I was talking recently with an Islamic acquaintance from Nigeria, when the subject of home came up casually in a conversation we were having. He knows that I enjoy traveling and have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. We were talking about summer travel when he asked me if I was going anywhere this summer. I then asked him without missing a beat if “he was going home?” He said that he is, but not until the fall. We never had to say out loud between us where home was for him because it went without saying. It struck me a bit later that for him, Nigeria really was home and probably always will be. He lives in Atlanta but Nigeria is where his family lives and where he’s from, and where his heart is at.
Being from Alabama, I can relate. This reminds me of the song I enjoy and always sing along to when I hear it called “My Home’s in Alabama” by the country group “Alabama”.
Well I'll speak my southern english just as natural as I please
I'm in the heart of dixie, dixie's in the heart of me
And someday when I make it, when love finds a way
Somewhere high on lookout mountain I'll just smile with pride and say that my
..home's in Alabama, no matter where I lay my head
My home's in Alabama, southern born and southern bred.
I love Georgia, and Atlanta and the people of Atlanta have always been very good to me but Alabama will always be my home. I can’t fully explain it, but it will. I love my home state of Alabama and my hometown, Scottsboro, despite its faults I love it for what it is. I’m not so sure this is a good thing, to not call the place you currently live, Atlanta in my case, your real home. And to my credit, as I’ve grown in wisdom I’ve tried to build more and more community in Atlanta and it feels more like home than ever. But where you are born and raised has a strong spiritual and emotional weight that you can’t run from, even if you tried. Plus, it takes constant work to make a home somewhere else from your hometown, because it’s easy to be anonymous in America, particularly if you’re single.
Homelessness and the Current Political Environment
Homelessness is a big and growing problem in America. Some nights, it’s estimated that almost 600,000 people sleep outside. I’m always struck by how many homeless people I see in the more affluent suburban parts of Atlanta too. This is a sad situation in a country as rich as ours. Back a few months ago I volunteered at a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta and found that to be a meaningful experience. Despite the common images of vagrancy, people digging though trash cans, and mental illness in the homeless we’ve all become desensitized to, homelessness is something that afflicts more people than you think.
Homelessness can surprisingly even affect people who have a place to live.
Perhaps surprisingly, I’m also going to venture that a lot of what is causing so much political anger is our homelessness epidemic in America. Not the people living on the streets, but the neighbors living all around each other who don’t know each other and who are not really at home. It’s easier to demonize people you don’t know and call them names- racist, sexist, deplorable, communist, socialist, fascist, etc.- than it is to cross the street and have a healthy dialogue because with name-calling no real work has to be done.
In America, particularly in more urban areas but increasingly everywhere, we rarely ever get to know the people who grow our food, cook our food, deliver our mail, live near us. make the products we use, or in some cases even work with us and for us. We don’t know each other that well in many many cases. We have a place to live, but do we really have a home? In my own faith tradition we are urged to “be in the world, but not of it” meaning we should value the virtues more than possessions and pleasures, but most of us live more like we’re “not in the world, but of it” which is just the opposite, living our lives anonymously and centered around material pleasure.
One thing I've been struck by when I’ve visited places like Jordan, Greece, Ireland, and the rural South and in particular South Louisiana, North Georgia, is the “weight” of the place I’m visiting. What I mean by this is that there is an intangible connection and energy between the people, culture, and the land. You know when you’re in rural Ireland where you are, or when you’re in New Orleans or a Greek island. It’s a little hard to describe without seeing it and feeling it, and I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about but maybe you don’t. Another word for this is culture. You know where you are, who you are dealing with. You know to show chivalry in Islamic countries, to act respectful in Greece, and to not expect a Starbucks on a windy highway in North Georgia.
After World War I & II, for legitimate reasons, there was a concerted effort by powerful global forces to extinguish the idea of particularity and place. After all, people who love their religion, land, family, clan, tribe, or nation are prone to love it a little too much and are willing to defend it and fight for it. So a project started after World War II, whether we realized it or not, to get rid of the very idea of a home that we love. The John Lennon song “Imagine” was the pinnacle of this way of thinking. Considering the 20th Century was the most violent in history, you can’t really blame the politically powerful culture-makers for wanting to discourage a passionate love of place. But this created other and different more perplexing problems, particularly as it comes to building community, which is one of the most important markers of health.
The problem is that instead of drifting into a peaceful global Utopia like John Lennon dreamed we would, we are drifting deeper and deeper into other problems like loneliness, debt, stress, violence, narcissism, social balkanization, inequality, depression, anxiety, and terrorism. Placelessness created a lot of wealth for some, but growing homelessness has not been good for anyone. Sure, we might have more ethnic foods to eat, more individual freedom, more decent corporate coffee chains available, and our Global Stock Index Funds might be up 13%, but has this “progress” been worth the cost? Has this type of “progress” been worth eliminating the concept of home, and with it the chance for a meaningful life? Did we have to get rid of home altogether?
My grandparents used to have an old wooden sign in their country living room that read:
“Home is the place where we are treated the best, but grumble the most.”
I have to say, based on my rumblings during the seemingly never-ending 2016 political season, that when I visited my parents last year in the home I grew up in, this saying that was carved on my grandparents wall held true. I was treated the best, but grumbled the most, like many people did about the election last year. Home really is where we are treated the best and grumble the most. People love each other at home. People know each other, and rely on each other, and share the pain and the joy of life together. Home comes with heartache, but it also comes with great joy and life. This is what is home is all about.
If someone asked me what type of culture America had right now, I would honestly say that we don’t have a culture, we predominately have an anti-culture. This seems harsh but I think it’s true. Culture involves particular people, who believe particular things, live in a particular place together, and share similar sacred values. America does not believe in the sacred. America does not believe in the particular. There are pockets of culture, where home is home and people believe certain things. But as a whole, and this is particularly true in the centers of primary cultural influence like NYC, LA, and San Francisco, America’s ethic is anti-culture and anti- home. This preceding paragraph alone describes much of our political misunderstandings and this political season we find ourselves in. Home is the hidden but focal point of the debate.
There is a lot to be said for not living in a culture where everyone feels entitled to know everything about everyone, and everyone is judging your every move. I don’t think many of us want to live in a repressive or harsh culture where there is no privacy and no liberality. That being said, the other extreme is not healthy either. The problem of a man without a culture is that a man becomes a ghost, not really a man at all. A man without a culture is a myth, he doesn't exist. Life, to be lived fully and healthily has to be lived with “skin in the game” and only home can provide that. By skin in the game I mean risk and investment. Otherwise, we drift off into meaningless existences- no home, no connection, no weight, and no depth.
When there is “skin in the game” and we are personally taking risks and investing emotionally, politically, and financially at a local level in the people with live with and the places we live, life shows up with all it’s pain, reward, and triumph. Home comes with risks but also comes with rewards. This is something I’d like to say to the cultural elites that look down on and discourage the patriotism, passion, and localism of tightly-knit communities: Home is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing, particularly for people who are not economically advantaged enough to seclude themselves from the rest of the world and create their own home-away-from home.
Not everyone can afford to take a plane to a private community in Florida to be with like-minded people, or to live in gated communities with “people like us”, or to withdraw from public schools, public places, and public life. Not everyone can work their entire lives in privileged companies surrounded by people just like them. Most people are stuck finding ways to live together and do the best they can on a very local level. People who can’t afford to “secede” are not for the most part, racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, zenophobic, they are just people who want to have a home and want to feel at home.
Globalism has created opportunities for many people, myself included. We don’t need to look back with a false sense of nostalgia. But we also need to look forward with a strong love of home, our home. Home is the most basic of all human instincts and deep emotional needs, and to take away the possibility for home and culture is a cruel way to live. We shouldn’t take the possibility of home away from ourselves and others.
When we go home at night, we need to be home. When we go out, we need opportunity for real culture. We need to grumble, invest, and love and grow. We need this because it’s healthy.
If we’re ever going to be healthy on this pilgrimage we’re all on, we need to bring back the idea of home. Home is where the heart is, and it’s where health is too.
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