catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 16 :: 2011.09.16 — 2011.09.29


Hope at the margins

I’ve been on the local economy bandwagon for a long time, even before I knew enough to consider how social and economic systems function.  In grade school, I simply enjoyed spending time on my friend’s family farm and riding my bike to our post-WWII downtown area to buy an ice cream cone or browse my great uncle’s department store.  In high school, the locally-owned Lisabet Café just felt like a better place to be and belong than Baker’s Square, where wait staff eyes narrowed as soon as you uttered the words, “No, thank you.  I’ll just have coffee.”  A local ethic has carried me through urban, suburban and rural places, but in the process, I’ve learned that not all places are created equal.

Though Grand Rapids is only a mid-sized city, my husband and I enjoyed a fairly urban lifestyle during the five years we lived there, with easily accessible bus lines, restaurants, a farmer’s market, coffee shops, a grocery store and more within a few blocks of our home.  Local living was not a value of all of our neighbors, but the landscape of our neighborhood made it a fairly attainable and enjoyable goal.

Fast forwarding to our current place, a small rural city of about 8,000 residents in one of the poorest counties in Michigan, the same choice has vastly different consequences.  Ours is not the hip world of foodie restaurants on every corner, but the world in which the farmer’s market struggles to compete with more lucrative, distant venues.  Even though I live in an agricultural community now, accessing good food can require more effort and travel than it did when I lived in the city.  Committing to a small rural place with a local ethic also means more austere limitations on entertainment and arts experiences.  I can’t take a ten-minute bus ride to visit a world-class museum and Three Rivers just isn’t on the radar of many of the musicians I’d like to see perform.

And yet: I’ve finally been able to join a group that reads Shakespeare plays four times per year and I participate in a choral group that’s quite good, providing a creative outlet for its members as well as cultural opportunities for local residents.  Many independent films I didn’t even know I wanted to see come through the theatre across the street and I’m just beginning to explore the power of the inter-library loan system.  I’m a one-minute walk from three rivers and a fifteen-minute drive from a Benedictine monastery. I’ve discovered that the richer way is to see what my place has to offer, rather than coming to it with a list of expectations and demands — not unlike getting to know a person.  Rather than complaining about our poverty or unattractiveness, I choose to see how the limited offerings of our small town leave room for creative participation.  My husband and I try to give back by running a fair trade store while others host storytelling nights, organize equinox celebrations, put on plays, start restaurants and tend community gardens.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, I have to admit that there are overwhelming challenges to calling this place home.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a sadly significant column in our local paper. The author, a long time resident of our rural community, had recently decided with his family to move to a larger city nearby to address rising fuel costs as he and his wife travel to work.  His sincere lament was punctuated with a caution: if small cities like Three Rivers, Michigan don’t do some critical thinking and advocacy related to fuel efficiency and affordable public transportation, they might simply fade out of existence.

And he’s right.  Not only do places like ours too often fail to be culturally attractive, they also tend to fail at being practical.  What do you do if you can’t find a satisfying job within a reasonable distance of home?  Do you spend more time and money commuting or settle for a job that doesn’t suit you?  Additionally, such rural bastions of racial segregation can feel more like a prison than a home for many who feel they have no choice.  I had the opportunity to live in four different cities before settling here and feel a particular sense of calling in choosing to live here, but I can’t ignore the privileges of class and race that have made that path possible.

I won’t argue that living in a rural community is the right choice for everyone, but I would contend that it should be on the radar for more young adults.  Certain areas thrive on the myth that only hip, urban places are desirable to people coming out of college and starting families, but deciding where to live ought to be more than just a consumer choice about what will fulfill our immediate desires.  Many rural communities offer a relatively low cost of living, with most daily needs within walking or biking distance, which can be empowering for more risky vocational choices.  Beyond the basics, every place offers a wealth of hidden treasure for those who have eyes to see.  But more than what these places have to offer us, we ought to be asking ourselves what we have to offer our places.  Could it be that just as we have a moral obligation to love marginalized people, we also have a moral obligation to love marginalized places?

Given where I live, I’m especially inspired by creative development efforts happening in marginalized rural places all over the country — in particular, initiatives like Studio H and the Miner County Cash Flow project that are engaging high school students and transforming their expectations of their communities, including what role they have the capacity to play. But a marginalized place might also be urban or suburban, with any variety of economic, cultural and spiritual poverty.  For those of us who seek to follow Christ, we inevitably follow him not just to the people, but to the places at the margins of society where agents of healing are desperately needed.  In this sense, “going local” is not just about pursuing the pleasures locally grown food, but also accepting a share of locally grown burdens, listening long enough to be able to offer a word, and then a practice, of hope.

From my apartment window in this rural historic district, I can see treetops a mile away, but I also try to see a future 10, 25, 50 years down the road.  Eight years into a more substantial relationship with my community, I still need to spend more time listening than speaking. How can the latent hopes of the hopeless, whom the Divine holds especially close, become my dreams, too?  What kind of culture can I make to embody not just my own image of a good community, but a Kingdom vision of shalom?  Something tells me the answers to such questions might be more clear on foot, in prayer and with a sense of long term fidelity to this place in sickness or in health, ‘til death do us part.

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