By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. Proverbs 24:3-4
When Carrick and I were living in DC and looking for our first house, I dragged him to a beauty that I had found in a lively multicultural neighborhood not too far from our offices. The house had been built in the 1900’s and I loved it. It had tall, drafty windows; uncertain fireplaces; gas jets at ankle AND light fixture level, and a kitchen that did have some electricity, I think, but not much else. The hardwood floors and the millwork needed some TLC (everything inside and outside the house needed TLC, on a good day). Somehow I talked him into submitting a contract, for full price but with an inspection contingency. The contingency was rejected – these were land-office real estate days – and the house sold over the weekend, as is, for well over the asking price. To somebody else.
Every time I think about that house, I hear Garth Brooks singing: some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
We were young and we were crazy (well, I was; Carrick was pretty skeptical about this project). But not crazy enough to buy a old house without an inspection. We weren’t “flippers” or investors or, heaven knows, amateur contractors. We were looking for a home. As young lawyers, we had fewer than zero hours to spend on humongous projects that we didn’t know how to do. Carrick has remarked, more than once, that had we gotten that house, we might not be still be married, or alive. Beyond the obvious cosmetic and functional issues, there was no telling what the structural issues were. We knew nothing about the foundation, the framing (the wiring was obviously suspect), or the roof. We did not know what we did not know. So we found a nice, solid little brick bungalow (the inspection confirmed the solidity) in an odd little neighborhood a bit farther out, where it took us about five years to get beyond living in our small, dormered bedroom all summer because it had the only window A/C unit in the house.
Accepting a house that you want to live in, without a house inspection, is foolhardy – ask your friendly mortgage banker. House inspections reveal the things you can’t see when you’re smitten with hardwood floors or claw-foot tubs or useless and probably dangerous gas jets.
This is just as true with the metaphorical house I wrote about in my last meditation – the Church in our corner of Christ’s vineyard. We may look at it and think that everything about it is indisputably solid. It’s been here forever! It has housed us for generations! Or we may look at it and think, I know there are some pretty major cracks in those walls, and that means something in or near the foundation is amiss. Just as we may find treasures in old attics or magic in the wardrobes, we may pull back old wallpaper or plaster and find toxic mold. There may be bad wiring that threatens to burn the place down, or architectural evidence of a past that needs to be explored and healed before a house can feel like a home. The house may be worth the investment, but it is folly to proceed with redecorating if the foundation is compromised or the framing needs reinforcement or the roof leaks like a commercial-size colander. Renovation comes before redecoration, and inspection comes before renovation.
One reader of the first essay, “This Old House,” named one of the things that is true of the metaphorical church house in Virginia and of many of the actual old residential houses: the legacy of slavery, and of the continued oppression of Black people, was built into both. The experiences of it remain vivid in the families who came and went in both of those houses, especially those who were enslaved or exploited and disrespected workers. Architectural remnants remain, whispered about but not always publicly discussed – separate doors, separate galleries. The back stairs were sometimes a dangerously steep route for people carrying heavy loads. Like an unwanted issue revealed in a house inspection, it is there, and it won’t go away by wishing it weren’t, or trying to divert attention by changing the subject to the new subway tile in the kitchen. Like any serious structural or systems defect, we ignore it at our peril. The fact that the house is not currently burning does not mean that the wiring is really okay. If we face it, if we do whatever is needed to make it right, we may be able to have a better future, instead of simply going for years without turning on the lights because the wiring is bad (or living in one room because the wiring won’t support central air until it is corrected). There is much more to say on this later, and there are other structures and systems to inspect. The goal here is not to name them all, nor to prescribe a fix, but simply to name the process, and to acknowledge that it is better to know than not to know. It is better to face the reality, because there’s no point in renovating unless there has been an honest inspection.
That does not mean that the deal is off our metaphorical house, or that everything about it is problematic. Our goal is renovation. We do have to live in one house or another, and there are a lot of us, and it’s going to require a lot of rooms. It needs to be safe. Another of our values, I believe, is that we love beauty, both natural and created, so we want our house to be beautiful. We all know that beauty in a home is quite subjective, and that’s okay. Our Anglican house was built more like the Burrow inhabited by the Weasleys of Harry Potter fame than like the Parthenon – it’s a little quirky. We may find staircases that don’t actually go anywhere – or that move. We may have some debates about the actual purpose of some of the rooms. We will undoubtedly find that some of the ingenious bits were designed not by the architects, but by the workers. We may find beautiful hardwood under grimy shag carpet. We might find some termites. But we need not fear, if our house is built on the Rock.
I am grateful to all of you who have engaged this idea in dialogue, in emails, and in personal and congregational conversations, and I invite and encourage you to continue to work with it. This work is not light or inconsequential. It is Gospel work. I hope that we can approach it with a sense of exploration and imagination, with a desire to learn from one another, and with determination to take any and all action that is needed to make sure that this is a home that is really home, safe and welcoming, for us all.
Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson