Renting=Spiritual Discipline(?)

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This is where we live right now. It’s the classic nondescript townhouse in the ‘burbs. It’s literally the antithesis of almost everything I claim I believe about the importance of place and one’s stewardship of it. My old/former friend/mentor David once said, as I’ve long since quoted, that “buying a house is one of the most important theological decisions you’ll ever make.” As he went on to say, there’s a lot that goes into such a decision. It involves deciding how much of one’s budget to commit to housing, for starters, and whether or not one will live beyond one’s means. It means deciding, for good or ill, who your literal neighbors are and how much time you’ll spend each day commuting to work or school. It should involve critical thinking about justice and race and economic disparities. I could go on.

The first/only time we bought a house, we chose this one:

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We really grew to like and appreciate that house in OH. It looks, and was, relatively small, but in a “bigger on the inside” sort of way. There were two bedrooms upstairs, a normal sized one on the main floor, and another tiny one on the main floor for a total of four. Plus, the basement was mostly finished, giving it a family room and second bathroom down there, plus a bonus room that variously served as a workout room for a previous owner and a sewing room (when Kirsten’s mom lived with us), office, and eventual extra “bedroom” in our almost decade in that house. Still, despite it being what I think is a fairly modest house from the look of it with a working class neighborhood vibe, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about (working toward) “owning” it.

For starters, I love cities and believe that there are justice issues involved in choosing to live in one. I lean toward thinking that it’s more just to do so, given the historic reality of white flight and the resultant declining urban tax base and property values. However, I know too that choosing to live in the city can unwittingly make one part of the gentrification process of the very disadvantaged neighbors one might seek to make common cause with. Still, I do love the city. So choosing to buy the house we did above was a conflicted decision as it was a house in a ‘burb. The nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it felt more like a small town with its own “downtown” and the like; it just happened to be adjacent to some larger cities in Akron and Cleveland (and, going the other way, Canton). The not nice thing about Cuyahoga Falls is that it was sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls,” and that lack of diversity was certainly reflected in our experience there. I salved my guilt about (working toward) “owning” that house by:

  • Moving into it with Kirsten’s mom in tow and giving her the biggest bedroom for our first year+ there.
  • Later, by fostering a couple of African-American boys for a very short while in that house.
  • While we were in Texas for a year-and-a-half as my dad was dying right in the middle of our near decade “owning” that house, we rented it out at a significant monthly loss to a couple that couldn’t have afforded to live there otherwise. We hoped to eventually sell the house to them, but we wound up returning to it instead.
  • Much later, we gave up our basement first for a young married couple to move in and, as they left, then for a teacher friend to live in it.

None of that of course made my guilt completely go away. Whether or not I should have entertained such a feeling at all is another question, but I struggled with it until the house finally sold after our move to MN. In a sign of changing times and perhaps providentially, it just so happened that we sold the house to a an African-American family.

So, now here we are in a townhouse well entrenched in “nice” neighborhood in what is more classically and obviously a suburb. I have some guilt of course about where we are now, which is only slightly lessened by the fact that we’re renting. We sold the OH house at such a loss that it may be a long time before we ever “own” again. We chose this townhouse because it’s a few blocks from Kirsten’s mom (and sister), and ostensibly we’re here in no small part to help give care to her as her health declines. It’s within sight of a good elementary school that did very well with Samuel and his (slight) Autism diagnosis in the year+ he went there. However, Coon Rapids seems to have a lot of baggage in terms of a heritage of racism that we still run into every day. I’ve experienced this personally as I heard an employee at the local Ford dealer where I was getting work done on our car call the President a “raghead,” and in the news. Sadly, the school district also has a terrible history of discrimination of LGBT students that resulted in a rash of suicides.

That said, things here are very much changing too. When I let a manager at the Ford dealership know what I had heard and how offensive it was, he went out of his way to apologize and express his agreement with me. He may have been exercising good customer service, but it felt genuine. While attending a community event at a local park, I sat down with the boys for a snack while lunch was being served. In the circle we were sitting in, I saw another white family, but also an Asian dad and his boys and an African-American mom and her kids. Things are improving in the school district too, and even that good elementary school that’s just a stone’s throw away seems increasingly diverse when we attend school functions. I’m glad for that.

But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to put down roots here, and this is why after yearning for so long to live the “American dream” and own a home, I’m almost glad not to right now. When we did, I gave lip service to the notion that everything belongs to God and I was but a steward of whatever possessions I came to have, including that house, but I don’t know how well I actually lived that out. We are fortunate to have what so far is a really great landlord here; so with that in mind, I can say that my lived experience of renting this townhouse for the past year isn’t all that different from the decade we “owned” that OH house. I still make a large payment every month to the person/entity that “really” owns my residence (if not truly or ultimately again if everything belongs to God). I don’t have the freedom to do whatever I want with this place, but that’s what I’m grateful for now, because it reminds me that if I really believe that everything belongs to God and I am but a steward of God’s stuff, than I never really did have that freedom. Being more conscious of my likely transience in this place helps me be mindful of those who lived here before I did, and those who will come after me. Moreover, it helps me be thoughtful about that super important theological decision of just where to put down more “permanent” roots, and I hope and pray to use this time wisely to make sure we make that decision, whenever we do, with all the force of our convictions and wisdom of our experience.

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