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 is an Associate Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, and is an arts and culture writer whose works have appeared in publications such as Tweetspeak Poetry, The Curator, The Molehill, and The Rabbit Room. Chris is also the author of several books of poetry, including his latest collection Winter Poems. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen. You can read more of his writing at ChrisYokel.Substack.com.