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There is no more distinctive feature of rural faith, as compared to faith in urban centers, than the importance of place. I am not referring to the beauty of Appalachian mountain views that draw the immediate attention of people passing through – that is an abstraction. I am talking about the central value of peoples’ commitments to specific places (whether small town main street or mountain hollow). Rural people’s attachment to a particular place is one of the great resources of rural America. The resiliency of staying with a place and its people grows fidelity to people, community and land.
Our highly mobile dominant American economy is based upon people moving for work. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that the average American makes 12 moves over a lifetime (that’s 43 million people each year). Most of this mobility is the product of the competitive game of the dominant American economy – “moving up” and getting ahead of our neighbors. Mobility is down a bit in the last couple of decades. It is hard to tell yet if this trend is due to people being tired of wandering or if people have fewer resources with which to relocate. Yet for most Americans, it is impossible to imagine just what a powerful force a particular place can be for the small minority of Americans whose families have been in the same place for many generations. There is a dynamic alternative narrative to the upward mobility story. Some people stay put, connected to people known well for a long time in the same place. Some choose to leave the rewards of the dominant economy and return for the simple gifts of more marginal settings.
I have witnessed a whole host of these returns in over two decades of ministry. I remember fondly the heartening experience of one family’s return home and their faith journey to create a more meaningful life together. Danielle and her family moved back to her hometown where I pastored a rural church located in the Selkirk Mountains of the Inland Northwest. The Pend Oreille River gave the town its beginning, as Oldport, a stop in the wilderness for traders and explorers generations ago. The state line ran right through the middle of town dividing Washington State on one side and Idaho on the other and it is just a little over two hours north to the Canadian border.
Danielle was a shooting star in a small town as a young girl. She left for college and law school and climbed her way to a prestigious law firm in downtown Seattle. By the time that she and her husband had their second child, she began to ask questions about the ungodly number of hours she was away from her children, husband and home. The short version of the story is that they moved back to Danielle’s home town to create a more meaningful and satisfying life. She used all her skills, imagination and resources to start her own law practice primarily focused on elder law. She continues to perform an incredible service to her community today. She is committed to participating and serving in numerous groups and institutions in town, including her church. She does good work. People are grateful for it. She has time to love her family – her boys, her husband and her parents. Yet she and her husband now count their nickels and dimes to support the life they love.
The trouble is that it is hard to stay put and earn a living. It takes remarkable creativity and resiliency because you have to resist the overbearing economy of dominant culture America. I’ve not been able to do it very well. My family has moved around like most folks. But we returned to the Appalachian Mountains nearly a decade ago now. I love being here, raising my family and doing the work I do. But it is a financial challenge that I guess will be with us until we win the lottery. Fortunately, there is the company of good folks who share these attachments to our special out of the way place in the world.
Another returnee to go home and write about the importance of place is the great Irish poet and Nobel Prize in Literature earner Seamus Heaney. In Northern Ireland he captured in writing the powerful Celtic intuitive attachment to place. He describes this poetry of place in words of prose taken from his book Preoccupations:
“Similarly with our sense, or – better still – our sensing of place. It was once more or less sacred. The landscape was sacramental, instinct with signs, implying a system or reality beyond the visible realities. …….. Much of the flora of the place had a religious force, especially if we think of the root of the word in religare, to bind fast.”
I have witnessed so many people who have bound themselves to a place and its people. They give much of themselves for their families, neighbors and communities. Their giving makes their place sacred in peoples’ experience and memory. Now, I do not think that it is necessary to return to one’s hometown to experience this special sense of place. I don’t even think that you need to live in a rural or small town context to do so. But I am grateful for the folks who reject the selfish demands of our overbearing dominant economy and find meaning and satisfaction through giving and sharing life in generous ways. That is a path worthy of moving us all.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. 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 fifteen minutes.