Last week, Nora and I went to a memorial service for a friend. It was a beautiful, mild June Saturday. The church was filled, folding chairs in the foyer, and a tent outside with another hundred listening to the service on speakers. Maybe 400 people, in a town of only 740.
Ellen had come to Vermont in the 1970s as part of the back-to-the-land movement, was a co-founder of the Rocks and Trees ecological community in our town. She’s the only person I knew who actually went to Woodstock. She was a committed gardener, and a committed Christian.
And the assembled who had come to celebrate her life were part of a densely interwoven congregation. A congregation of people with decades in our tiny town. A congregation of folk music and natural foods, the Whole Earth Catalog generation who thought they invented gardening from scratch. A congregation of Christ, of morning walks and evening Scripture study. A congregation at ease with one another, laughing, singing, sharing deep cultural vocabulary.
I’ve long ago left my childhood faith, but I remember congregation. My first career choice, when I was about twelve, was that I wanted to be a Lutheran minister. Instead, I became a college teacher. And discovered that, although the doctrine was different, the work was the same. Public speaking and inspiration. Counseling people in times of need. Deep study and deep deliberation of core texts. Constant writing.
I had found, in the end of my undergraduate education, the congregation that mattered to me. And I dedicated my life to the scholarly cause. Devout and earnest, I was a regular and productive servant to the intellectual work and to the congregation of scholars. As Desmond Tutu has said, “Our greatest joy comes when we attempt to do good for others.” I took on each task in its turn, and did it with every bit of care and attention I could muster. My heart was pure.
And now I live in exile. That scholarly congregation, the one that mattered, has rejected me. There is nothing to be done for that, and I have crafted a good life in my new work among new friends. But I will always know that the community I most longed for found me insufficient, and that denial is suffused through me, filling the liminal spaces. The space every night between awake and asleep. The distance that appears while serving yet another higher-ed client who appreciates my labor but would not make a home for me. The years of being a college administrator, the butler in the mansion, the shopmaster who laid out the tools for the craftsmen.
The story of the adjunct faculty, of the post-doctoral scholars, of those in “alt-careers”—that story will be incomplete unless we recognize that we are refugees from a nation that would not have us. We have found our way to innumerable continents, but still hold that lost home in our hearts. We still, many of us, in quiet moments, mourn the loss of our congregation as we make our scattered way across diverse lands.