Guest Outpost blog by Caroline Barnett
The summer is over – and I’ve spent more of it driving than I care to admit. With the end of an internship in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the August, and the beginning seminary in Austin, Texas, I’ve crisscrossed this country getting things in order.
Moving is not something new to me – I have been lucky and privileged to find home in multiple places over the past five years: in Michigan for college; in West Africa for study abroad; in Kansas City for summer breaks; and in Washington, D.C., for a yearlong internship. But I have never lived anywhere as an adult without a looming end date.
I’m not sure if this is the norm for people my age – though it certainly feels like a trend among the college-educated young adults of Washington, D.C. Someone is always coming or going. And while it can be a challenge to keep track of where friends live now, spread-out friendships aren’t limited to geographic boundaries. Thanks to technology and a lot of intentional work, these relationships don’t end just because we have gone our separate ways.
But with each hour I’ve spent on a mindless highway, I’ve started to wonder: How am I interacting with the physical spaces I’ve called home when I know I may get up and leave?
A couple months ago, a co-worker told me about watershed theology. Watershed theology, she explained, integrates the concept of a church parish with a location’s regional watershed – that is, an area of land based on its water sources. Just as a church has a responsibility to care for the people within their parish, churches should view the natural environment, and all that live within its bounds, as active participants in their parish. Watershed theology is about knowing your context.
In knowing the history of a watershed, I can begin to understand the current challenges a neighborhood faces. How has the degradation of a river contributed to environmental racism, where people of color are more likely to have less access to clean and safe drinking water? How have city boundaries elevated some while leaving others without adequate resources? What traditions of a neighborhood existed long before I showed up?
I must admit, I know very little about the watersheds where I have lived. I care about issues of justice, but all too often it’s easier to care on a macro-level where my own personal responsibility feels less pressing. And when listening to my co-worker explain the ways that her church delved into what their watershed needed, I wondered if that level of commitment was really worth it when I knew I was going to be uprooted again in a few short months. In my laziest and most selfish moments, I ask, “What’s the point of building that sort of connection if I’m just going to leave? Shouldn’t I wait until I get to my new place?”
But transience is no excuse. Take, for example, Jesus’ ministry. Every miracle, every teaching Jesus offered to the disciples is done with the knowledge that the day will come when he will leave them. There is the promise of resurrection, but it does not negate the work they do along dusty roads. We, as people of faith, should take that example seriously.
It is a huge privilege to be able to move from one place to another with relative ease. Certainly not everyone is able to pick up and move across the country, or even has the luxury to choose where they want to live. Bearing in mind this sort of privilege means having to be intentional about understanding the places where I find myself. It’s not just an interesting mental exercise, but also a necessary part of caring for the world beyond my chosen communities.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Fortunately, my time in our nation’s capital was spent working for an organization that has been in the city since the late 1970s and places value on remembering the District in all its forms. And my office was peppered with individuals, such as my watershed theology friend, who made sure newcomers like myself understood on what ground we were standing.
Amid my packed boxes and detailed plans, I continue to wrestle with how best to learn about and live in a new place and how best to remember the one I’m leaving. They’re big questions, with few answers, but at least I have one last stretch of driving to think it over.
Caroline Barnett is a first year student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Prior to moving to Texas, she worked as an editorial assistant for Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.