The Dignity of Living Faith in Action
Working with chronically homeless men means I spend most of my time with people who will never own their own home—and who, even if they aren’t homeless per se, will always be precariously housed in one form or another. The entire time that I have worked in homeless services, I have myself been living in my parents’ home. It is my “Hail Mary” for financial security, because without a Jane Austen-style marriage plot, a political revolution, or divine intervention, it seems increasingly doubtful that I (or any of my peers) will ever own a home either. Even if we never experience homelessness, we can expect to always be precariously housed in one form or another. Speaking personally and professionally, it is rather hard to feel at home in this world when you do not have your own home. Yes, there can be dignity in a rented room or apartment, but it is a vulnerable kind of dignity, always susceptible to a landlord’s decision to raise the rent, sell the building, or simply evict.
When I consider all this, I’m inclined to start banging my head against my desk, but every time that happens, I’m struck instead by the story of this desk and the hope it gives me for the future.
Walk around the world today and what we hear is the sound of things falling apart: edifices cracking and myths buckling. It’s ugly. It’s supposed to be ugly: seeing a blueprint of a building torn apart is different from watching that same building collapse in front of your eyes.
This is a story that begins in the early 2000s, when I was in elementary school and met our new neighbors, the Majid family, who had just immigrated from Iraq. Mr. Majid worked as an architect, and his son and I soon became friends. On one of my first visits to their house, I noticed that the entryway just past the front door was under construction. Mr. Majid saw the confused look on my face and explained that he planned to remove parts of the wall and floor so he could install, of all things, a fountain.
Up until that point in my life, a home had always seemed to me to be something firm and unchanging, and therefore stable, safe, and beautiful because of those things. I couldn’t imagine my family’s home with new furniture. I couldn’t even imagine it with the furniture rearranged, to say nothing of altering its fundamental structure and dimensions.
I thought of the room with my mother’s precisely arranged porcelain figurines and the beauty found in the established order of things—the same beauty my father found in his encyclopedias: the beauty of ordered knowledge.
Stability, order, and clarity: this is what my parents wanted for their children, and so our house came to embody those qualities as well. This is the couch and it sits right here, where it will stay until the end of time. This is the front door, the only one, exactly where it is supposed to be. The cups go here; the forks go there; and the plates up there—because that is the order of things. Because if you put the forks with the spoons, or paint the front door, or turn the couch, you might as well scramble the encyclopedia and shatter the porcelain figurines. Our home is arranged in a certain way, I thought, because the world itself is arranged in a certain, predetermined way.
Needless to say, I stood in the entryway with Mr.Majid, and I marveled at the idea of a man who could change the walls, the floor, the very shape of his home. To him, it seemed unremarkable. But to me, it seemed profane and sacred all at once.
A few weeks later, I visited the Majid home again. As soon as I entered, I heard the sound of water trickling, and then I saw it—the fountain. The walls had been repaired and repainted, the floor had been retiled, and the light from the front window now fell across it all. It was fresh, beautiful—graceful even.
“How did you do that?” I asked Mr. Majid in awe.
“I can show you,” he said while gesturing to me to follow him down the hall. He opened the door to a small office with a wooden desk, and papers everywhere: some tacked to the walls, some lying on the desk, and some rolled up like cylinders. Mr. Majid grabbed one of the cylinders and unrolled it. It was covered with lines, numbers, and shapes. He explained to me that this sheet of paper was a blueprint, and told me how an architect always draws up a plan before doing anything. He explained that this particular blueprint was the one he had used to install the fountain and showed me how all the lines, numbers, and shapes corresponded to the three-dimensional world. It was my first experience of seeing how a person’s power in the world, their power to shape the world, could depend entirely on a piece of paper.
That summer, I started filling sketchbooks with amateur blueprints of all the future homes I would own. Whenever I visited a friend, I would silently memorize the layout of their house and redraw it later on, adding my own embellishments. I would add cut-out pictures from furniture catalogs and paint samples from the hardware store. These homes were my works of art, and I was certain they would rival the great cathedrals.
That same summer, my parents divorced, and my father prepared to move out. Yet I actually felt excited by this news because of the implicit prospect of acquiring another home, a new home, one that we would get to design and customize from scratch. There was certainly trepidation and uncertainty but also feelings of hope and possibility. The first of my cathedrals would finally arise. My hopes were dashed upon learning that no, the landlady would not permit a fountain to be constructed in the entryway; and no, she wouldn’t even permit a new coat of paint on the walls. But I would have a room: a room of my own, for the first time in my life. As I opened the door and walked into it, I saw something familiar by the window.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, recognizing it instantly.
“Mr. Majid remodeled his home office,” my father said. “He thought you might like to have the desk for your new room.”
It is becoming increasingly hard for any of us to feel at home in this world, because the world as we have known it is falling apart. It is tragic, bleak, and bewildering—and it is also inviting us to continuously rebuild.
One of the singular challenges of life is to recognize and accept when something cherished has come to an end: childhood, a marriage, a dream, a way of life, a life itself. Walk around the world today, and what we hear is the sound of things falling apart: edifices cracking and myths buckling. It’s ugly. It’s supposed to be ugly: seeing a blueprint of a building torn apart is different from watching that same building collapse in front of your eyes. Intellectually knowing that “divorce” happens is different from watching your own or your parents’ marriage dissolve. Intellectually knowing that “homelessness” happens is different from crunching the numbers and realizing that you will likely never be able to afford to own your own home. Intellectually knowing that “climate change” is happening is different from finding your entire community underwater or leveled by a hurricane.
It is becoming increasingly hard for any of us to feel at home in this world, because the world as we have known it is falling apart. It is tragic, bleak, and bewildering—and it is also inviting us to continuously rebuild. I am not an architect, but from my time with Mr. Majid, I learned that we are all endowed with a God-given capacity to influence, shape, and remodel the world around us. I learned to see that there is something beautiful about the sound of hollow walls coming down and old tiles being chipped away. The world is arranged in a particular but not predetermined way. It can be rearranged.
I may not have my own home in the world right now, but I do have this desk, and so this is where I will start. I will wake up, sit at this desk, and ask God where he would have me go and what he would have me do. And this, I find, gives me a feeling of dignity. It is not the dignity that comes from having a room of one’s own or a home of one’s own but the dignity of living faith in action. It is the dignity that comes with trusting that a more beautiful world is possible and doing my part to create it.
And, oddly enough, when I settle into that attitude—when I inhabit that spiritual and emotional place—I find myself beginning to feel a little more at home in this world.