Recently, I was talking with a Pastor friend at a coffee shop about the importance of a “sense of place” in a globalizing world. This is particularly relevant in Washington, DC, where many of our friends are frequently absent, off the map, spread across the globe. We both came from divided countries (Korea and Ireland) and felt called to love our current residence, the city of Washington DC. While it left me with more questions than answers, it was a lively and energizing discussion. How do you create roots while constantly on the move? What if you have never had a consistent community growing up, like many families in missionary, business, diplomatic, and military professions? Through this essay, I invite you to join this conversation.

My friend Steve Garber calls me “the most global citizen” that he knows. Twelve years ago, I returned to Brazil to work at a global firm. During this time, I wrote a short reflection piece on The Master Plan in Globalization, regarding how believers participate in God’s act of scattering his people throughout history. In this article I affirmed my personal mission statement: to become an agent of spiritual and social transformation in the lands that God scatters me. However, I never fully developed a personal philosophy of staying that integrates with the calling of being scattered.

The inspiration for making sense of this came from Wendell Berry’s books, such as The Humane Vision. His writings are a breath of fresh air to urbanites and globetrotters alike. Wendell deconstructs modern assumptions about the good life and appeals for the love of the familiararticulating an integrated worldview around the themes of land, fidelity, and community amidst a fast paced world. But I struggled to connect this with myself, searching for an affirmation of global (or urban) vocations. Fortunately, Mark Bittman from The New York Times, poses a similar question to Berry: what can urban (or global) people to do to change the current course of events, namely the march of industrialism that replaces people with technology and concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a plutocracy? Berry’s answer is revealing:

“The main thing is realize that country people can’t invent a better agriculture by ourselves.  Industrial agriculture wasn’t invented by us, and we can’t uninvent it.  We’ll need some help with that.”

Here, Wendell points to the principle of faithfulness and living a life that is implicated, particularly to lands, an implication that extends to one’s personal roots. Something clicked after seeing this response, leading me to a set of insights:

1. The importance of fidelity to the land, places, and people that live there. Residence matters. Though it’s impossible for me to keep track of all the places and people where I have lived, there are still ways to remain faithful to them. This includes creating space and room for revisiting these former homes—caring, and implicating myself to these past roots by serving in causes and maintaining key relationships. It also involves planning vacations, sabbaticals, and assignments that enable a greater interaction with these cities. But life is messy, with many curveballs and twisty roads. Many people long for the luxury of returning, and often give up, as the opportunities never seem to happen. Wendell’s writings helped me realize how important it is to not give up on the call to return, both physically and mentally. We are called to care for the lands we pass through and even use the particular resources of each location to support the others (e.g. linking Ecuador’s farmers with DC’s ethnic markets). I suspect even small doses of consistency to the principle of “returning” enables a flexible faithfulness, a fidelity to one’s global calling and one’s roots.

Among all places, one’s current residence is of particular importance. The prophet Jeremiah instructed the exiled Israelites in Babylon: “to seek the peace and prosperity (Shalom) of the city to which I carried them into exile” (Jer. 29:7).  A global citizen is not excused from being implicated in the affairs of the local city. As a city of concentrated global power, Washington, DC neglects the the poor and the homeless, those at the margins. I am still figuring out how this new sense of obligation implicates me for greater involvement and service to the city. I suspect it involves immigrant communities, particularly serving those groups closer to my roots (Korean and Latin), or integrating immigrant communities from my roots through my work (e.g. linking farmers and food exporters in Ecuador to Korean-Latin food distribution chains in the greater DC area). This is an extension of the Pauline concept of the church, a body with different gifts existing for the service of one another.

2. Building affection and memories as a global citizen: community, food, and surroundings. Fidelity and responsibility are not mechanical responses. They often grow out of affection and shared memories to both people and places. Reading Berry convicts me to deliberately remember, care, and nurture the four areas where I am responsible towards others: community, food, land, and surroundings. These are interconnected: few things evoke stronger longing than moments enjoyed as a shared memory with old friends and/or family, often involving a particular type of food or land. For example, the flavors of Korean grapes are unlike any other. Every time I return, this taste evokes a powerful emotion. The same goes for the bread and dairy products made in Brazil. As a child in Sao Paulo, I remember walking along the cobblestone streets to the bakery with the sound of church bells echoing. My love for these former homes is rekindled when I return and re-connect with friends over a meal, travel to the countryside, and re-hear each places’ distinct sound. Moreover, new memories and experiences can connect with previous cultures and homes in creative ways. Such as planning a ritual (e.g. family weddings) that incorporates different traditions (e.g. Korea, Latin, and American), or taking time to plan a visit by family and old friends to the DC area. Creating and protecting such moments of intimacysome filled with laughter over a dinner table, others with quiet sounds of cracking wood next to a fireplacereinforce the sense the sense of responsibility to people and places as one’s attachment grows.

3. The tension between two kingdoms. Affection for land, places, and a shared sense of identity has been the source of some of humankind’s greatest joys but also the breeding ground for conflict. Racial and ethnic clashes trace back to a blind passion towards such attachments. But a rejection of such affections to create the bland, utopian, and multicultural (unicultural?) world of peace envisioned by John Lennon’s Imagine, or Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, is not a solution either. The pressures of a global (modern) life easily wither one into a “rootless cosmopolitan.” So how does one reconcile roots on earth with the call towards an inclusive Kingdom of God of all tribes and nations?

My friend, animated by this conversation, barely touched his coffee. He suggests the following, a faithful pruning of affections regarding peoples, places, and food occurs by building a spiritual home amidst the mobility. Personal retreats and sabbaths are critical for this purpose. Recently, as a result of such sabbath, I revised my mission statement (the first change in fifteen years) by adding the phrase “to be faithful”: to become an agent of spiritual and social transformation in the lands that God scatters me to be faithful. I did not invent the “faithful part of my mission statement, but detected it, because it was always there. The small edit, however, has profound consequences in how I look at and respond to life.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis points out that affection can become demonic if left unchecked. Building a sense of place on earthwith all its profound longings and instincts towards one’s rootscan become a God-centered sacrament, or excrement filled with bigotry. We live between these two extreme possibilities. Building a sense of place for global (and urban) citizens requires a prudent balance of fidelity, the nurturing of affection, and the building of a heavenly home in the inner being. Finding a sense of place on earth stands as a powerful shadow, a scent of the real home yet to come. As Lewis put it, even paper crowns have their proper use, and the presence of such affections increase our appetite for heaven.