Lessons in Lording

The Lord is manifest in quotidian acts of mercy & justice


Faith Justice

In 1970, I arrived in San Marcos, California, on a donated bike — the end of my ten years on the road in a cross-country penniless ministry. I found a minimum-wage job as an electrical construction estimator at a local company. After working three years, living frugally in a barn at a commune, I saved enough money, about $2600, for a 10%  down payment on a new half-duplex. It was a four-bedroom, two-bath, with an attached double garage and a big back yard. My plan was to have my commune buddies each paying a rent of $50 per month. With that income I’d pay my mortgage and utility bills. I wasn’t savvy enough to know that my bid to buy any house would not have been taken seriously without my dad’s co-signature.

My father had been distressed because of the nervous breakdown I suffered seven years earlier, followed by my eccentric religious calling. So when I phoned him about my purchase plan, he was quite enthused and flew out to help me. Not only did he co-sign on one half of the duplex, he bought the other half, which I was to manage for him. I rented to four males on my side, and five females on the other, with strict rules about no smoking indoors and late night sessions that might disturb the others trying to sleep.

My de facto guru role didn’t go over well with rebellious youngsters groping to find their own moral compass. The dorm arrangement didn’t last more than three years; I’m surprised it lasted that long. It felt like an exercise in futility, like herding feral cats. I was much relieved to end the vexing experiment and rent to families.

Meanwhile, Dad was impressed with my management of his house, and he quit-claimed its deed to me. I now owned both halves of the large duplex. The timing was fortuitous as real estate had entered a steep inflationary climb, compounding my equity.

I must have inherited my dad’s enterprising talent for real estate because I then found myself refinancing my two houses and cold-calling apartment owners to find someone eager to sell cheap. My first big mistake was failing to wonder why owners would do so. As it turned out, I bought a low-income apartment complex that had some serious defects. I had insufficient cash for repairs. So I refinanced again, fixed things up, and leveraged into many other rental properties. By 1980 I was driving a new Mercedes Benz. Soon after, I took a job with the City of San Diego.

The next 27 years saw some hundred tenants come and go. I grew weary of hassles with late or unpaid rent, and the pains of maintenance problems like rusting handrails, leaky roofs, and repairs after robbery break-ins. I found a renter dead from a drug overdose. One tenant threatened to beat me up and kill me. I finally escaped that demanding business by selling off all but the first house I bought.

I live there still, alone, except for the ghosts called memories.

How did all this square with my original call to minister in poverty (cf. Luke 9:3)? Why did Jesus tell that rich young man who had kept the Commandments to sell all and follow Him? Didn’t Jesus say it would be difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but that with God all things are possible (cf. Matt 19:21-23)?

These questions were worrisome. I’d followed all the Commandments and given my all following Christ in those ten years of my youth. Yet, I had yearnings to multiply my God-given talents, and when the opportunities arose, I took them. What I learned about life, facing the difficult challenges of land-lording, humbled me even more.

I wasn’t struggling for income to feed a wife and kids. I was seeking the Lord in land-lording and learning our Father’s business of providing for man. I remembered the many opportunities for dealing unjustly with my tenants’ security deposits, but His hand kept me honest. None can claim I cheated them, though at times I was tempted. His spirit taught me mercy when I waived the penalties due of those earnest tenants late in paying their rent. I dragged my feet on evictions, empathizing because of my experiences with homelessness on the road. I was not the typical slum lord that neglects regular maintenance, thus to emulate how God repairs things as needed. Day after day I ran a gauntlet of thorny issues, worried sick over expensive mistakes. The Lord didn’t spare the rod but comforted me even though I walked through the valley of shadows called bankruptcy and death (cf. Psalms 23:4).

He knew my heart and kept His promise to be indwelling – to comfort, guide, and teach me (cf. John 14:23). He helped me mature in appreciation of humanity’s resilience. How much the whole experience enriched my soul cannot be measured. For I had learned from Him above all else: “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matt 6:20).

Without God’s help, it would have been impossible for me to escape the hazards of accumulated wealth. He unexpectedly restored all that I sacrificed for Him in my youth, beyond my wildest dreams. His grace manifests even now, as I express hope of “entitlement” not merely to a house of wood and stone but to “an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (2 Cor 5:1). 


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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