My wife, Leone, and I were both children in the Great Depression—she in northern Saskatchewan, I in the rural village of Cheapside, ON. To survive in those years, our families lived very frugally. My mother, to cite only one example, thought that even chewing gum was too much of a luxury. I occasionally indulged in this pleasure, but certainly not where Mother could see me. Yet both Leone and I recall our childhoods with great delight. We did not need much to be happy.
After our marriage, college and graduate school enforced this simple lifestyle. We had to “pinch our pennies”; we could afford only small apartments. One of our residences during these years was a tiny third-floor apartment reached by climbing an outside stairway, under which the garbage from the large building was placed.
Early years of teaching in church schools—first at Niagara Christian Collegiate (Fort Erie, ON), then at Messiah College (Grantham, Pa.)—meant receiving what can only be described as miniscule salaries. This resulted in continuing to live in small apartments and old houses.
Thus, when we constructed a house in Grantham, we were well conditioned to build on a small scale. Our one-story house is the smallest in the area; sitting between two large houses makes it seem even smaller.
The Anabaptist House
Over the years, the small size of our house has occasioned frequent comments. We have almost come to expect that when people visit us for the first time, one of their first comments will be, “What a small house you have!”
These and other instances, however, give us opportunity to testify (to use an expression of the Church in my earlier years) that as Christians, we have sufficient in this and in other ways. We call our house “The Anabaptist House” and explain that the Anabaptist tradition is to de-emphasize material things and to emphasize spiritual values.
We recently entertained two friends from outside the Brethren in Christ/Anabaptist traditions. When the conversation turned to the size of our house, we were pleased to tell our friends, yes, we could afford a much larger house but that isn’t where our values lie.
A small house helps us to exercise these values. It means smaller heating and lighting bills, as well as lower real estate taxes, among other reduced expenses. Even as Leone and I grow older we can, in a small house, do our own cleaning and much of our maintenance work. Thus again we incur fewer and smaller expenses.
In turn, this means that we can use more of our income for what we consider to be worthy causes. Beyond the traditional 10 percent tithe, we are able to give considerable amounts to charities and church activities. This also means that in retirement, we do not need to worry about continued employment to pay for a mortgage on a large house. Instead, we are free to do volunteer work—Leone among women in the community and I in my writing and editing.
Despite the relatively small size of our house, we can mostly do as much as people who live in large houses. Over the years, we have entertained many guests for meals and given lodging to many people who have come to the Grantham area for church or committee meetings. (Some people refer to our house as the Sider Motel!)
In these and other ways, we do not think of our small house as being a negative factor in our lives. We have never felt cheated by our lifestyle; in fact, our convictions on the subject have grown stronger over the years because we have found simplicity to be both fulfilling and scriptural. Yet we do not judge those Christians who live by another style.
And we realize that our manner of living must be seen as being relative. Leone and I have frequently commented to each other that most people in the world would not see us as living simply.
This thought struck us forcefully some 20 years ago when we invited a family who had begun to attend our Grantham Church services to Sunday dinner. As soon as they entered our house, the two young teenagers walked throughout the rooms (including the bedrooms). When they returned to where we were talking, they exclaimed to their parents, “We told you that they are rich!”
Their words were a reminder to us that we have little reason for self-congratulation, even when we are intentional about living simply. Such incidents have led Leone and me to talk about our lifestyle as modest rather than simple.