Confessions of a Localist in Training


I was recently sent this note by a young lady who listened to the first episode of the Roads From Emmaus podcast:

…I listened to your first “Roads From Emmaus” podcast and instead of joy I got a guilty nausea in my stomach. The ideal “me” in my head agrees with you, we should reach out to our neighbors and community. I’ll admit I don’t really have much experience in that area having been an Army brat with constantly changing environments where that isn’t always possible (perhaps I got too used to it).

I can’t use that excuse now though because my husband and I have a house… and we’re here to stay (as far as we know); and yet, I feel a reluctance to really branch out to even our neighbors. We only have 4 houses near us actually because we’re on the outskirts in like a farming community but even if I see them outside I’m reluctant to approach them and talk. I worry that anytime I reach out to someone that I’ll be overburdened or that they’ll want to keep the relationship going and I won’t out of personality mismatch (as has happened many times to me before).

Even if someone in a store randomly strikes up a conversation with me I worry I won’t be able to get away to finish my shopping. Additionally, I worry that once I start up a relationship, I will be the one required to maintain it and if I fail, I will be seen negatively in their eyes…. I’ve thought about joining a local community group here but again I fear my free time will then be non-existent.

I realize a lot of this comes from the passion of love of self that the Church CONSTANTLY reminds us of, but I was hoping you may have some advice on how to get started (slowly!!).

Like this young lady who wrote to me, I have a background in the military (not me, my dad). Indeed, my father and both of my grandfathers were all military men, and when my father finished his tour in the US Navy in the early 1980s, my family joined up with an Evangelical missionary radio organization. My family has thus been mobile over multiple generations. Localism doesn’t particularly come easily to me, since I not only have moved twenty times (spanning across six US states and one unincorporated territory, over fourteen different towns), but I also grew up in the age of mass computing, where everyone had the opportunity to get on the Internet in early adulthood. This is also the age of the ATM, the automated grocery store checkout machine, etc.

These inventions, coupled with my residential background, have not made me an obvious localist. I did not grow up on or near any farms. I have never lived in one home for more than five years. I still define myself very much by the state where I lived the longest (eleven years in North Carolina), but in the five and a half years since I moved from there, I’ve lived in three more homes. I therefore come to localism much the same way that I did to Orthodox Christianity: as a convert, full of wonder at the beauty of what he’s encountered. As a convert to this manner of thinking and living, just as with Orthodoxy, I believe I’ve become grafted in to a form of cultural recusancy, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot meant in his piece Thoughts After Lambeth:

The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide.

I suppose that all this amateurish rumination requires me to set out some sort of definition of what localism might mean, at least in how I use the term. I believe it to be essentially a matter of attention. I should pay attention to the people around me, to the institutions next to me, to the communing community in which I live, more than I do to concerns beyond my locus. I am thus not in favor of globalism or nationalism. I find more value in patriotism for one’s town or even state than I do to our national government, because it is much better to love what’s in front of you than it is to throw love “out there” to some ideal entity.

Localism is, in the words of one of my favorite weblogs, about place, limits, and liberty (this piece in particular is worth your perusal). Implied in that combination of things is local, self-governance.

My reading of history is such that most people were basically localists until recent times, though there was no need for a name for it. There was no television or cheap oil or cheap broadband access to draw our attention everywhere but here. Necessity and economics required that we know our neighbors, if only so we could trade or buy our necessities, so that we could find husbands and wives for our children, so that we would not be left bereft of comfort and help when tragedy struck. But now, all those connections have been stripped away, and our collective alienation is so acute that we grope around politically to try to find national, systemic solutions to all our challenges. It really used to be that your local family doctor would probably treat you anyway when you couldn’t pay him, but once our government told him that we’d pay him so he wouldn’t have to be charitable any more, something precious was lost.

In any event, I was asked for advice by this young lady, and I promised her in a private note that I’d give some, and she kindly gave me permission to make it in the form of a weblog post. I have to say that I am not really the best example of a non-hypocritical localist, nor do I have much experience at this project. I am trying, bit by bit, with God’s grace, to form a better consciousness within myself and for my wife and for my children. And, indeed, I do believe it is a question of grace. The Incarnation bears many implications within it, and Place is one of them. Christ was not incarnate in a universal body killed upon a universal cross in a universal city. No, He had one body, taken from one woman, crucified on one cross in the one city of Jerusalem.

Christianity was always meant to be local, evidenced by the many small churches built in many places throughout its history, rather than this ridiculous, monocultural, globalist idea which insists that churches should resemble rock-n-roll arenas that seat thousands. Every street corner was meant to be sanctified. We were not meant to drive out of the suburbs and fill up some massive stadium in order to have a mass trance in group hysteria over a rock-n-roll band that puts Jesus’ name into otherwise secular songs which (badly) imitate the pop music of the monoculture. Yes, Christianity is a universal faith, but it is not a mass faith of faceless consumers who buy into a bland religious product.

Of course, even if you’re not a believer, the truth is that the time will likely come when our currency’s bottom will drop out and/or we lose our ability to travel easily and cheaply (due to a spike in transportation costs, most especially of oil). When either of those things happen, it will be the relationships you’ve built in your community which could not only save your life but allow you to grow and thrive while the rest of the country flails about. (It will also be the death of the mega-churches.)

So, here are some of my bits of advice, in no particular order:

  1. Buy local, especially local food. It tastes better, for one thing, and it’s had less time for its nutrients to drop out. But you also have the chance to meet the people who make it. Meet them, talk with them about their vegetables, their goats, or what have you. Most farmers are actually pretty cool people. But it’s not just the farmers. Someone who is selling you the work of his own hands has a different relationship with you than someone merely passing on a “product” that got shipped in from somewhere else.

  2. Attend the church closest to you. Obviously, don’t attend one that’s heretical, but attend whatever’s nearest and is preaching the true faith. If you have some sort of major, major problem at that church, then check out the next nearest one to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your preferred cultural flavor. Those are still God’s people, and that’s still the Eucharist there.
  3. Don’t worry about having to “maintain” friendships with people. Just go about your business and show genuine interest in the people you encounter. Favor old people over young people. Do all that, and you’ll probably find that “maintaining” friendships will be a joy. Our relationships were meant to be mediated by the everyday commerce of life, not by deliberately planned phone calls, text messages, emails and dinner dates.
  4. Walk around your neighborhood. Walk around your town. It’s a different place when you walk it, and it’s a lot more interesting when you’re not zooming by at 40 mph. (Plus, your kids will be less antsy.) It’s also a lot healthier, and you save money on gas. (This will also stand you in good stead if we ever do hit peak oil.)
  5. Take pictures of your town. They will help you to look for what’s beautiful in it.
  6. Try to do all your shopping, banking, and other business within two miles of your home. The closer, the better.
  7. Move out of the suburbs and into an area where there is a real community center. Or better yet, do what you can to get your suburb to turn into a semi-urban area (also called “new urbanism”), where almost everything can be walked to.
  8. If you are ever involved in building something, try to make your new building be reminiscent of the oldest architecture in your area. It doesn’t have to be identical, but it should not draw attention as radically different from the surrounding landscape. Good, humane architecture is about tradition, not really about innovation.
  9. If you are building or altering a house, put a front porch on it. Go outside when it’s hot inside rather than cranking up the air conditioning. Likewise, make your bedrooms small and your common rooms big.
  10. Learn how to garden.
  11. Think up a name for your house. (Not “Ralph,” either, but something appropriate for a place.)
  12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good. It’s not. You were made to commune. That doesn’t mean that everything you do has to be in public, but the public good needs to become more important to you than your private good.
  13. Learn the history of your town. It’s probably really interesting.

My experience is that, if you do these things, you will have a more peaceful, joyous life, and you’ll also be a living testament that it is possible to be truly human, which also communicates the Gospel to people, too.

Have any ideas of your own?

Comments

  1. Peter T. says

    I like #2, and actually recommended it to our parish council as part of a recent project to think more “green.” But it feels so meddlesome! I also know at least two things: 1) When I was exploring Orthodoxy, I chose a parish that was not the closest because they had more services I could attend and the priest was more responsive to my many questions. (I’ve since relocated and purely by chance ended up in a place where that parish now *is* the closest.) 2) At this point, being Orthodox in America often means driving past potentially hundreds of churches to get to the right kind (or making the often difficult choice to relocate closer to an Orthodox parish). So there’s a lot of room for justifiable hypocrisy in this one.

    I also like #9, but having the choice is a luxury. We ended up (again, purely by chance) in a monstrosity. It’s a new development that appears on the surface to be “new urbanist”–mixed use (sort of), compact, with garages tucked away on an alley. But there is no functional common space to get people interacting outside. The parking was poorly designed, so that the street in front of our house looks like a parking lot. The development stalled at the peak of the market, so that only two businesses have opened up so far, neither of which encourages foot traffic. But my main point was the interior design. Because of the garages, the downstairs living space is severely truncated, which leaves you with huge bedrooms and bathrooms and a tiny “great room” for kitchen, dining, and living. I suppose it’s a sensible design for the typical scenario around here–both adults employed full-time, with long commutes and little practical need for living space. Come home, grab a quick bite, and spend the rest of the evening in the master bedroom suite watching TV.

    But, you make do. I’ve tried to take as much inspiration as possible from the old Baltimore rowhouse culture–sit out on the stoop in good weather, and at least say “hi” to the dog-walkers; get the kids out there playing on the sidewalk. It was good to see with the warmer weather last week how many neighborhood kids were out interacting. That seems to keep improving, and they’re still the main fabric that makes this a community–gathering at the bus stop in the mornings, giving parents some opportunity to meet each other. My wife has been offering an adult presence to the latch-key kids around us, which combined with our son’s boundless energy is hopefully helping to encourage outdoor play. (Which again brings parents into contact, and the cycle continues . . . )

    • Fr. Andrew says

      Certainly, a lot of my advice assumes that you have some choice in the matter (whatever it might be). Much of the time, we make do with what we can. But sometimes, we actually do have a choice, but it would require sacrifice to make what I think is the better choice. So, that takes an act of the will and (often) spousal agreement.

      Regarding which church one attends, I certainly don’t suggest people sever longstanding, healthy relationships with their current churches. I suppose that piece of advice is aimed more at people who are just beginning to go to an Orthodox church in their area. Also, in places where there are many Orthodox churches (such as where I live), people often drive past several of them not only get to their preferred cultural flavor, but often because there really has been a major problem with where they were before. We sadly have a lot of dysfunctional, barely functional and non-functional Orthodox churches in America. I don’t blame people who drive past them to get to a functional one. God willing, the functional ones will eventually get so full that they’ll missionize the others (or start new ones) to bring more functionality to the region.

  2. Darlene says

    Father,

    In reading your article, my reaction is that I wonder how much of this is even possible in our current culture. I have seen life change drastically since the time when there were only 3 channels on t.v. and the family actually ate dinner together. Call me cynical, pessamistic, etc., but I don’t see our society changing for the better. In the last days mens’ love will grow cold for one another – I seem to remember reading that somewhere.

    Does this mean