Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build
bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I'll say to
myself, "You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy;
eat, drink and be merry."'
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be
demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is
not rich toward God."
--Luke 12: 18-21 NRSV
This week I've been watching a TV series on Amazon Video called Loudermilk.
It centers on a recovering alcoholic who leads a support group for
alcoholics and addicts. Fair warning--it's a comedy with plenty of crude
humor, curse words and sexual situations-so skip it if such stuff offends
you. It also has some great writing, great acting and some powerful wisdom.
Clearly some of the creators and writers are in recovery, because usually
each episode contains a nugget of hard-won truth.
In the show, the sobriety group meets at a Catholic church in a well-to-do
Seattle neighborhood. After meetings, group members stand around outside to
talk, smoke and often, since this is a comedy, act like fools-loud ones.
Neighbors who think of themselves as enlightened progressives have bought
into the gentrified neighborhood and complain about the group, especially
its noise and left behind cigarette butts. It's a classic case of NIMBY-ism,
as in "Not In My Backyard" or "Poor people and troubled people deserve
places to be, just not anywhere near me." When I watched the episode, my jaw
dropped, because I have dealt with just this situation.
I worked at a church in an expensive neighborhood in Kansas City. The church
had no parking lot, only on-street parking. Several AA groups met in the
building, and as is the case with every AA group I've ever known, members
would stand outside after the meetings to talk usually with cigarettes in
hand. Because we are talking about alcoholics and addicts here, some of the
groups' members were loud and had little awareness of the world around them.
That's why we had conflict with one of the church's neighbors.
He was a lawyer who lived across from the church's main entrance. He didn't
like the kind of people who went to the AA meetings being so near his house
and "his children." He complained about the language they used and that
"they left trash and cigarette butts on his lawn." We passed his complaints
on to the AA groups, but he was never satisfied. Finally, one day he stormed
over to the church, chewed out an sainted older lady who was a church member
and threatened to sue.
He was pretty hostile during our phone call. I explained that these meetings
were literally saving people's lives, but he didn't care. He wanted them to
hold their meetings elsewhere. He repeatedly threatened to sue until I
finally offered to personally pick up any cigarette butt he found in his
yard. Every day I was at the church building from then on, I walked the curb
in front of his house to look for cigarette butts or other trash. I found
one cigarette butt a week--maybe. I found more than that in my own yard and
neither I nor my neighbors smoke. We don't have any AA groups meeting nearby
either. The litigious neighbor often saw me checking his lawn for cigarette
butts but never spoke to me again about it.
In America, the suburban home is largely considered a symbol of safety and
success. I should know. My family and I live in a nice neighborhood that we
chose for its good schools and safety. Yet, I've come to understand my
suburban home comes at a cost. I am removed from most of the needs and
struggles of people who are unable to live where I do. My little pocket of
perceived safety comes with a false sense of the world-a world where most
people live with issues I don't have to see every day. I'm sure the people
in my neighborhood have all sorts of pain and struggle, but you'd never know
it. I have purchased a form of blindness that lulls me into believing I have
no responsibility to others in the community. Also, in the pursuit of my
self-interest and my home value, I am tempted to keep the world outside of
my blinders at bay by any means necessary.
As much as I'd like to think I'm better than the angry neighbor ranting
about cigarette butts and threatening lawsuits, if I'm honest, I'm not as
far from him as I would like.
I don't often read Christianity Today because in general its theological
outlook and resulting politics don't appeal to me, but I came across this
article about Christians and NIMBY-ism that strikes me as truly prophetic
for us suburban Americans. In it, the columnist Bonnie Christian writes:
Home is a good gift from God, yet our homes become our idols if we make them
the source of security we ought to find in Christ.
She goes on to quote St. Cyprian, a Christian bishop in North Africa in the
third century and what he has to say strikes me as amazingly modern:
who, excluding the poor from their neighborhood, stretch out their fields
far and wide into space without any limits ... even in the midst of their
riches those are torn to pieces by the anxiety of vague thought, lest the
robber should spoil, lest the murderer should attack, lest the envy of some
wealthier neighbor should become hostile, and harass them with malicious
lawsuits. Such a one enjoys no security either in his food or in his sleep.
The security we seek in a Suburban Lifestyle Dream is a lie, Cyprian said,
because searching for security outside of God leaves us with emptiness,
fear, and vulnerability instead. Enjoying a large yard or a single-family
house isn't sinful. But making any home-suburban or not-the foundation of
our identity or a fortress to be guarded against the "intrusion" of the poor
into our communities most certainly is.
It isn't just homeowners who suffer from NIMBY-ism. Suburban churches can
suffer from it too. Our buildings and the respectability we desire for them
can become our idols. In the same way homeowners can look to security in
their homes rather than in God, church people can make the same mistake.
Jesus told the "Parable of the Rich Fool" to warn Christians that it is easy
to place our security and trust in all the wrong things. No suburban home
even in the most gated and guarded neighborhoods can guarantee us a life
free of crisis, danger and pain, but such enclaves sure can numb our spirts
and harden our hearts towards exactly the kind of people Jesus calls us to
minister to and care for. One of the greatest challenges for American
Christianity is understanding the suburban lifestyle is not the same thing
as following Jesus.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851