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Church leaders are busy preparing for Homecoming, which is nearly upon us. Homecoming is the largest Sunday of the year, when scores of visitors and returning family will gather at the New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Pulaski County, Virginia. We will worship together and then, weather permitting, enjoy an elaborate potluck meal on the church grounds under the shade of the oak trees, right next to the cemetery. Next year this church will celebrate its 250th anniversary; founded in 1769, it is the oldest Protestant church west of the Allegheny Mountains.
There are such a wide variety of meanings and connotations that people have for the word “home.” For many that will gather for this church reunion, home is a tangible, down-to-earth place, such as a farmhouse where multiple generations have lived. Yet home is also a near mystical experience connecting people and a particular place to a communion of saints long since passed.
Many years ago, I was assigned as a mentor to a young, first-year pastor in a neighboring town. He resisted the whole concept of a homecoming service in his new rural congregation because he thought it was pure sentimentality. He had grown up in a new suburb, where for his family, home was simply a place a person hung their hat. To his credit he stayed around his first church long enough to learn what the people he was serving thought about home and what it meant to them. He began to see that a homecoming service was not a selfish, nostalgic display of emotions. A good homecoming service is more like a renewal of marital vows, not between spouses, but between a people and a place. In this sense home is the web of commitments in a person’s life.
In France during the late 1930’s a young woman began to articulate an insightful description for why Europe had descended into such chaos and violence. Simone Weil was a political activist and mystic who thought that her own French people as well as the enemy German people were both suffering from a similar problem. A growing industrial economy had resulted in undermining people’s commitments to building the necessary ties for the well-being of communities. In 1943 Simone Weil wrote her best-known book, The Need for Roots, and the English poet, T.S. Eliot, wrote the forward. In this book she wrote these words which still have important resonance for today.
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his (sic) real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.”
What Weil was getting at in a philosophical way is something that I see embodied in people’s lives in very practical ways all the time. The people who feel at home in a place are the people who have taken on a range of responsibilities in those places. If you want to belong to a place, feel at home in it, and grow roots there, the only way to accomplish this is by giving much of yourself, time, abilities, and resources to building up that community.
I see people finding new ways to build communities of belonging all the time. Let me tell you about a friend who moved home to Randolph County, West Virginia, this past January. Rich Cardot is a Presbyterian minister with whom I was in seminary, too long ago now. He is the only ministerial colleague I know who has moved home. I mean really home, to living on the family property that George Washington land granted to his ancestors in 1789. Rich is sleeping in the same bedroom and bed in which his grandfather slept when Rich was a kid. He and his wife, Amy, raised their children in other places in Virginia and West Virginia. Now that their youngest is out of the nest, Rich is experiencing his own homecoming.
Rich describes the rewards of moving home in ways that I have often heard others describe. Closer connections to family and place are deeply fulfilling. Rich added that being with friends he has known all his life since childhood has been its own reward. Pastors who live in rural communities know what a true and rare blessing it is to have friends with whom you do not have to be “on” as pastor.
Yet rewards of homecoming come with responsibilities as well. In fact, home and responsibilities are related. Rich is serving four congregations, tending the flocks of these churches, and also reaching out to the needs of the rural communities in which these churches reside. You might catch him at one of his churches, or at the schools, or working with the Lion’s Club or somewhere else in the community. When I called him on his cell phone, he was at the hospital, but this time not for a parishioner. His mother is being treated for cancer. Three months after moving home, his mother was diagnosed. While this was sadly unexpected, Rich is grateful to be near and able to support his mother and father at a difficult time. The web of commitments and relationships for Rich in Randolph County, West Virginia, deepens his own experience of home and also nurtures belonging in his family, parishioners and neighbors.
This Homecoming, I am left pondering those words from Simone Weil, written during one of the most catastrophic times in her nation’s history:
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who pastors small town and country churches. He currently serves New Dublin Presbyterian Church in Southwest Virginia. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.