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When I told my dad, many years ago, that we were moving to Iowa, he chuckled and said, “I spent the first 18 years of my life trying to figure out how to get out of Iowa. I guess it’s only right that you return.”
At a recent storytelling evening, a friend began, “When I left home for college, no one ever told me I wasn’t coming back.” He went on to paint a poignant yet humorous picture of what that meant. From a working class family, he was the only sibling to go away for college. He had no one else’s story to use as a point of reference. Before long, and without ever really giving his consent, he was married and raising a family, far from home.
About then it dawned on him that he had taken a very different path—unknowingly. “With young children, it was hard being so far from home without the assistance of grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and cousins to help see us through.”
When you’re 18 years old you simply do not see the full consequences of your decisions. His siblings who were close to home could easily get together for impromptu family picnics, or ask mom to babysit. At the same time, he confessed, “One of the upsides of being that far away, was being that far away—far away from family drama, politics, obligations, and commitments.” His story concluded by saying that while he would do it all again, somewhere “in the midst of it all, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a big misunderstanding.”
When we chatted afterwards, I thought how different my story was. Somehow I always knew I would go to college and let my career determine where I lived. I wonder about how this was conveyed to me. Never verbally or directly, of course. Was it just because that’s what my parents had done before me?
I was probably about the same age, somewhere in my early thirties, when I started to gain some distance on my story, rather than just live it. Young kids, family literally thousands of miles away, caring parishioners who meant well but all had extended family within five miles, not to mention in the church. I would ask myself, “Who told me that career should determine my life’s trajectory? Why did I drink the kool-aid of autonomy, individualism, being a free-floating, free agent cog in the great modern economy?” I would tease my young kids by telling them they must always live within ten miles of me.
My friend’s story and mine began with very different expectations and presuppositions, yet at about the same time, we both felt there had been a great misunderstanding. No one had ever explained that you can’t go home again.
I don’t know who said “You spend the first half of your life trying to get away from home, and the second half trying to return.” But I can almost place exactly when I hit that tipping point. Rather than returning home, which was chimerical by then, I became more intentional about making a home and being at home where I was.
While the itch of home has largely been scratched for me, it comes up again in little bits and pieces. I recall hearing that one of the strongest indicators of whether someone supported Donald Trump for president was to ask “Do you live within 30 miles of where you were born?” A yes to that question meant a strong likelihood of supporting Trump. If memory serves, among white voters, who in general leaned heavily for Trump, one glaring exception was whites who lived more than two hours from home. Of course, many other factors are at play here—class, education level, and more. Before any thin-skinned Trumpians start getting defensive, be sure to hear my own ambivalence about not living within 30 miles of my hometown. At the same time, I also believe that “geographical mobility” typically puts you in new and complex situations. It produces, even forces, openness, flexibility, and curiosity in ways that staying close to home does not.
In the Reformed Church in America, and presumably elsewhere, we have seen an increase in people training for ministry via online courses. There is also a great upswing in “commissioned pastors”—a sort of “lay pastor,” a person who receives some training and is “commissioned” for a specific, local ministry. I understand the reasons for these increases, even as I still have misgivings about them.
I moved across the continent to attend seminary. It was dislocating in the fullest sense of that word. I was uprooted and then re-formed. It wasn’t entirely pleasant, but by and large I am grateful for it. I wonder how much I might have resisted and clung to my past, had I been living in a familiar setting with family and old friends.
This isn’t a case of me wanting others to go through some painful initiation ritual just because I did. I contend that through all of this, ministers learn something good about being with a people, but not fully of that people. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” I wouldn’t want to make too much of it, but there may also be an accepting of loss and sacrifice—less so for ministers and much more for “foreign missionaries,” in the old vernacular. Jesus’s words, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” have comforted many.
My daughter, son-in-law, and their young daughter headed back to their home last Sunday afternoon—a three hour drive. I felt for them. I recall those trips as full of questions and frustrations, bewilderment and fatigue. A tedious drive, the kids tired and overstimulated, wondering about your life choices, your calling, why you live where you do. What and where is home and will you ever get there again?