If we wish to understand [a place] it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. G.K. Chesterton
A few nights ago, several friends from out of town visited. We went to dinner @ West Main over on, well, West Main. The waitress asked if we were from around here (something about our zillion questions and fascination with their pepper jack macaroni and cheese must have sent signals), and one of my friends answered, “No, just visiting.”
And the words came from deep inside me. “Not me. I’m from here.”
Charlottesville is my home. I’m throwing my lot in with this city, these people. I don’t know how long it takes to become a true local, years at least I imagine. But I have the time.
To know a city is more than an ability to recite its demographics or to point out its prominent sights (of which there are many here). To know a city is to know its story, to have taken the time to rub your soul along the city’s texture, to see the scars and to hurt along with your neighbors over the many places that have yet to heal – to hurt not with the phantom pain of empathy (only) but with the true pain of shared experience, shared hope, shared grief. As Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I want my liberation, my welfare, to be bound up with the welfare of my neighbors, my city. To weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice, a wise poet once said.
So, I’m often asked these days what exactly we are doing as we begin the long process of forming a spiritual community in the way of Jesus. Well, I’ll be speaking in churches and having meetings with city leaders and spiritual leaders. I’m working on a strategic plan and doing a bit of fund raising. I’m doing some work on grounds (the Wahoo’s name for “campus”) at the University of Virginia. But, truthfully, in this season, my best work is the simplest kind. I walk around. I meet people. I hear stories. I bike down the street. I take my boys to school. I read the local papers. I listen to more stories, like Johnny’s story of how he and his dad Ernie opened Ernie’s Frye’s Spring Garage 43 years ago – and how he is going to have to close it down this year. I hear stories from various new friends I can find most any day on the downtown mall. Stories of Vinegar Hill, the historic African American community that was tragically dismantled decades ago. Stories from my neighbor who is pretty angry at the multi-million dollar bricking project downtown, angry at the money being spent on aesthetics when her son can’t find a job. Stories. Stories. Stories.
These are the stories that make a place what it is. And, if I want to be immersed in this place, if I want it to be truly home, then I must listen. I’m hoping to have the patience of a poet. I’m not just a sightseer, dropping in, snapping photos and moving on. I’m here to stay. I think this must be one of the implications of Incarnation – that we enmesh ourselves into the narrative and the contours of the places God has given us to love.