by Rev. Terry Davis
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist
Congregation on June 9, 2013
There was a place I used to see from my office window every day that seemed like the end of the world to me. In the BUUM phase of my vocational life – BUUM being an acronym for “Before Unitarian Universalist Ministry” – I owned a graphic design and communications agency that was located in the Means Street Historic District near Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
The Means Street district consists of historic, mostly 19th and early 20th century warehouses that have been converted to loft offices. As you might imagine, it’s just the kind of hip space that ad agencies, web companies, art galleries and design firms find so appealing.
The industrial companies that formerly occupied this former industrial corridor included a barrel maker, a furniture manufacturer, a candy factory, a textile salvage company, and a horse-drawn buggy manufacturer. Our offices were located in a building that was constructed in 1903 for the Atlanta Buggy Company. With the popularity of Henry Ford’s Model-T, the Atlanta Buggy Company had a short-lived existence (it filed for bankruptcy in 1913).
A portion of Georgia’s old Western and Atlantic Railroad (now part of the Southern railway system) runs directly behind these warehouses. Although the developer did a pretty good job of soundproofing our space, our building would still vibrate several times throughout the day as trains rumbled past.
My desk was against the window in my office, and I faced the tracks. And, I would look up from my computer when one of these vibrations occurred to see metal box cars and tanks of orange, yellow, white and black whooshing by.
Just beyond the rail tracks was a large bricked overpass that was partially demolished. I could tell from the hint of an arch that it must have spanned the width of the tracks at one time. Now it stood covered with graffiti and purposeless. Well, not quite purposeless. While the bridge’s days as an early 20th century passageway for carriages and trolleys were long gone, it had now become the 21st century destination for Cardboard City.
Cardboard City is what I called the assortment of homes that sat on top of that tall broken bridge. Constructed out of boxes, sheets of scrap metal, and other industrial debris, these misshapen dwellings courageously took their place along Atlanta’s steel-and-glass skyline, which I could also see from window, gleaming boldly in the distance.
As I looked out on this community each day, I could never determine how many persons actually lived there. Cardboard City was illegal, of course. And, being in broad daylight as it was, it received frequent visits from members of the Atlanta Police Department. From time to time, I would look through my window and see an officer picking his way through the maze of paper shacks. The officer would talk to a few persons, and eventually leave. It seemed like our APD – at least for a while – didn’t have the heart to break Cardboard City down.
In thinking about today’s sermon and the recipient of this morning’s Donate the Plate, The Mad Housers, it occurred to me that Cardboard City wasn’t simply a community of indigent people. Cardboard City was home. It was home for a group of people who had nowhere else to go . . . people who included men, women and children who wanted to live together . . . together in a community where they could find affordable shelter as well as perhaps a shared refuge.
Our instinct for a home place – a place we can call our own and a place that increases our sense of security and self – is one that seems to be deep within our primal nature. It is something that we rejoice when we find it and grieve when we lose it. It is the most basic of human needs and perhaps the most profound because it involves physical, emotional and even spiritual security.
The evolution of human civilization can in many ways be linked to the ways in which we have developed the skills and technology to make our homes safer and more functional.
Homes also reflect the needs of a culture, whether it is for mobility (as was the case with the Native Americans of the Great Plains and their highly efficient tepees) or for encouraging an open community (as is the case with certain African and South American villages, where homes called kraals are built without any doors at all) or to accommodate the geography and weather in a particular region of the world.
Home, as Tony Barbagallo noted in his reflection, is also something beyond a place. Home is also a feeling. Home can be with a group of people with whom we feel a sense of belonging or at ease. Feeling at home, as Tony pointed out, means feeling like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and that it’s a part of us.
If we had a home place in our childhood that meant something to us – somewhere we felt connected to others, safe and encouraged – we likely carry a powerful memory of it.
If, on the other hand, home was an unstable or inhospitable place for us, we may instead carry a longing for it. Along our life’s journey, we may have gathered data about what we want home to be like. Perhaps we’ve created in our minds a composite picture of it. Or, within our hearts, we have nurtured a strong feeling for it.
And, like honing devices, our memories or visions of home send us signals when we’ve arrived there again or for the first time. It can be an awareness that comes over us with a lovely warmth and sense of knowing, as did for Tony when he realized that Kristin’s family was his family. Or, maybe it’s unrecognizable at first, because we didn’t have a home growing up that felt safe and warm, and finding one now feels new and different and a little scary.
In an excerpt from the book Sacred Ground: Writings About Home, writer Allen Wheelis describes homelessness not as lacking shelter or family, but rather as meaninglessness. He writes:
If you’re lucky, you never lose [home]; it simply evolves, smoothly and continuously, into that larger, more abstract home of religion, or perhaps, in a secular vein into clan or community or ideology. Meaninglessness means homelessness. When home is lost and nightmares begin, that’s when one goes in quest of meaning.
Wheelis says that our quest is not a journey forward where we are “delving into something out there . . . grappling with the world, trying to penetrate a mystery,” but rather that it is a “quest backwards” where “one is trying to refashion, in a form acceptable to an intellectualizing adult, the home of one’s childhood.”
Wheelis’s theory that we are trying to refashion one’s childhood may explain why I have always sought out the fellowship experience that occurs after Sunday morning worship. The weekly gathering of old friends and newcomers; the laughing and the boisterous discussions; the food; the hugs and children darting about – all these elements take me back to the loud and loving gatherings of my Italian family where there was a sense of welcome and chaos. It’s in religious community where I am reminded that I’m part of something bigger than myself, and that this big community connects to the sense of home inside of me . . . which brings me back to Cardboard City.
If finding a home place is instinctual, if it does create a baseline of meaning in our lives that informs who we are and where we belong, then what about the people of Cardboard City? They were without decent and stable shelter, living fleeting lives in a temporary community. Did they develop feelings of belonging on top of that half-demolished bridge?
One day, following a week’s vacation, I returned to my office, sat at my desk and looked out the window across the railroad tracks to find that Cardboard City had vanished. Gone was the lopsided structure of room upon room, and people living side by side. Gone was the man in the wheelchair, who sat facing my direction each morning, and surprised me one day by waving hello to me from across the tracks.
Who had driven them away? Where did they go? Where they able to find another place to live together? What should I have done about Cardboard City? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t do much at that time other than reflect on these questions. But, perhaps I can do something now.
Northwest’s Outreach Ministry Team has selected The Mad Housers as our recipient for today’s offering. Started by students at Georgia Tech, this non-profit organization of volunteers goes out searching for homeless camps – much like the Cardboard City camp that existed behind the warehouse district on Means Street – and replaces them with temporary huts constructed out of wood and other building materials.
Because these temporary huts typically replace camps that were set up on property owned by the government or other individuals, this means that the huts aren’t always legal or welcomed. Therefore, The Mad Housers take care to maintain communication with the landowner if the existence of homeless camp is known and the landowner is okay with it. Or, the Mad Housers will discretely build the emergency shelter and then relocate it if it’s discovered and the residents are asked to leave.
Regarding this latter scenario of building on land without permission, The Mad Housers are clearly engaged in an act of civil disobedience for the sake of human dignity and well-being. And, their work clearly is in sympathy with our Unitarian Universalist First Principle, which encourages us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person . . . and our Sixth Principle, which invites us to work toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. So I encourage all of us to support The Mad Housers today with a generous offering.
As we go from here today, let us be reminded that our memories or visions of home provide us with a powerful impetus with which to make meaning and connections in our lives. May we continue to seek places of security, community and belonging for ourselves, and may we feel motivated to address the need and right of all persons do the same. May it be so. Amen.