In Which I Call Out Myself and My Home Town

We all want to belong. We all want to be an insider.

We all want to walk into a place billowing with people and noise and distraction, and then somewhere in that storm we want someone to turn and notice us. We want to see their eyes light up and we want them to forget what they were talking about and we want them to pull up a chair or make a spot at the bar for us. We want them to want to get to know us. We want to know that we matter.

I want you to want me
I need you to need me
I’d love you to love me
I’m beggin’ you to beg me

This desire for friendship and community and intimacy is a beautiful thing. It serves a purpose in the perpetuation of our species by leading to the creation of little people and also to the formation of communities that provide for and protect the individual. We are not all Bear Grylls-types, able to forage on pine cones and various species of moss.

Beyond the physical need, friendship and community fulfill the desires we all have to be loved and to have the opportunity to love others. Many of the emotional needs we have, and much of the pain we encounter, find their answer in this communion of misfits.

Yet a dangerous outcome awaits the individual or community who pursues this insider status for its own sake. We can easily become rather enamored with the way that others accept and love us. How quickly we forget how it felt to be on the outside, to be the one at the party with no one to talk to! How rapidly we erase the memory of that awkward vulnerability!

A strange thought begins tap-tap-tapping within our ego. An alarming worry opens our eyes wide, like that rustling in the middle of the night that sounds very much like someone trying to open the front door.

If I extend the hand of love and fellowship to an outsider, my fellow insiders will lump me with them. I will lose my insider status. I will be seen as different.

And so we ever so slightly turn our shoulder on that passing glance of a stranger, maintaining the insiders’ circle.

* * * * *

I love Lancaster County. The scenic beauty, the memories from my childhood, the friends I’ve made: there are few places on earth like it. We are a generous, honest and family-oriented people. All good things.

But as a whole we are not good at welcoming outsiders. If you move here from somewhere else, I’d be willing to bet that you will always feel at least a little bit “other.” This experience may not be universal, but it is the case of everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has moved into our community from somewhere else.

“It’s a great place to live. An awesome place to raise children,” is the general sentiment. “But I’ve always felt like an outsider.”

There are numerous reasons for this. But at the foundation of our community’s main dysfunction is the elevation of family above all else. After all, most of us who live here can trace our family roots back 10 generations or more simply by opening our coveted copies of The Fisher Book or The Stoltzfus Book.

We go on vacations with our extended family. We spend every single holiday with our extended family. We go to church and spend Sunday afternoons with our extended family.

Of course, it’s our Christian duty to be kind, so we take meals to others and welcome them to the neighborhood and make friends with those “out-of-towners,” but in our heart of hearts we reserve the space of “closest friends” for others like us. And by “like us,” we mean “those who grew up around here.”

* * * * *

I look around at this beautiful community and do you know who I see reaching out to the marginalized people the most?

Strangers. People not from around here. Outsiders.

My friend Chuck Holt has come into Paradise as an “outsider” and fulfills more needs than anyone else I know, working his fingers to the bone at The Factory where he provides a listening ear for hurting kids and a pathway out of poverty for those in the community.

My brother-in-law Ben Halvorsen is from England. He spends every Friday night down at the Kinzer’s Tavern reaching out to people who are one friendship away from a much, much better life. Many church people, people who have been in Lancaster their whole lives, find this association with “notorious sinners” a rather unsavory and perhaps even unacceptable past time.

Bethany Woodcock, after traveling the world for much of her adult life, has spent just about every year she’s lived in our community championing for the rights of the poor and downtrodden. Here. In Lancaster. Where most of us home-towners would rather forget about the little trailer park behind the auto sales lot, or the breathtaking poverty lining the part of Route 30 I rarely drive.

* * * * *

All of this to say.

I am an insider. And I don’t like it. I don’t want it. I want back on the outside.

Maybe our trip will take me there.

* * * * *

As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, his mother and brothers were outside, wanting to talk with him. Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, and they want to speak to you.” Jesus asked, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he pointed to his disciples and said, “These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!” Matthew 12:46-50

There he goes again! Jesus constantly takes the accepted hierarchy and flips it on to its head. In this instance, Jesus’ own family is on the outside, both literally and figuratively…AND HE LEAVES THEM THERE. Replacing them, right there in his inner circle, learning from him and listening to him, are the notorious sinners, the tax collectors, and the outcasts.

What am I going to do with this guy, Jesus, who keeps trying to turn my world upside-down?

* * * * *

And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will have eternal life. Matthew 19:29

* * * * *

Do you feel like an insider or an outsider in your community? Any hints on how we can all become more geared towards the “outsiders” among us?

28 Replies to “In Which I Call Out Myself and My Home Town”

  1. I’ve always felt like an outsider, even in the area where I grew up. I think part of it is that I have this “third culture” experience of having lived in both urban and rural areas. It’s taken awhile for me to be satisfied with life as it is and not allow others to define it for me.

    1. I have felt much like you Michael. I think it’s cause to be an “insider” you have to be “like-minded.” I think differently from most people I grew up around.

  2. Ouch! Your stepping on my toes, Shawn. Cuz I’m an insider too. You made me think about how I treat others. Thanks for these thoughts this morning.

  3. When I first moved here, I felt like an outsider. Now that I’ve been in the same place for a few years, I’ve started to feel like an insider. Much like what you’ve been saying, as an outsider, I actually put more effort into reaching out to other people. Now that I’m on the inside, I’ve gotten lazy and comfortable.

  4. Shawn, this is powerful and beautiful.
    As someone who loves Lancaster, someone who has taken on the Mennonite faith as her own, someone who has dearest friends in that community, I have never felt “in” there. I’m not ethnically Mennonite, I don’t have a large family to spend weekends with, and I don’t farm.

    I still love Lancaster, but for some of these reasons, I have chosen not to move there.

    Thank you for being bold in your honesty here. I, for one, appreciate it.

  5. Coming to Lancater County during my 5th grade school year was hard. BUT I think its easier as a child because of school to find friends and fit in, than it would be as an adult.
    As a person who has lived all over the country in my teenage and adult years, I’ve found that there are really only a FEW places I felt that way.
    ( down here in the south is probably the WORST of them. I’ve been here close to 10 years and STILL feel like an outsider)

  6. I felt like an outsider growing up my small Midwestern town where at least 4 generations of both my mothers and my fathers family have lived. Now I’m living in a small city in the South. I still find times when I feel like an outsider because I’m horrible at small talk and other social stuff. I’m a Christian who talks about extreme poverty and human trafficking. I’m a Christian who seeks to love and sometimes that makes me an outsider, especially with my family back in the Midwest. However, I find that I am transitioning into an insider at work and at church. So thank you for the reminder to keep looking for the outsiders.

  7. You know… I sat here reading this and when I got to your question about who does the most for outsiders, I immediately thought about Chuck Holt and everything he does for our community. And then I kept reading and saw his name!

    As a very shy person, it’s definitely a stretch for me to reach out beyond my comfort zone (the local friends and family you mention). BUT! I’ve been called out and now I need to do something about it!

    Thanks for giving me a challenge! My new goal for 2012 is to become an outsider!

  8. Spending some time processing…hmmmmm…this will be a GREAT subject of conversation when you hit Memphis in a few months!

    Okay, I’m going to be brave and honest here. After living in nine different cities in nine years, my observation has been that the most difficult areas to fit into are the most religious. Sad, but true.

  9. Great thoughts, Shawn! I’m with you! It seems Jesus dwells on the outside with the outsiders; and when we’re in the in, we too easily miss him.

  10. And a subject for another time …. marrying into a group on Lancaster “insiders” ….. wink wink.

  11. Great post, Shawn. I’ve lived in Lancaster County since around 1992, and have always felt “outside.” I blame myself as much as anyone, though, because I’m pretty content with what many would consider a very sparse social life. I never made that much effort to be included. It works both ways.

    Funny thing I remember from way back. When Lancaster County people say, “we really have to have you over sometime,” it has about the same value of meaning as saying, “I’m fine” when someone asks how you are.

    These are simply observations, not criticisms. I love the area, or I wouldn’t have stayed around for 20 years.

  12. oh, i know this well. we moved to a small pennsylvania town seven years ago, and it’s the very same way. everyone has friends and extended family nearby, and while friendly-ish, their lives are full.

    i’ve tried so hard to break in–joining groups, volunteering, hosting parties and dinners–but it’s impossible. and it sucks.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Suzannah. The only encouragement I have for you is that, as an outsider, you are uniquely positioned to identify and care for other outsiders. This was the role that Jesus played. Blessings to you and your family. It’s certainly not easy.

  13. I like your perspective on this subject! Refreshing to say the least…. Having moved a lot in my childhood and then moving to this area in my 20’s….. I have thought about this insider/outsider subject a lot over the years. I have come to the conclusion that I will always feel like an “outsider” no matter where I may live. I have heard a lot of “different” comments. But I’ve been blessed to know lots of “insiders” who are not “insiders”. Identity in anything other than “who I am in Christ” is not a good path to be on for too long! If my identity is in being an “outsider”, I may become cynical of the “insider”.

  14. Wow, Shawn. I can’t believe you, as a born and bred Lancaster county boy, actually realized this and then put it down in a “permanent” record.

    Having moved here about six years ago, I quickly realized that I didn’t fit in. Many times I found myself in a room with a lively conversation where the vast majority of people laughed and talked about something that happened 20 years ago with a mutual 2nd or 3rd cousin. I quietly listened, with maybe one other people, hoping to find my way into the conversation, but then eventually giving up. This was a great source of heartache for me.

    It wasn’t done purposefully. But, as you stated, Shawn, families who have lived here all their lives along with the generations before them have many commonalities.

    Then about six months ago, I came to an increased realization of my purpose, which wasn’t to fit in, but to express His love, grace, and acceptance to whoever. The blame does not lie entirely with folks from Lancaster county, but with all of God’s children. Sometimes we forget that we are strangers in a strange land, and our purpose has nothing to do with fitting in or feeling comfortable.

    Thank you for sharing. It meant a lot to me.

    1. Thanks for your comments and thoughts, Lise. We are, indeed, all strangers in a strange land. The more love and significance we can bestow on others, the better off our own life will be.

  15. I love the way your thoughts wander in this post, from beautiful scenes to tough questions to Bible passages. Thanks for this!

    I live in a relatively small city (100,000) of almost all implants. It’s a university town, so the surprising moment comes when you meet someone who grew up here, not when you meet someone from somewhere else. The interesting thing is, there’s always a different way of being an outsider. The way I feel it most is that neither my husband nor I work or study at the university. People inevitably ask (or think) “So why on earth do you live here?” It’s funny, and sometimes it’s maddening, but I’m thankful for the perspective I have from the “outside.”

    1. Thanks for sharing your current situation, Kristin. I suppose being “Halfway to Normal” implies some sort of “outsideness.”

  16. You hit a rather tender spot with me. It is insightful to read of others feeling similar as in being outsider. Mine isn’t how I personally interact. I can about out-talk anybody if given the chance. The catch is, I’m profoundly deaf. Very very few people are willing to attempt find ways around language barrier one-on-one. Including outsiders. Does this made me “outsider of outside”? *rolls eyes upwards* hahaha. I sometimes need to remind myself that my own husband and children is more important…. and yet, at same time- yearns some kind of connection especially among my supposedly sisterhood.

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