Two years ago today, with the stalwart help of the dearest of friends, I became a homeowner again after 15 years of wandering through the wilderness of vocational home-lessness. In 2003, my late husband Rick and I sold our lovely home in Kansas in order to help afford our seminary education in Tennessee. I had no idea then that it would be 15 years before I could own a home again. Honestly, had I known it, I might not have done it.
And then Rick died and I had two young children to raise. As a widowed single mother in ordained ministry, for too many years the most I could earn were part-time wages for what was actually full-time work. In the early years of another call, a house was provided in exchange for a lowered wage, which helped a lot, until it was not provided anymore. I was passed over for several full-time calls, as if I was invisible.
Thankfully, two years ago I also began to receive full-time compensation at St. Columba’s, which (with a generous low interest loan for my down payment from a deeply compassionate friend) made it possible for me to get a mortgage for the house I had been renting for four years. My mortgage was less than my rent. Finally, after 15 years I could begin building equity again. We at St. C’s also needed some time and mutual commitment to grow together as it is a stretch for us to fully fund our modest budget every year. We’ve taken a leap of faith together and it still feels scary at times.
Truth be told, this is a common story in all vocations. There are some systemic justice issues in the Church around issuing part-time vs. full-time calls. This leads to inequitable wages and benefits for women and minorities. I still would rather work out these presenting injustices within the Church rather than outside of it. Yet, it seems too often we turn a blind eye away from its darker truth spoken to power.
It’s hard to write this as my witness to the Church, but truth be told if it weren’t for supplemental Social Security for widows with dependent children, I could not have afforded my calling as a priest in The Episcopal Church. It was my tithe and the children’s income from Social Security for our housing that made up the difference in the church’s under-funded budget. It was not a sustainable arrangement, we challenged ourselves to change it; as the calling to grow together in Christ is still a strong one between priest, family, parish, and diocese.
For over a decade in two churches, I used my late husband’s SS supplemental income to almost afford our high-cost of living on my one part-time income. That was the choice I had to make to keep going in this vocation until I could get called to fully funded full-time work. With that extra income, I had hoped to slowly build up a college fund for the kids or buy a house. We couldn’t do it all, yet by God’s grace we’ve gratefully lived into this HomeSweetHome for six years now.
Whenever I hear talk of Social Security as being an “entitlement,” I am filled with rage as it was my dead husband’s thirty years of labors which provided that monthly supplemental income check for us for twelve years. We had no life insurance, he didn’t think we could afford the premiums as seminarians accumulating so much debt. When he died, Sewanee’s School of Theology forgave over $30,000.00 of his student loan debt.
I will never forget that I came to Maine in 2011 living in a VW camper by the sea with two kids. I had been down-sized out of my calling to another church. I was utterly dismayed. I had no plan, no job, and no money so I drove around the country for awhile with the kids to cool off. I didn’t want to be a priest anymore, so I put our belongings in storage and took out. It turned out to be an epic journey throughout 2011 that changed our lives for the better. Without forethought, our winding drive around the country became a pro-active midlife retreat into the wilderness that challenged every part of me. It was edgy rather than paralyzing. We learned how little we needed to live well. We thrived with the change in perspective. I owned that van and it was a happy home for us.
That’s how we happened upon Maine’s shores. When the economy went bad in 2008, way too many vulnerable people lost their jobs and their homes in a ripple of years following. There was nowhere to go, no jobs to be had. It’s stunning to witness how many still haven’t financially recovered from it. Way too many souls were and still are deeply traumatized by the catastrophic shift in our economy which continues today.
I was at the end of my frayed rope when we got here. I still can’t believe +Steve Lane and the kind folks at StC’s took a big chance on me. I was further distressed to discover when I arrived that there was no affordable housing available here for me and the kids. None. After several months, I found a single family home and paid $1500 a month in rent which was more than half of my monthly compensation after taxes. That’s the going rate for a family-sized rental house in livable condition around here, if you can find it available year-round. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford to live here on what I earned. Yet there was no going back. As they say with callings, this was something “I can’t not do.” So over the years I used up the kids’ college fund in order to pay the high rent, as we needed a roof over our heads and stability for their schooling. It was a calculated risk I took to put down roots anyway, keep working, keep growing, keep loving, and bloom where we were planted.
I have to say, it is astounding how single women are rendered invisible by society, those with or without children, as are minorities and the elderly, and all those folks who are barely getting by in a gigged economy. Maybe everyone feels invisible these days. Most fully-employed and/or comfortably retired homeowners in any community do not see this side of our shared life in community. One has to look for it. It’s literally sickening as the stress is relentless. I actually had someone tell me early on that if I wanted to own a home my dad would have to buy it for me, as if I only deserved to own a home… or be a priest… if I was attached to a wealthy father or husband who could supplement my part-time wages. Seriously? My own work was not reason enough for a livable wage? What guy wants to marry a female priest?! It felt like a Catch 22 then and still does today. All that person really did was blithely shift the blame onto me for not already having a husband and/or old family money to underwrite my underfunded work. The word patronizing comes to mind. I began to see how much acquired or inherited wealth is perceived as success; not based on merit, but based on who you know and your seeming not to need the money… even and perhaps especially in the Church. It taught me a lasting lesson in the harsh realities of smug privilege, a place from which I come.
After seven years of good living here, it is only by the grace of God and the loving generosity of good-spirited friends in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine and at St. Columba’s, that we three have been able to make a home in East Boothbay and continue to grow in our common prayers. I finally feel safe enough to plant a garden full of perennials. This has changed my ministry in profound ways. Believe me, we three are humbled and grateful. We try to pass forward such loving generosity in spirit every single day. My kids have had good summer jobs here. They are eager to get back home and back to work after this past year of their studies away at school. Frankly, they must have good jobs in order to pay off their student loans. In turn, I will provide their housing with my work here so they can pay off their loans faster.
Thanks to the faithful investments that generations of our neighbors have made in public schools and scholarships, our local kids have received an excellent education in community life. Many have been accepted into good trade schools, colleges, and universities across the country and closer to home. We are grateful to be at home here. I’m glad we stayed and joined in the shared investment of our community.
At St. Columba’s we try to walk the walk together. Our mission is to provide safe harbor and if ever there was a family that needed to find safe harbor, it was the Hoeckers3. When I first walked in the open doors at St.C’s in the autumn of 2011 looking for good work, I immediately saw that quiet message in our only stained glass window, Fear Not. That’s when I knew that I was getting closer to home again. It had been a long hard haul and I was so far beyond weary and flat broke. So many others who come to St. C’s share similar stories. We’ve learned that it’s the hard times which bind us together, just as much as the happy times, maybe more so.
Too many of our neighbors are also seeking stable housing, meaningful work, and livable wages so that they also can put down roots, raise up children, love the ones they’re with, and give back to their home towns. Life is a daily struggle when you are constantly forced to uproot and start all over again and again and again. Low seasonal wages without benefits do not match the high cost of living in a wealthy coastal community. It’s tempting to divide up into tribes and declare war on each other proclaiming scarcity in the midst of abundance. On a daily basis, the comfortable ones don’t seem to notice the invisible legion of underemployed neighbors who are the hardest working people in our midst. Fortunately, we aren’t all comfortable with it. When we aren’t looking, it’s too easy to cast blame on those we do not see.
And so in the Church we pray again and again, Fear Not. We are called by God to be invested in each other’s lives and loves for the long haul. We are called to go upriver and stop the flow of injustices which create systemic poverties of persons and spirit. We seek to truly see each other as beloved children of God. Our calling is to empower our neighbors and ourselves to live hopeful lives and gratefully offer our own gifts for the glory of God. We are called to share our authentic selves with our neighbors in right relationship, especially the most vulnerable ones amongst us.
This is the quiet power of Love. It is not a false and flashy empowerment for a few that is gained by oppressing others. We believe Love is the source of humble strength which lifts us all up from the depths of despair. When we as followers of Jesus say “Fear Not,” we’re not naive, indeed there is evil in the world. We believe the only way forward through the darkness is if our path is well-lit by God’s Love. We walk as children of the Light.
Love’s light casts out all fear. It’s almost too simple to say, much harder to do. We all fall short, we all have our hidden fears which separate us from God and each other. Yet, we have new hope with the dawning of each new day and with each day we try again. If we love God and in turn love all of our neighbors, as ourselves, surely we’ll all find our way HomeSweetHome. This is our shared work. It’s our turn, we can do this together.
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A blessing from the late John O’Donahue:
May this house shelter your life.
When you come home here,
May all the weight of the world
Fall from your shoulders.
May your heart be tranquil here,
Blessed by peace the world cannot give.
May this home be a lucky place,
Where the graces your life desires
Always find the pathway to your door.
May nothing destructive
Ever cross your threshold.
May this be a safe place
Full of understanding and acceptance,
Where you can be as you are,
Without the need of any mask
Of pretense or image.
May this home be a place of discovery,
Where the possibilities that sleep
In the clay of your soul can emerge
To deepen and refine your vision
For all that is yet to come to birth.
May it be a house of courage,
Where healing and growth are loved,
Where dignity and forgiveness prevail;
A home where patience of spirit is prized,
And the sight of the destination is never lost
Though the journey be difficult and slow.
May there be great delight around this hearth.
May it be a house of welcome
For the broken and diminished.
May you have the eyes to see
That no visitor arrives without a gift
And no guest leaves without a blessing.
Blessing for a New Home