Thoughts On Homelessness For Christians

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Confession: Recently, I got into it online over homeless camps in my hometown.

Person A: Those camps are an eyesore. When is the city going to do something?

Me (drawing on past conversations on the same topic): The thing is, everyone has to sleep SOMEWHERE. But people say “not on public land, and not on vacant private property either, and don’t you DARE build a shelter for them because that will just encourage more of them to come!” It’s like people think if we’re mean enough to them, they’ll just cease to exist.

Person B (paraphrased): These people are lazy freeloaders and the city should not allow them to panhandle at the highway interchanges.

Me: how do you know they’re lazy? Have you talked to them? I’ve been feeling my conscience twinged for years. I’ve started keeping food in the car so I can give them SOMETHING. It’s good for us to look them in the eye and see the face of God, and have our conscience and our privilege tweaked.

Person B: My conscience is not “tweaked” and I have NO PRIVILEGE OTHER THAN I WORK MY BUTT OFF!”

Me (privately): That person has definitely had their conscience and privilege tweaked, or they wouldn’t be that defensive. God, I put this one in your hands now, because I clearly am powerless here.

Person C (in the style of “mic drop”): “Those who will not work, neither should they eat.” 2 Thessalonians.

Me: You can’t take that out of context. What about Matthew 25? Paul was building on the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus never put any such conditions on taking care of people.

Person B: Those people are lazy. They don’t want work, they just want a handout.

Me: Have you offered them work? I haven’t, and I fully recognize my own failures in that. This is why I keep food in the cars for them.

Person B: Well, if that makes your little bleeding heart feel better, go for it.

Me: (unfollows thread.)

It is horrifying, how un-Christian Christians can be. And then how bewildered we all act that people are calling b.s. and leaving Christianity.

In one town, a Catholic city councilperson fought tooth and nail to prevent an ecumenical group from creating a winter warming shelter. They threw obstacle after obstacle in the way.

In another church filled with people who do, in fact, care about social justice, people resisted hosting a similar shelter because they want to feel safe in their church and they wouldn’t feel safe if there were homeless people hanging around.

I am realizing that these failures within the Christian community to live out the Gospel call are not a function of right or left, although I have often thought of them that way. They are a failure of connecting the dots between what we claim to believe and where the rubber meets the road.

For the record, let’s discuss that passage from 2 Thessalonians. Because it came up, first in the Lectionary, and then in its full context in the Bible in a Year.

In the context, Paul was talking about how he had the right to expect people to support him financially while he was among them, but he chose not to do so because he didn’t want to burden them. And so he said, “You within the Christian community, follow our example.”

In other words, he’s talking to people who, according to Acts, were already living in community, sharing all their worldly wealth so that no one went without.

THAT is the context of this verse. It is NOT meant to be used, weapon-like, as a bludgeon against the poor in an economic system where the gap between rich and poor is sinfully wide.

So if you want to use this verse AFTER you’ve folded the homeless population into community, THEN you have the right. Until then, it is abuse of Scripture.

A little less talk, a little more action

You know that saying: whenever you point a finger at someone else, four fingers are pointing back at you? (Well, it’s really three, as you can see, but…)

I think about that a lot in the context of Intentional Catholic. Anything I write, integrity forces me to turn back on myself, mirror-like.

I’ve been struggling through the Bible in a Year podcast… valuing it for the sake of hearing Scripture in a way that helps me grasp the historical context, but struggling because sometimes the commentaries really set me off. The one on Matthew 25—which is sort of the whole foundation of Intentional Catholic–pretty much gave permission for people to say “I’m clothing my naked children and feeding my hungry family. I’m covered.” In fairness, I do not believe that’s what he intended to convey, but it certainly does give tacit permission to ignore the plight of ACTUAL poverty and suffering.

Which is not to belittle feeding and clothing a family. I am up to the tips of my frizzy curls in caring for kids. It’s a real thing.

But it doesn’t negate our responsibility to the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable. First of all because keeping our kids fed and clothed is only a sliver of what keeps us so busy. The vast majority of what keeps us hopping is not essential. We could ALL cut back on some of our luxury and busy-ness and refocus some of that energy on the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable.

But as I sat there stewing and fuming over this, it occurred to me that me sitting in my house writing blogs and social media posts is not clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, either.

Here’s the thing. The conventional wisdom is that not everyone is called to everything. We are supposed to find what we, individually, are called to.

But I am an Enneagram 1, which means I’m very concerned with Getting It Right. For myself AND for the larger world. Enneagram 1s are deeply susceptible to scrupulousness. (Scrupulosity?)

The trouble is, when I, as an Enneagram 1, try to parse out what I feel most passionate about, I can’t do it. It all matters!

I have a child with a disability. Our health care system of access & payment is deeply dysfunctional and a burden on families.

My conscience stings every time I see a homeless person at an exit ramp. How dare we drive by, avoiding eye contact to preserve our own comfort? How dare people on my “Nextdoor” app call them “zombies,” as if these are not human beings with the same innate dignity as themselves?

I see the chaos and suffering that causes people in Central America to flee for the U.S.—and the way some people here villainize those who are desperate for the same security we treat as a divine right. How can I not be passionate about refugee and immigration?

I have godchildren and family members whose skin color will make them a target when they grow up. How can I not rail against those who deny systemic racism?

I had infertility that the medical community wanted to treat by slapping bandaids on it (birth control, artificial procedures) while ignoring the problems that caused it. We have a family because an NFP doctor took the time to find the root cause (PCO + agricultural chemicals in the water—how can I not be passionate about the environment?). So when I see how abortion is the symptom of a host of other problems that are systemic in our culture, how can I fail to rage at those who want to address the symptom while ignoring the causes?

I don’t know what my “one” issue is, because dang it, they’re all equally important. Thank you very much, Enneagram 1. But I can’t do everything. For years, I’ve been trying to learn to respect my limits, to create healthy boundaries.

But sooner or later you have to say “yes,” too.

So for now, I am working a shift at the Food Bank into my schedule, and exploring volunteer possibilities with Refugee and Immigration Services. Because at least there’s a known entry point there.

I am not going to stop talking. But I’m going to start mixing more action in with it.

Dorothy Day: both/and and the power of money to corrupt

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When I began reading “All the Way To Heaven,” the letters of Dorothy Day, I was shocked by how flamboyant and… earthy… she was as a young woman. Of course, before her conversion she was very worldly—divorced in a time before that was common; living with another man; having had an abortion. But to see her sensuality, her sass, etc. in black and white was really quite something. The early letters were way more… INTERESTING… than I expected the writings of a saint-in-progress to be.

The turn was abrupt when she found God. But once I made the adjustment to the totally different writing style, it was more spiritually edifying. 🙂

One of the gems I highlighted actually came from Robert Ellsberg’s introduction. It synthesizes a great deal of what’s in the book, so I’ll share it here. It’s in the context of how her ministry was founded on Matthew 25 (“when I was hungry, you gave me food…”). He says: “For Day, that meant not just practicing the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless in her house of hospitality—but also protesting and resisting the social structures and values that were responsible for so much suffering and need. The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world, but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.” (Emphasis mine.)

To synthesize: her example demonstrates that true discipleship is not an “either/or” prospect, but a “both/and.” It is personal charity and work directly with those in need… AND a commitment to work to change systemic structures that underlie, facilitate, and even cause poverty, inequality, injustice, and (to extrapolate into today’s terms) natural disasters.

So many of our conflicts in the Church happen because we choose to ally with one side or another of worldly divisions, thus abandoning huge portions of the Gospel mandate. It’s EITHER abortion OR the death penalty. EITHER abortion OR taking on the structures that enable injustice and inequality.

And too many times, Church leaders who see the fracturing of the Gospel mandate are afraid to speak too pointedly, for fear of alienating The Money.

One of Dorothy Day’s letters was addressed to the bishops of California during a worker protest where she got arrested. The editor says they’re not sure whether it was ever sent or not. But in it, she was absolutely flaying the bishops for being afraid to stand with the workers, because of a fear of losing contributions from the wealthy who supported corporations over workers. She was saying, “How much better off would we be if the Church would get rid of all its properties and just depend on God to provide what is needed, when it’s needed?”

Not that this is ever going to happen, but it was shocking to read, because she’s right. When you’re worried about pissing people off and having them take their money and walk, you’re afraid to call them out when they need to be called out. This has been the case for years in the Church, as we have swung farther and farther toward “abortion is the only issue that matters” at the expense of the rest of the Church’s social teaching.

(Money really does corrupt, doesn’t it???? I am pointing all manner of fingers at myself here… just recognizing a reality!)

I have one last post to write on Dorothy Day, but to wrap this one up, here’s one last gem from her on money, in response to “a priest critic.”

“I do not think, however, that we are guilty of envy or begrudging a rich man his wealth if we point out the abuses of the capitalist system which allows one man to accumulate the most of the world’s goods while other families suffer year after year, the aching pinch of poverty if not of actual destitution. St. Jerome and many many Fathers of the Church, and our Leader Himself condemned the rich and no one would dare breathe the word of envy in connection with them.”

Systems of sin are a real thing

There are several reflections rumbling around in my brain right now—about Scripture and women, about abortion.

But I promised I’d try to get more specific about the thing I only addressed vaguely last week—about getting down in the weeds and wrestling with how to apply the faith to the current context of the world.

So I think the best thing I could share this week is a reflection by Christopher Dodson, of the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. I found it because one of my email subscriptions last week referred to “systemic sin.”

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My faith journey in the past few years has really convicted me on the topic of systemic racism. There is so much pushback against the idea. The hullabaloo about critical race theory makes me absolutely CRAZY. The idea that we shouldn’t talk about the deep sins committed by U.S. institutions against Black and indigenous people, because it might make white people feel bad, must make God weep. One of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, after all, is acknowledging our failures and confessing them.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to figure out how I would ask fellow whites who resist racial reckoning to think about this. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Things like redlining, lending discrimination, and the GI bill only applying to whites—to say nothing of the lack of reparations made to Blacks after abolition—have had long, long ripple effects. We, the whites, got the good side of this equation. Blacks got the bad side. The problems faced by Black communities now are direct, generational ripple effects of injustices perpetrated by systemic racism that endured for hundreds of years.

Now, none of that is my fault, or your fault, and it might not be your parents’ fault, or even your grandparents’ fault. It’s not our FAULT.

BUT.

Whose fault it is is not the issue. The point is, the consequences are here, and we, as Christians, have to deal with them.

This is not about trying to make whites feel bad. It’s just a clear-eyed, Jesus-centered, Gospel-driven, “love your neighbor as yourself” acknowledgment that I have benefited generationally from something that harmed another group of people generationally. And that still has impacts today.

And because of that, I have a responsibility to work toward fixing it.

That’s all. The hysteria surrounding critical race theory steals all the attention that needs to be on solutions, and directs it toward division and protectionism of SYSTEMS that have aided whites at the expense of Blacks. And it’s got to stop.

When I hear the words “systemic sin,” this is what I think about.

But when that term popped up in my email last week, and I knee-jerk reacted as above, I thought I’d better walk the walk and go look up the term to make sure I wasn’t imposing my own world view upon it. I wanted to see what people with more expertise had to say about it.

That’s how I found this article. Christopher Dodson is the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, and in other articles, he addresses abortion and other subjects of importance to Catholics. He’s no radical.

This piece takes a hard look at the topic of systemic sin, specifically referencing the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

And now I will shut up and let Dodson speak.

Many Christians, including Catholics, have difficulty understanding that “structures of sin” may exist separately from our own individual sins. I suspect that certain religious and political strains of thought in the United States that emphasize the individual as paramount contribute to this problem. The false idea that we are autonomous individuals acting in isolation prevents us from accepting and addressing the social consequences of our sins and the sins of others. (continue reading)

Christopher Dodson

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

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This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.

The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.

But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.

The “Learning How To See” podcast episode I listened to most recently explored comfort bias—the idea that our brains reject information that makes us uncomfortable. Information that is inconvenient to us.

For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.

The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.

Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?

*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.

The Now And The Not Yet

At this time of year, Catholic sites are generally be gentle and meditative, wreathed in evergreen and violet candles. (Did you see what I did there? 🙂 )

I’m not feeling that this year. Advent is normally a big thing in my household, but this year I’m giving myself a pass on some of our traditions. It’s just not where we are right now. I told my spiritual group yesterday that this year, I’m writing a book and learning how to live with a celiac diagnosis for my child, and that’s quite enough mental/spiritual wrestling for me this Advent.

But what I AM doing this Advent is pondering the tension that is intrinsic to life in the faith.

The kingdom of God is now, here, in the person of Jesus, but also unfolding in real time, and never to be fully realized in this world.

We are to accept authority—but at the same time, questioning and wrestling is the only way we grow in faith. Without it, we stagnate. Even fester, growing ever more rigid in our binary, simplistic view of the world. Kind of like all those pirates on Davy Jones’ ship in Pirates of the Caribbean—ever more inflexible, until eventually we freeze solid and lose our humanity altogether. In other words, we are called to submit, but also to be prophetic.

We are given, by virtue of our baptism, the power to heal—this is a conversation we had yesterday in my small faith group—and yet I would argue that the chronic conditions of my life are the things that have allowed me to grow.

I think there’s a lesson in all this for me as I begin this discernment surrounding detachment. Because that is the essential question I can’t wrap my brain around—the one I shared here a couple of weeks ago. Godly anger is what fuels us to pursue Godly justice. Yet this seems to stand at odds with the idea of detachment, which would suggest that we remain a step back emotionally, setting aside such passions altogether.

That’s why this graphic caught my attention when it crossed my feed last week. It’s not about religion, but my faith is integral to my view of the world, and that gets expressed through real-world events, i.e. the news. So it resonated on the level of faith for me.

In my last appointment, my counselor and I were grappling with balance, and she said, “I just want to make sure you know that balance means it’s always changing. It’s not the same from day to day.”

She was right, of course; I’ve known this for a long time in my family life—that one or another of my responsibilities takes precedence at any given time, and it’s constantly shifting. We tend to think of balance as a static thing: a beam BALANCED on a point. But that only works if all the factors acting on it are static. As the forces of my life act upon me, I have to adjust constantly. I do it automatically on a bicycle. Or walking. Or when a small child runs and tackles me while I’m sitting in the middle of the floor.

But somehow when it comes to the bigger things, the spiritual life, I have this fantasy that there’s some magical island within me that if I can just find it, I’ll never have to adjust again.

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But the reality of the “now-and-not-yet” dynamic is that those two things DO stand at odds. That tension will never be resolved in this life. On one side is the passion to see God’s justice made real in the world: “Thy will be done, they kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” We pray for that daily. God’s will for the earth can’t happen if we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, in Heaven all will be well, so I just won’t worry about everything that’s wrong.”

At the same time, the righteous anger that fuels the passion can easily become unhealthy. Crippling. Damaging to the connection to God and neighbor. Detachment is necessary too.

There’s a tension there that can’t be avoided. Neither of the extremes contains the whole truth. The truth comes in the balance between them.

But finding it… that’s the thing I’m beginning to grapple with now.

Detachment and other wrestlings

Dead Man Walking (1995) - IMDb

I just finished reading “Dead Man Walking,” by Sister Helen Prejean, tracing how she became involved in the quest to abolish the death penalty. I began it intending to read as quickly as possible, but shortly realized I needed to slow down, to take time to process and sit with it. One of the most powerful things about the book is how well she weaves together her incredibly poignant personal story with the evidence that beat her over the head along the way, forming her in motion.

No doubt many realities she lays out–with exceptional precision and lots and lots of footnotes to primary source material, i.e. court cases (as well as analysis/opinion pieces)–have changed since the book was published in 1993. One that I know has changed is the public perception toward the death penalty. Less than half of Americans now support the death penalty.

And yet many of the realities she points to are still going strong. Public defenders are overworked and for that reason, the poor are those who go to death row. It costs far, far more to litigate, appeal, and re-appeal than it would simply to put a convicted killer in prison for life. And on and on.

I read this book in a time when I continue to struggle with the apparent unchangeability of all that is wrong in the world, and with those who refuse even to acknowledge the problem, let alone sacrifice to do something about it.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

At the same time, I am encountering the word “detachment” again and again, wrestling with what that means, and how it reconciles with the call to discipleship, which presupposes trying to make the world that better reflection of God’s will that we rattle off in prayer six times in every rosary and once during every Mass and countless other times in ritual and personal piety.

And at the same time, I encountered a podcast interview of Bro. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who called out the prolife movement for talking about protecting “innocent life” when in fact, as Christians we are called to protect ALL life. It seemed to apply to multiple threads of my spiritual life right now.

I wish I had more answers and fewer questions. Maybe then this Intentional Catholic ministry would have a bit more impact. But then again, intentional has to be authentic above all, and if nothing else, these posts are authentic.

Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a glorious and humbling moment this summer when I first encountered “Lift Every Heart And Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. Glorious, because as a pastoral musician, it moved me for its universality and the challenge contained within. Humbling, because how did I make it to the age of forty-six as a pastoral musician and never hear it?

So I want to share this video today in honor of today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a very simple version and they give you the background of the hymn before they sing it. I’ll paste the text below.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.