Winter home struggles

January 3rd, 2023

A couple of winters ago, I found myself in the grips of a depressive episode the likes of which I had not experienced before. Winter has always been my toughest season to navigate emotionally and spiritually, but that particular winter was especially harsh. The pandemic and some family health matters aggravated that harshness, combined with a D.Min. project that unintentionally left me in a full-on spiritual, emotional, and vocational crisis.

My D.Min. project centered on practices of placemaking and home. I had done all the reading I could, pulling from a vast array of sources—some more helpful than others, some more meandering and tangential. I compiled all of them, mixed in my own experience and gleaned wisdom, and then began the work of sorting out structures and themes for my writing. But as winter unfolded, so did my internal crisis, fueled by seasonal depression. The question that brought me metaphorically and physically to my knees was, “What is home?” or, more specifically, “Where is my home?”

As an itinerant pastor working on a doctoral project on placemaking and home, it was not the best time to start struggling with such questions myself. I was supposedly becoming an authority on such things, someone with something helpful to say on these topics. How could I be helpful in guiding other itinerant pastors toward appreciative placemaking practices in places they call “home,” if I cannot be assured that I know where my own home is?

I had only called two places as home in my life up to that point. My first home was the hills and valleys of Appalachia. That had been home for all my pre-ministerial life. The only other place I had called “home” had come with entering itinerant ministry in the rural coastal plains of North Carolina. I loved both places equally, and I had never felt any tension between calling both places “home.” Until that winter.

All of the reading and writing about homeplaces in that season, with all of its tensions and challenges, made me long for that first homeplace. I felt that longing while still wanting to be firmly rooted in our current home, all the while knowing the bishop and cabinet were meeting to discuss the high probability I would be moved. For all intents and purposes, I was utterly paralyzed by my questions about where my home was and what seemed to be a bleak future, regardless of what answers I did or did not find.

One day I would spend hours applying for jobs in the non-profit sector and for administrative roles in manufacturing facilities back in my old hometown. The next day, I would bust my butt working in the current community and not pay any attention to any place else. The day after that, I would not leave the house, or perhaps even my bedroom. Rinse. Repeat.

As all of this was happening, I enrolled in a class taught by Dr. Greg Ellison at Emory as part of my D.Min. requirements. In that class, we read a lot of Howard Thurman, Barbara Brown Taylor, and other mystical voices who promote the rooting of one’s life and spirit in present, earthbound moments, allowing one to experience the holy in that place. We also talked a lot about vocation. Dr. Ellison openly shared his vocational struggles both with our class and publicly in a TheoEd talk, where he riffed off of Martin Luther’s “Fit in the Choir.”

Ellison inspired me amidst my own struggle. I told myself, “If Greg can weather his storms of doubt, so can I.” I reached out to him, and we met (on Zoom of course) and discussed my struggles. Much to my chagrin, and in true mentoring fashion, my teacher provided more questions than answers. Among the many gifts I received in that conversation, the greatest was his understanding of my experience and in his vulnerable recognition that in many ways, the struggle doesn’t necessarily “end”—but grace is still present, and I was not alone.

I continued to read and write and struggle as winter rolled along. I continued to long for one home while loving another, knowing that my calling and vocation in life would likely lead to a third home coming soon. 

After another full day on the internet job sites, I called in an order at a local pizza joint. When COVID first appeared and in response to the local school system’s poor reaction to food access for the most vulnerable children in our county, I began working with this pizza place as one of five local restaurants in providing aid to hurting children and their families. The county’s response to the food situation eventually improved, and it had been a few months since we had ordered meals from the local restaurants. Out of our gratitude for their support in those early pandemic days, we always tried to order from them when pizza night rolled around.

I drove through the cold that night in a daze, weighed down by questions and fears. I couldn’t shake this feeling of not belonging anywhere, with no particular sense of where I should be. I was the third car in line to pick up my order, and as I waited, I pulled out of my phone and checked my email to see if any new jobs had appeared. I was certain ministry was quickly becoming my past and not my future, and I was even ready to quit my D.Min. quest with only three months to go. The line slowly moved forward, until I was next up to the window.

The young man on the other side of the window yanked the window open, exposing himself to the cold winter air and exposing me to his maniacal look. In all my trips to the pizza place, this was our first encounter. His eyes were big and wide, all pupils, with several face piercings and various tattoos. His movements were as wild as his appearance. I told him my name, and he slammed the window shut. Eventually, he re-appeared carrying two boxed pies. As he handed me the pizzas he said, “You don’t owe us anything.” 

“What?” I replied. 

“It’s paid for. You are good to go,” he said as he burst out in a laugh that matched his wild look.

I told him I did not understand how this had happened, and I asked if the owner had arranged it. He assured me the owner had nothing to do with it, and once again slammed the window shut as his creepy cackle carried through the glass. I pulled out of the parking lot stunned. As I drove away, I could only think that I just had a violent encounter with grace. Like something from a Flannery O’Connor story, a maniac at a pizza place hit me with an act of grace and my world was rocked.

As I crept out of the parking lot, the thought entered my mind: aside from here, where else could you participate in feeding a community as we had in this very parking lot for months? Where else aside from ministry could you get to have deep and meaningful relationships with people from all walks of life? Where else other than ministry can you be given grace, and receive grace, at the levels that you have experienced these last ten years? As I headed down the two-lane road back home, I realized the answer to all these questions was: nowhere else. I am not all these other things I had been applying to be for the past months. I am not, I am not, I am not. I am a pastor.

The vocational crisis may have been averted, but there was still the matter of where home is and whether I had any authority to write about home when I couldn’t be assured that I would ever have one for any length of the time.

In a conversation with my advisor, Dr. Alison Collis Greene, I lamented my homeplace dilemma, and how useless I felt my project was turning out to be. I told her I didn’t know how much more of this longing for one home, while loving the other, while knowing a third home was likely coming soon, I could take. In a way striking similar to Greg Ellison, Alison calmly posed a question amid my chaos: “Who said you can only have one home?”

The obvious answer was “nobody.” No one had told me that I had to be limited to one homeplace. This time, several miles from the pizza place parking lot, grace opened my eyes to see that all my energy had been directed to the wrong sorts of questions. Just as I love all three of my children, so too could I love all my homes. Alison told me, “You have two homes, and that is perfectly acceptable.” Now I have three homes, and that is perfectly acceptable, too. I love them all.

Here, in the new home, I could feel fully alive. Even in the winter. I still love the other two homes just as much as I ever have. Although I have moved, they remain home, and always will. To call or consider them anything else would minimize the real love I have for those places when I was there, and even still.

This winter I had a three-day stretch where I spent a full day each in all three places I’ve come to call “home,” in the order I had come to know them. It wasn’t planned that way, and yet in each place I felt like I fully belonged there. Not to the exclusion of the others, nor as a sense of “this was where I used to be” or “this is where I am now.” The ground in all three places felt holy and wholly home. All three places shape my itinerant, wandering, and wondering soul. I have left in all three places more seeds than ash, and I am even more grateful for the gifts that each place has given to me and my calling.

To any who are struggling with new places and new homes in this season or any other, I assure you as the wise Drs. Ellison and Greene assured me: you are not alone. You can have many places you call “home.” Order some pizza, more will be revealed.

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