Love the Place You Love

My childhood tastes like Ma’s chicken slick and fried pork chops and fresh blueberries from the bushes out back. It smells like dry leaves and wet mud and freshly cut grass. My childhood sounds like a metal bat hitting a baseball and cicadas whirr-whirr-whirring and my aunts and uncles harmonizing around an out of tune piano. It looks like dirty cowboy boots and a tent in the backyard and scraped knees and elbows. My childhood feels like boredom and hot days and freedom.

 

I miss those days, those smells and sounds and tastes. I miss the people who shaped me, guided me, corrected me and often times told my parents so I’d get corrected again when I got home. I miss the place I love.

Like many of you, work has taken me away from where I grew up. I am very blessed, though, because the places my work has taken me have been very similar to the communities and geography I grew up in. As a Methodist pastor in eastern North Carolina I have served at small Methodist churches in rural communities in eastern North Carolina, which suits me just fine, because I grew up in a small Methodist church in a rural community in eastern North Carolina. The churches I have served and the communities I have lived in have felt like home, and that makes me happy. It means my kids can have childhoods similar to my own.

 

I’ve noticed something in my ministry. Quite often young adults who are starting families will return to church after years away. When asked why they decided to come back, these families have told me over and over again, “We want our kids to grow up like we did.” This is more than just a nostalgic longing for a more innocent time in our past; it is a deep longing for a place to belong, a place to love and be loved. This is a recognition that there is something good here, that there is something good about being here, something good about being from here.

Which is why another trend I’ve noticed in my churches and communities really bothers me. In our society today, we have accepted one definition of success, and to achieve that success you have to leave.

 

I don’t know where or how or why this notion started, but it is everywhere. Success in life, we are told, is making a lot of money without having to exert a lot of physical energy. And in order to have that kind of success, you have to leave the place you’re from.

 

A big part of this is tied to education. Most small, rural communities do not have educational opportunities beyond High School, so if you want an education you have to go somewhere else to get it. Connected to that is the emphasis that a four-year degree is essential to living a good, happy life, to having a high paying job. Kids are pressured through their entire educational career to get that degree so you don’t end up stuck here in some dead-end job. All of this is done with the best of intentions, but one of the unforeseen consequences of this is to devalue the communities many of us grow up in.

 

I have witnessed that devalued love of place myself. As I’ve shared before, on multiple occasions congregants have complimented me by saying something akin to, “Pastor, you’re too good a preacher to be here long.” While it is said with the best of intentions, it tells me that the people giving the compliment have bought in to the lie that they aren’t good enough, that their church and their community is not good enough and does not deserve someone they perceive as good, or talented, or smart, or gifted, or whatever.

 

These communities that I serve in, they are used to what we call brain drain; the best and brightest who grow up here are told their whole childhoods to go away in order to succeed, and so when they grow up, they do. Those who do not leave are automatically considered failures, which pushes more and more people to leave. Soon, you end up with failing communities because not enough people are left. It is hard for these communities to bounce back, because by this point nobody believes the community is worth saving.

We need to fix this problem, because it is not good for our communities, and it is not good for the people who left their communities but still love the place they love. We can do this by changing our understanding of success.

 

I know so many men and women who are living healthy, happy, good lives in all humility. Plumbers and electricians, farmers and agronomists, teachers and maintenance workers, salesmen and business executives, dog groomers and military women and men, living healthy, happy, good lives that don’t have anything to do with owning multiple cars or living in giant houses. Some have advanced degrees, some have trade school training, some just fell backwards into their career. Some moved into the community where they live now, some never left.

 

What they have in common is love for the place they love. Women and men who don’t want to live in the city, who don’t want to live in the suburbs. Women and men who love being a part of a small, rural community because they see the inherent goodness of being here, and they want others to enjoy the goodness, too. These are women and men who always put taking care of their neighbors at the top of their priority list, women and men who have realized that we all do better when we all do better.

So what if we change our idea of success? Instead of lifting up financial gain as the chief indicator of a successful life, what if we promoted happiness mixed with humility and health? What if we celebrate where we are, celebrate where we’re from, celebrate the goodness of being here and tell and retell the stories of what makes here good?

 

Every community out there has problems. Every small, rural community I have ever been a part of has needed repair and restoration. But I learned early on in my life that you cannot fix a problem by running away from it. Let’s stop damning the places we love by claiming they aren’t worth our best. Love the place you love. Love it so much that you make others love it, too. Then watch as our communities succeed.

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