I read myself to sleep at night—something I’ve been doing for years. Most of the books are pure escape. It’s a little refuge I’ve created from the realities I face during the day. I just finished one called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. I confess that I picked it up for the title, which you have to admit is compelling. I’m a sucker for guidebooks anyway—I spent a fair amount of time with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy years ago and my den has become a veritable Lonely Planet reading room. So I guess it make sense that An Arsonist’s Guide would catch my eye.
It wasn’t a bad read. I’m struggling to get its message—sometimes our personal set of life experiences just doesn’t go far enough to help us understand those of others. But there was one line in the book that spoke loudly to me, so much so that I actually turned down the corner of the page—something I haven’t done since Mrs. Briscoe sternly counseled me against such behavior in the third grade.
The narrator has just come through a storybook part of New Hampshire, with white clapboard churches and a gentle snow mantling the mountainsides and into an area of extreme poverty. The perfect little houses have given way to rusted out trailer parks and the kind of neighborhoods that we at The Fuller Center for Housing have set out to fix. The beauty he’d so recently passed through is forgotten, and he says, “This is what poverty does, I guess: it ruins your memory of more beautiful things, which is just another reason why we should try as hard as we can to get rid of it.”
What a great line, and how utterly on point. I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life working in areas of poverty, both here and abroad. The one thing that is universally absent in these places is beauty. Poverty doesn’t just rob the memory of beautiful things, it denies access to them. And that is a true disservice, because there is so much beauty in the world that it’s a sad that so many never see it.
I keep my eyes open for beautiful things—a piano or violin, a painting, a little plot of flowers. But people who are truly poor, who have to worry about tomorrow’s food, or whether the roof will survive another storm, or how to keep snakes out of the house, have little time to devote to things of beauty. Poverty itself argues against beauty. Fixing this is, like so many things, easier said than done. We have to understand not just the root causes of poverty, but the affects it has on people’s dignity, sense of self worth and initiative.
Helping families get into a decent house that they actually own is a good start. Today’s Gospel reading was from John—the powerful piece where Jesus compares himself to the good shepherd. There are a couple of lines in that reading that speak to the issue at hand. I’d never realized it because the entire sermon is such a powerful discourse on love that this little piece gets lost. Jesus explains the difference between the shepherd, who has a vested interest in the sheep, and the hired hand, who does not. When the wolf comes the shepherd stays, but the hired hand flees. This shows the power of ownership, and tells us that we’re on the right track with our approach.
As we seek to build decent homes in decent communities we need to remember that including some things of beauty should be part of the process. More important is finding ways to trigger the memory of beauty so that our homeowners seek it themselves. It takes very little for people with resources to help those in need have some beauty in their lives. In our case it starts with the elegance of a well built home, and then we can add a splash of color or help plant a garden or a tree,
This whole human adventure got started in a garden, and our lives are really a quest to return to Eden. I’m hoping we can build some mile markers along that path in the communities we build—splashes of beauty that will remind us of Home.