Add To The Beauty


A few weeks ago I woke up to a powdered-sugar dusting of snow on the ground, rolled out of bed, and opened up my computer to Facebook. The headline, “Why I Bought A House In Detroit for $500” caught my eye, and soon I was engrossed in the story of Drew Philp, who at 23 decided to purchase an abandoned house in Detroit in an area that many people are deserting as the city slowly crumbles into chaos. He and his neighbors rebuild their homes, grow vegetables, raise chickens, start schools, build ice rinks in abandoned back yards in the winter, and generally create community in a place that most of the nation has consigned to hell. They are doing something amazing in the face of despair. As he says at one point in his adventure, “It was the first time I really felt I was bringing something back to life, like performing CPR on a corpse that just took its first greedy gasp of air.”

There’s something strangely and fascinatingly pioneer about his story, like a 21st century explorer plunging into untamed wilderness, except this “wilderness” is one of America’s best known cities. Drew and his friend share a Promethean moment of glee when he turns on the electricity in his house for the first time. It feels like something out of a history book, and yet when have I ever been so simply happy over something like that?

Nevertheless, Drew doesn’t really look at himself as anything special: “I’m not certain I’ve accomplished anything other than taking one abandoned home off the street, teaching a few kids how to read, or bearing witness to a something larger than myself. I’m not certain I’ve become an example to anyone or necessarily changed a whole lot for the better. But I’m still here. I go to bed and I wake up every day in Detroit, in a house I built with my own hands. Sometimes success means just holding on.”

Creating light in the darkness. Cobbling together a sense of order in the midst of chaos. Growing gardens in the urban wilderness. It sounds to me like redemption, like resurrection, like new creation in slow and steady ways.

His words reminded me of a song by Sara Groves:

We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside
—“Add To The Beauty

The beauty of what’s expressed here, and in Drew’s story, is that sometimes the most striking things are the most simple, the most unheroic. We’re not all called to paint the Sistine Chapel, but we can all add to the beauty of the world.

Or we could forfeit this calling and do what Switchfoot calls “adding to the noise”. It’s very easy to do this in our age of social media, frittering time away over sharing amusing YouTube videos, cat memes, and inane details about our lives and the lives of others. None of these things are really wrong in and of themselves, but I’ve found they can provide an easy and lazy trap from spending time on things of substance. They can become the trap of nothingness that C. S. Lewis describes in The Screwtape Letters: “Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.” Sound a bit like our culture of endless entertainment?

Reading Drew Philp’s story on a snowy morning while still in my pajamas sparked a little something in me. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to go do something big and bold like he did, and it doesn’t mean you or I have to. But it should cause us to ponder, what are we bringing to the world with our time, our talents, our resources? Are we adding to the beauty, telling a better story, or are we just adding to the noise?

Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.


  1. Heather Rose

    Welcome, Mr. Yokel!

    This post is exactly what I’ve needed to hear for a while now. Very well put! I agree that it is far too easy to fall into the mundane of memes and vines (and whatever other short little pieces that give us that fix of dopamine) rather than things that make us actually think and grow and feel.

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I, for one, look forward to reading more from you in the RR.

  2. David Mitchel


    Excellent, Chris. Drew’s story reminds me of Jeremiah buying land in Judah on the eve of the Babylonian conquest — a little thing with large hopeful significance.

  3. Brenda Branson

    Great job, Chris! I’m reminded of a group of families in Austin, TX (members of Austin Stone Church) who deliberately sold their homes and relocated to poor neighborhoods in order to serve and love the people there. We all have something to give, don’t we?

  4. Susan

    Your story of Drew inspired me to think of ways I can help in my own community. Sometimes it is not about going outside our communities but staying where we are. Detroit is in desperate need of people like Drew. What a great read first thing in the morning.

  5. Jim Crotty

    Yes, yes, yes ! We put so much pressure upon ourselves to produce and impress that always fall back to “nothingness.” The little things DO matter, when our hearts are fully open to them and we have our full passion behind our expressions of them. Wonderful!

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