Modern-day prophet Wendell Berry is clear: we must stay and we must love the places where we stay. No sentimentality, no cynicism, only a fierce commitment to loving a place through and through to its flourishing.
Berry’s vision is so beautiful, so passionate, that I am easily swept up in it. My heart pounds and my ears ring when I read of the devastation of so many places, of our carelessness and inattention that has destroyed them. I cannot let that happen! I determined. And, settling after college in the Western Pennsylvania of my youth, in a small, economically-depressed town in the Rust Belt, I felt like I was in the right place to pursue Berry’s vision.
And then, a little over a year ago, we left. We packed the things we wanted to keep, we sold and gave away the things we didn’t, we prepared our garden beds for the winter and trimmed the hedges and mowed the lawn, and then we left.
I grew up on a steady diet of Christian missionary biographies. Each one told the tale of the faith and bravery of men and women who boldly left everything they had ever known in order to bring the Gospel to the people no one cared about. These stories worked their way under my skin into my heart, and I had grand visions of leaving everything for the sake of the Gospel.
But after college, I stayed. I had married by then, and we both found jobs and had a good church. We were being welcomed into a lively group of twenty-somethings, two of whom had opened a coffee shop in a fierce desire to invest in that community. Giving up financial security, mobility, sleep, and privacy, they emptied themselves into that business. They stayed, and it’s hard to measure the good things that have poured out into the lives of others because of them. And because of their example, staying felt like the good and right thing to do.
Until it didn’t. Somehow we found ourselves face to face with a plea to come to the other side of the world. And of all the things I wrestled with in that decision, one of the most overwhelming was these two conflicting visions: the missionary who left, and the steward who stayed. Who was I to be? Was one better than the other? How could I know for sure?
In the history of Western missions, stewardship doesn’t fare too well. In my home country of America, and my current home of Australia, the story is the same: colonists came to steal the land, missionaries came to convert the people.
That’s simplistic, I know. The reality of individual people and motives is complex and varied, and I cannot possibly do it justice here. But what seems clear to me is the way missionaries of the past have often overlooked questions of stewardship in a focus on saving souls. Certainly we must see that as primary — we ought to be diligently focused on proclaiming and living the kingdom of God and the Good news of Jesus Christ. Without that, all else is worthless.
Yet at the same time, this focus does not overrule our role as stewards of creation. Jesus does not revoke the Old Testament with its concerns, he fulfills it. Perhaps, as Norman Wirzba observes, it is significant that Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener: God is first of all described in Scripture as a gardener, as he plants a garden in Eden. And Adam, too, is a gardener: Jesus is the true gardener, the perfect Adam. Thus our God-given task to care for the earth remains.
We must also see that the health and flourishing of the people we say we are concerned about are tied to the health and flourishing of the land. Many native peoples, such as the Native Americans and the Aboriginals, depend on the land for survival. The loss of their land, in its exploitation for natural resources, has done tremendous damage to them. We may rightly condemn their animistic or pagan devotion to the land, but we must also recognize what they have right: an understanding of themselves as part of creation, not separate from it, entrusted to its care and protection. To deny this, to see ourselves as disembodied souls rather than dust made alive by the very breath of God, results only in abuse. It is a failure of love — both love of people and love of creation.
Wallace Stegner has harsh words for the “leavers,” as he called them — people who refused to stay put, but in wanderlust continually moved on to the next best place. After feeling initial twangs of guilt, I’ve convinced myself that this category of people does not fit me. My leaving was not due to discontent, I remind myself. My leaving was not because I wasn’t committed to the flourishing of the town where we lived. I loved Beaver Falls, I loved the people, and I wanted to live there for the rest of my life. I wanted my children to run through the neighborhood and up to the pharmacy and the coffee shop and Aunt Jacque’s house. I wanted them to explore the small patch of woods behind our house with all the enthusiasm of explorers, to know each tree and path and bend in the creek. I wanted them to feel deeply rooted in that place.
But instead, we tore up the roots — all of them. We’ve all been transplanted, and from above ground, our leaves seem pretty hardy, not likely to wilt anytime soon. Yet even a year later, my roots still feel tender and fragile.
Am I a leaver? Am I here only for the saving of disembodied souls, blind and deaf to the rest of the creation that sustains us here?