Becoming a better neighbor
Just over a year ago, our family moved from Howard County, Maryland – where we had lived for the last 11 years – to Shepherdstown. Three years prior to our move, after my wife had completed the “Freedom’s Run” half-marathon here in town (thanks in great part to me holding her backpack and drinking coffee as she ran) we talked on the way home about how great it would be to live in a place like this one. Then in 2016, the wonderful people at Covenant Church invited me to be their pastor, and that desire became a reality!
Ever since we were first exposed to Shepherdstown in 2005, we have loved this place. Now that we have been residents here for a year, we love the people who fill that place even more! So when I was asked to contribute a monthly column to our city’s signature newspaper, I was honored. And also a bit intimidated! How can a pastor contribute to our local conversation in a helpful way? I don’t think that question has ever been more important, especially in our current context.
In a recent “National Review” article, journalist David French claims that our nation and culture, though not in a civil war, are “drifting toward divorce.” “At an increasing rate,” he says, “Americans separate themselves into culturally and ideologically homogeneous enclaves.” It’s the most tragic of ironies that our technological advance has made us more connected with each other than ever before in human history, and at the same time, we are more isolated from each other than ever. In the past, we could claim geographic, cultural or ideological ignorance as a legitimate excuse for our division from each other. But we now live in a world where everyone lives everywhere! That old world marked by tribal, ethnic, cultural and ideological boundaries is now gone. There are no more legitimate reasons for refusing to understand each other. In our day, if we remain isolated, it is because we choose to do so.
That fact is most indicting when it comes to my own religious tribe. We are evangelical Christians who believe God became human flesh in the person of Jesus to reconcile the world to Himself, and us to each other (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) So if I take my own faith seriously, it teaches me that the work of overcoming isolation starts with me. This doesn’t mean we ignore our differences or expect everyone to view the world exactly as we do. It does mean we commit to push through ignorance and isolation to understanding, and respect. After a year of living in this place we have loved for more than a decade, I’m convinced towns like ours have precisely that capacity. I have experienced it already! And in a world currently full of racial, religious, and cultural tension, reaching that understanding is more crucial than ever.
So moving forward with this column, it is my goal to find those points of connectivity. Doing so will require walking paths that sometimes take us to uncomfortable places, and I am certain I will write things that some won’t agree with, but those are exactly the kinds of conversations that stretch all of us, and make us all better neighbors. Agree or disagree, I hope to hear from you. Even more, I hope to get to know you, and I hope this monthly contribution will help us all get to know each other better.
Joel Rainey is Lead Pastor at Covenant Church and Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina. He and his family live in Shepherdstown.