I walk into our house and look at all the things that we love about it. I look at the hardwood floors, the fireplace, the tall ceilings, the cozy backyard. I think about all the dreams I have for this house, all the things I hope it will hold for me and Stu, I think about the pride we have about finally owning our own home, after two big moves and more than three years of apartments, after lots and lots of saving and searching and emotional toil and negotiating and time, oh so much time. This house is ours.
I look at its flaws, and gosh does it have flaws. I look at the marks on the floors, I look at the broken front window, I look at the dirty, dirty fireplace, I look at the addition that may or may not fall off the house at any moment,I hear the very old boiler. This house is 92 years old.
If it was a person it would be just about Betty White status, and not looking nearly that well either, but here it is, welcoming us for another lifetime of adventures, if we’ll have it.
This house, this DC rowhouse, has seen so much, and it astonishes me. This house was built just before the Great Depression. Those marks on the floors might have been from the same tired, anxious feet walking back and forth, back and forth, wondering where the next meal might come from, wondering if they would ever be gainfully employed again.
This house saw segregation and Jim Crow. It surely saw racism, either housing its victims or its perpetrators, or maybe both at separate times, and sat less than five miles from Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
It saw a huge demographic change. In 1950 its surrounding community was mostly white and affluent, and then Brown v. Board of Education integrated schools, and, most likely, its inhabitants decided to move away like all their neighbors to the wealthier suburbs (ever heard of White Flight?) while black students integrated the community schools and filled in the neighborhood. Just a decade later, pushed by the race riots in the 60s, its community became majority black.
It harbored families listening for news of five wars, fifteen new presidential administrations, and a plane crashing into the Pentagon a little more than 6 miles away.
This house has had a front row seat to so much compassion and so, so much hatred, so much triumph and also some of our country’s worst decisions, both corporate and personal. And now it’s on the main street of a community changing all over again.
Through it all I believe this house has been lots of things. I want to believe it was a safe haven, a place where families gathered around the fire, full of love, thankful for their togetherness. But I also have to acknowledge that it might have been a house of emotional ghosts, a house of abuse, of lies, of bigotry, a place that a little girl or boy couldn’t wait to run away from.
Maybe, more likely, it was all of these things. After a few generations in its 92 years, I’m almost completely certain there was loss in this house, joy in this house, families bringing home their new babies and mourning their family members in this house, there was betrayal in this house and new love in this house and very human, lived reactions to things that now just mark our history books in this very house.
And I’m just as sure that it’ll be a sliver of that for me and Stu, too. I have faith it’ll be a place of deep joy and fellowship and hope, but also a place of tears and unmet expectations and maybe even grief. I have faith it’ll be a place of community and friendship and gathering but also, sometimes, loneliness and confusion and probably heartbreak.
When I think of all this it feels so crusader-like to say I “own” this house. Doesn’t every person who made their memories here own it a little bit still? Don’t they still have some sort of intangible claim on this house because of the way they shaped its story? Maybe I’m less of its owner and more of its steward, bestowed the opportunity to contribute to the story of this house in another critical moment in its life.
Things are changing again, and this house is on the front lines. People like me and Stu, historical suburbanites drooling at the thought of renovation projects, are moving into this community and changing it, a little for better and probably a little for worse, if I’m being completely honest with myself. We’re throwing ourselves into this gentrifying community and dragging the house into the gentrification, too. It’ll have painted brick and a renovated kitchen and air conditioning (someday, say a prayer for this winter-loving Michigander this summer) like its gentrified neighbors, and suddenly we get to decide an important chapter of its story, a chapter that its previous occupants might have celebrated and might have feared.
Let me be clear: sometimes this responsibility, this role as the owners of this house and thus the newest members of this neighborhood, is enough to keep me awake at night, because it means we’re here instead of someone else. What if they could do it better than we can? What if we’re stealing someone else’s place, someone who would be wiser, smarter, better? It terrifies me. I wonder if we’re doing this right, I wonder how we can someday remedy our mistakes because I’m so sure we’ll make some. I wonder how we’ll engage with our neighbors, if they’ll like us, if they’ll welcome us, if we’ll like them. I wonder how much higher the stakes are to plunge ourselves into a community with such a rich story, if we know too little about its nuances to steward this role with the responsibility it deserves.
But I also know that, after lots of prayer and wise counsel and questioning and discussing, we were so sure this was what we were meant to do, and now we’re all in: contractually and emotionally and, soon, physically. Now we’re part of this community’s story, and there’s a deep level of responsibility to that.
I desperately want to be a good steward of this house, and I want to be a good steward of my role in this community, too.
I want to think less about the consumerism of my culture (what do I want? how can I get my dream house? how can I make things more convenient for me?) and more about what God asks me to give to the people in closest proximity to me.
I want to dig into my story, and the story of this neighborhood, and be humble and honest about how I have the potential to bring harm and also how I have the potential, through Christ, to bring good.
And I want to revel, always and forever, at the honor and privilege it is to be part of the story God is writing in my community, wherever that may be.