The Common Good
August 2011

The Art of Householding

by Rose Marie Berger | August 2011

My "life plan" -- at age 23 -- was to own little and to move where the Spirit led.

My "life plan" -- at age 23 -- was to own little and to move where the Spirit led. It was a late 20th century American religious quest interpreted through Dorothy Day’s Catholic anarchy, the factory theology of Simone Weil, Septima Clark's "practical politics," and the joyful authority of Clare of Assisi. Full of idealistic forward motion, I was ready to see and save the world -- in that order. My move in 1986 from California to inner-city Washington, D.C., was to be temporary.

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Instead, I came into possession of a 1901 Victorian row house, and 25 years have passed. (Here's a koan for you: "Choosing your vocation.") I was given the gift of stability.

In 2000, after living in two other houses owned by Sojourners community's housing cooperative, Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter and I purchased our house on Fairmont Street. She was looking for more space (or at least a kitchen larger than a closet) and urban anchorage. I was already living in the house, didn't want to move, and needed a yard for my dog. I agonized over the ethics of "ownership" until my mom convinced me that "buying property is what the women in our family do." Julie and I scraped together the down payment, added in "urban homesteading" and first-time homeowner tax credits, learned the intricacies of joint tenancy, and shouldered the mortgage.

The "gift of stability" is considered the fourth vow in Orthodox and Benedictine monastic life. Poverty, chastity, and obedience are the "evangelical vows" that make one radically available to those in need of the gospel. Stability, as Thomas Merton put it, means to "find the place that God has given you and take root there."

Our house sits on land that was once part of a large estate, according to Julie's research. The first owners, the Cowells, were a white middle-class couple who worked as a stenographer and editor. In the 1920s, they rented out rooms to Russian Jewish immigrants. The next householders were the Valentines, a middle-class African-American couple. She worked as a real estate agent and community activist for black empowerment and desegregation; he was a messenger for the National Geographic Society.

In the early 1970s, a real estate company bought the house and it fell into disrepair. Sojourners community purchased it soon after moving from Chicago to D.C. in the mid-'70s. Since then our house has sheltered homeless mothers, labor organizers, Chicano activists, a tie-dye business, jazz musicians, poets and memoirists, an extended family, band members of The Fugitives, magazine editors, hunger fasters, dissident farmers, a Kenyan office worker, and a Tanzanian bank teller, plus a few dogs and an occasional bird.

This summer we are midway through what is possibly the first substantive rehab the house has had in 50 years. Working with a construction company dedicated to providing affordable housing, we've opened walls that reveal pipes that supplied the original gas lamps, cured oak roof timbers (cracked), and a pristine solid oak pocket door, giving a glimpse of the house's original glory.

Householding is an art with deep biblical resonance. "The central [biblical] problem is not emancipation but rootage," writes Walter Brueggemann in The Land, "not meaning but belonging, not separation from community, but location within it, not isolation from others but placement deliberately between the generations of promise and fulfillment." My 23-year-old self's quest for enlightenment was subverted by staying in place.

Householding is an art that plays out over time as well. It changes as affections deepen. "Love your neighbors," challenges Wendell Berry. "Not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have." It's something I'm still learning.

Rose Marie Berger, author of the book Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.

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