They say that you can never go back home.
I used to think this was a certain cruelty, as if leaving somehow was always a betrayal, one that got you banned or held at arm’s length or just not privy to the important things, the inside things that matter most. To be away with your body in one place, your heart in another, meant missing out on the dailiness that only comes from proximity.
For a long time, I was determined to prove it wrong, to defy it. My people hold stability as just about the highest virtue, and my life called me in other directions, a path that came with not a little agony. And I thought I would call east Tennessee home forever.
We rode through the hills just days ago, our favorite drives and back ways, idyllic beauty around every curve, places brimming with memory and ache. I wondered if we would get to the end of the trip, and make some kind of snap decision to move back. I almost didn’t trust us.
But what I felt this time wasn’t longing to come home, but instead a deep and unsettling somatic dissonance. My body felt out of place, knowing certain things while emplaced in other knowledges. I felt strangely on alert, and afraid that such a snap decision would be a certain kind of devastation, a loss of unnameable proportions.
It turns out that while I was mid-life crisising, Houston had taken up residence in my body, this season a certain kind of gestation, home waiting to be born anew in me like an unexpected late in life child, a surprise when you felt sure you know what life would be from here on out.
I love everyone and most everything in east Tennessee. I do. It’s where the really foundational parts of my formation took place. I don’t know who I am apart from those people and that place.
But also, God has been merciful, growing me where I once thought I might be finished, having mastered the Christian faith or so my diploma says.
I now live in an African American neighborhood, where Blackness is part of my daily landscape. And not only the colors of the bodies, but the epistemologies, the how to know the world, and the ologies, what there is to know. The voices I hear out in the street are the sound of Blackness. The places and ways of being and the soil, all different from my native home. The ways of greeting, relating, connecting, sometimes so foreign to my midwestern whiteness.
I haven’t gotten these Black ways and Black lives into me nearly enough, and I feel myself striving so often toward deepening and fuller justice. I feel myself failing more often than not, hiding, dreading the shame of public failure when I assert something and am wrong. I feel my own deeply embedded racisms and where I benefit from my own privilege. All of this works together in hard ways. But I don’t want relief. I want to keep walking the way through.
But I do have these lives in me enough that the utter whiteness of my old home was undeniable and uncomfortable. For a week, I didn’t see Black people. Anywhere. Not in my circles, and not out in public in the places I used to frequent. And I didn’t hear conversations that I think even matter in my lived context, everything feeling like abstractions, everything spiritual, bodies so rare. In Mississippi, we stopped for lunch, and our lunch place wasn’t all white, and to be in more diverse space felt like an unexpected homecoming, even if we still had miles to Houston.
The whiteness of my homes has always been this way, of course, and is nothing new. But it’s that before, I didn’t have eyes to see, and I didn’t know then that I should care.
Before I left Houston, a friend and I were out for coffee, and our conversation settled into questions of how to narrate our past selves, what to do with the parts of our stories when we didn’t know what we do now. Hindsight is 20/20. Now I can name where I had a white savior complex. Now I can name where my opinions were hetero-normative. Now I can see where I was ableist, and where my theology was bound up in patriarchy. On and on.
I carry this with me. I think most everyone trying to take seriously the justice challenges of the world we live in does.
It’s why we don’t speak enough, why we don’t fail boldly, but instead hold our stories, our questions, our reservations closely. Not that the world needs a play by play of our white experience of becoming less white and less complicit.
But I do believe in the power of a community of learners where everyone is striving together toward right. I fear, particularly with the questions of race, white people are often quick to devolve into pits of despair and deep wells of shame. As white people formed in white ways of knowing and seeing the world, to have it addressed head on feels like being naked and ashamed. Like the first human beings, we sew our fig leaves to hide. But other white people around us in the same situation we find ourselves in, if they are privy to our struggle toward justice, can hold us in belovedness, keep our discomfort productive, instead of each of us all alone sinking in the quicksand of our self-knowledge toward despair.
I’ve thought a lot this past week about what it means to call a place home. And what I’m finding is that it’s not as easy as I thought, a sentimental feeling. I think it’s perhaps not accurate to say that east Tennessee is home and that I am away somewhere else, my whole life in tether with that place.
Rather, it was home for a season, and birthed in me beautiful things, pertinent to the person I was then and the life I was living then.
But I don’t think I can call a place which is so remarkably white in body and in thought my home any longer, and not deny the goodness of the Black lives around me, or how crucial these beloved ones around me are to who I am becoming.
For this season, Houston is home. It’s the place where I hear the word of God and experience the works of God. It’s the place which holds the tables where I experience the bread and wine. It’s the place which calls me back. It’s the place I’m so deeply challenged to grow and become and change.
A year ago, we drove the streets here one night, me trying to discern a ministry in Iowa, and a friend holding space. I remember saying, “I’m afraid that one day I will wake up and find that Houston has become home, and I will be stuck there, and will have lost whoever I would have been had I gone other directions.”
And here I am, having arrived at my fears. For now, for this season, by the mercy of God, this place is home, growing me, changing me, pressing me on toward ripening humanity and justice.