It seems that “quaint” Emmaus (the word the newspapers all use to describe our borough) has been targeted as a potential home for a swingers’ club, to be situated right on downtown Main Street. The fellow behind the club claims that it’s not going to be a “sex club,” that they’re going to be more innocuous than the Freemasons (will they also have funny hats and sashes?), but anyone with just an ounce of worldliness to them knows exactly what the advertising for it means. As you may imagine, the borough is not only abuzz with this news, but a lot of folks are—you guessed it—”up in arms.” (I’d be fascinated to see a bunch of folks actually getting armed, maybe with pitchforks or somesuch.) The clichés abound, it seems.
Your humble servant is, quite naturally, not interested in seeing a swingers’ club in Emmaus. (I was about to write disinterested, but of course that means something else. Perhaps we could coin misinterested. I considered the fanciful antirested, but that’s just silly.) Such a thing is certainly immoral, but morality is not the only question in play here. You might ask how someone dedicated to liberty on theological grounds plans to attend the borough zoning hearing next week that will hear an appeal on the initially denied request for putting the club in, especially with an intent to let the zoning board know he’s in favor of their upholding their previous decision.
This moment is one of those where the localist parts ways with the libertarian (I am usually the former and often the latter). The strict, ideological libertarian would depend on market forces to drive this sort of trashiness out of our borough. (He’s also probably interested in eliminating all our borough zoning ordinances entirely.) If needed, it may well work, mind you. I can see picketers and perhaps even local church clergy and congregations lining up on the sidewalk outside the club and letting folks coming in that what they’re doing is a bad idea. But I’d much prefer the zoning board would nip this in the bud.
Emmaus borough ordinances are such that new uses for public property that are not already explicitly regulated by the borough are automatically prohibited, unless an exception is made. It was on this basis that the request was initially denied. Such an ordinance sounds rather draconian on its surface, i.e., that you’re essentially not allowed to do anything new in the borough in public spaces. But if one considers how this actually works out, it’s quite different. What it comes down to is that the borough, through its locally elected representatives, would like to have a say-so on anything too out of the ordinary before it gets introduced into borough life.
Such a law, if passed on a Federal or State level, would be utterly repugnant. Why? It’s because those governments have no real expertise in such matters and would be downright awful at making the right decisions. But Emmaus, with its population of roughly 11,000, is a place where people actually can know one another, know what’s going on in town, and what would constitute a nuisance and not just novelty.
Yes, I suppose if the zoning board were to deny this appeal, it would constitute something of an imposition of morality, at least in some sense. But consider that the question is not whether swingers should swing, but whether that’s the sort of thing we as a borough want in the most public, most frequented, most beloved part of Emmaus. That’s another matter entirely. As a community, we have a say-so as to what kind of public life takes place in our borough. Individuals dedicated to the common good should not have recourse only to market forces, most particularly on the local level.
This is exactly the sort of question that local governments are qualified to handle. Do we need a one-size-fits-all policy to make such determinations throughout our whole country? Certainly not. Why? Because people in the District of Columbia are unqualified to make such decisions, and—this is critical—they wouldn’t have to live with them, anyway.
Theologically, local government makes so much more sense than centralized, universal policy-making. It is much more commensurate to the nature of human persons, who tend to behave better when forced to live with the consequences of their decisions, rather than examining such questions in the rarefied theoretical world of virtual governance that dominates large-scale politics. This anthropological truth is why I am planning to go to the zoning board meeting (assuming I can get in the door!), because it is part of my pastoral responsibility to this borough, even for the people who may never step through my church’s doors. I have a duty to work for an atmosphere where they can meet God in peace, repent of their sins, and be united to the divine energies. Putting a blight on Main Street will hinder that.
A fascinating event held recently at St. Paul’s was this seminar and discussion led by Prof. Alfred Siewers of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (referenced in this previous post). You can now listen to both parts of the recording made of the seminar via Ancient Faith Radio:
- Part One—the bulk of the seminar, introduced by your host, in which I warble on a bit about my 2001 pilgrimage in the British Isles. Prof. Siewers gives a fascinating talk about Irish Christian monasticism and how it lived in terms of ecology (“the story of home”).
- Part Two—the question and answer session, featuring both Prof. Siewers and your humble servant.
Interested parties can also download Prof. Siewers’s handout here.
I remarked to my wife the other day that I now really don’t want to live anywhere but in Emmaus (we live in Allentown for the moment but hope that that will change in the next few years). I have started referring to this place occasionally as “my Emmaus.” (The genitive case is, of course, not merely the possessive.)
I’ve moved a good many times in my life and grown fairly suspicious (and sometimes cynical) at interactions with any sort of organization that might be deemed “official.” My assumption is typically that the Great Machine, whoever its local representatives might be, is not really interested in us. This is why it wants from us only what can fill out blanks on a form.
But one of the reasons I have begun referring to our new home as “mine”—that is, it is becoming “mine” in the manner that my wife is “mine” or my father is “mine”—is that a lot of “officialdom” hereabouts really does want more from persons than just fill-ins for blanks on a form. One example of this is that the local community event organizing bunch, the Emmaus Main Street program, will gladly advertise events happening at churches.
And when I say this, I mean that they’ll pass on word about more than just the latest secular self-help seminar that happens to be meeting in a church. They’ll actually put out the word about my lecture series comparing various theologies with one another or an upcoming outreach seminar we’re having on Orthodox Christianity and the created world (with a healthy dose of localism, sustainability, etc.). With my long-developed cynicism regarding any sort of officiality, this has me wallowing in just a bit of incredulity. But they do it. Really.
I really do love this little borough.
This past Friday, I made another assay into the streets of and around Emmaus to find myself a decent barber shop. My first haircut experience in Emmaus, to put it frankly, hurt. I have no idea exactly why that gent had such a need to dig the clippers with such fervor into my neck, but, suffice it to say, once I did my fiduciary duty to the gentleman, I resolved not to darken his establishment’s door again. I’ve had many haircuts in my day, and, despite the ancient connection between barbers and dentists, I believe that association has now been firmly and properly severed. It does not have to hurt. (I won’t mention the establishment’s name, lest I turn away custom from a man who may simply have been having a bad day.)
Thus, when it came time this month for my haircut, I first decided to check out a shop on my usual route home, just outside Emmaus, titled simply “The Barber Shop.” I pulled up in my car and peered inside the window. I saw rows of shampoo bottles on shelves and immediately began to suspect I was in the wrong place. Then I saw a sign with the prices on it and was confirmed in my suspicions. This was not the old-school, small-time barbershop I’d come to trust on sight. This, despite the name, was some sort of “salon.” I did not go in but immediately got back in my car.
I turned back toward Emmaus proper and decided to try a place I’d seen on Chestnut Street not too far past the Emmaus Triangle. (We don’t have a town square. We have a triangle.) Barty’s Barber Shop was small, not very impressive on the outside, and thus, probably just right on the inside. Even the sign emblazoned with the proprietor’s name, Barton Decker, was not awfully visible from the street. There is, however, a barber pole, and that is quite enough. And one cannot go wrong with a name like Barton Decker. It is hard to imagine a more “barberly” name.
As I glanced into the window at Barty’s, I saw walls smothered in photographs, many black and white. Opening the door, there was a faint whiff of pipe smoke. I was in the right place.
Mr. Decker was clipping the hair of a customer in his chair, pipe snugly in the corner of his mouth. The two—barber and, ah, barbed—were jocularly trading mild jibes. I was most definitely in the right place.
Eventually, the gentleman left, satisfied with his haircut, and I took the chair. I removed my clerical collar and unfastened the neck button of my shirt. Mr. Decker and I introduced ourselves to one another. He told me he’d lived in the house which included his barber shop since the 1930s. To let him know what I wanted for my haircut, I told him, “I’d like to keep what I’ve got. Just less of it, please!” My standard line, which always gets a smile out of a good barber. This time was not an exception.
I spied a prominent painting on the wall amidst all the photographs, itself adorned with a few snapshots embedded asymmetrically in the edges of its frame. It was the USS Lenawee, a USN amphibious attack transport used in the Pacific at the tail end of World War II, as well as in the Korean and Vietnam wars. I asked Barton about it. He then regaled me with a fountain of tales of his time in the U.S. Navy. Was he an engineer, gunner, etc.? No, he was a U.S. Navy barber. Never fired a gun. Just clipped sailors’ hair. And he loved it.
He almost single-handedly raised morale aboard the Lenawee, stemming from a conversation he had with the captain. The captain, it seemed, liked to have a little more hair on his head than was the Navy custom in the early ’50s, because his wife liked it that way. But of course the men on board the Lenawee had wives, too. And Decker was the man for the job. He gave them a little something to run a comb through. Not a Hollywood haircut. Just a good, clear haircut. And it was one of the happiest ships in the whole of Uncle Sam’s Navy.
I told Barton about my painful experience at the other barber shop. He didn’t comment directly, but mentioned that he’d been cutting hair in Emmaus for 55 years (as if, perhaps, to suggest that the other fellow was “new” and thus, well, suspect). I asked him if he thought there was a future for him there in Emmaus. He laughed. He said he’d wanted to be a barber since he was in 6th grade. I asked him if it had been a family business. “Nope. I just knew that, ’cause I wasn’t too smart, a barber was a pretty good thing to be!”
By the end of the haircut, he’d done a fine job. (How could he not? He’d been doing this since before my father was born.) I thanked him. We both smiled. I tried to pay him. Nope. He’d have none of it.
On Saturday the 15th of August, after we completed services for the Dormition, members of the Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, manned a booth at the festival marking the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Borough of Emmaus. One could say that we are a church obsessed with history, and so it is only fitting that we should make one small footprint into the history of the borough which has been the home of our parish for 25 years (22 since our official founding).
We’re contemplating putting something into the next time capsule.
A time capsule is rather a curious thing—an archive buried in the ground. I suppose it helps to keep those things archived from growing stale in a museum somewhere.
History is peculiarly significant for the Orthodox, who prize the Incarnation so very highly and make it the touchstone of all theology. That the immaterial, trans-temporal God should become material and temporally bound is still a contradiction the human mind cannot grasp, despite its familiar feel by means of the Christian tradition.
We sometimes need to be scandalized anew by this reality, much as the woman who visited the aforesaid booth and was scandalized by all the “stuff”-ness of our church life. Surely the God Who stepped into history and made crude matter capable of carrying divinity could not have meant to be worshiped by liturgy! Certainly, our visitor probably did not think of herself as a spirit-matter dualist, but that is of course the assumption underlying all suspicion and rejection of history, liturgy, virginity, asceticism, and—what is more—all that kissing of stuff that I didn’t get a chance to describe to her.