“I choose not to walk by it….” Ashley Marsh, Opelika, Alabama, 21st-century
“Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way…but you can never again say that you did not know.” William Wilberforce, London, England, 18th-century
This past week I was drawn into a wonderful, even if weighty gathering, the Local Shalom Summit, hosted by some good folks in Stanford, KY. The second oldest town in the state, it grew up on an ancient trace, becoming the Wilderness Trail in the 1700s, connecting the “east” of Virginia and the Carolinas with the “west” of Kentucky and beyond. Not Lexington or Louisville, but not the country either; somewhere in-between, an ordinary place full of ordinary people, living lives like most of us.
We were there because of people who care about where they live, and have chosen to step into its history with hope.
A decade or so ago the main street was as if time had forgotten it; the future was going somewhere else. Not much business, not many people— there wasn’t a good reason to be downtown in the town of Stanford. But over time Jess and Angela Correll began to wonder what might be.
With generations of love for this part of Kentucky between them, and decades of business experience, they slowly, slowly have sought the flourishing of Stanford. Understanding the critical role that a healthy marketplace has in a healthy city, they have done what was possible, dreaming and trying again, learning and trying again, building by building seeing what could be done to make their home town a place where human beings love to live.
Drawing on their background in banking, the Southern National Bank, they found partners who cared about the common wealth of Stanford, knowing that it would take a community to care if their hopes were to become real. A new paint job here, a renewed building there, a creative venture over here, an entrepreneurial idea over there, in and through it all a longing is to see what is become what can be.
One evening, after a very good supper at the Blue Bird Cafe, I offered my reflections on this work in progress. While I had never been to Stanford, I had been thinking about all of this for several weeks, day by day revisiting notes I was taking on the questions that brought the gathering into being. And so we began by thinking together about words like “disease” and “shalom.” Not surprisingly, disease comes from old French and English words, literally “dis-ease,” i.e. that something is wrong, something has happened to upset what once was. Chaos has entered in… to a soul, a city, or a society. I talked some about my father’s work as a plant pathologist, spending the years of his life studying soil-born diseases; for him disease was never the point— to overcome the disease was the reason for his work.
Which is why shalom matters, and is a word for us to remember to remember. A very old word, of course, it is Semitic in origin, the same consonants that make for “salem,” as in the city of Jerusalem, “the city of peace,” become shalom in Hebrew; in Arabic, the word is salaam. We often translate it as “peace,” and it is that, simply said, but it is a much richer word, speaking to us of everything as it ought to be. Disordered loves become rightly ordered, with implications that are both personal and public. Shalom is not just a lack of violence, an absence of conflict, but more the weaving together of everyone and everything as it was meant to be… as it might be, as it someday will be.
Because we were where we were, and because I am who I am, I drew in both Walker Percy and Wendell Berry, boys who grew up in small southern towns who became men with far-reaching insights into who we are and how we live. If Percy offers us the vision that a good life can be seen as a “hint of hope,” taking honest account of the deep-seated wounds that are ours in this life and world, and trying anyway; then Berry’s writing is permeated with the belief that people and place are crucial for human flourishing, arguing in fact that when we forget them, we cannot flourish. My visits in the last year to Birmingham, Alabama, and Bratislava, Slovakia, also came into our evening. In both places I was invited in by people who care about where they live, believing that it is only in a recovery of vocation that there will be a renewal of their cities; knowing their hurts and sorrows, they are not willing to “walk on by” and “look the other way.”
And in the end I talked about conversations with consequences. Words have to become flesh for us to understand them, for us to believe them. Everyone in the room was committed to that, in their own ways in their own places— from small towns in Alabama, Pennsylvania and more —uniquely pouring out their faith, hope and love for the sake of their cities, working and working again for shalom to be seen in their streets.
Heaven hasn’t come to earth, but this little place of Stanford, home to generations and generations of Kentuckians, is a signpost of what happens when people see themselves implicated for love’s sake in the way the world turns out.