You see, when you live outside, a little thing like a rain shower, mere annoyance for most of us in the Northwest, can be a much more serious threat. Particularly if it is cold out, as it was with that day with my friend. So knowing when it might rain is vital not only to your comfort, but also to your survival. My friend was not an expert on the weather. But he was an expert on surviving. And since his survival depended a deep connection with his place, including knowledge about the rhythms of the weather, he was ready to go the minute he sense that rain was coming.
Those who live outside inhabit the extremes of place. On one hand, they are more connected to the land that they live on than almost anyone else in the city. They have to be in order to survive. Downtown is not a place to come work and play before you head back to your safe suburban house. It is home. They know the ins and outs of this city: where to get dry, where to make your money go the furthest, and where you are less likely to get harassed by the police. Their survival depends on being connected to the place that they inhabit. But on the other hand, that are some of the most dis-connected to their place. They have no land to call their own. They are often driven out of the public space that they are on, by the powers that be that don’t like such visible poverty in their midst, or by those that associate houselessness with crime. They are seen as an issue, not as people, and as such often have little control over areas of their lives that we take for granted. My friends who live outside have a deep wisdom about their place, but a wisdom that is often overshadowed by the fact that they sleep outside.
I have been thinking quite a bit about this story this last season of life, ever since my wife Rebecca and I have accepted a call to explore a new church community in Everett, WA. Both of us from day one have been asking the question, “What would a church look like that is intimately connected to the land, the rhythms, and the culture of Everett?” We want to be a church community that deeply knows the place in which it dwells, and lets this knowledge shape who we are. I have also been thinking about this story this week, as we get ready to spend a few days with other practitioners at the Inhabit Conference. Every year this group gathers to ask how our churches, ministries, and organizations can practice the mission of Jesus in the place that they dwell. It will be attended by people from all over the country (and even the world), many of whom are doing some amazing and beautiful things in their communities.
Yet in these stories, I can’t help but see the privilege that we enjoy. For Rebecca and I, place is not a matter of survival, but rather something we have the privilege to explore. We were able to move here from out of state (though it is coming home for Rebecca), with the support of an amazing denominational community, knowing that each of us have at least part-time jobs for this next season. Regarding the Inhabit Conference, in order to participate, one needs to travel to Seattle, take time off of work, find a place to stay, eat meals, etc. All of these make it more accessible to those with privileges of time and finances. Conferences, by their very nature, are less accessible to those whom connection to place is more about surviving than about exploring the idea of place.
I very much believe in the church. And I believe that being connected to one’s place is one of the best ways that the church communities can live out God’s mission of love and justice in the world. But If we as the Church are going to take seriously the importance of place, then we also must take seriously the fact that there are people that have been living out this idea in our communities long before there were conferences and books and blogs about place. We need to take seriously that there are people like my friends who live outside, who carry a deep wisdom about place, but often have little access to the conversation. We need to recognize that the more steam and exposure an idea like place gets, the more it gets commodified, which will inevitably push it into the hands of the privileged.
And one way we can stand against this is to make sure we not only listen to those on the margins, but sit under them with a willingness to learn, in our desire to inhabit well the place in which we live. And in doing so, we not only learn better how to be a church that is rooted in our place, but we also learn how to live into God’s Kingdom, a place where those whom are often pushed to the margins have a place at the center, and those at the center get to step back and learn from those at the margins.
And together, we can live out God's mission of love and justice in our communities.