Today I read the first chapter of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. This book came highly recommended from a dear friend of mine with whom I travelled on my most recent trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Author Chris Arnade decided to leave his career on Wall Street to document poverty and addiction in America through photography and storytelling. The first chapter of his book is titled, “If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald’s.”
With anecdotes and photos, Arnade highlights “back row” Americans for whom McDonald’s is tantamount to the town square. It’s the place of meeting, community, normalcy, affordable food, public washrooms, drinkable water, and free wifi.
Later Arnade reflects on the distinctions between what he discusses as the front row and the back row in America, saying:
We had compassion for those left behind but thought that our job was to provide them an opportunity (no matter how small) to get where we were. We didn’t think about changing our definition of success. It didn’t occur to us that what we valued-getting more education and owning more stuff-wasn’t what everyone else wanted. […] If we were the front row, they were the back row. They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. The students who didn’t take to education, because it wasn’t necessarily their thing or because they had far too many obligations–family, friends, problems large and small–to focus on studying. They want to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into. [… Now] they are left with a world where their sense of home and family and community won’t get them anywhere, won’t pay the bills. And with a world where their jobs keep disappearing.
There are many interesting points raised in these short paragraphs.
I would like to consider them all but for now I will raise one: the issue of people leaving their hometowns.
What are we to make of this? Is it a tragedy for people to leave the places they were raised? What is lost of rootedness and continuity and culture by migration? What is gained? How much is the goodness of movement connected to freedom and choice? How do we know what is truly normal in these questions? What are the best and worse parts about rootedness? What are the best and worse parts about being uprooted?
I mentioned that this book was recommended to me by a friend with whom I travelled to Israel and the West Bank. During that trip, we spent time learning about the reasons for Christian migration out of the Holy Land. While there are a variety of compounding factors, it now seems that economic conditions and a lack of job opportunities are the main motivations for Christians leaving the Holy Land. Western Christians may lament the declining presence of Christians in the Holy Land, but why? After all, these same Western Christians have all criss-crossed the globe seeking better educational and job opportunities for themselves. I think it’s interesting to consider these issues from all of the different angles and to do some introspection about our ideals and values across different circumstances.