Most people now are looking for “a better place,” which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one …. There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven. —Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
On Pentecost 2014, I began at a new church in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. This ethnically, socially, and economically diverse area functions more like a neighborhood than anywhere I’ve lived since childhood. Many of the people who live, work, and play locally within this little corner just southeast of downtown Dallas also want to worship locally. This has led to the launch of several new churches, as well as the revitalization of a few more established congregations in recent years.
St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, where I am now Vicar, is a mix between the former and the latter. Three established Oak Cliff Episcopal churches approached the diocese late in 2013 about the possibility of merging, as the number of young adults moving into this revitalizing neighborhood provided opportunity for a new congregational growth. We’re a hybrid — a merged congregation, meeting in one of the original church’s buildings but operating under a new name, as a new church with new vision and scope, or as we say, “A New Church with Deep Roots.”
While the challenges to a model of this sort are manifold (and my learning curve has been steep), the commitment of the wardens and members of each of the churches, the new members and visitors, and, especially, the diocese’s commitment to this church’s growth and establishment have all contributed to the church’s early success, along with generous helpings of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” But in the remainder of this post, I would like to examine a theme that Wendell Berry explores in his Port William series of novels, specifically Hannah Coulter: the significance of place in the formation of people’s lives and souls, as it pertains to this place in which I find myself.
In his Port William series of novels, Wendell Berry writes from the perspectives of different people, all living in the fictional Kentucky farming community of Port William during the twentieth and early twenty-first century. In Hannah Coulter, Berry writes from the perspective of the title character, a woman twice widowed: stories, musings, and character descriptions from throughout her life accumulate into a loose narrative arc. The action is in the relationships, and the substance is in the characters and their interactions with one another and with the forces of change in the world outside of Port William, all of which influence the people within Hannah’s orbit. This narrative approach produces significant emotional gravity, and it provides a fitting Trojan horse for Berry’s agrarian idealism to influence the reader in a less direct fashion.
As I read the book this Fall, many of the neighborhood personalities I have come to know in the last six months expressed their love for, or interest in, Berry and his works. This initially came as a surprise to me in a neighborhood that lies in the shadows of Dallas’ inimitable skyline. Upon further reflection, though, the coherence of Berry’s ideas with this revitalizing, yet still small community came into greater focus.
Here, it is almost inevitable that one would run into any number of local personalities at the coffee shop, bookstore/reading room, pie shop, or local watering hole. People move here because they want to live in proximity to others and to experience togetherness in an integrity of community and place that deepens the quality of life for those involved. Despite the typical urban, post-Christendom milieu of this neighborhood, neighborhood churches have purchase in the community.
At St. Augustine’s, this is also true. For new members, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s, to worship in a congregation with people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s has been a draw — an invitation to rootedness that is difficult to achieve in their fast-paced, wired world. To be in a church that reflects not just the gentrifying entrepreneurs but also the ethnically and economically diverse, long-standing members of the community provides a helpful corrective to the insulating and insensitive forces of gentrification that easily creep into old neighborhoods undergoing rapid influx.
As pastor of this community, however, Hannah Coulter’s narrative voice has beckoned me beyond my own millennial meandering to appreciate the sacredness of the peculiarity all around me in this new neighborhood I call home. The people old and new, the church cultures that are merging to form the flavor of St. Augustine’s, and the new members and their children that portend to us that there will be a future for the church, they all combine to constitute the catholicity of this place — the Body of Christ that speaks to me each Sunday in the collective Amen at the close of the Eucharistic prayers. My role is to bear witness, to make friends, to be a neighbor, to let my feet stay put long enough for the roots to break through the bottom of my shoes into the ground below, into the place where we gather, where God’s “Word and Holy Spirit … vouchsafe to bless and sanctify” this gathering, this place, this people, this bread and this wine, fruits of the earth in which “this world is joined to heaven.”