And So, Baton Rouge
Two years ago yesterday, my family moved into our new house in Starhill. Julie and I thought we would be there forever. Yesterday, we moved to an apartment in Baton Rouge. I’m writing this from the new bedroom, on our first night there. It doesn’t quite feel real.
To catch up those who missed it: we moved suddenly, and primarily because our beloved Orthodox mission, St. John the Theologian, is losing its priest. About six weeks ago, I suppose it was, our congregation was shocked to hear that one of our founding families was leaving us. Not only were we sad for them, but we were sad for ourselves. We knew that our mission operated on a bare-bones budget. If we lost a single tither, that would be the end for us. And so it was. Our beautiful country part of the world is not interested in Orthodoxy. We knew it would be a hard sell, and it has proven to be so. We tried. The Spirit blows where it will.
That’s not strictly true. Our friends at the mission are going to keep it open for Sunday prayer, and for a priest to come once or twice a month to say the liturgy. But Julie and I made the call fairly quickly to move to Baton Rouge. There were several reasons, the main one of which is that neither one of us are willing to live again without close involvement with an Orthodox parish. The past four years in the mission have been agonizing in some ways, but rewarding in ways that are hard for me to describe. I suppose the best testimony to how the mission changed Julie and me is that we have uprooted ourselves and moved 35 miles south to the city so we would be close to an active mission. There is no substitute for being present. We have tried before to be part of a church with a 45 minute drive between us and it. Doesn’t work, not for us anyway.
We have kids who are getting older. They need an active church life as much as their parents do. The work I’ve been doing on the Benedict Option book has convinced me even more deeply of this truth. As I wrote in How Dante Can Save Your Life, the greatest lesson of my coming home after being away for so long was discovering that I had made idols of Family and Place, and that I needed to repent of that. My change of heart did not mean that I disdained Family and Place. It only meant that I subordinated them to God, as they ought to have been in the first place. As I thought they had been, but I was wrong. Such a hard, hard lesson to learn, but glory to God that I learned it.
Still … we uprooted ourselves again. We are not happy about it. We leave behind dear friends and a place we love, though “leave behind” must be qualified by the fact that it’s only an easy 45-minute drive away. We didn’t sell our house, so you never know what’s going to happen. Mam is in good physical health, so we feel at liberty to do this now. In fact, we felt like we had to. The Church is the rock of our lives, which is to say, God.
We had already put the moving plans in motion when the shooting of Alton Sterling happened, and then the revenge murder of the two police officers and the sheriff’s deputy. I thought, oh man, do we really want to move to Baton Rouge right now? But it was too late. We hoped for the best.
Since the killings of the law enforcement officers, Baton Rouge has shown itself at its best. You’ve seen on the national news, probably, how the city has come together to honor the lives of these men — two white men and a black man — without regard to race. People here, black and white, are praying. This afternoon I was sitting in a cafe doing some writing, and heard on the radio an announcer reading Ofc. Montrell Jackson’s now-famous Facebook post after Sterling’s killing and amid the protests it sparked. The announcer read this aloud:
Then he nearly broke into tears, recalling that Ofc. Jackson was buried today. “Thank you, brother,” he said. I nearly burst into tears myself. On a nearby muted TV screen, I could see interviews from a local newscast, in which the reporter talked to folks who had come out to line the road to bid farewell to Ofc. Jackson as his hearse rolled past. Black people and white people both. One thin older white woman with a battered face, who might not have had all her teeth, was interviewed standing on the roadside, paying her respects.
I thought: there is Baton Rouge. And then I thought: it’s good to be back.