Fixing so much more than houses

January 1, 2016 -- Living City

Fixing so much more than houses
How a restoration and rental business became a ministry of mercy

By Andy Gustafson

As a graduate student I had a midlife crisis in my late twenties as I realized most of what I had created in the world was written papers. While I loved the academic life, I needed to supplement it with something more physical, so I became interested in property restoration. I saw beauty in buildings that others wanted to tear down. In 1999 I bought my first house to restore in my small hometown of Aurora, Nebraska.

As I worked to bring that first house back to life, I felt a new sense of identifying with God’s redemptive work in the world. We fixed it up and rented it out, which was gratifying. With the equity from that first rental house, I bought another, restored it — and then several others. I began to see the renewing of these houses as a form of worship-by-imitation of God.

God sees value in lives which may seem used up or a waste of time to many; he sees past our imperfections and our weaknesses looking only for the good that can be. Where others see brokenness and impoverishment, God sees possibility for flourishing.

When I moved to Omaha in 2005, I continued buying houses to restore.  Today we have 23 buildings (some houses, some apartments). We know many of our neighbors in the community because they live in our properties.

But in Omaha the work of redeeming went beyond houses. First, I found that I could be a source of hope and also of mercy for tenants who came into difficult circumstances. In addition to this though, as an employer I discovered a means of practicing mercy. I found myself in contact with a number of neighborhood characters who had difficulty keeping jobs, so I began to employ them.

One was Izzy, living in his truck behind one of the houses I bought. He asked if he could keep living in the truck until I rented the house.

 “Why don’t you live in the house until I rent it and help me fix it up?” I asked.

He thought that was a great idea, and ever since, Izzy has been working for me off and on. Some of the guys drink heavily, and there were days of disappointment when no one showed up to work. But there were more days when they found real joy in working and being productive — proud of the things they had done, the restoration they had accomplished that day.

I wish I could report that the lives of many I work with have been completely transformed — but I cannot. However, they are still alive, and they’ve had a lot more good days than they would have had, and many more joy-filled, productive days. They have experienced satisfaction in working and creating, and in a sense redeeming the ongoing degeneration.

There is a natural entropy in life — we all are getting older, the houses have to be repainted, the lawns need to be mowed, the carpets need to be replaced, and my guys will undoubtedly occasionally go AWOL — but part of the rhythm of life we live is responding to those failures, shortcomings, and deficits with grace and mercy.

I sometimes think that being in the business I am in — restoring and then renting properties — is one of the best ways to learn about human nature. But I’ve found it can provide many opportunities for spiritual exercise and many opportunities to be a channel of grace for others.

I’ve found that this has reciprocal rewards. Many times my merciful response to tenants who have had financial difficulties for periods of time has been paid back with loyal committed long-term tenants. They feel secure in knowing that if some unforeseen difficulty arises, I will likely respond with mercy. My guys, who at times don’t show up, have seen me hire them back again and again. They develop a sense of security — which is priceless given that they basically live with little to no safety net.

One example comes to mind. A couple of years ago, I had a pickup truck stolen. Izzy had met Albert and his wife Linda who were without a place to stay. So he invited them to stay with him in his apartment. Albert did some work for me for a couple of days as well.

Then, Albert and Linda stole Izzy’s phone and my truck and took off presumably for North Dakota. My truck was never located. It was frustrating — not only because I’d helped Albert, but because I thought it was a bad decision all along for Izzy to have had the couple stay at his place when we hardly knew them. It was an old 1992 truck, but we’d just rebuilt the engine.

Having things like that happen can eat at you — the injustice, the “what-if-I’d-only” scenarios, and frustration with Izzy, myself, and most of all Albert and Linda’s apparent ingratitude. There is a temptation to settle into the frustration itself, the righteous indignation and sense of being a victim that comes along with these situations. When we lose something, especially if we think it was through injustice or stupidity, it’s hard to let it go.

But eventually, I decided to just forgive Izzy, forget about Albert and the harm it caused, and move on. Usually letting go of such losses is the best thing we can do. In a sense, mercy can bring relief to the person who forgives as well. When you forgive and let go of a loss, you are relieved of keeping track of that debt, of tracking down your debtors, of remembering the frustration and the bitterness of injustice.

We lose things — time, things of value, and so on — to people who in the moment seem to be unaware of the cost of these things, or maybe even without concern for our losses. But it is best to sit in that moment of frustration for as short a time as possible. It is not only to the benefit of the one forgiven, but to our own benefit to forgive as soon as possible.

We can expect to find plenty of troubles in this world, plenty of irregularities, injustices, and losses. Fortunately for me as a Christian, I feel that I can come to this table with excess to help make up the difference. That is how we can be peacemakers, full of kindness, goodness and mercy. But the infinite source of these accounting powers to forgive the differences and debts owed is not in us, but in God. It is natural to seek justice for ourselves, but if we go beyond that, we might be able to transform our losses in gratuity and reciprocity.