A couple of days ago I had coffee with a friend and we were discussing some different options of what could be done with his rental property. The housing market tanked, it’s worth less than they put into it, and the tenant lost her job and hasn’t been paying her rent. All of the sudden, what turned out to be a way of diversifying his investments was raising all kinds of ethical concerns. He said making money on the stock market was a whole lot cleaner than dealing with things like eviction notices. An image popped into my head and I joked to him, “What you’re wanting is the pre-sliced, plastic-wrapped, deli meat. You don’t want to slaughter the actual pig.”
Drawing a 100-foot radius circle around our house, we’ve helped facilitate the purchase of four homes over the last two years. Draw the line a little further out into our neighborhood and you’d find a handful more. But among these four homes, three are occupied by our immigrant friends who couldn’t access traditional bank financing and are now financed with low-interest loans by small groups of other Christian friends. And the fourth house has found a new family just in the last month in our friends and ministry partners, Aaron and Page Mitchum and their two children. Three of the homes were foreclosures, empty of their inhabitants wrote their names among the latest victims of subprime lending. One was occupied by a drug dealer, waiting to get his hands on it at a fraction of its former value. Another was nothing more than a clean, line item on a Waco-based conglomerate’s spreadsheet. It was likely bundled with thousands of other houses like it in a mutual fund, quietly siphoning inflated rent off of a faceless, immigrant family on a aging home in a depressed neighborhood. If we could somehow bushwhack our way through the web of investments that fund our pre-sliced, plastic-wrapped portfolios, our 401k’s, and our IRAs, and we slog through the banks and rental conglomerates and work ourselves back to the source, we’d find one little tributary leading to four little, bloody springs right here on 35th street. It’s here where the pig was slaughtered.
It’s difficult for me honestly. Living where I do, I struggle underneath the weight of wanting to provide everything I can for my family and another weight of wanting those same things for those around me. In addition to helping my friends get into bargain-priced homes through groups of other friends, Emily and I purchased a short sale where we charge a below-market rent to a recently-retired, Hispanic couple in hopes that we could save some money for Luke to go to college. But there’s something that just doesn’t sit right about me, a 32-year-old kid, playing the landlord to a 60-year-old couple that have both worked just as hard and have probably made smarter decisions than I have. There’s something not right about us lending money to our neighbor, Pureza, who logs in more hours in a week than most people I know do in two. Justice tells me it should be the other way around, but my desire for economic security for my family wants to keep it just as it is. The truth is, I want it to be this way.
I was reminded of this when Emily and I watched the movie, A Few Good Men, last night. Col. Jessup was right. We live in a world with walls and those walls have to be guarded by guns. They have to be guarded by investment managers, by repo men, by subprime lending, by economic policy and subsidies, by theologies of blessing, by plastic-wrapping, by subdivisions and school districts and border fences. Deep down, I want him on that wall. I need him on that wall. I want the distance and anonymity that give me security. I want the anonymity that gives me pre-sliced ham. I want the anonymity that deposits an increasing amount of money into my IRA without thinking about who or how it was made possible. I want the banks to lend to people who can’t possibly pay it back. I want all of these things. But I want it under one condition. I don’t want to see it.
Living here in Argentine and living in Croc has messed this up. We no longer have the luxury of not knowing what lies beyond the walls. Now I live as a house divided. I want to serve both God and mammon. But slowly, reluctantly, God is working on us and we’re trying to surrender ourselves to God’s justice, to become captive to a Kingdom consciousness whose metrics for shalom are more complex than economic indicators. We’re trying to make a shift from maintaining distance and anonymity to the particularity of being known. Bill McKibben says, “It’s easy to be a selfish jerk when you’re one of 300 million; its harder…when you do it in community; if you understand that these are the people with whom you will spend your life.” When you see real bone and flesh, you’re reminded that this was a real animal. When you knock on the door, shake hands and share a cup of coffee before collecting the rent money, you’re reminded that these aren’t just tenants, they’re neighbors. When you see neighbors planting flowers and their kids have friends up and down the block, you’re reminded that these are not just investment properties, they are homes. It is a living, breathing community. Living more fully into the kingdom of God has meant fundamentally changing the way that we interact with one another and our environment.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t eat meat, that we don’t make a profit, nor that evictions are wholly bad. It means that we do these things with a holy awareness of our actions and a recognition of the sacrifices paid to create these conditions. It’s here that profit is redefined, expanded, and more encompassing. It means being creative, understanding that we profit best when everyone wins. It’s self-limiting and disciplined. Maybe it means that we take a more modest 7% where 25% or more is possible, sharing the benefits with those who would likely have always remained on the other side of the wall. It means trusting God, like Israel had to in the desert, believing that there’s no need to horde for there will be manna again tomorrow.
What fruit have we seen from giving ourselves over to this Kingdom consciousness? Over the past 18 months, its growth may not have shown up on our bank account, but it surely has on our front porch. Just to give you a cross-section of the kind of flourishing exchanges that have gone on, in the last couple of weeks we’ve helped out with homework, programmed GPS units, helped find understanding in confusing tax forms, collected mortgage payments on houses, found childcare for our kids, got home remedies for chest congestion, created jobs for teenagers, received landscaping help while we ate dinner, cleared another’s backyard, negotiated a website design for new steps, smacked the pinata with neighborhood kids, and every one of us pitched in to reseed the sidewalk easement on both sides of the block. This was only the beginning.
The blind may not have received sight, nor the lame walk, nor slaves set free. But in this 100-foot radius circle, the unemployed found work, immigrants found a home, money-grabbers let go of their profits, harried mothers found childcare, and Perkins’ chest congestion…well, lets just say that home remedy took a bit more faith than we’re willing to give it.