Permanency with an asterisk…

I’m not particularly religious. It’s been decades since I sat through a church service that didn’t involve a wedding or a funeral. I was raised in the local Methodist church back home as a kid, but drifted away as a teenager. Like the poet said, “Mama tried.” Even as I’ve fallen away from the flock, I’ve maintained what I’d describe as an academic interest in religion. It seems to me that any force that has so powerfully influenced civilizations across thousands of years is probably worth having an interest in.

I may have been raised Methodist, but I don’t have any deep insights into the inner workings of the church, its governing body, or the personalities involved. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it at all until a few weeks ago when someone mentioned attending a meeting to decide if their little church would stand with its parent denomination or brake away. The divide, unsurprisingly, is over the current hot button cultural issues with gender, sexuality, and inclusivity leading the way.

I understand that the issues have already caused people who had been sitting in the same pews for 60 or 70 years to step away on their own before the whole congregation even made a decision. In a community that puts a premium on doing things the way they’ve always been done, that’s quite a statement. Whether that statement is about the church, its congregants, or some people’s determination to be stubbornly intolerant to anything that doesn’t toe the line of their own standards of goodness and right is probably up to debate.

The community where I grew up has always struggled to hang on to its young people. With the double yolk of declining populations and youthful disinterest in organized religion, the local Methodist congregation has already been in steady decline to the point that it’s made up of predominately elderly members. Just having this cultural fight, let alone setting up as a breakaway sect, in my estimation, only has one outcome for this small church nestled hard against Western Maryland’s mountains – its numbers will drop to a point where the congregation is no longer viable regardless of whether they call themselves United Methodists or Global Methodists. It’s already happened to churches in the small towns and villages across the country as younger members shifted to more modern forms of worship. This will be another old-line church that folds as the ground around it shifts in ways that ye olde John Wesley could never have imagined.

As someone who long since gave up practicing religion in any real sense, I’m surprisingly moved by these discussions and their implications. The little white church perched on a hill overlooking town always felt like something solid – a permanent fixture that remained even while the town itself changed. Permanency, as it turns out, should probably come with an asterisk, as terms and conditions apply. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.

The sound of going home…

There are some conversations I only hear when I make the trip home to Western Maryland. This weekend, one of those overheard conversations started innocently enough – the usual checking in on mutual friends that happens when two people who haven’t seen one another in a while show up at the same place. It very quickly became obvious that it was a conversation better not had… because it went something like this:

Person 1: Have you seen Bob lately?

Person 2: Bob’s dead.

Person 1: Oh damn. What about Frank?

Person 2: Dead.

Person 1: What was his wife’s name?

Person 2: Bonnie. She moved to Florida and died.

Person 1: Pete?

Person 2: Stroke.

Person 3: Maybe you could just list the people not dead?

OK, so I made up Person 3… mostly because that’s what I was sitting there thinking while this conversation happened. It went on for another ten minutes, with every answer being that someone was dead, almost dead, in a nursing home, in a nursing home and almost dead, or moved to Florida.

I hate to think that in 35 years that’s the kind of conversation I can look forward to. In fairness, I’ll probably be one of the ones who has dropped dead by then so I’ll at least get to miss out on the most awkward small talk ever… and that my friends is the sound of going home.