LIFE takes us to unexpected places,
LOVE brings us home.
I’ve moved around a few times in my life. My earliest years were spent in the southwest, where I can remember spending Sunday afternoons on Hopi Indian reservations, watching the Butterfly Dances and dancing alongside the Hopi Indians as a happy youngster, searching for the black-and-white painted Pueblo clowns moving amongst them. As I reached school age, my family moved to the south, where I picked up a southern drawl and wondered why my parents didn’t put a rebel flag in their yard like all the neighbors. My coming-of-age years were spent in the mountains of Kentucky, living in a very isolated region among people who could not relate to living anywhere else, and who had no desire to do so. Later, married life took my husband and me to the Midwest. There, we lived outside St. Louis, but my work took me into the Ozark hills and a culture very similar to the one I’d come to know in Appalachia. Ten years later, we returned to the hills of Kentucky, where I am now, and where I hope to remain, God willing.
I share this because I have been thinking a lot lately about those who feel that they have not found their “tribe” and are searching for just the right place to live. The mindset seems especially rampant now, post-election, as both conservative and liberal-minded folks look for a place where they “belong”. And I admit, I have thought about it a lot as well. It is very tempting to want to move someplace where more people think like us, live like us, maybe even look like us. Would this be the solution to my discontent? Do I just need to find my people? Is it time to circle the wagons?
It’s called the “siege mentality” and it happens when we begin to feel threatened, isolated, or oppressed because of what we believe or how we choose to live. More than just the “grass being greener” folly, the siege mentality often develops when we have been victimized, ostracized, or marginalized because we took a stand to fight and found ourselves standing alone. It makes us want to run until we can find a group willing to stand with us. It’s not that this is necessarily a bad thing; we all desire a community to which we belong and that helps us feel validated to some degree. Such is human nature. However, I only wish to issue a word of caution that this kind of thinking can too often mislead us into making some very big life decisions based upon an illusion of happiness.
Before I was born, my father as a young man moved to the southwest in search of adventure and to satisfy his desire for wide-open spaces. Six years later, he’d had his fill of it and missed the changing of the seasons and rainy days and growing tomatoes, so he moved back east with his young family in tow. Six years after that, he decided he wanted to go back home, and live in familiar lands with familiar people again, so he moved us back to his hometown and swore he’d never move again. Forty years later now, he never has. It took him 13 years and nearly 2,000 miles of distance to realize that he was happiest where he’d started.
My story is a bit different. I never felt a strong desire to move around, perhaps due to being involuntarily moved around as a kid. But when presented with the opportunity to move to the Midwest, I was excited, not so much because I was not happy with where we lived at the time, but more because we were moving to an area where there were more Catholics, the “Rome of the West”, no less! And frankly, I was looking forward to living for the first time in a place where I was not the religious minority.
However, what I found was that in this Catholic stronghold, the people were not as friendly as those I’d known in the south, where everyone calls you “sweetie” and “blesses your heart”. My husband and I felt spoiled to have dozens of Catholic churches to attend that were within 50 miles of our home, yet, two years later, we were still trying to find a parish where our more traditional Catholic beliefs were supported. Once we did, we found that after having children, the more orthodox crowd (and priest) at the Catholic church where we’d been attending, did not take too kindly to unruly toddlers disrupting their prayers, and so we began church-hopping again. And at nearly every church we attended, we were disappointed when pro-life events were poorly attended, by the pro-Obama bumper stickers in the church parking lot, and by a general lack of hospitality afforded those who were obvious strangers.
So, after ten years, we moved again, and just as my father did, we landed right back where we’d started. Here we live today, in the middle of the Bible belt, in an ocean of strong Christian evangelicals and a speckling of lukewarm Catholics. We belong to a large Christian, but not Catholic, homeschool co-op that allows me to scratch out the line about “Sola scriptura” in their Statement of Faith before I sign it. We attend a Catholic church that struggles to remain Catholic, but at least where we can receive the sacraments validly and welcomes enthusiastically my family and accepts our behaviorally challenged children as they are. Our social circle is composed primarily of homeschooling families and a few others, none of whom share our faith. Like me when I was a child, my children are growing up without Catholic friends and without being exposed every Sunday to the true beauty and reverence that the Holy Mass deserves and should offer. Our life here is certainly far from our ideal but we make it work.
What that means is that my husband and I must work even harder to catechize our children at home. It means we must make a greater effort to find opportunities to expose them to the beauty of the faith by taking road trips to visit cathedrals or attend ordinations or beautiful Catholic weddings. It means inviting our priests over for dinner regularly and asking them to hear our confessions on the back porch because our Catholic church was built without a confessional. It means using a solid, Catholic curriculum for their homeschool education because the closest Catholic school is 100 miles away.
But more than anything, it means that we must find a way to accept that God has put us where he wants us even if it does not seem ideal. Even if I can think of a million ways that it could be better. I could worry about my sons meeting “good Catholic women” to marry someday. I could worry about them leaving the church because of the Protestant environment in which they are growing up. I could feel upset about my fellow parishioners who scoff at the way my family chooses to practice what they believe is an “old fashioned” form of Catholicism. There’s no shortage of things to be depressed about if I dwell on them.
And dwell on them, I have. After living for a couple of years where we are today, I was restless and questioned if we were in the best location for our family and our faith. For a long time, I did not think I belonged in this small town of people who seemed nothing like me. However, experience had already taught me that no matter where we go, no place will meet all my expectations. So, we decided to stay for the long haul.
And it was only after I accepted that fact that God began to lead me to my own tribe. And to my surprise, they were not the Catholic community that I for so long had wanted to be a part of. Instead, he showed me that it was my Protestant brothers and sisters living all around me who would be the ones I could look to for encouragement and example. It took my experience of living in both a Catholic stronghold and the Bible Belt to realize this.
Right now, it is their example, and not that of most Catholics, that I am admiring. They are the ones voting for life when it really counts, forming militias and taking a stand when out-of-state protestors arrive on their doorstep, and still going to church every Sunday despite COVID-19 and governmental threats. They are the ones showing up for Veteran’s Day services and flying the American flag proudly in their yards. They have nourished their faith from generation to generation by teaching their children to learn from the Bible, memorize the commandments, go to church every Sunday (wearing their Sunday best, of course), and respecting the Biblical authoritative structure of the family. These are the things I see our Protestant brothers and sisters doing that are making them great evangelizers in this historic moment for our country.
For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever find my tribe, and wanted to move to a place where people were more like me. Little did I know that God was waiting to show me that the place I needed to be was right where I was all along, surrounded by people I never would have guessed would be the ones I needed to be around the most.