Monday, June 18, 2007

Kevin Little on his gradual journey to the simple life

From the Halifax Daily News

It's funny how some children of alcoholics grow up drawn to the demon drink and others get sick at even the thought. The same is true of packrats. Like most of my generation, I grew up valued, affirmed, and spoiled. My parents were both the first children in their families to go to university. Although they were born in 1939, they lived by values espoused by their parents. An economic depression could happen again, and you had to ensure that nothing was thrown away for fear of being without it in a moment of need.

And because it was the '60s, when incomes were on the rise, and because my parents had grown up with so little, we three boys were lavished with toys. Our grandmother, president of the local church temperance society, would arrive in her trademark Santa suit, slightly in the bag, to dispense more gifts than "Carter has pills." (I have no idea what that means, but it was my mum's favourite expression).

But despite the material possessions and the love and affection, there was something missing. Through high school and university, I struggled with boredom, laziness and underachievement. I think many people my age have had struggles like this. Everything was handed to us on a plate; we received compliments even when no achievement had been realized. I look back at that period and see that I was happy at home, but never at school.

At home, I was given space to march to the beat of my own drummer by my eccentric father, and given more encouragement and applause than anyone should get by my mother.

I remember hearing the story of Francis of Assisi in seminary. Although he was of the elite and I was middle-class, I somehow related to his epiphany that his privileges were masking his true identity. And so one day, he walked down a busy street in his hometown, naked. He was vulnerable to all. Francis went on to be transformed into a friend of nature, who preached and lived simplicity.

As he removed the distractions from his life, he found enlightenment, love of the other. The other was not necessarily his immediate family (he renounced his wealth). It could as easily have been a wounded animal, or a hurting fellow human being.

My journey to clarity of self was a gradual one. At first, I tried to hold on to my things, my excuses, and my illusion of being "special." But as I moved from Halifax to Saskatoon to northern Manitoba to southern rural Georgia, the packing and re-packing focused my attention on what was truly important, both materially and emotionally.

Moving does that. So does putting yourself in different situations, contexts, with different people.

In 1988, I travelled to northern Manitoba, to work with Frontier College as an adult literacy teacher and labourer. This was followed by a move south to Americus, Georgia, where I worked with Habitat for Humanity at its headquarters in the public relations department.

While there, I cycled the 16 kilometres from the headquarters to Koinonia Farm, a demonstration plot of Christianity started by Clarence Jordan, the only man I know who had a Phd in agriculture and Greek. His racially integrated, pacifist message didn't go over well in the deep south in the '40s, but by 1988, the farm was largely accepted by town folk, and the collection of disciples who lived there fascinated me.

It was during my time with Habitat for Humanity that I found my inspiration. There, I encountered someone who was living Francis's simple lifestyle. His name was Millard Fuller. Fuller had his own Francis moment when, at the age of 29, he became a millionaire. His lifestyle and greed so disillusioned his wife Linda that she asked him to choose between the wealth and her. He gave everything away and drove his family, on his pastor's recommendation, to meet Clarence Jordan.

Where Jordan was a purist, prickly and a prophet, Fuller was an entrepreneur, hard-charging and ambitious.

When Fuller met Jordan, he decided to put his energy to a different use, the cause of building decent, affordable housing. Fuller built the new organization, Habitat for Humanity, into a worldwide movement.

Until recently, Fuller's salary was the same as the secretaries at the headquarters, his home did not have air-conditioning and he walked around the community picking up any litter he saw.

This twinning of all-out effort for a cause with a basic or simple lifestyle has remained with me to this day. During my moves, I gave things away. I saved more than I spent. With my vocation, I hardly ever took a holiday. With causes, I worked to use the power of speech and pen to change minds and hearts.

I now have a daughter. I live in the suburbs. We are a one-income family. Next week, I will tackle how this simplicity of lifestyle runs up against the reality of my context.

Kevin Little is an ordained minister who lives in HRM.

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