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?


  1. 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 . . . )

    1. 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. 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 I shouldn’t get involved in reaching others for Christ? No. Just the opposite. And I do think it’s very important for one’s spiritual maturity and growth to get involved with folks on the parish level.

    But, living in a region such as the Pocono Mtns. presents its challenges which make it difficult to follow your prescription.
    #2: The closest Orthodox Church is 16 miles away, & I do attend it.
    #3: “Favor old people over young people.” Why? I dare to disagree. I think, as Christians, that we should connect with people of all ages.
    #6: There is no where to go shopping/banking or much of anything else within 2 miles. I live in the Poconos. It’s a much different animal here. Everything is a drive.
    #10: Gardening is nearly impossible here. We tried it and between the rabbits, skunks, ground hogs, deer, etc., everything we planted was eaten.

    Father, I think you are an idealist, at least in this post. Nothing wrong with that. But, reality, imo, is that such a life as you suggest belongs to an era gone by.

    1. Well, without addressing your particular situation too critically, there are ways to overcome some of what you mention. For one thing, I know people who have relocated in order to try to live more humane lives.

      I don’t think, though, that a more human way of life necessarily needs to belong to a bygone era. Surely, for instance, people in the Poconos ate vegetables before there were grocery stores to provide them from South America.

      You asked, though, why we should favor old people over young people when connecting with the surrounding community. It’s not that we shouldn’t love and connect with the young. The problem is actually that we tend to favor them simply because they’re young. Yet the old usually have a lot more to offer, particularly in terms of helping us to connect with the place we live. My purpose in saying what I did in the context I did is twofold: to counteract our youth-worship culture and to get us closer to the sources of local wisdom.

      I know that much of what I’ve written here is “idealistic,” but that doesn’t mean it’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic for people to be self-sacrificing, too. But I know people who do all these things all the time. And in doing them, they are transforming not only themselves and their families, but also their hometowns. It’s worth some acts of the will.

  3. Father,

    Thank you for your response. Did I seem flippant in my response toward you? If so, please forgive me.

    Actually, my husband would agree with much of what you have said. While growing up in Germantown, Philadelphia, his grandmother encouraged him to make close ties in the community. Thus it was that he joined the neighborhood Boys Club. He went to the same local barber and even now, many years later, he goes to the same barber in Bartonsville for the last several years. He knows most of the tellers by their first names. He knows the man who works in the produce department for the last 10 yrs. He knows some of the folks who work in the meat department by first name. He even knows some of the cashiers on a first name basis. With each of these people he has built bridges, and in many cases has shared his Christian faith. In our neighborhood he has reached out to several families, and has shared Christ with them.

    To be honest, your article touched a soft spot in me. I once lived in a close-knit community. I remember walking to the family owned local store, where both the owner and members of his family worked behind the counter. I remember borrowing sugar or some other staple from neighbors who were all too willing to help out, and whom we would oblige in like manner. The neighborhood children performed plays and musicals on their patios with a minimal charge. The whole yard would be packed out with people. I remember playing kick-the-can, tug-of-war, cereal tag, and hide-n-seek with the neighborhood gang. Those were the days before video games. Parents could depend upon other parents to keep an eye on their children. I knew that if I misbehaved in front of a neighbor, my parents would hear about it the same day. All of these connections fostered a sense of belonging to one’s community.

    Unlike you, however, I believe those days of close connectioins have faded into the not-so-distant past, never to rise from the ash heaps again. So, I can savor the memories of days gone by, and weep for this generation and many to come who have, and may never, experience human relationships in the same way.

    Yet, I must admit your article does attempt to ignite a glimmer of hope that perhaps there can be a revival of sorts, where folks who long for personal ties within community will rise up and join forces. Most assuredly I think that a community-minded parish is necessary in order for growth to occur and for people to sense the presense of Christ in their midst. I am one who believes that each of us in the body of Christ must be “Jesus with skin on” to others. A social club the Church is not.

    Thank you Father for this article. It has propelled me to think about localism and what part I can play in it and in the process give glory to God.

    May Christ our God bless you this day and always.

  4. Taking your thoughts to the next level, I just read a very interesting article in the magazine Main Line Today on home burials.


  5. Father,

    I just now really read this article, and you know what, I didn’t know it, but I really am this way in general. I make friends with older people… they make genuine friends and caring neighbors… plus I learn from them.

    In the summer we do buy local. We have an old farmers market downtown that we love to walk to and buy meat, fruit and fudge from haha! The fudge is outta this world!

    We do alot of walking. We live in a historic spot, but we will soon move to the north end, where it is far less beautiful, but will soon be improved upon with new lamp posts (that look old) and trees.

    I intend to garden haha! Already been researching that.

    The new (yet old) house has a great front porch. We will be in a mixed community… a colorful place, where we hope to be loving to everyone.

    I’m working on the Parish thing 🙂 I have made the first steps toward that now.

    I take pictures of our city… I love the architecture and History!!!

    My dad says I live in a bubble… but apparently, I just have localist tendencies. I actually love where I live, and sometimes come across as a salesmen urging others to move here haha!

    Now, I said all of that with the risk of sounding like a kiss up, but I promise you it is the truth 🙂

    Blessings in the name of Jesus Christ,

  6. I’m not opposed to any of this (who could be? It’s so nice), but it isn’t salvific or even morally obligatory. How do you propose to take it to the next level?

    1. I very much beg to differ, actually. (I’m not sure “morally obligatory” is even really appropriate to Orthodox theology, which doesn’t include language of “obligation.”)

      Developing a genuine love for one’s place transforms one’s own soul: there are many passages in the Fathers which speak of love for God’s creation, and surely they do not mean “in general,” but in the particular place where one is. Indeed, we even pray quite specifically for our place and others (“this city and every city and countryside,” etc.). Likewise, doing what is needed to form genuine relationships with one’s neighbors is salvific for them, as well. How else are we to save them if we remain isolated from them? The purpose of all this is love.

      The theological significance of Christian localism is to be found in the Incarnation. It is because we live in such an anti-Incarnational, isolating culture that it’s even needed.

  7. I don’t know if you re-blogged this, but it showed up in my RSS feeder just today, 5/21/12! My added ideas:
    1. Bicycling is almost as good as walking for seeing things you dont’ notice from a car. (I’m 63 and took it up about 5 years ago. You can do it!)
    2. The national media (which exist to sell their advertisers’ stuff by feeding the cheapest junk that will get our attention) have learned that pooled coverage of Washington DC and its political rock stars is good, cheap bait. Consequently, local news coverage tends to be neglected and relatively pathetic. Get over it. Stop craving infotainment. If local news is lousy, maybe you don’t really need news to be relevant.
    Those are the two that come immediately to mind, and #2 may really be just a different facet of a localist manifesto.

  8. Father, I would add a couple of things to your list. Localism can be not just a personal choice, but a parochial choice. So:

    14. Encourage genuine community between the members of your parish. Invite parishioners to your home. Build close friendships within the parish. If your parish doesn’t have big social events at feast days, see if you can start that tradition. If there’s no mechanism for people to help each other out—providing meals and childcare for the sick and new mothers, having workdays at each other’s homes, etc—see if you can get that going. (I’m talking to laypeople, not just to priests!)

    15. Encourage your parish to involve itself in the larger community as a parish. Have events that are not fundraisers where the community is invited. Provide services to the local needy. Get your youth group involved in serving the homeless and the elderly. Get the parish to join the local business association. If the parish has the resources, start a parish school and open it up to the community.

    When your sense of community is rooted in your parish, and your parish is rooted in your local community, you have genuine roots that will nourish good spiritual fruit.

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