God and the 'Granny pod' debate

Not every story has a religion angle, but it's amazing how many do. Take, for example, the recent Washington Post news feature that ran with the perfectly boring headline, "Va. launching portable housing for aging relatives." On one level, this is simply a story about zoning battles linked to a new concept in housing for the elderly. However, there is another level -- one linked to faith and the upcoming wave of Baby Boomer elderly -- and reporter Fredrick Kunkle managed to hint at that in the lede:

SALEM, VA. -- The Rev. Kenneth Dupin, who leads a small Methodist church here, has a vision: As America grows older, its aging adults could avoid a jarring move to the nursing home by living in small, specially equipped, temporary shelters close to relatives.

So he invented the MEDcottage, a portable high-tech dwelling that could be trucked to a family's back yard and used to shelter a loved one in need of special care.

Skeptics, however, have a different name for Dupin's product: the granny pod.

If you are a picky religion-beat scold like me, you probably read that lede and wondered, "What kind of Methodist is this guy?"

As it turns out, he is the pastor of a Wesleyan congregation, although the story never provides the name of the congregation he is currently leading. A simple Google search leads you to Salem Wesleyan Church.

The story behind the MEDcottage concept actually grows out of Dubin's pastoral work. After a rather strange glimpse of worship in his congregation -- the reporter seems to have never visited a contemporary, "seeker friendly" service before -- the reader hits the anecdote that details the religion ghost inside this zoning story.

... Dupin chose the story of the fishes and the loaves to illustrate his message about transforming impossible tasks into miraculous realities. Weaving in an anecdote about how his father struck out for Bible college with $11 in his pocket and a battered Sears valise, Dupin lugged the thing onstage as a prop.

"In that suitcase was every dream, every hope he ever had," Dupin said. "My daddy taught me that God asked me to do everything I could do, and then I asked God to do what I couldn't."

It was just such a story that got Dupin thinking about the MEDcottage. As senior minister at what was then Aldersgate Wesleyan Church in Falls Church, Dupin visited a shut-in named Katie. Her husband had served in the Eisenhower administration, and she liked to show off photographs of them dancing at a White House ball.

On one visit, Dupin found Katie in tears. Her adult children had arranged for her to go into a nursing home. Workmen were busy fixing up her home for sale. When he later visited her at the nursing home, she was miserable.

"When I got there, she was absolutely devastated, and she asked me if I could take her home. That stuck in my head -- the patheticness of it," Dupin said.

The story provides many of the technical details about the proposed high-tech cottages, which would tap into advances in video and computers to help provide both privacy, security and medical help for the elderly. You get to hear from critics and defenders of the concept.

I appreciated the fact that the religious element of the story never completely vanishes. It's clear that this concept grew out of church people applying the kind of fix-it attitude that supports many mission projects -- foreign and domestic -- to a major social issue. It helped that the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center eventually got involved.

The issue is whether their concept is good enough to draw the support of government leaders. If the MEDcottage concept took off, it could also provide manufacturing jobs for local workers.

It's an interesting story about a project in which religion, academia and government are trying to work together. It's also interesting that at least some of the religion element made it into the mainstream media coverage. Of course, if I had written the story, I would have put Katie's tears in the lede. Then again, my father was a pastor.

The report does end with this grace note:

Dupin, whose grandfather, father, brother and son are clergy members, said he is not interested in the money. The church's entire annual budget is $178,295, and he said he makes about what the 20 public school teachers in his congregation make. He takes seriously the Methodist heritage of Christianity in action, emphasizing social transformation as well as salvation.

He is also a believer in transparency, often sharing more about the project with potential competitors than his director of operations, Susan Conn, thinks is prudent.

"The most profound effect of transparency is the gift of being able to collaborate," he said.

Once again, in this case we are actually talking about the Wesleyan heritage of Christianity in action, since the life and legacy of the reformer John Wesley (top art) is at the heart of it all. But the word "Methodist" is part of the picture.

The key is that the story included the religion element of this effort -- period. We can be thankful for small miracles.

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