exile on elm street

Exile is the feeling of living in a no-place, a land with a thin or hidden history where dreams and nostalgia short-circuit the present and where neighbors are little more than abstractions.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to a community that has been physically rooted out of its homeland and sent far away: the Israelites were cast away, banished to a land where memories of home would bleed (or be bred) out of them with each successive generation. The people of God were prisoners in a foreign land, in part because they were no match for the militaristic empire that won the day and in part because they had self-exiled themselves from God. This was a lost and lonely time.

But aren’t we also in exile when we live in cities where our histories are hidden or forgotten? Before I go farther with this, consider Jeremiah’s advice for the exiled of Babylon and see how it can offer meaning for both Babylon and the broken townships of today:

To all the exiles whom I have sent into exile for Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29: 4-7)

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.

When I took sabbatical earlier this year I found myself exploring cities and towns. Some of which I’d seen plenty of times before, others which are old cities but new to me. I visited some of the marquis cities like New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and I spent time exploring local places like Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington and Raleigh. I took old roads through Mebane and Saxhapahaw when the great thoroughfare of I-40 would have worked just fine. I bought a really good North Carolina road map. I took slow trains instead of flying because I wanted to see the decrepit houses and factories that have been otherwise forgotten.

I did it because I was feeling exiled in the very city that I’d grown up. I felt lost because the history of the place was, like so many “suburban” places, thin or hidden. There was actually a much richer history beneath and beyond the strip malls, but our amnesiac culture had for the most part moved on or selectively glorified moments that really weren’t that impressive.

Like many with ambition and education I left Greensboro, moving after college to New York City. I didn’t plan to return to my city because success and adventure and fulfillment lay elsewhere. Besides that, I had never known a Greensboro that I could claim. It wasn’t really my city at all.

I don’t regret that move for a moment, but I see now that I was joining in the great migration to centers of power and prestige at the expense of local places that is probably a symbiotic part of the great suburban experiment that I like to critique.  I often bemoan the lack of choices and the degradation of community that the automotive culture has forced upon us for a few generations now.  But by leaving many years ago, I played my part as well.

I am glad I moved away. I am glad I saw Chapel Hill, New York City, New Haven, Durham, and then Raleigh before finding myself quite by accident back in Greensboro, at the Episcopal church across the street from my Roman Catholic grade school.  And I am glad I came back, because by coming back as a priest to serve an historical parish I found myself learning about the city as it existed before the rarefied time of 1985 when my family first arrived.

As a child I learned nothing of the history of Greensboro beyond very broad strokes. Some sit-ins had happened, there had once been a downtown, and Rick Dees had gone to the same high school as me. That was about what I remember. My time as a priest has been an incredible history lesson that has helped me to establish the connections I lacked growing up.

Amnesia is a symptom of exile, but it is also an enforcer of it.  I think if I had learned more about Greensboro’s history growing up then I might have seen it as more of a home.

Fortunately, amnesia is preventable, and it is treatable as well. I spend a lot of time learning about urbanism and shared prosperity and building places that are rich in history and humanity. I believe that amnesia is part of why the places where we live can feel so inward and unimportant, and why “home” is often somewhere else or nowhere at all.  I am excited to see that instead of trying to escape empty-feeling places many folks are instead finding ways to unearth the histories that are already there, so as to create new places on the foundations. It is a practice in reversing exile.

Far from trendy, I this is the message of Jeremiah: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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