Some years ago a resident of Emmaus said to the writer in her native dialect [Pennsylvania German], “Heit iss der Hussedaag” (Today is Huss Day). I asked her what that meant. She did not know, but said that they always sowed their turnip seed on that day. Thus did the memory of John Huss, the great pre-Reformation reformer, find a place in our local folklore.
—Preston A. Barba, They Came to Emmaus (1959)
Emmaus residents: Make sure you plant your turnips on July 6, the day Jan Hus was both born and burned at the stake (1373 and 1415, respectively). (Wikipedia claims he was born “ca. 1372″ with no actual date listed. I’m not sure of his source, but I like Barba’s claim that July 6 is also Hus’s birthday.)
A somewhat bizarre and truly sad story has unfolded here in Emmaus. It seems that the president of the Emmaus Historical Society recently became embroiled in controversy within the society, and finally stepped down as president yesterday, just before the election for the presidency scheduled for this evening, leaving his opponent in the election uncontested.
Today, the former president barricaded himself into a barn on his property in nearby Upper Milford. Just after lunchtime, he shot himself in the head. He’s 72 and now listed in critical condition at the major hospital on the west end of the Lehigh Valley.
I actually have been entertaining plans to join the historical society for some time, but I may wait a little while, given what’s happened. We’ll see.
Despite the sad futility of this tale, there’s a strange sort of poetry to it, almost fit for a dark and ironic kind of folk music. History and folk music (which are traditionally quite aware of one another, especially the latter of the former) have always included dealing with this kind of incident as part of their vocation. There are certain dark moments in a community’s story that cannot really be incorporated into the collective memory in any other way. I’m sure that 100 years from now, the society’s exhibits may well include a few notes about this poor man.
May he be granted recovery, and may all those affected by this awful moment find grace for the healing.
Update: The scheduled election has been postponed to July 28.
Update: The historical society president has died of his wounds.
I wrote last week regarding the proposed opening of a swingers’ club (to be named “The Vault”) on Main Street in Emmaus, at the very heart of the borough. Last night, to consider the matter, the borough’s zoning hearing board met at the Emmaus Community Park (an aptly named venue for this event), rather than their usual borough hall location. Suffice it to say that the proposal was rejected again on its appeal by the board.
I attended as much of the meeting as I could (from its beginning at 7:30pm to about 10pm), not so much to speak (which I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do anyway, since they started hearing residents from the opposite end of the amphitheatre from where I was sitting), but rather simply to be involved and to provide as much pastoral presence as was possible. There were hundreds of people there, probably around 400, of all ages. The residents who spoke out against the proposed club were lawyers, a pastor, a retired FBI agent, mothers, fathers, local business owners, leaders of community organizations.
It was striking and truly moving to hear all these people speak, sometimes with anger, always with drive and passion, but most often with love. The people of Emmaus love their town, and with that love comes a sense of responsibility. No matter what the precise letter of the law said (which was the grounds on which the appeal was rejected), the strong sense of a dedication to the common good was immediately palpable for all those who spoke out against this club.
The club owner, whom I had hoped would see the borough lined up against him and realize he’d made a mistake, attempted to co-opt the moral authority of both the love of the original Moravians of Emmaus for the Native Americans, as well as using the language of the civil rights movement, to promote the notion of “tolerance” and lack of “prejudice” for a club for swingers which we are asked to believe wasn’t for the purpose of swinging. The club’s website was nothing short of pornographic in many of its elements (and those elements were put on verbal display last night), yet of course we are assured that those things had nothing to do with the actual workings of the club.
This duplicitous sort of thinking of course dominates our current cultural discourse, but it is deeply flawed. One cannot call upon the moral authority of a movement begun and nurtured by a solid moral, religious tradition and then violate that tradition’s most basic moral sensibilities. Neither the Moravians nor the civil rights leaders of the 1960s (all Christians of traditional morality) would have “tolerated” any such thing in the heart of their community. These are not rarefied philosophical ideas that can be separated from their tradition. It’s not about tolerance, but rather love, especially for one’s home. One does not have to be on a witch hunt for swingers to be disapproving of a club explicitly for them on bold display in the very middle of Emmaus.
Those opposed (who were pretty much everyone other than the potential proprietor) expressed themselves with candor, clarity, eloquence, and most of all, love. No one freaked out. No one screamed at the man. They just made it clear that Emmaus’s most beloved and defining district is not the place for what he wanted to do.
I came away from that meeting extremely proud to belong to Emmaus. This is a good, good town.
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.