by Jon White
Where are you from?
This is probably one of the most common questions that we ask one another (in America, anyway). It is often asked, I imagine, carelessly and without having too much importance attached to it. But it is a question I find myself struggling to answer.
What does it mean, after all? Am I being asked where I was born, or where I grew up, where my most formative experiences took place? And is there really meaning to be found in the geography of my life?
My usual answer is; “it’s complicated.” Because the truth is that I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere, or rather not one specific anywhere. This frustrates my mother, who doesn’t understand why I don’t enthusiastically embrace the city and state of my birth (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA to be specific). I think my mother believes I am embarrassed or ashamed or something. Maybe that was true once, I can remember wanting to divorce myself from my origins with great earnestness – but that was a long time ago now. And the truth is, it wasn’t the place itself I really wanted to escape from.
Kurt Vonnegut (also from Indianapolis) once described the city for him as being like a place hit by a neutron bomb – all the buildings were there but the people were gone – meaning his personal connections had been lost. For me, it’s kind of the opposite; my family all still live there, it’s a pretty nice place in lots of ways. But the place I grew up isn’t really there anymore – as in much of it is physically gone or altered beyond recognition. When I visit, I am navigating through a ghost world that disappeared years ago, moving from lost landmark to lost landmark.
But other places, too, have a claim on me; Australia, New York, Oregon all are places where important, formative events occurred.
So I think my biggest struggle with the question is the underlying assumption that a specific geography or place says something about who I am; that my story is bounded in some way, limited by location. Would the tragedies and triumphs feel different if they occurred elsewhere? I have lived on enough continents by this point to have begun to discern the universal in the particularities of locale.
I have long thought of St Paul’s words,
“in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.“
One of the most significant aspects of my conversion to Christianity was taking responsibility for my own story, for not allowing the stereotypes of place to determine my relationship with God and the world. But, instead, to try to find my true self, my created self, and live into that. If you were to ask me what I thought faith required, it would be that – taking responsibility for your own story, and letting it be shaped by the story of God’s love.
Nowadays, I live in a place where many people are fiercely attached to place. Sometimes I am envious, no longer feeling I have a home, I occasionally long for the sense of belonging and comfort it brings. More often though, I see and experience the limitations and boundaries it creates on the possibility of hope.
And what is God if not the ultimate source of possibility, the ultimate source of hope? What is the Eschaton if not a promise of all good possibilities fulfilled, all hopes redeemed? Paul reminds us of our unity in Christ for the same reason that he reminds us that we are no longer bound by the Law – so that we will be reminded that our love should not be constrained or limited in any way.
Jon White is the Rector of St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Beckley, WV and is also editor of Episcopal Café.