Five years ago, my family and I packed up our home in Phoenix and moved to Waverly, Iowa, where I had accepted a job as an ELCA campus pastor. In many ways the move was a homecoming. My wife grew up in Iowa, and most of her family is still in the state. I grew up mostly in the Midwest, including a brief stint in Iowa.
But that was a long time ago. My wife and I may be Midwesterners at heart, but we’ve lived almost exclusively in large cities. A town of 10,000 people is not big to us, especially having just moved from Phoenix. (Although I’ve discovered that our rural students attending Wartburg College think Waverly is a big town because it has a Walmart).
We knew the move was going to be a big change, but I was kind of excited to move to a small town. I had visions of my kids engaged in the kind of wholesome activities found in Norman Rockwell paintings. Riding their bikes to the soda fountain with blades of grass sticking out of the corners of their mouths, waving to everyone they met along the way. Although I soon discovered that the calendar has moved forward from the 1950s, there really are some wonderful benefits to living in a small town.
The transition was also a real challenge. I had no idea just how conspicuous we would be as newcomers. It was disconcerting to discover that everyone I met already knew everything about me, including where I lived – although they usually insisted on identifying our home by the previous resident’s last name. I soon discovered that many of the residents had lived in the community for generations. Even those that hadn’t grown up in Waverly were often from other small communities and seemed to know how to navigate the politics of small-town life that mystified me.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I became a little frustrated with my new community. I began to wonder if I was cut out for small-town living or if I’d ever feel at home. When I went to my kid’s events, I often found myself choosing to read a book rather than interact with the other parents, who I perceived to be insiders. The hard part was that I felt very called to be part of the campus community but felt little connection to the broader community. I guess you could say that I was sulking. I knew in my head that as a Christian I was called to make a difference in my community, but how could I do that if I was always on the outside?
Then one day, I was part of a Bible study on the book of Jonah with one of our pastors. I’ve read and preached about Jonah many times, but because of my circumstances, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was then that I realized that I was Jonah – a resentful servant sent to a community of people whose ways seemed foreign.
Without realizing it, I had come to town feeling somewhat superior. They were lucky to have someone like me living here. I never stopped to think that the road we take when God calls us to do something goes both ways. Relationships are a give and take that requires both partners to be open to mutual change and transformation.
I won’t pretend that I figured all of this out overnight or that the struggle to find my place is resolved. A funny thing happens when you stop resisting God’s call. You stop wanting to run away.
For perhaps the first time in my peripatetic life, I feel like this is home. I want to be here in this imperfectly perfect community for as long as God wants me to be. I long to be part of God’s work of reconciliation in this place, extending and receiving hospitality across the boundaries of insider and outsider.
And the best part is that I didn’t have to be swallowed by a whale to figure this out.