The Lure of the Local

Part 1: Community in Place and the Longing for Home 

For a couple of years, in what now feels like another lifetime, I oversaw a new play development program with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.

New plays were a new idea – I mean, Shakespeare Festival.  But the thought was – they could use the company that they’d already hired to put on Othello or Hamlet to give emerging playwrights a chance to experience their work out loud, and on its feet.

In our early conversations we agreed that since there were a lot of resources for playwrights living on either coast, but hardly any focused on the middle-of-the-country, we’d focus on supporting playwrights living and working in Colorado, and in the states immediately around us.

So over my two seasons, I ended up working with playwrights from Arizona and Utah and most often, from Colorado – Boulder, and Denver, Summit County and Colorado Springs, and most memorably – Telluride.  Memorably because the name of his play was Telluride.  The Musical.

If you’ve been to Telluride you can probably already guess at the scenes and songs…in most cases they were expressing the regular tensions present a mountain town – just the extreme version that is Telluride.

First, the undeniable beauty of the place. Especially in Telluride where it’s not too easy to get to, it’s a connecting experience that in and of itself creates a sense of shared identity.

It’s often the reason that people come, and stay.

Which is what also has brought in developers.  That have built condos and shopping centers that block some of those amazing views, and have exponentially increased the cost of living.

And of course, this has also brought in all the Starbucks.  Eventually one for every corner. Supplanting each of the local coffee houses, one after another.

Surrounding all of this, a non-stop schedule of festivals, especially amazing in Telluride.  From Blue Grass to Extreme Sports.  And from Films to Fire, Comedy to Hot Air Balloons. They are year-round.

Which also means there is a non-stop flood of tourists year round.  There to experience the magic that is Telluride.  This many tourists though makes the town necessarily feel a little like Disneyland.  A pretend place filled with things to consume rather than a community where people actually live.

I don’t remember all the details of the play, but what I do remember is the underlying grief its author had for this place that he loved. A place that was still – beautiful, charming, filled with culture – still the same place in latitude, and longitude – but a place that had also somehow, somewhere along the way, stopped feeling like home.

It is a common longing in today’s high-paced multi-centered, globally-oriented world: to feel connected to the place where you are in a way that feels like home.  It’s a longing that artist and writer Lucy Lippard calls The Lure of the Local – which she describes as “the pull of place that operates on each of us…the geographical component of the psychological need to belong.”  I’d call it the need to belong where you are.  The longing for the place where you live to feel like it has an authentic claim on you, and your life, and you on it.

Belonging is a basic human need – right after the most basics of air, food, shelter, safety. To feel accepted, to be known, to feel connected and ease.  We cannot survive without it.  An article I read once described belonging as one of three reasons that someone comes, and keeps coming, to church.  The other two are significance and transcendence.

People come – see what you think – to feel like their life matters – significance; and we come to feel connected to something much greater – transcendence.  And then we come for that sense of belonging.

Best of all is when we can experience belonging in a way that connects to these other two – belonging in a shared since of making a difference, and in a way that feels connected to the great big everything.  I call this an experience of the holy.

It is a sense of belonging that is existential and transformative.

Belonging is a basic human need, but unlike food or shelter, getting to this experience – even it its most basic, let alone the existentially satisfying, transformational experience of belonging is not simple.  Because unlike the other human needs, belonging is a profoundly personal, individually-determined experience – where the story of your life comes into contact with the story of another, and of a whole community, a place, a country, a world.  It’s why Peter Block talks about belonging as alchemy – there is always some mystery and magic involved.

The practice of belonging today is often made possible through the miracle of technology – social media and video calls and texts – they can be literally lifesaving.  But still, there is the reality of our bodies.  And the longing our bodies have to be in proximity to other bodies.  IRL.  The feeling of a hand clasped.  The comfort of breathing the same air.  Staring out the same window. The connection made knowing we have these common daily experiences: schools, parks, restaurants, hiking trails, traffic, community ordinances, protests and prayer vigils, construction, weather.

We have a longing to belong where we are.  To know that nearby are those eyes that will light up when we enter, voices that will celebrate with us when we come into our own power, and those who will join their strength with our own to do the work that needs to be done.  And most of all, those who will meet us for dinner after a terrible day, whether by way of our toddler, our teenager, or our ten hours of listening to the coverage of terrible and traumatic supreme court hearings.

I know, there have been other terrible, traumatizing news weeks over the last two years. Shocking events with significant impact on the most vulnerable in our country.  And still this relentless reality need not reduce what happened in Thursday’s Senate Hearing to something routine. I didn’t get to listen to the whole thing, and still from what I did hear, by 4, I was ready to go home.  Order in Chinese, and tell my kids to pull out the TV trays.

Instead I had been invited/required by my friend who serves on its Board to attend a thank you dinner for La Familia / The Family Center for its major donors and community partners. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d promised her I’d be there, I totally would’ve sent an email saying I was calling in “over it.” With apologies.

But instead, I went.  And there I was greeted, not just by my friend, but also another friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  We immediately hugged – all three of us with simply the words: This day.  And then, on top of that, there was a whole crew of Foothills folks I didn’t know would be there, a few of whom I hadn’t had a chance to catch up with for a while.  Over dinner we shared stories of rage and heartache, tales of grandchildren and travel adventures, news about local non-profits, questions about the church.  And along the way, we heard about the work of this organization – La Familia – that is right now doing the everyday work of building up the same communities most impacted by these news stories –  children, families, seniors – our neighbors, friends, family.

It didn’t make the grief go away, the rage, the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about the fact that it will take my lifetime, and a good part of my children’s lifetimes before we will have a supreme court that does not include a man who is the amalgamation of every arrogant privileged jerk I knew (and avoided) in college.  But it did give me a sense that I was not alone, that life continues.  In beauty, and joy, and salsa music.  And it reminded me in real time – that although we cannot save everything, fix everything, at a certain scale, that is in the smaller scale, the relational – the local, the personal, there can be goodness, and healing, and change for the better.

“The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time,” Peter Block writes. And everything comes down to two questions: How we will be when we gather together? And what we will we create together?

Part 2: Being the Church for Northern Colorado

When Kisa Gotami lost her only son, the Buddhist story goes, she was understandably, wrecked.

She could not accept that he had died so suddenly, so young.  She went to one of her neighbors, begging him to help her find a cure that would bring him back to life. The neighbor told her he couldn’t help, but maybe the Buddha could – he was nearby.

Kisa went running to him, right away, carrying the body of her young son.  Please, bring him back.

To her relief and elation, he said he could.  Go back into the village, he said, and gather mustard seeds from every household where they have never been touched by death.  Bring those mustard seeds back to me, and I will create the medicine that will bring your son back to life.

Eagerly, she went, house to house.  Knocking, and asking, and listening each time to the story of the way that each and every one knew loss, and grief, and suffering.  She did not manage to gather a single mustard seed.  But instead she came to know that she was not alone in her pain.  She understood that everyone knew loss, and grief, and struggle.  Instead of isolating, the loss became connective.  Her son was not brought back to life, but she realized that even in the midst of this devastating reality, she could go on living.

This is how healing happens, how change happens.  In small, human, undefended conversations. Neighbor to neighbor, story meeting story.  Beyond talking points and headlines, into the context of real relationships of trust, care, and compassion bound up by a shared investment in the village that is the shared community, this place where we live, this place where we are all longing to belong.

As Peter Block says, “We change the world one room at a time. This room, today, becomes an example of the future we want to create.  There is no need to wait for the future.  We can create the experience of belonging in the room we are in [right now].”

This is basically sums up why I decided in 2008 to dedicate my life to the local church. Specifically to the local Unitarian Universalist church.

That year, I had the chance to explore a bunch of different churches, all across the country. Churches that were thinking differently about church.  I interviewed their ministers, talked to their founders.  In some cases, I went and visited. These were mostly not UU churches.  They were Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists.  One was a hybrid UCC-Buddhist.   It was all pretty mind-boggling because they were all so unstuck, so free.  So seemingly unbound by tradition or any other old ideas of what “church” is supposed to look like.

For example there was this Presbyterian Church in Louisville that was actually a network of 8 small gatherings that met in houses every Sunday. About 15 in each house. All ages. They’d take turns making dinner and leading each other in spiritual practices and then read the bible and other texts together – their promise was only that they would share in a time that connected them to the holy.  And then each house gathering group decided on one way they would serve as a group in the wider community during the week.  Once a month, all the gatherings came together for a large group worship.

I feel like that was the year I really started to understand congregational polity.  Which is funny because I learned it from the Presbyterians.  But what I realized was that even though technically our churches are totally free to take whatever form they might, we have historically mostly all operated in basically the same ways, with the same basic patterns, regardless of where we are, regardless of our context, the particular patterns of our people in their lives, their particular heartaches, or the stories they might offer if we went knocking on doors and invited the telling.

But I realized, we didn’t need to.  We could instead build communities that are organic, responsive, and deeply embedded in the places where they are – as resources, and partners invested in the common good. by Communities that respond to the longing we all have for belonging – not just in a generic sense, but in a way that is connected to the place where we are.

Today is the first Sunday in our new series NoCo Life, and our goal for this whole series is to dig deep in these localized questions as they connect to our faith, and our church.  To lean into the story of this place – longitude, latitude –  that so many of us love – and to ask what it means to be a church community here, and now? And what are the questions that this place – our home ask of us, and our faith? What are the claims that Northern Colorado place on us, how does it shape us and our lives – and how are we called to shape it?

Because it is a process of weaving our story with a larger story, belonging takes work.  Ongoing work.   Regardless of how long we may have technically lived in a place it is not automatic, or perpetual once you have it. I mean, some transplants will tell me – even though they loved this place since they first visited – it took them 2, 3 or 4 years to feel like it was their home.  Some still feel like visitors after decades.  And at the same time, I’ve talked to folks who’ve been here 50, 60, 70 years, and mostly what they feel today is displaced and disoriented.  So much has changed, and as Lippard says, “one can be homesick without moving away.”

To belong where you are requires a constant openness. A lifelong curiosity for a place and its people as it is now, and as it is always becoming.  To refuse the pull of a romantic nostalgia for a past that likely never was as good as you believe, and equally to avoid an overly-cynical focus on today’s deficiencies and problems, and to instead stay present to what is unfolding here and now.  Right here, right now.

To show up in the room with courage, and humility. Open to all we cannot control. Offering ourselves as we are.  Surrendering to the mystery.  Giving thanks.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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