One Monday morning, as on every Monday morning, I lugged two bags of trash past our garage and my vegetable garden to the alley behind our house. There I stood for a moment, taking in a mysterious absence. Our big green trash container, the kind with wheels and a wobbly hinged lid, was gone. The place where for years it had awaited me every week gaped empty, a strangely bare patch of ground.
Who in the world would steal a trash container? I stuffed the two bags in a smaller can left over from the old pre-container days, affixing a note: “Someone stole our container.” I felt like a ten-year-old muttering that the dog had eaten his homework.
Later that day the trash had been removed, and our green container was back in its usual place. With a shrug, I consigned the episode to the realm of unsolved mysteries and got on with my week.
The next Monday, trash bags in hand, I once again found an empty place where the container should have been. I looked around. On the other side of the alley, behind some houses that had been carved up into student apartments, a strip of junk trees, neglected backyards, and parked cars stretched for a block. A container just like ours stood in this seedy area, directly opposite my garden. I crossed the alley. From some familiar scuffs and dirt on the lid I suspected the container was ours. After some hesitation, I wheeled the container over to our side of the alley, raised the lid, and threw my two bags atop some pizza boxes and other loose trash.
Thus began my battle of wills and wits with the trash pirate. A man from the removal service assured me the container was ours, so I felt no compunction about reclaiming it, but my opponent just as determinedly stole it back every time. After two or three weeks of this back-and-forth nonsense, I locked the thing to a fence, upside down, with a bicycle cable.
We have lived in this smallish college town for twenty-five years. In the fall, the local paper likes to gush about the “energy” the returning students bring, and how lucky we are to have them. We long-term residents obviously benefit from our young neighbors’ presence in many ways, from employment to commerce to cultural events. But no one much likes the drunken yelling in the middle of the night, or the cans and bottles littering the streets after football games, or the carefree, exuberant driving.
In recent years, I have become increasingly aware not only of the local college students but of the wider group to which they belong. The Millennials are everywhere: addicted to their smart phones, dominating cinemas with their comic-book movies, revolutionizing the social scene with their complex networks of friends. In all these ways—attitudes to technology, tastes in art, and concepts of family loyalty—Millennials discomfit my view of the world.
Most disturbing of all, Millennials seem cheerfully, unapologetically secular. In one article after another, self-described Millennials report the joys of not believing in God and predict the irrelevance of those who do. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of The Barna Group have been compiling numbers on this phenomenon for the past dozen years. In unChristian (Baker, 2007), they wrote that “outsiders” to Christianity make up 40 percent of people ages sixteen to twenty-nine (18). Still more troubling, their study revealed a growing hostility toward the Church. Millennials, lots of them, aren’t just “outside” Christianity. They want nothing to do with Christians or Christ, and they don’t mind saying so.
When I talked with the trash pickup guy about our wandering container, he told me the service had been cancelled for the house behind ours. Aside from proving that the container definitely did not belong there, this information meant little to me at the time. For my twenty-eight-year-old daughter, however, it made all the difference. The landlord had put my trash pirate in a bind, she explained. What were the tenants supposed to do? They had to put their trash somewhere. Our container was available, and we obviously had room. What was the big deal anyway?
I saw her point, of course. (My daughter is pretty smart.) Our weekly two bags hardly filled the huge container. An involuntary sharing arrangement might tax its capacity now and then, but most of the time there would be no problem. I began, just a little, to regard the situation from the Millennial trash pirate point of view.
According to Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins in You Lost Me (Baker, 2011), a sequel to unChristian, “Teens and twentysomethings tend to determine the rightness and wrongness of their choice by what seems fair, reasonable, and accessible” (2011, 173). The formula neatly describes back-alley trash ethics as I had been introduced to them. Millennials see no stigma in being a CD pirate, so why should a trash pirate scruple about tossing a pizza box in a handy container, especially if the stingy landlord doesn’t provide one? It seems fair, and everyone’s trash ends up getting removed. Of course, I could think of a few options the tenant might have tried before mooching off my service, but at least, thanks to my Millennial daughter, I could understand the thinking that had led to my violated container.
I wish I could say that my trash story led to a happy ending, with my pirate-turned-partner and me having coffee at a neighborhood diner. Sorry. The bicycle cable still secures our container. Another container did materialize across the alley, so the landlord’s Scrooge stage apparently passed, but I still try to avoid getting personally involved with other people’s trash. When it comes to the alley and its denizens, I keep my distance. It’s still a jungle out there.
But I have taken the lessons of Kinnaman, my daughter, and my unknown neighbor to heart. I want to help bridge this imposing generational divide. I want to do something, however small, about young people’s abandonment of faith. My belated effort to understand the Millennials begins with remembering myself as a twenty-one-year-old Boomer.
Like most people’s, my twenties were a time of sporadic rebellion and confusion. I never stopped going to church, but I experimented with some new traditions and shed the ones of my childhood. I became disillusioned with leaders I had once respected, dissatisfied with assumptions that denied my deepest self.
During college, early in these floundering years, I attended a church that was serious about hospitality. In the crowd milling around after morning worship, you would hear people asking, “Do you have someplace to eat dinner?” Most Sundays, before you could reach the door, you were invited to someone’s table. Occasionally I would have preferred heading home and taking a nap, but I almost always jumped at an offer of dinner. I was a college student living off campus. A free, substantial meal meant an extra few dollars in my pocket, not to mention another day of survival.
I visited a half dozen or more homes over the course of those Sunday afternoons, usually in the company of two or three fellow students. Sometimes our hosts were couples with growing families, and in these cases the head of the household might serve up some theological remarks along with the ham or roast beef. The younger the husband, I noticed, the more long-winded and self-assured this commentary tended to be. On at least one occasion I had dinner at the pastor’s house, regarded among students as an especially edifying, vaguely prestigious event.
But my favorite place to have dinner, and the home I remember visiting the most often, was Paul and Peg Wilson’s. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, as I must have called them then, were probably in their sixties or seventies. To me, of course, they just seemed old. Paul, a retired pastor, served as an elder or in some other leadership capacity. Everyone viewed the Wilsons as gifted saints who had long and faithfully ministered in the denomination. None of this churchly distinction mattered, however, when you went to their house for dinner. Paul, white-haired, becoming a little hesitant in manner, presided over the table with a dignified calm. Peg, the outgoing one, assumed the couple’s social responsibilities, making sure all of us got enough to eat and were included in the conversation. I remember Peg running the show in a flour-dusted apron, briskly setting out dishes, assigning us small tasks, then discarding the apron and taking her seat with a composed elegance.
I loved the Wilsons’ old-fashioned dining room, so unlike the casual Colonial style in which I had grown up. Around the long table and heavy chairs stood cabinets for storing the bowls, plates, and platters we passed. The somber, massive furniture and genteel china conveyed a low-key formality. Peg provided plenty of Sunday comfort food: pot roast, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy in a fingertip-blistering boat. Most of us had been raised on similar Sunday dinners, if in somewhat different surroundings. In that starchy, proper dining room, we couldn’t have felt more at home.
One afternoon, someone asked about the sculpted, not quite life-sized female head perched high atop one of the cabinets. The figure had demurely downcast eyes, a faultless nose, and copious backswept hair above shoulders classically draped in seashell-tinted folds.
“Oh,” said Peg with a little smile. “That’s Portia.”
I was used to church people’s homes being decorated with wall hangings and knickknacks from far-flung mission fields. Portia laid claim to no such pious origins. Peg told a brief but colorful story about buying the piece in some New York City auction house or second-hand store, then laboriously hauling it across Manhattan in a taxi. I gazed up at the improbable ornament, thinking how much I liked these people, how glad I was to be with them.
It wasn’t that I wanted to live like Paul and Peg. I had no desire to go into the ministry, or to own a comfortable house full of big, dark furniture. But as I looked around me during that unsettled period of my life, testing perspectives on the world, seeking a spiritual temperament that made sense to me, the Wilsons were one of the few attractive options I had found: quiet, patient, listening, wise. They didn’t try to sell me on a theological system. They wanted nothing in return for their generosity. They didn’t care if I preferred Henry James and Elvis Costello to discussions of infant baptism and special revelation. They simply opened their home, making it look easy and no trouble to themselves, and offered food, acceptance, rejuvenation, peace.
My wife and I don’t live in a house like the Wilsons’—nor, to tell the truth, do we possess their gift for hospitality. I am not sure exactly how to emulate their kindness. But I see in them, and in their influence on my twenty-one-year-old self, a glimmer of how to approach the restless, skeptical Millennials. I can give without demanding or expecting compensation. I can accept jarring appearances, listen to unfamiliar cultural forms—perhaps even come to terms with podcasts, hip hop, and mashups—and share some of the advantages that have come my way. I can offer honest, forthright friendship. I can find a way to be someone’s Paul and Peg.
David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His writing has appeared in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review.
Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2007.
Kinnaman, David, with Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church… and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.