Renovating My Faith
My husband’s cousin lives in a gorgeous, old house – it was built around 1885, and was one of the first homes built in that area. Their family bought the home over twenty years ago as young parents and have lived there ever since. Sure, there have been some quirks – some major, some minor – but that’s inevitable when your house is over a century old. For example, the foundation was comprised of large, stacked stones and rough-cut timbers dug only two feet into the ground, and the walls were a mixture of dried adobe mud bricks, fired clay bricks, and plaster. The pipes were cast iron and rusting out, and the sewer line kept breaking. There were some aesthetic annoyances as well: having been “updated” in the 60’s and 70’s, the walls had green avocado paneling, with matching avocado-stained cabinets, and an olive green stove. There was an abundance of outdated wallpaper throughout the house. But there were also some really lovely things about the old pioneer home: 11-foot ceilings in most rooms, intricately-detailed woodwork and trim around the doors and windows, and turn-of-the-century light fixtures that were installed in the house around 1905 (when electricity was first made available in the area). And after 23 years in this house, it had become their family home – they could point out where their kids had learned to read, where they gathered for family activities, and where their child fell and ended up needing stitches. However, in the last couple of years, they found themselves at a crossroads. Some of the structural issues in the home were so major that they needed to make a big decision.
Do they renovate their home? Buy a new (to them) home? Or build a new home?
They’ve decided to renovate, and the word “renovate” is actually a complete understatement. They’ve had to rip their house down to the studs, remove most of the walls, and completely replace the foundation. Hoping to have more room, they dug out a basement underneath the still-standing house. All of the plumbing, duct work, sewer lines, and electrical work had to be dug out and replaced. They basically had to break everything down to the bare minimum, decide what was worth keeping and what needed to be replaced (or removed), and then build the entire thing back up again. They added things along the way, and changed a couple of things, but ultimately fought really hard to maintain the original character and shape of the house.
Watching this year-long project unfold (via Facebook updates) has been alternately baffling and awe-inspiring. Why on earth would you take on such a big project?? Is it really worth the time, energy, and resources that you put into it? Was the old house that bad? Would a new house have been that bad? Yet I found myself inspired by how well they were getting to know their house – they know every nook and cranny, every pipe, every wall. They know which walls are still original and which had to be replaced. I admit turning green with envy when they found a copy of the Saturday Evening Post from 1920 (in great condition) under one of their floors. And the balance has shifted from me being less baffled to more awestruck as they’ve come closer and closer to completing their project. It’s turning out to be a gorgeous house, with all of the beauty and history of the original 1885 house, but with the structural integrity and functionality of a 2014 house.
I can’t help but see similarities between this home renovation and the continual “faith renovation” I’ve been doing over the past several years. I feel like “faith renovation” or “faith reconstruction” is more apt for me than “faith crisis” or “faith transition” – I don’t feel like I’m in crisis, and I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. I was born and raised in the Mormon church. I have been active my entire life. There is so much that I love about my faith – I love the rich theology, the pioneer stories, the hymns, the concept of a Mother in Heaven, and the idea that we are Gods and Goddesses in embryo. But there have been things that I’ve discovered throughout the years that are huge problems for my Mormonism, and they have threatened to collapse my entire faith. So over the last 5+ years, I’ve been gradually stripping my Mormonism down, deciding what is worth keeping, what needs to be replaced (or removed), and then building the entire thing back up again.
Much like renovating a house, it’s been soul-breaking, tear-filled, exhausting work. Ripping out the stacked-stone-and-timber patriarchal foundation has taken forever. Do I believe in patriarchy as an eternal system? What about an earthly one? How does God feel about patriarchy? Is it possible that patriarchy is really God’s law? And the polygamy wallpaper that’s all over the house – what do I do about that? Do I claim it? Is it an eternal law? An inspired principle at times? A mistake? Heavenly Mother, why did you only ever get a closet without a real door? Can I give you a bigger space in my newly built faith? How do I even do that? Where do I add on? What pieces do I let stay? How do I reconstruct my faith in a way that still looks and feels Mormon, the same way you would renovate a Tudor home and keep its unique Tudor style?
There have been times when I’ve stood back and wondered whether I should just move. I could build a house somewhere else, something newer and without all the problems that come with the original home. I’ve had friends who have said things akin to, “This is nothing but a enormous money pit – it’s not worth it” and “Why not just move into something newer and nicer?” And I’ll admit – there are other houses out there that look really nice. I’m sure that I would get rid of a lot of the headaches by moving into a different house. But I’m not sure it would be home. I’ve lived in this Mormon house my whole life. I feel like I can see that place where I learned to ride my bike, and the hearth where my Grandma would sit on Christmas morning as she watched us open our gifts. I can see my own kids running up and down the stairs, gleefully tearing through the halls and putting their own wear and tear into it. And when it comes down to it, I fundamentally believe that this Mormon house is my home, and I need to keep it as my home.
I’m grateful that I feel like renovation is even an option for me – if I had endured abuse in this house, I would be much more likely to walk away. I know that for many people, doing this kind of renovation requires more energy and resources than they’re willing to devote, and for others, there’s no desire whatsoever to reconstruct a house that hasn’t met their needs. But for me, it’s a house that I love deeply, and a faith that I want to keep. So I’m willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to make it a structurally sound and safe place for me.
So I’ve been ripping out that patriarchal foundation and replacing it with a lot more emphasis on Jesus. The polygamy wallpaper is long gone – replaced with a fresh coat of paint. I’ve added onto my home and tried to make a bigger space for Heavenly Mother. I’m putting in big, bright windows so that I can see the other faiths out there, and be edified by them. I’m keeping the pioneer window trim – there are few things that inspire me more than a good pioneer story, whether it be the story of the pioneers crossing the US plains in the 1800’s, the pioneers escaping from Turkey to Syria in 1921, or any other story of conviction combined with great sacrifice.
I am nowhere near done with my exhausting faith renovation. Like home renovations, it seems to be taking twice as long (and costing twice as much) as I had initially anticipated. But it’s no longer at the bare bones stage that it once was; the roof is on, the walls are up, and I’m feeling pretty secure in my new home. Some of the rooms might be missing paint or finishing touches (and some others might be missing a whole lot more), but I’m ok with it. I’m going to live here, and keep tweaking the house as I go forward. I’ve come to realize that while the major work has been done, there will be more work going forward – new problems will spring up, and I might even rediscover aspects of the old house that I love. I have come to realize that part of being anxiously engaged with our faith is our willingness to do this kind of soul-filled work.
Towards the end of their renovation, my husband’s cousin and her family poured all new sidewalks and a new driveway, and in one of the concrete panels, they stenciled their family name. I feel like I have done the same with my faith. I feel fortified and invigorated in a way that I haven’t before. This is my Mormonism. And while some might balk at it, questioning from the street whether my renovated home is “Mormon enough,” I feel a deeper connection to God and my people than I ever have before. There is more structural integrity to my faith than there ever has been, and for that alone, my faith renovation has been – and continues to be – completely worth it.