doesn't mean you don't relate to people...I can't imagine living on my own, without a community." But living a celibate life isn't always easy. "Crises are part of it, and require conscious decisions' to stay the course.

One of the reasons for doing so is that his chosen life has made Ruffing realize what it feels like to be in the right place, doing the right thing. The first time it happened, he says, "I suddenly felt totally ‘like me.""" After that experience, when people asked him what he did, he replied "monk and missionary" – before that, he had always said "nurse."

Where Ruffing gets sent after he takes his vows will be decided in Rome. He has no guarantee that he'll end up in one of the countries on his preferred list: Thailand, the Philippines or Germany. But it doesn't worry him. He's looking forward to this summer, he says – when, holding a candle in one hand, in the presence of the head of the order, he will pronounce the words: "I, Brother Bernd, vow to live a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience."

Read the original article in German

Photo - FaceMePLS

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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