by Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
All across the United States, families were sleeping in tent cities, in make shift cabins, not unlike the way millions continue to live in developing countries around the globe.
I’ve had the chance a few times now to visit Nicaragua, where I stayed with families in concrete block Managua houses that had no glass in the windows and corrugated tin roofs that didn’t quite meet the walls, so that when the dust kicked up from the late afternoon wind everyday, the houses would fill up with dirt. My friend Heidi is always grateful when North Americans come to – as she says – eat dirt with the locals.
I also stayed with people like Ramon and Marta, who live in a beautiful, well maintained home in the northern village of San Diego. The have earthen walls and thatched roofs over dirt floors. They cook on wood-fired clay stoves and haul water from the common well shared by the entire village. They grow vegetables and raise livestock, while they sell sticks to the nearby global tobacco farmers in order to make a couple hundred dollars a year for staples like oil, sugar and rice.
The first time I met Ramon, he asked me how many acres I own in the United States, and was incredulous when he learned that I paid $1200 a month for a rented room smaller than his kitchen in a city where 90% of the residents will never own their apartments, let alone a million dollar 2,500 square foot building lot.
Our conversation made me wonder how, in the short span of 75 years, we in the US had gone from building homes out of the materials we found on the land we acquired, to building McMansions…the image the rest of the world has of our average homes.
Witold Rybczynski is an architectural historian I have come to think of as an “Ethnographer of the American Dream.” In his classic book Home: A Short History of an Idea, he charts the history of residential building from the first single-family homes to concern themselves with domestic privacy, through the trends of capturing light and air, to refining ease and efficiency, to displaying style and substance as markers of success.
The truth is, the idea most of us have of home is remarkably recent in human history. As recently as four hundred years ago, even the richest people in the world didn’t have separate rooms for discrete purposes. The rich had servants bring them whatever they wanted, wherever they were, while the poor just piled everyone into one single space, the way they still do in most of the world.
The most recent innovation in the history of the home is that of seeking comfort and well-being, which isn’t surprising when you consider how much our houses reflect not only our values, but how we see ourselves.
Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the first architects to consciously use the medium of building to express a specific world view. His mother was one of the Wisconsin Lloyd Joneses, commonly called the “Almighty Jonses” for their staunchly liberal stances. Her brother was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the Missionary Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference who planted newly-ordained female Universalist ministers in nascent churches across the west. The family motto was “truth against the world.” Frank Lloyd Wright etched “Truth is Life,” above the fireplace of his own home, and made hearth-top inscriptions a common feature of all of his early houses.
The Heath residence’s inscription stands out: (from a person seated in the congregation):
The reality of the house is order
The blessing of the house is community
The glory of the house is hospitality
The crown of the house is Godliness
Wright was a vocal humanist who never went to church. He was reviled by neighbors to whom he owed huge sums of money. He left his wife and children to run off with a client’s wife, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who was later murdered by household servants repulsed by her “wanton” lifestyle. Wright probably didn’t have much order, community or godliness in his own home.
But, those were the values he wanted to project, and the image the Heath family wanted to show to the world, celebrated in cast concrete.
Growing up, my own home very much showed the world how my parents wanted to be seen. They were painfully aware of how the word “dirty” was attached to their immigrant status, so they made our house immaculate. Pristine walls and floors and perfect furniture defined a space that was void of plants, art, books, music or indoor pets. They also didn’t want to be seen as argumentative, so our house was quiet…teeming with people, but somehow silent.
I would imagine that most of us have childhood memories that are less than perfect, memories of poverty, loneliness, fighting, neglect, or even abuse. Most of us are probably like Sophia’s friends, a little envious of her home and her family, but as wonderful as her family is, she still looks forward to leaving, because that’s what a good family does: it prepares the children for life outside of its emotional comfort and well-being
There’s more to a good home than emotional comfort and well-being, there’s also the physical, which is being challenged and redefined by the tiny house movement.
Ten years ago Jay Shafer started appearing on TV and in magazines with his Tumbleweed Tiny Homes, built in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau’s shack at Walden Pond. At 84 to 144 square feet, they are as movable – and legal – as any recreational vehicle, and so charmingly traditional that they don’t challenge anybody’s idea of what a house should look like, except for the fact that they require their inhabitants to pare their lives back to the bare essentials, and to use the outdoors as a living room.
The Summit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Santee California is so enamored of Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, they bought a trailer and began their own, which they are calling – appropriately enough – The Walden Project. The plan is that once the tiny house is done, individuals, couples and even families will live in it for one- to two-week stints, and blog about the experience of intentional living.
They want to learn to do with less in San Diego California, so there is more for San Diego Nicaragua. They want to make the world smaller and more inclusive by living in a way that is smaller and more inclusive.
It’s not so crazy for a family to live like this.
All over the United States people are moving into tiny homes, converted garages, and micro apartments to simplify their lives and make their families closer. They are realizing that to reduce expenses and space, is to free up time and force togetherness. There’s no place to hide, so they must really live into that covenant that is unspoken in most families, the bond that makes them a family no matter what happens.
Last week, something amazing happened here, that challenged and strengthened our covenant.
My sermon, which outlined an unusual way to imagine the divine, touched off a response that surprised me, and a conversation via email that could have grown contentious very quickly. I’ll admit, the initial post on the listserv scared me a bit. Sure, it was critical of my sermon, and not addressed directly to me, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that people could have taken sides, could have started calling each other names, could have gotten defensive, or worse, offensive. Instead, there was remarkable gentleness present in the comments, and lively theological discussion followed, the kind that every minister dreams of.
All that talk got me thinking.
What if we could take this energy, this mutual respect and willingness to assume the best of intentions of one and turn it into something else, something greater? What if we could really be present to one another every day, even the people that we normally don’t see, in the way that a tiny-house-dwelling family has to be? Right now, this congregation is a lot like nearly every other UU church in the United States.
There’s still just enough room that generations can avoid each other, children at one end, and adults at the other, during what is arguably the most important hour of the week, the hour that rejuvenates our souls, grounds us in what is most important, connects us to the world outside of ourselves, and renews the covenant that binds each to all.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I bet Sophia’s family doesn’t live in a giant house, and I’ll bet they do things together. On purpose. Like sharing meals, doing projects, making music, and entertaining guests. They live their covenant every day, and that practice, that constant engagement and attention to one another is exactly what makes the covenant livable over the long haul.
So now that you are at a crossroads in your life as a congregation, as your home is starting to feel small and your beloved minister has left, you have the chance to assess how you want to be with each other in the future. Do you want youth to be separated by square footage and programming? Or do you want to maximize your opportunities to engage with one another as you live out that which you come together to celebrate each Sunday: the covenant that binds you together as a family of faith… dare I say it, the godliness of this family of faith.
This space gives you a unique opportunity to create the kind of home that all the other churches on the block would envy, a place with the reality of order, the blessing of community, the glory of hospitality, the crown of a covenant well-lived. The scale of this place, and the way you occupy it, gives you the chance to do no less than to teach your children to see the world in a completely different way, to experience the light of the universe in a unique way, and to use that vision to go out into the world and bless it, to create a world where everyone has a home, and to live out the values of inclusion and justice they learned here.
May it be so.