The Bunker Is My Refuge and Strength

What living next to a doomsday prepper taught me about loving my neighbor.
The Bunker Is My Refuge and Strength
Image: Shenki / Getty

You could see the vent-stacks from the road, their turret-like, rounded-metal covers just visible above a massive mound of dirt and grass behind the house. In front of those turrets, planted on the top of the mound and painted white, was a 15-foot-tall wooden cross. Strange.

The house itself was strange, too. The three-stall garage was on the left, parallel to the road. Then there was a section that looked like a normal front entrance to any home. Perpendicular to that section, however, and jutting out straight toward the road, was something that looked like one of those small strip motels you see sometimes in rural towns. The only thing missing was a neon “vacancy” sign. And there they were, behind the little strip-motel wing of the house: those turrets. On top and in front of it all stood that cross, bolted to the ground with heavy metal cables.

Guy had built this complex with his own hands, just an eighth-of-a-mile from the church, one year before I moved into the parsonage. Though this all happened nearly 20 years ago, Guy and his particular view of Christian life have often crossed my mind. Especially lately.

Because most striking of all is that underneath those turrets and that cross, buried in the mound, Guy had built a bomb shelter. The door into it was on the house side of the mound.

Guy and his wife did not attend our church. Well, he did try it a few times, but I will admit, he found me lacking as a preacher. In his view, I didn’t have enough grit. I didn’t display enough serious displeasure with the moral slack of America. (True enough, I suppose). Guy was blessed with wealth, and I could tell—from his own words, and sometimes from his deeds—he was a committed tither.

I don’t remember how or why, but there came a day when Guy came over and sat down on the front porch of the parsonage with a sheaf of papers. He skittered off the rubber bands and unrolled maps of the continental US. He pointed to the cities he believed were major nuclear targets, and then he showed me the wavy, dotted lines that depicted the projected fallout patterns from mushroom clouds. Then his finger landed on our region of the world, and sure enough, according to Guy’s projections, our country road would get way less nuclear fallout raining down upon it than almost anywhere else. And that was one of the reasons Guy had decided to build his complex and its bomb shelter right there in our neighborhood.

I guess it made sense. Our neighborhood was rural. The half-mile stretch from the corner of our church to the corner where Guy’s houses were built contained a total of five homes and the township graveyard. Our road was asphalt, but the intersecting roads were all gravel. Nobody would waste a bomb on us.

When Guy suggested that I too should build a shelter, I have to admit, the idea found some receptivity in my increasingly discomforted heart.

More skittering, and Guy rolled open another sheaf of maps, these displaying another array of concentric, wavy lines. These were sea-level maps, and sure enough, the three-mile radius where we lived was the very highest elevation in our whole state. Who knew? So, Guy said, when the world’s ice melted and the flood waters came, they would not reach us. This too is why he built his shelter here. Guy’s survival was meticulously planned.

I’m not sure what storm was threatening in the early 1990s, but I guess it was pretty bad because other people, too, had survival-defense on their minds. Another Christian man I knew quietly revealed to me that he had dug holes on his property and shrink-wrapped and buried major weaponry and ammo so that “When all hell comes down, we’ll be ready.” Guy, however, had taken that approach to a new level when he dug a very big hole and hired cement trucks to pour the walls of a shelter into it.

Guy told me all about those walls—their thicknesses and the overall dimensions of the shelter—on another summer day as he once again he sat on my front porch steps. He un-banded a third set of papers: the blueprint-layout of the shelter. With his finger he stabbed the page from room to room—the one that contained the treadmill for generating electricity, the food-storage room, and the little bedroom. He told me what the door was made of and what its hinges were like and what kind of the force the door could withstand.

A Bolted Door

That blueprint deeply affected me, as did Guy’s view of life. Whatever may have been going on in the world at the time, I was struggling with my own sense of foreboding and fear. My kids were little, and it seemed like deep things in the world were unraveling. When Guy suggested that I too should build a shelter and that he would consult with me on how to do it, well, I have to admit, the idea found some receptivity in my increasingly discomforted heart.

Some form of biblical interpretation was the basis for Guy’s vision. That extension of the house—the one that looked like a motel—had six little rooms in it. According to Guy, when the glaciers melted and the waters rose, he could house family members there. (In the meantime, Guy told me, if ever I encountered someone destitute and in need, he would work out a financial arrangement with the deacons of our church so we could pay for those people to stay in that wing of the house—a generous thought.) Between the house-motel and the bomb shelter, Guy’s compound was a 20th-century Noah’s Ark. It all felt somewhat Old Testament, kind of like Israel withstanding the nations.

In the end, three things kept me from building a bomb shelter of my own. The first was money, because the amount required to do such a thing was prohibitive. The second was that the house I lived in was owned by the church, and I was pretty sure the board would not be thrilled with those little turrets sticking up behind the youth basketball courts. The third reason was my wife, Alicia, who said, “If the world gets that bad—I mean, if that’s what we have to be—I don’t want to live that way.”

She said this in response to my report of Guy’s accounting of how bad this would get. “The worst part,” he said, “will be when people start pouring hot tar down your vent pipes to try to smoke you out … you know, to try to force you to open the door so they can get in.”

I want my life to be a safe place for any panicked sinners who confront me.

That door, bolted shut, was a pretty good image of Guy’s approach to other people. For example, in a community where, in the winter, everybody’s fields were wide open for avid snowmobilers, Guy instead erected large stones as boundary markers to make his property lines clear. Trespassers were not allowed. One night, some idiot snowmobiled through there anyway, and he claims Guy shot bullets over his head. It was just a rumor, but everybody believed it because, honestly, it fit what we knew of Guy.

It fit him also that one day, when our church was gathering food for a local pantry, Guy came in with boxes of canned vegetables and beans. Like I told you, he was generous. So I thanked him for his gifts. He just shrugged and said, “Yep—well, anyway, I had to rotate my stock.” Even Guy’s gifts to the poor flowed from his concept of self-preservation.

For or Against My Neighbors?

That philosophy of life is tempting to me. I still wonder, especially these days, about burying my guns and amassing a stash of ammo—you know, to be ready for evil powers overrunning us or crazed people breaking in. I remember seeing a film clip of a white supremacist after Charlottesville, with his guns displayed on his bed and a smile on his face, saying, “A lot more people are gonna die before this is done.” And I thought, That dude wants to start another civil war. So maybe I should keep a cache of some sort. As the Rolling Stones wrote, hell on earth does sometimes seem “just a shot away.”

With mad bulls galloping through the nations, and through our own, self-preservation is all the rage. But Guy’s vision—if I drink it in and absorb it—doesn’t have anything to do with our armed forces or police or the Second Amendment. No, at its base, Guy’s vision pits me and my cross against my neighbors. When comes destruction, I dig up my hidden guns, beat my panicked neighbors back, and fend for myself. Then I make a mad dash into the fortress I built, slam the door, and listen to my neighbors bang on it while my family and I hunker down with our spoons, hunched over peeled-open cans of beans with our blood-shot eyes nervously darting from side to side. Me and my cross against my neighbor. Even if it kills them.

It’s tough for me to find Jesus in that worldview.

I find myself hoping and praying that my life can be different. More than ever, I want to be truly for my neighbors and with them. In a day of trouble, or maybe just on any given day, I want to be a door that opens to people instead of closing against them. Like the wild disciple in Gethsemane, chastened by the Lord for brandishing a weapon, I feel chastened too. I want to preach the cross and to somehow live out its calling as that which puts hostility to death. I want my life to be a safe place for any panicked sinners who confront me. Even if they kill me.

This is, of course, easy to say as I sit here ever-so-peacefully tapping on my computer. Still, I am prayerfully aiming my heart that way.

Eventually, Guy moved to another town. I walked over to say goodbye as he drove away. He waved dismissively and hit the gas. I have no idea if, for the placement of his new home, he had researched flood-plain levels. A year later, I moved to a new place, too. I live in a bigger town which, if not an actual target, is surely more susceptible to fallout patterns.

If you drive through my old neighborhood, you will notice that the new owner took down the cross. But you can still see the mound and those little turrets—a stark reminder of our need for shelter and the conflicting views of representing Christ in a world of fear and danger.

Keith Mannes is pastor of East Saugatuck Christian Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan.

To hear the perspective of a Christian prepper, read this article from Andrea Palpant Dilley.

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