A sort of homecoming

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This weekend is Luther College's Homecoming. While for most Americans this word is fraught with meaning and emotions, it took me a long time to associate the term "homecoming" with the event it signifies in the U.S. American culture. As a matter of fact, the term "homecoming" was one of the three great mysteries of my teenage time. Growing up on Anglophone music even though English was not my native tongue made for some confounding puzzles. While I understood the words, I was at a complete loss what phrases such as Meatloaf's "paradise by the dashboard light" and the Monkeys' "homecoming queen" referred to. The first one was complicated by the baseball analogy that was completely lost on me. But the real riddle was the reference to the homecoming queen in the song "Daydream Believer" by the Monkeys. It took me until my first fall at Luther College in 1997 until I understood what this phrase referred to and what "homecoming" is. But what does it mean "to come home"?

The title for this blog, as some readers may know, is taken from the first track of U2's 1984 album "Unforgettable Fire." This song talks about sleet, dust, smoke screens, city walls, bomb blasts, exploding valleys and, finally, building bridges. A quick search on the web reveals that Bono apparently had difficulties remembering the lyrics to this song at live concerts and that his fans interpret this song to be, among others, about Bono's mother, his drug addiction, the conflict in Northern Ireland or, generally, about disasters. I will not try to interpret the lyrics of the song but rather like to point out two phrases, "on borderland we run" and "dislocated, suffocated, the land grows weary of its own," which stand in contrast to the last verse that "tonight, at last, I am coming home." This last line and the final verse of the song in general seem to be appropriate for a homecoming blog; the former phrases provide a good context to reflect on what home is.

Providing a home, building a family are central themes in the self-understanding of Luther College as an institution and Decorah as a town. The town prides itself in being one of the most livable cities in the U.S.A. Students tell me that they decided to come to Luther College because they "felt at home" on their campus visit. It was overwhelming when I first met alumni spanning about 50 years of graduation classes at my first Homecoming at Luther College. One of my senior colleagues told me right after I was hired that there is no need to go anywhere for him because Decorah provides all he needs. This is amazing. It is a feeling that, I have to admit, is as foreign to me as it is appealing. I do not have a home. I have lived in four countries, am familiar with, at least, four cultures, am functional in three languages, have been to many places but there is not one place that feels like home. There is not even one single house or apartment that I can call home. This is similar to what Julia Kristeva calls the "silence of the polyglots": the more languages we speak, the lesser is our grasp of one particular language. This is why I am intrigued by the concept "home." This is why the rhetoric of "home" and "family" at Luther College appeals to me.

But what makes a place "home"? It is where things are familiar; where, to cite the title song of popular sitcom of the 80s and 90s, "everybody knows your name." It is where you do not have to explain yourself. It is a place where you belong. This brings me back to my first homecoming experience at Luther College. I was, and I still am, impressed by the strong sense of belonging alumni who graduated from Luther College even before I was born (and for those who do now know this, I am not one of the younger faculty) feel when they return to campus. Homecoming is to the Luther College community, what the Nordic Fest is to Decorah and what Thanksgiving is to U.S. American families. Luther College is to many alumni like a second birthplace, and the Luther College community like a second family. This is wonderful. This is something to be cherished. We need places and communities where we feel at home.

How can Luther College become home to all members of its community? Why do not all alumni return to Luther College at homecoming even though the turnout usually is, as far as I know, pretty good? Why do some people after 30-plus years in Decorah feel like outsiders? The key to this puzzle may be the simple insight that wherever there is an in-group, perceived or real, there is in out-group; wherever there is a sense of identity, lines of difference are drawn in the sand; wherever there is an "us" there is a "them." Sometimes, the rhetoric of community and "belonging" is often accompanied with complaints about those who left and "never wanted to be here, anyway" or those who refuse to "fit in" and "should leave." In my native language, Swabian, we have a word for those that do not belong, namely "Reigeschmeckte," that is those from the outside who "change the taste" of the community; those who will never belong, no matter how hard they try.

What is often left out in this discussion of "belonging" and "fitting in" is that the process of acculturation and integration is a two-way street. Community and even unity is not the same as conformity. Every community consists of a multiplicity of individuals. However, the rhetoric of unity and consensus has the potential to deny and even erase individuality and difference of opinions and beliefs. It is not only the perceived outsider who has to make an effort to fit in, if members of a community refuse to welcome certain individuals and groups, even the most Herculean effort to "fit in" will be in vain. Like members of minorities, perceived outsiders frequently encounter the expectation that they have to prove their value and need to earn their place in a community. Often there is the good faith attitude towards the members of the majority that their faults are innocent mistakes while the members of minorities are confronted with the bad faith assumption that their faults and sometimes even their mere presence are signs of ill will. While "insiders" are believed to serve the community, "outsiders" are often suspected to undermine or even sabotage it. Why is it easier to forgive friends and family than those perceived of as outsiders? Why do we greet some colleagues with "so good to see you" and others with "I thought you were gone"? Why do we assume that some members of our community want to be here and others do not? Do we really want to be exclusive and divide our community into "us" and "them"?

Divisions of this kind are usually indicators of identity politics. To create an identity, a community of like, we feel the need to identify those who are different. However, is this realistic? I believe it is a folly to expect everyone should be like ourselves. Would it really be desirable if everyone was alike, had the same skills, the same interests, the same lifestyle, and the same knowledge? How frequently would we go to concerts played by orchestras consisting solely of violas? Do we really want to live in a society where there are only neurosurgeons? Who would be thrilled to read the same book and eat the same food again and again for the rest of their life? Some early Buddhist texts tried to embrace diversity by creating space for a multiplicity of life styles, albeit in a painfully imperfect way. If I understand 1. Cor. 12 correctly, even the author of this passage seems to imply that diversity is central to community. A community where everyone is identical will, to use the words of U2, "grow weary of its own." I believe that the cohesion that keeps our community together is the difference among us, the fact that we all have our individuality. We are a community of travelers; to use the words of U2 again: "on borderland we run." What brings us together is the mission of the college, the desire to learn together and from each other, and the commitment to engage in the dialogue of faith and learning. We are all individuals and strangers engaged in the same project. This is what we celebrate in chapel, at our concerts, at our research symposia and at homecoming. We create a home for all members of our community when we encounter each other with good faith assuming that we all, despite and because of our differences, are committed to the Liberal Arts as they are taught and practiced at Luther College. I sincerely believe that if we treat each other in good faith, if can put behind our suspicions and trust each other, then we can say with U2, "tonight, at last, I am coming home." This, to me, is the meaning of "being home."

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

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