Reflections from the Hebrides

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The Hebrides — the rocky, windswept, heather-clad western isles of Scotland — an ideal escape from a busy world, if one enjoys solitude and relaxing with a good book. I am captivated by the history of the hardy souls and their tartan chieftains who once dominated these rugged hills and glens. Modern conveniences have now invaded from the mainland but the ancient ways — the herding of sheep on the hillsides, the fleets of small fishing boats, the cottage looms — these still remain, connecting this land with its past. Visible, too, are the moss and lichen-covered stone ruins of crofters cottages that once clustered the landscape — reminders of toilsome, troubling times when clan warfare and endless uprooting made life on the land a tenuous existence. Crofters — tenants on the land — still grow meager crops of potatoes and turnips and graze their livestock on the sparse grasses as they have done for centuries. A relative calm now pervades the countryside. Tenant land rights now assure a measure of security. And though the chieftains with their kilts and broadswords no longer rule, (though their clan names still dominate the public roles) the memories of the days of “removal” are still vividly etched into the minds of the people. Ownership is a powerful right. Just ask the heirs of Scottish families on these Western Isles whose humble villages were destroyed, whose cottages and barns were put to the torch, as generation after generation they were driven from the land by conquest or capricious royal decree. Without ownership life remains tenuous, insecure, fragile. Crops planted in the spring may become another’s harvest. Sturdy stone homes that sheltered ones family may be pulled down without recourse, or worse, handed over to strangers whose sweat has never dropped on this soil. Without a means to secure one’s property, daily survival takes precedence over building a future.

No doubt this is the reason why the thought of a “promised land” was so alluring, almost unimaginable, to the heirs of Abraham who toiled as landless laborers for many generations in Egypt. But in fact, that is precisely what Moses stirred up in their collective memories — the inheritance of their land-rich fore-father! So tempting was the proposal that the God of Abraham was reserving a secure land exclusively for them — a land where they could own homes and feast on the fruit of their own labors, and pass on an inheritance to their children and grandchildren — so enticing was this dream that they pulled up stakes and migrated en masse from Egypt. And it proved to be a risk worth taking. Once in their “promised land” permanent ownership was established, allocating distinct areas to each of the twelve family bloodlines. With a predictable future, wealth soon emerged. And though buying and selling and bargaining and trading flourished, the title to the land was to remain ultimately in the hands of the original family. It was Yahweh’s command. There was obviously a significant value in the ownership of land that the God of Abraham wished for His people to preserve.

Ownership remains to this day a very important issue, not only in the Western Isles and in Israel, but in every major city in our country as well. As the professional classes gravitate back into our urban areas, the cost of land increases. Affordable rental houses become attractive “fix-up” opportunities. Property values increase, taxes rise, and in the process the laboring classes are squeezed out. In every city across our land, the poor, not unlike the crofters of the Hebrides, are being uprooted from the communities they have occupied for generations and are being scattered to the periphery where the housing is cheaper and needed services scarcer. Because the poor do not own land — they have been tenants — they are vulnerable to these winds of change. Their communities, like crofters’ villages, are one by one being swept away.

The “urban removal” of our day is not due to any lack of legal land rights, however. Everyone has the right to own property. It is one of the great blessings of our society. Yet, unfortunately, not every tenant has the resources or the capacity to take advantage of this right. Consequently, many remain vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

If the God of Abraham is the same yesterday, today and forever, perhaps He still desires for His toiling, uprooted children security that allows them to prosper and to dream. We believe so. That is why we invest a good share of our time and energy in creating healthy communities in the heart of the city where the poor can have a share in the benefits of their reviving neighborhoods. It takes concerted effort — homeowner training, budgeting education, disciplined saving — to move from tenant to owner. It takes caring partners with connections to resources who lend a hand with construction and financing. It takes block by block effort to regain control of derelict real estate, push back criminal elements, restore the architectural charm, re-weave a mixed-income tapestry of community. But at the end of the day, tenant families experience the pride of ownership and they can dream dreams for their children's futures. We think Yahweh would be pleased.

Bob Lupton

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