Prophets, Hometowns, and Past Selves: Thoughts on Moving Back to South Dakota

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I’m sitting in my favorite spot, in one of my favorite coffee shops, drinking coffee made from beans roasted no more than ten feet from where I’m currently sitting.

And I’m uncomfortable. It’s not a physical sensation, though my anxiety’s a little high today and the fireplace is turned on despite it being 70 degrees out. Rather, it's a sense of unease, uncertainty. At any moment, someone from my past could walk through that door and recognize me, and I wouldn’t know how to respond. “What are you doing now?” would inevitably be asked, and I’d have to scramble for a response depending on whether or not they’re someone traditionally open to new ideas.

I moved back to my hometown six weeks ago. I lived here until I was 22, when I moved away to Texas, then Japan, then Chicago. Since moving, my views have shifted immensely – I went from being a purity warrior, thinking I might save my first kiss for my wedding day, to a raging feminist critiquing every element of those ideas and joking about smashing the patriarchy. I’ve written a book on the subject, in fact – a book I’m very proud of, but one that is ultimately hard to talk about with people who knew me as a culture warrior for Jesus.

A friend of mine recently returned from a summer in Asia and we were talking about the uneasy feeling that comes with returning to a small Midwestern city after having traveled all over and interacting with people of all stripes and persuasions. She and I talked about how there’s this weird dissonance between people who knew you then and people who know you now and how your sense of yourself jives with all of that. And I told her words that have been a comfort to me in the past few months: a prophet is not welcome in their hometown.

I’ve been thinking about and turning these thoughts over in my head since I realized in mid-July I’d have to move back to Sioux Falls. While I wouldn’t go as far as to label myself a prophet, I do believe the stories I share and the analysis I do has something to contribute to the world. And, to be honest, I’m afraid to tell people here the full extent of my work, because so much of it is wrapped up in critiquing what I was taught here in the breadbasket of the US. My go-to description when I do mention my book is that it’s about “women and evangelical theology,” and I leave it at that. It’s possibly a disservice to my marketing team (sorry, guys), but it seems to be the best way to avoid awkwardness and inevitable questions about how deeply I critique the work so many people from my past view as good.

It is perhaps unfair of me to be afraid. For all I know, they have changed as much as I, but there is a strange ownership of your past self that people who knew you then seem to have, and I am afraid to confront that. They know who you were, and it puts them in a unique position to ask incisive, digging questions about who you are now (not that those questions are appropriate, but they still get asked). It’s often as simple as “but I thought you believed X…” It’s a shattering of the illusions of who they thought I was, a betrayal of what they taught me, and, in some ways, a driving of the knife into their back.

Part of this is the inevitable lack of confidence that my anxiety disorder instills in me. I know that much – my anxiety manifests itself often as paranoia, thinking everyone secretly hates me and that I have nothing of true value to contribute because who I was contradicts who I am now. But I’m getting better at realizing that jerkbrain is yelling at me, and it’s not my true self. But, previous experience tells me that these fears are not without a precedent, and thus, I am nervous.

South Dakota is by far more conservative than places I’ve lived in the past few years. In Chicago, no one took a second look at my Obama-Biden sticker on my laptop. Here, people stare. And I think to myself, if only they knew what I write about!

I think any kind of life transition requires this kind of discomfort with the past. But this, if anything, is why we need to take care to treat people as people – with stories, lives, and pasts that they may or may not be proud of – especially if we know who they used to be. Everyone changes, and everyone develops their own personhood. And we have to take the time to understand that, to embrace it, and to let people know that we see them as people, not as who we thought they were.

So I take a sip of my iced coffee, and watch the door of the coffee shop, knowing that if a person I know walks through, they are a different person from when I knew them, just as I am different now. And that’s to be celebrated, because that is where hope comes form - if people can change, then things really can be different.