Theology Thursday – March 21, 2012
I moved from the wide-open prairie of western North Dakota (Longitude 103) to the gentle slopes of the Mississippi River in urban St. Paul, Minnesota (Longitude 93). I never thought I would live in Minnesota again, much less in a big city. Nevertheless, here I am.
It got me to ask: does place affect the theology of communities?
When I was a pastor living in North Dakota, one of the things I found was the never-ending capacity for people who attend church to care deeply for each other. In a place where a finger wave above a steering wheel is a common sight on a prairie road and local news spreads just as quickly as a grass fire, people in the open country and little towns genuinely care for each other.
Negatively speaking, hyper-conservatism and homogeneity are cherished on the plains, to the detriment of a broader understanding of the world. North Dakota can be quite provincial. Hard work and an ethic of steadfastness are endemic, which is both refreshing and guilt inducing (especially if you like your lazy time). The sky is big and beautiful and the wind can be vicious.
St. Paul, Minnesota, in contrast, is progressive, diverse, and cosmopolitan. Every fifth person I meet in St. Paul is either an artist or a writer or has aspirations to be one. It’s surprisingly friendly here—we know all our neighbors by name—but it isn’t infrequent where I get flipped off on the interstate between St. Paul and Minneapolis. That’s okay though, because, chances are, you’ll never see that jerk again.
The wind doesn’t blow less here; trees just make it less noticeable. It’s still about as cold in the winter (save this past winter); but the humidity in the summer is sticky at best and sauna-like at its worst. There are many more ethnicities; it’s a more colorful mosaic.
North Dakota has mixed-grass prairies. Minnesota has oak savannas. North Dakota is almost in Montana. Minnesota is almost to Chicago. The Twin Cities is a virtual cornucopia of exotic dining establishments. Williston has Applebee’s. The Dakotas have great hunting. Minnesota’s fishing would make the even the disciples on the Sea of Galilee jealous. North Dakota, Republican. Minnesota, DFL.
It’s easy to see differences. It’s the similarities that interest me.
At our church we recently joined, the people are intentional about their faith and they care for each other. Many of them drive to get to church, as many parishioners drove to church in North Dakota. The scenery is just different.
At the church our family belongs to now, people care about God’s activity in the world for justice and peace. They want to know Jesus. If someone is sick, they care and pray for them. They sometimes get ticked off at their pastor’s sermon and they complain about the church budget. That’s pretty much what God’s people were about at the churches I served when I was ordained. It may come out in different ways, but people are just people.
So the conclusion I’ve come to is that place may not affect the deeper yearnings of human nature. Sure, liturgy is different. So are politics. But folks are folks and will be the beautiful, compassionate, frustratingly obstinate, neurotic people of God wherever you go.
On a personal note, I’m glad I’m in St. Paul. It fits me better.
But my time on the prairie will never rub off. The Big-Wide-Open sort of does that to you: it reminds you how small you really are.
Hope I never forget it.