Home is belonging, not owning
Ninety-nine Homes has a rare mix in a film: It’s suspenseful, yet deals with complex ethical issues. The drama centers on the lives of people in central Florida a few years after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Rick Carver, a real estate broker, partners with banks to evict people and sell their foreclosed homes at a profit.
Without spoiling the plot of the 2014 movie, which contains some violence but mainly the threat of it, it’s sufficient to say that the way Carver treats people is appalling. Yet the fictional character also speaks hard truths worth considering.
“Don’t get emotional about real estate,” Carver tells his protégé. Houses are just houses. He justifies profiting from a family’s loss in one instance by acerbically calling them out on the fact that they “borrowed $30,000 to put an enclosed patio on their home that they had somehow managed to live without for 25 years.”
Where is the point of balance between such callousness toward homes and recognizing the wisdom in the warning not to put so many resources — of money, time or emotion — into where we live?
Our society puts homeownership on a pedestal. It’s lifted up as a measure of success. The more rooms your home has, the better off you are, so the logic goes.
To push back against that, we can remember that none of us ultimately owns our home anyway. Even if a house was built by a person’s own hands and doesn’t have a mortgage, it will one day be passed on to another. We are stewards of property that will at some point belong to someone else.
The word “stewardship” is, without a doubt, overused in church settings. But it gets at that useful notion of caring for something in such a way that takes into consideration the benefit of others.
This was made real for me recently when my parents sold the home in which they raised me — a sale made with my blessing.
We packed all of my parents’ possessions and sent them on a moving truck. When we were ready to drive away from the empty house, I definitely got emotional about real estate. At the same time, it felt good and right to pass that home on to others who would have their own joys and sorrows in that particular spot on the earth.
In the days and weeks afterward, as I felt the loss of the house where I spent my childhood and visited as a younger adult, I recalled that I have another home beyond wherever my family lives.
“Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests,’ ” Henri Nouwen writes in his book exploring the parable of the prodigal son. “Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.”
Often, like the younger son in the parable, we leave home by seeking acceptance from somewhere or something other than God, Nouwen writes. Trying to make a house into the mythical “dream home” is one more way of doing just that.
Our true homes do not belong to us. They are where each of us truly belongs, at any time and in any place.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is a hospital chaplain, editor and community gardener in Chicago.
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