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You’re Not a Very Good Joiner

By July 18, 2017 5 Comments

by Luke Hawley

When I got my current gig teaching in a small town in Iowa, I thought of it primarily—maybe singularly—as a stepping stone. It was a three-semester temporary contract and I figured we could gut it out in rural America for 18-months. We didn’t even try to sell our house in St. Paul because I figured we’d move back. I had no intention of staying.

That was four-and-a-half years ago. A year into that first contract, my wife, Sarah, and I were having a conversation about whether or not I would even accept another contract if they offered me one. We were living across the highway, which in Sioux Center, Iowa can feel like a county or two over. We’d been church hopping and hadn’t yet found a place that felt right. Our only close friends were moving to Michigan. It would be easy to leave, I thought. And I must have shrugged my shoulders and said something like, “I don’t know. I just don’t feel connected.” Sarah, in her quiet and watchful wisdom, said, “You’re not a very good joiner.” I immediately, as is my habit, dismissed that idea as hogwash.*

It took me a while, but I conceded that she was right. I was a lousy joiner. It was rooted in control, in the idea that I knew the best way to do things, and if you join something, you will inevitably have to compromise. Or worse: admit that you’re wrong. Or worst: people might get to know the true you.

That spring, I heard Miroslav Volf speak at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. He said—and I’m paraphrasing now—you can stand outside the gates of the citadel and shout all you want, but you’ll never change anything unless you go inside. And then a colleague gave me a poem by Todd Boss called “It Is Enough To Enter” that ends with:

It is enough
to have come just so far.

You need
not be opened any more

than does
a door, standing ajar.

And I thought, “I can do that. I can stand ajar.”

July 8th was my 35th birthday. The night before, I walked the block between my house (which is across the street from the church we joined) and The Fruited Plain, a café and coffee shop in the middle of Sioux Center where I am, without a doubt, a regular. The band I sing for (another of Sarah’s suggestions: “Why don’t you just ask your friends if they want to play your songs?”—as if it’s that easy…) was playing on the patio. We had booked a duo from Colorado to come play, too. And I was so happy. It felt like the whole town came out, from my 7-month-old son to our drummer’s 82-year-old fill-in grandma. We hung out in the parking lot, watched the sun go down over the highway, the heat of July finally breaking in the dusk and dust. The couple from Colorado couldn’t believe it; there had been four people at their show in Iowa City the night before. They joked about moving to town. Not a bad idea, I thought.

There is a terror in being known. There is weight in knowing other people. But it is, I think, the way to a good life, to know and be known, as best as we possibly can.

*I should know the etymology of the term “hogwash” by now. I’ll have to ask a neighbor.

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Luke Hawley

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. His collection of short stories, The Northwoods Hymnal, won a Nebraska Book Award. He sings and writes songs for The Ruralists. Check him out at or


  • Michael Kugler says:

    From another non-joiner, reading Wendell Berry novels helped me imagine how to make a home here, so unlike the Portland OR in which I grew up. Thank you, Luke.

  • Judy Hauswald says:

    I am so glad you and your family decided to stay. You make our community a better place with your writing, your music and your presence.

  • David Lynn says:

    That Sarah, she’s pretty smart. Reminds me of one of those needlepoints, “Bloom where you are planted”.

  • Al Bandstra says:

    I remember standing by the window of our North Hall (Dordt College) dorm room and telling my buddy: “I could never live in a town like Sioux Center, Iowa.” Ha! That was 1985! Thanks for giving me an excuse to stay around just a little longer. Great concert, too, by the way.

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