For most of us, the realities of modern life make it is easier than ever to downplay the significance of place. This is saying something. One doesn't have to look very hard at American history to notice that the American way has been a restless one from the time the first European colonists arrived on the continent. For centuries, the vastness of an expanding nation beckoned folks to cross seas, rivers, plains, and mountain ranges in pursuit of a better life.
Today, we may not hear the "Westward, ho!" cry of those who have gone before, but the restless angst of "anywhere but here" is still prominent in our culture and, more often than not, our own hearts. For many of us, connection to place is a limitation we like to imagine we can individually pick and choose or even live without. The ties that bind are weak, and stability too often seen as weakness.
Our Inescapable Connection to Place
But in spite of this cultural narrative, each of us is in actuality tied to place. Like the reality of the Imago Dei, our connection to place is a part of our shared humanity. We can deny it, dismiss it, or deface it, but, no matter how hard we might try, none of us can fully avoid it. Jet setters eventually have to land, and digital escapees are viewing screens in a particular café, basement, or living room. Even individuals who experience homelessness are homeless somewhere. The fact remains, to be an embodied human is to be human in one particular place at any given time.
For the Christian, this inescapable connection means that one's discipleship to Jesus must be an emplaced discipleship. Discipleship happens in a context not a vacuum. We always follow Jesus not just to somewhere but from somewhere. This reality alone should be enough to prompt pastors—and really all followers of Christ—to be among the most astute students of the places in which they find themselves. Cultivating an appreciation for the stories, challenges, and opportunities of the place or places one regularly encounters is an aspect of discipleship that is never finished, because places and their formative power over those who inhabit them are not static.
But what does it look like to wrestle with the power specific places exert on us? How do we take place into account as we make decisions about how to steward the handful of decades most of us are given? What does it look like to be faithful to Jesus and others, not in the abstract, but in the midst of the unavoidable and lifegiving limitations that come with living a located life?
Four Videos that Tell the Story of People and the Places that Shape their Lives
In the rest of this blog, I want to hold up four videos that showcase how a handful of folks are attempting to live and cultivate community in ways that are rooted in faithfulness to a place and its people.
Some of these videos highlight hope in the face of despair. Others seem to be situated right in the midst of the pain and sense of loss that continues to mark many American small towns and villages. Each of the videos feature individuals who are working, praying, planning, and living so as to better understand the stories of the people and places they experience everyday and then use this understanding to help them cultivate hope and wholistic good in these places.
VIDEO 1: Be Here (Venango County, PA), Venango Area Chamber of Commerce
On the surface, this is simply a regional booster video—though be it a booster video with some beautiful videography. But a closer look reveals the resilience of a community defined by hard work and deep relationships. Venango County is one of two rural counties in northwestern Pennsylvania that helped launch the petroleum industry in the mid-nineteenth century, only to feel the economic and sociological pain that accompanied the loss of that industry in the second half of the twentieth century. But not all is lost in these small towns and rural valleys. By highlighting the region's natural beauty and interconnected web of relationships, this video makes a case for why this region still matters and why folks from all walks of life might choose to “Be here.”
VIDEO 2: The Losing End (Oil City, PA), Garrett Heath
One of the unfortunate realities of some small, post-industrial towns is that their very names have become an inescapable reminder of a lost past. Oil City, Pennsylvania, home to the corporate headquarters of Quaker State Motor Oil until 1995, is one of those towns. Oil City is a town named after a resource that it no longer produces. In this short music video and the larger project for which it serves as the title track, Garrett Heath, a singer/songwriter from the Oil City area, taps into the feeling of loss felt by many in post-industrial towns across the American Rust Belt. Though it may seem like hope is entirely absent from this take on small-town life, the fact that dedicated folks like Heath remain committed to these places offers a subtle but stalwart sign that, unlike oil, hope has not run dry in Oil City.
VIDEO 3: Small Town Spirit (Monessen, PA), First+Main Films
In certain regions of the United States, the experience of post-industrial towns like Oil City is replicated over and over. The details of each place’s story are always specific to the town, but the larger themes of boom and bust and the slow painstaking work of rebuilding everything from infrastructure to hope for the future repeat in recognizable cadences. This film, by John Paget’s First+Main Films, turns the camera toward the experience of Monessen, Pennsylvania. Monessen, located on the Monongahela River about an hour south of downtown Pittsburgh, was once a thriving steel town. Today, a new generation of folks, starting with the town’s youthful mayor, are investing in Monessen in a way that honors the history and reimagines the future of the place they have chosen to call home. (By the way, if you like this film be sure to check out First+Main’s film on the New York “Square Deal Towns” of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City, too.)
VIDEO 4: The Villages of Summerfield Farms (Summerfield, NC), First+Main Films
Like the first video in this list, this film is another promotional piece. This film, however, promotes not a region, but the vision of a particular developer in a part of rural North Carolina that is currently being transformed from farmland to subdivisions. The careful contextualization of this development team makes the film a thought-provoking study in what it means to build infrastructure that leads to the flourishing of both people and places. It is also a good reminder that the demographic challenges rural areas face in some regions are tied to population growth rather than population loss.
Final Take: Roots, Limits, Flourishing
While none of these videos are explicitly Christian in any way, each of them casts a vision that can motivate followers of Christ to consider the intersection of faithfulness and place more seriously. Each of these films forces us to consider our own responsibility to the people and places we encounter everyday. This rooted connection to a particular place is an aspect of the limitations of embodied human life that God created us for and even called good in Genesis. The reality is, we can't be everywhere at once. We can't even be in two places at once. As embodied humans, we can only follow Jesus in the place we find ourselves moment by moment each day. The fact that we can’t follow him anywhere else is a limitation that forces us to choose wisely, to steward our time and our wanderlust with an eye toward our maker.
The narrative of our larger culture, with its knee-jerk rejection of limits, runs counter to the the kind of rootedness that we see on display in the films above. American culture norms serve to decouple us from attachment to specific places, by prioritizing the individual’s solitary quest to attain self-fulfillment (or, in distinctly American parlance, the pursuit of happiness) wherever and however one might within the bounds of the law. If a place is working for you and your goals, great. If a place is not—if it takes work rather than works for you, if its rusting rather than glimmering—then the dominate narrative of our culture tells us in any number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways that to stay is to miss out, to fall behind, to fail.
Faced with these pervasive cultural narratives about the good life, we need more stories and storytellers like those above to help cast a vision for the value of all places, and perhaps specifically the value of small places. These stories help build courage and resolve just as they serve as reminders that no place is truly destitute and devoid of God’s common grace, Jesus' incarnational touch, or the Spirit's active care. This gives us courage to invest in, dream for, and lift up the stories of real places with all their baggage and potential. The Christian life, indeed the truly good and human life, can be lived no place else.
Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College and pastor of Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Modern Reformation, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and contributing co-editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. He lives with his wife, four children, a spoiled cat, and shaggy dog in Oil City, Pennsylvania.