As I write this, I am one month and two days from moving halfway across the country. After nearly eight years in Minnesota—by far the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere—we’re moving to Pennsylvania. We’ve already started packing, and soon we’ll list for sale a house I once believed I’d stay in for the rest of my life, a house I’ve tiled and gardened and loved.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that I read Grace Olmstead’s new book Uprooted (Sentinel, 2021) while I was uprooting myself. But, as its subtitle reveals, Uprooted isn’t about leaving so much as staying and “recovering the legacy of the places we’ve left behind.” Using her own roots in a small agricultural town in Idaho as a case study—one that may not be widely familiar in its specifics but offers ample connections to more universal themes—Olmstead explores community and belonging, farming practices and food sources, land policy and evolving mores, and whether it’s possible to remain or return home in a culture that often equates transience (“You’ll go far!”) with success.
Olmstead is an Anglican-curious Christian (and sometime CT contributor) who presently attends a Baptist church in part for its proximity to her house, and her book is offers many glimpses of her faith. But I was surprised to find its discussion wasn’t more explicit, and I wanted—with some self-interest, I’ll admit, as I prepare to leave my Minnesota home and friends and church—to pick her brain about the connection between rootedness, discipleship, and life in Christian community.
“This is a book about fidelity, interdependence, and place, and so it’s deeply influenced by my Christian faith,” she told me in an interview over email, pointing to scriptural inspiration in the Psalms (“the thanksgiving, wonder, and views of ‘creatureliness’”), Acts (“in which the early church practiced radical forms of communal commitment”), Proverbs and the prophets (in their emphasis of “humble service, generosity, and love”), and the life of Jesus, who traveled in his three years of ministry but spent most of his life as a peasant carpenter in a backwater town.
“I also think it’s about trying to find examples, in everyday life, of the living out of Apostle Paul’s urging” in 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, Olmstead explained. We are exhorted to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life … mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
The quiet permanence Olmstead has in mind seems an increasingly tall order in the 21st-century United States, where transience is high by some standards even while it’s on a three-decade downward trend. My own life is far more a story of movement than stability: I lived in nine places before I graduated from high school, and before Minnesota had never lived anywhere longer than five years. For me and many Americans, rootedness is not the norm—and hasn’t been for several generations. It’s something that must be deliberately chosen and learned anew, often without the benefit of example from our immediate families as Olmstead has in Idaho.
That project, Olmstead told me, is at once helpful to and helped by the rhythms and commitments of church. “I believe building habits of faith requires constancy, the adoption of liturgies (consistent practices) that encourage the truths of our faith to seep into our bones,” she said. “The faith practices and rituals we build in our homes, day in and day out, create the permanent fabric or ‘hum’ in the background of our lived existence that teach us, and our children, what we believe.” That remains a constant and commonality wherever we go, allowing us to join in Christian community wherever we may be.
Olmstead’s ideal for the average Christian is to commit to a single place insofar as we can. “This is not to say we can never move, but that deep embeddedness in a specific church and geographic community serves as the space in which most Christians, I would argue, engage in discipleship and service,” she wrote to me. “It emphasizes Christian fidelity—the fact that I am called to love my neighbors, my family, my home, and my town, even if and when I don’t want to—and makes it difficult for us to just abandon places or people when that love gets hard.”
And it is often hard. It can be hard even in beautiful, booming, convenient places. But it is particularly hard in communities that are small, isolated, economically declining, or as in the case of Olmstead’s hometown, all three. To stay there will often mean real sacrifice, perhaps poverty, boredom, options sharply limited—all anathema to stereotypical American values of bigger, better, richer, faster, more. Choosing to stay in a struggling community when you have the ability and resources to leave may for some be a calling in Christ, and one almost monastic in its demands.
That choice may, with time, lessen the hardship, too. Determining to stay and “invest your social and financial capital in [that community’s] businesses, philanthropic organizations, churches, and neighborhoods, you then offer hope for all those … who feel stuck, yet don’t have the opportunity (or inclination) to leave it behind,” Olmstead said. “It’s not a vocation for everyone, but it’s an important one,” and one, I’d add, Christian parents might do well to deliberately discuss with their children. Our kids should know that sticker, to use Uprooted’s term for those who put down roots, is a worthy answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Still, some of us will by necessity be more a mobile “Paul” than a rooted “Lydia.” Olmstead says people with lives more like Paul’s must take care to differentiate between calling and restlessness. “I think the challenge is twofold,” she said: “to ask ourselves whether we’re moving for the right reasons, and to commit ourselves to loving deeply and faithfully even if and when moving is the right choice.” However short our sojourn, Olmstead said, we should live “in a place as if we’ll die there: seeking to invest as much as we can, for as long as we can.”
In my case, I think the move to Pennsylvania has good reason: We’re going to be closer to my husband’s family and mine. Our new house is just two blocks from my brother-in-law, in fact, and we’re looking forward to long summer evenings of little cousins playing in the yard. But our current house is just a few blocks from so many dear friends, and more than any other move in my life, leaving Minnesota truly does feel like tearing up roots, a shock to the system no matter how carefully I attempt the transplant. Right now, there are a thousand tiny breaks. Yet with time and church and new friendships, “being rooted and established in love” (Eph. 3:17), we’ll grow and flourish again.
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