A few years ago, I topped off my three-month sabbatical with a trip to Elliot Lake to visit my Aunt Linda and Uncle Murray. We enjoyed an evening feast with dear friends of theirs — Mark and Julie, their daughter Caily and grandson Will — spending the night eating delicious food, sipping on red wine, stewing about politics, bragging about our children and laughing uproariously about the most trivial of things. Both my aunt and uncle, as well as their friends, moved to Elliot Lake a generation ago because of job opportunities. Both found in this small northern community a place in which they wanted to raise families and set down the deepest of roots. “Home is where your children grow up,” Mark commented to me.
Their daughter Caily has likewise chosen Elliot Lake as the place to raise her family, to work and serve her community, to intentionally set down roots. She described to me over the course of the evening her love of the traffic-free, zero-commuting, fresh air, affordable lifestyle, as well as how much it means to her to live close to her parents. She talked passionately about the creativity and dedication she brought to her work as a teacher and to her position in the community. Every resource is hard-won when you live in a small remote community. And there is never a transaction that can be defined as “just business”: when the relationships are that intertwined, it is all personal.
In listening to her, I had the haunting sense that I was looking at the life that might have been mine.
I forget sometimes that I am also from a small and remote town. I forget because Hanover isn’t a place that I go back to very often, and because I have now lived away from Hanover longer than I lived there. My adult life has been spent in cities, with the bulk of that time living in cities that are along the 400-series highways, part of the web of communities that, by virtue of go-trains and housing prices, tend to get defined in relationship to the behemoth Toronto. I forget what it’s like to not have everything that you might need to buy or eat available to you within your own community. I forget what it’s like to have to drive at least two hours to get to a hustling bustling city centre. I forget the isolation that sets in through the long blustery winter months when travel into the wildly blowing snows can force you to stay home — sometimes for weeks on end. I forget the unique sort of culture that develops when you have to be so self-contained. And in talking to Caily, I was reminded of the truly excellent education that can thrive in these small communities, perhaps because the resources can’t be taken for granted, because the stakes in relying on the education system to open a window into the big beautiful world are so high.
I might have moved back to Hanover. My parents might have stayed there. We might have opted for all of those benefits of the small community, serving the ones to whom we know that we belong. I might have raised my children with place and landscape as explicit parts of their identity and formation. I might have found my own creativity nurtured, my passion ignited, within the bonds of lifelong relationships.
That doing so never occurred to me in all of my growing up years makes it no less possible a scenario. The fact that our culture has become so transient, and that families mostly do live away from one another, parents routinely raising their children without the support of nearby grandparents, makes it no less true that this is a more recent norm, that communities traditionally had much more ownership of their people than they do today.
In another sense, however, I have never left small town life, and I have been supported every step of the way by nearby family. For a few of our adult years, Dan and I did have family literally down the road to help us with raising our children. But even when circumstance has not allowed this to happen, we have done our small town living within the bonds of the community of the church. Although our church is spread out over the whole globe, wherever we go we encounter that same small-town sense of “everyone knows everyone” — indeed the degree of separation between people in our church is only ever two.
When Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, at least one of his followers is smart enough to ask what exactly Jesus means by a neighbour anyway. Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan, suggesting that we need to assume common ground and a shared sphere of concern in whatever company we might find ourselves. It sounds like an enormous ask, and yet, I wonder if what Jesus is really doing once again here is speaking to a truth that we actually know. We know that we are wired for relationship and community. Maybe we’re all small-town kids at heart. Maybe we’re created with that gut instinct to live with one another as if we’re all from the same place.
The small-town landscape of the church has been dramatically altered in the last year and a half. Our patterns of communal living that allow us to literally show up for one another have become fractured; the grapevine that relies so mightily on regularly seeing each other to know what is happening in one another’s lives has been frayed. Our people and leaders have applied every ounce of our will power and creative energy toward figuring out how to stay together when we’re apart. And still that haunted sense I had over that Elliot Lake supper applies to our churches too. The small-town living of church life can feel like a bygone era.
We held a mini visioning in our church with our leadership recently. It had originally been planned as a “coming out of COVID-19” day-long in-person event. Instead, we opted for a check-in between staff and parish council with virtual break-out rooms to consider what we are learning right now at this juncture of this seemingly endless pandemic.
The answer across the board, to the various questions we asked, was community.
What have we valued? The creative ways we have found of staying together across physical distance and expanding our circle of prayer and care.
What have we missed? Each other. “We realize how much we value our church building,” one person noted, “not because of the bricks and mortar and stained glass, but because of what this space represents in our being together.”
What do we have to offer the brokenness of the world? Relationship. Whether we are praying in our own homes, feeding the hungry, tuning into the livestream, gathering for online Bible study, or figuring out the awkwardness of returning to some semblance of in-person worship, the only thing really on offer is the love of God binding us to one another, binding us to our neighbour, multiplying in care and compassion out into our world.
I think of that Elliot Lake conversation that now seems so long ago, a group of us — friends and strangers — passing food and stories around the table without a care in the world for the germs that could also be circulating among us. I think of Caily and the teaching excellence she pursued because she loves what she does and because she can only do what she loves if others understand the value of that offering too. I think of all of the exceptional teachers I had growing up in Hanover, how their passion for their work and their investment in cutting-edge soul-feeding programming taught me lessons that formed me for life. I think of all of the connections between us that bless us, how easy it is to take them for granted, and what can happen when we intentionally treasure and nurture what we have.
There was gratitude in our mini-visioning night at St. George’s, but this lament that hovered around the edges of our reflections was powerful. Our lament is based in our identity, an identity that the circumstances of lonely, lockdown living can’t really erase — just as my city circumstances of the past 25 years can’t erase the truth of my Hanover upbringing.
We’re a bunch of small-town kids. No matter where we go, we should be able to assume that we belong. No matter the fabric of the community, our faith explicitly tells us we always have a family member we can call on in a pinch. We ache to get back to the patterns of living that most naturally allow us to care for one another. We are our best selves when we recognize in each neighbour we meet the truth that we come from the same place after all.