Fighting for the communities we love—despite the odds
My husband and I saw Jason Isbell in concert a few months ago. Isbell’s brand of Americana rock and thoughtful lyrics appeals to us, so when he was scheduled to perform in a college town down the road a ways, we jumped at the opportunity. We chuckled at the crowd, a mixture of the 36-50 age bracket, older folks who were clearly season ticket holders at the performing arts center, and some college students. There was some consternation from the season ticket holders that certain segments of the auditorium wouldn’t just sit down so everyone could see and enjoy. It was fun.
In addition to writing some killer love songs, Isbell writes songs about small town life and the rural experience really well. In the song “Last of My Kind,” Isbell muses that he “Couldn’t be happy in the city tonight / I can’t see the stars for the neon lights” and then notes that “Nobody here can dance like me / Everybody clappin’ on the one and three.” Those of us living in the small towns and cities of Kentucky nodded our heads. Isbell goes on to say that “Daddy said the river would always lead me home / But the river can’t take me back in time / And Daddy’s dead and gone / And the family farm’s a parking lot / A Walton’s Five and Dime / Am I the last of my kind?” I’ve heard the song a hundred times, but there in that auditorium in Richmond, Kentucky, I remembered being a kid and watching a farmhouse in rural Ohio be knocked down to build a Meijers, and I started to cry.
From there, the tears kept flowing because “Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear / Might be true in Arkansas, but I’m a long, long way from there / And that whole world is an old and faded picture in my mind / Am I the last of my kind?” Now it wasn’t just nostalgia and the camaraderie of rural people that was making me emotional; Isbell was asking a question I’d been asking myself constantly for the past few years: Are there other people like me out there? Am I the last of my kind?
I’m an academic and a devout mainline Christian. A historian and a Presbyterian if I’m being precise. Sometimes it feels like I’ve picked two dying identities or that I’m some holdout from an older age. Being a practicing Christian in academia has always been somewhat isolating, though I’ve been fortunate to find like-minded colleagues at almost every institution of which I’ve been a part. But now all around me people are leaving or quitting these two institutions I love. Academics are leaving the profession because there are no jobs to be had, or maybe because they are burnt out. Mainline Christians are walking away from the church, some after a dozen years of slowly withdrawing, while others because the pandemic has rearranged their priorities.
This leaving is painful. There is a lot of lashing out at the institutions and the people who remain a part of them. And even when those who leave do so quietly, there is always pain in losing friends, colleagues, and congregants. I find grief catching me in surprising places: on the U6 soccer fields when I see people for the first time in months instead of days; outside the coffee shop where I had my last chat with a colleague before they announced their departure; in the archive where research on an eighteenth-century schism in the Mennonite Church leads me to a figure who expresses sadness over worshiping without the congregation they had been part of for decades.
Isbell’s song lyrics don’t give us a solution to the grief. He doesn’t tell us whether we truly are the last of our kind. That night in February, though, I didn’t feel alone when I listened to that song with hundreds of others whose faces showed they too understood that grief and loneliness. Instead, I felt comforted that other people shared this feeling with me. I wanted to bottle up the feeling of community and take it home. I wanted to show my friends at church and at work all the people nodding their heads to the beat and the sentiment.
Of course, I couldn’t do that. My grief and worry haven’t magically stopped since that cold winter night. But I’ve gone looking for how to feel like a member of a community again instead of a lonely artifact. I hosted a “progressive lunch” in my building on campus. A group of us brought in lunch and went from office to office laughing and talking. Sharing fellowship and food together seemed like a good step toward rebuilding an academic community that had crumbled in the face of a pandemic. At church, my husband and I threw a dance party. My husband spent ages putting together the perfect playlist of music across the decades, and we made a lot of appetizers. We tried to fill our fellowship hall with laughter and music and fun.
It is hard work to rebuild community. It takes time and patience and love, three qualities that can seem out of step in our world today. I often find myself wondering whether these efforts will work. How can we grow a community when so many people don’t seem to want it? Many of my colleagues ascribe to a transactional view of our occupation. They don’t seek companionship or friendship from their colleagues at their institution; the college is just a place they work. Similarly, many individuals in my church life are looking for a church, pastor, and congregation that perfectly reflect their attitudes and beliefs. They don’t want a diverse community; they want a well-aligned party, and they shop until they find it (for a while at least.)
I still believe in the power and importance of institutions like the church and the academy and am convinced that they matter. Communities like these are messy and challenging. But they make possible fulfilling friendships, and help me better understand the world around me. Am I the last of my kind? And, even if I am, does that mean I have to stop fighting for the communities I love?
Tara Strauch is an Associate Professor of history at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky where she lives with her husband, AJ, and two sons. She studies religious and political ritual in early America and is currently writing a book on the history of American holidays.
Photo Credit: Flavio Spugna
Timothy Larsen says
This timely, thoughtful essay demonstrates well the kind of vital discussions _Current_ hosts that can’t be readily found elsewhere. I was particularly glad for the concrete examples on how to counteract the situation: put on a dance party! Brilliant! We realized our neighbors didn’t know each other anymore and hosted a party for them all – we got almost 100% attendance and then a few months later another neighbor did it again and, once again, everyone showed up. We have official workers for both the Republican and the Democratic party on the block, but we are now well on our way to re-learning the congenial ways of neighborliness.
I love this, Tara. Thank you for sharing this vulnerable moment and for inspiring us to keep running toward community.
John Fea says