For the past several weeks a tiny house has been living inside of our church building, nestled behind some pews in the back near to where the people sit who arrive late and are thinking of leaving early. Whatever you might imagine a tiny house to look like in terms of its dimensions, the one we have had on display is long enough to lie down inside but not tall enough to stand up in. It has dwelt among us, week by week, soaking up the hymns and prayers, and the hopes of a community that seeks to make a difference for good in the lives of those around them. People have been encouraged to learn about the tiny house movement and write a prayer for the needs of homeless people on a sticky note and post on the doorposts of the house, like the ancient people of Israel seeking to remember God’s works of goodness in uncertain times (Deuteronomy 6:9).
Our tiny house of prayer is also a work of goodness. It was built by and loaned to us by Chris Scott, founder of i-wood international, a sustainable resource-use movement that for the past ten years has been utilizing innovative technology to provide affordable, ecologically-sound homes and emergency shelters around the world. Chris’s vision today is that tiny houses might become a viable option for homeless people here in the United States, not only to find shelter and stability but to build micro equity and begin to take their own steps up and out of the cycle of poverty.
This Saturday on the grass and concrete of our church’s front yard our own tiny house will be joined by four others for the inaugural community event of the Pacific Beach Homelessness Coalition, a monthly gathering of homeless people, representatives of agencies who work to meet the needs of homeless people in our area, and local residents. The stated aim of the coalition is to identify, advocate for, and meet the needs of homeless people and try to build a better community for all. On Saturday, we will be joined by a number of other community organizations which seek to meet the needs of homeless people, and we hope by community members who want to learn more or just imagine themselves scaling down and living more simply as many have across America.
So why do it? As the person organizing the event and the coalition, I can attest to the fact that when a church, known for its ministry to those who are hungry and homeless, says that it is going to host a tiny house expo what follows are phone calls that ask where it is exactly in the neighborhood that we are planning to put our tiny house village. The voices I hear are often a mix of fear and anger. ‘Not in my back yard’ is a tough mentality to shake. It doesn’t help when our current political talking heads speak of building walls to keep ‘the other’ out. As a Christian, I suppose the fundamental difference between that kind of desire so often present in public discourse today that seeks to separate from ‘the other’ – whether heard on a national stage or over the neighbor’s fence – and the Way of Jesus Christ, is that in Christ, there is no separation, no divide between us and them. We are either identified as one body or we have no identity at all.
Saturday’s Tiny House Expo is not so much about encouraging people to find Jesus as it is an attempt for people to find one another. And once they do find one another, people might start to see one another more and ask one another questions that matter, such as how we might choose to spend our resources and how much we are prepared to be at peace with a society that allows fellow human beings to sleep on the street. Yet beyond this, the tiny house also asks us an even more fundamental question: how much is enough in order to be whole?
Given this hope that questions might be asked of friends and strangers, our expo on Saturday is akin to what French philosopher, Michel Foucault referred to as a ‘rhetoric of disruption’, language around concepts or discourse that seeks to unpick our dominating ideas about people and practices when they become too narrow or coercive. A tiny house is a disruption to the idea that the American Dream can only be fulfilled via the accumulation of a certain social and economic status in society, or the even more pernicious ideology that pervades almost all elements of public life that ‘bigger is better’.
As a Christian, there is another proponent of a rhetoric of disruption who comes to mind particularly this week ahead, as followers of Jesus recall the events of the last week of his earthly life. Palm Sunday, this Sunday, recollects the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey. For Jesus, the peacemaker, his arrival in such a manner offered a postcolonial turn on the Roman practice of military processions into the city following victory in battle. Likewise, Jesus’ execution at the hands of Rome, a death sentence reserved for political dissidents in Roman antiquity, became the act of disruption that Christians believe shaped the whole of human history, with the attempted destruction of God on the cross resulting in the emergence of new life for all in the risen life of Jesus the Christ.
So, if you happen to wander by 1050 Thomas Avenue in Pacific Beach this Saturday lunch time and see people in animated conversation with one another about the relative merits and demerits of tiny housing or solutions for homelessness in America, it might well be that something of that disruptive hope has worked. We can hope.