For the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to learn from my friend, Summer Phillips, about a people group that is foreign to me. To be completely honest, hers is a culture that unnerves me a little in its relative “strangeness” to my own experience. Summer is from southwest Washington state—a sparsely populated, rural region marked by economic hardship and ideological conservatism. Though I was born and raised in Washington, I am ethnocentrically urban and genetically Democratic (yes, I am related to that Inslee). I have until now viewed the southwest corner of my home state mostly as a region to be passed through on my way to more culturally familiar spaces in Portland or on the coast.
More recently though, my biases and presumptions about the area have been taken apart by the stories Summer has shared with me—stories of her own upbringing, of the joys and struggles of her friends and neighbors, even stories from the more recently arrived immigrant workers who have moved into the area. She has gently challenged my drive-by stereotypes—shaped in me by images of Trump yard signs, boarded-up storefronts, and pickup truck gun racks. In confronting my urban prejudice against the very people who, in their stewardship of the land, make urban life possible, she has built bridges of understanding and commonality between me and her people.
The things I’ve learned from her have helped me in very practical ways. I teach in a graduate community development program and, in the last two years, I have had an increasing number of students from economically challenged, rural regions of the southeastern US. What I have learned from Summer about southwest rural Washington has helped me to understand these students better and to anticipate the issues of justice and development that they care most about. Through the patient sharing of her community’s narratives, I have come to better understand, for example, the collective trauma that comes when a local industry declines (such as logging in the case of Washington, or coal mining in Appalachia), and the pervasive resentment that takes hold of a community when government resources seem unfairly distributed to wealthy urban population centers. Summer has also helped me to see what resilience looks like in the face of poverty; her stories of dogged community solidarity and individual sacrifices made for the good of the collective have made me a better professor and mentor for my students who come from similar contexts.
As one of my graduate students, Summer has learned a lot from me, too. She has learned how to see her own cultural context from the evaluative (yet essentially appreciative) lens of ethnography. She has developed critical skills to engage pervasive white grievance and the deep roots of racial supremacy. She has also learned language to define and describe those aspects of rural culture that are noble and beautiful. Summer has come to believe that the wider region of Cascadia, and the country as a whole, desperately needs to hear the voices of her people—voices that have, historically, been ignored. This has motivated her to become a writer and storyteller (you can look forward to one of her essays appearing in Christ & Cascadia in the near future).
In these ways, Summer and I have had a transformative impact on one another, helping one another out of our respective strengths to address vocational challenges we each face. We are made more complete, more informed, and even wiser because of our mutual influence on one another.
It is this sort of mutual challenge and collaborative perspective-shaping that is essential to the ethos of Christ & Cascadia as we move forward under the new auspices of The Seattle School. The term we use to describe this way of being together is copowerment: a dynamic of mutual exchange by which both sides of a social equation are made stronger and more effective by the other. My students and I created the term as an alternative to empowerment—a word that implies an unequal power difference; when taken literally, empowerment suggests that one party has power to give to another, who lacks it. In some cases, of course, empowerment accurately describes the working dynamic in a given situation, so there is nothing inherently wrong with the word. Yet when it comes to meeting shared challenges in community contexts, the values implicit in copowerment suggest a better foundation for coequal, collaborative work. Copowerment ideals make space for all stakeholders to bring their ideas, capacities, and resources to the table.
Christ & Cascadia was founded on the assumption that Cascadia, as a distinct, geographically-defined bioregion, is defined by elements of shared values, practices, and perspectives. Our emphasis on common culture achieves two ends: First, our inward gaze promotes regional community by defining beliefs, values, practices, and experiences that are part of life in Cascadia. Second, as we identify regional distinctives, we are better able to offer our unique Cascadian voices to broader global conversations. The conversation that we aim to be part of is in essence centered around the question: As Christ-followers in Cascadia, who are we to be as a people, and how are we to live in ways that love, serve, and reflect our particular environmental and cultural contexts? In other words, Christ & Cascadia explores everything having to do with innovative practices that help us to live an integrated, contextualized, place-based faith.
More than ever, we need to stand together in light of the challenges we face in this particular place and time. Consider, for example, the decline of the church in recent years, in a region that is already known to be “unchurched.” For many Cascadian Christ-followers, there is profound disenchantment (to put it generously) with stale, uncontextualized modes of church practice and faith life. Younger generations in particular struggle with perceptions of cultural irrelevance or ethical compromise that have caused so many to walk away. Yet, in part because of this regional characteristic, there have been many amazing, innovative expressions of church praxis emerging in Cascadia—new paradigm-challenging developments that will be important to the future of the church not just in Cascadia, but also in those places across North America who will face similar challenges soon enough.
Importantly, we believe that this sort of innovative exploration is best done in community. Especially because we are after more authentic and sustainable ways to love God and live our faith, we need to find ways to put our hearts and minds together for imaginative collaboration and mutual inspiration. In other words, innovation for the community is best done in and with the community.
To that end, Christ & Cascadia is committed to building communities of inquiry and exchange among Christ-followers in this region. We need each other if we’re going to shake up the status quo and find better ways to live faith—here in Cascadia, but for the good of the wider world as well. We are better together: we make one another stronger, more creative—yet also more humble and teachable—when we collaborate for a common cause.
Diversity in Commonality
While Christ & Cascadia is a regional, place-based publication that highlights our commonalities, we also recognize the fact that Cascadia is made up of a diversity of cultures. What makes us better together is in fact our differences within the things we share in common. We help one another to get beyond ethnocentric limitation, and to see a given challenge from new perspectives. And as we care for communities, solve social problems, or advocate for social and environmental justice, we will find that other people who care about similar things (but in different contexts), can offer ideas, angles, and answers that help us to be more effective and creative.
By establishing spaces for exchange and conversation—both virtual and physical—Christ & Cascadia promotes a dynamic of mutual strengthening. The copowerment ethos at the heart of this dynamic recognizes the value of diversity and celebrates it. Oriented around a regional culture, we do not seek to artificially harmonize differences among Cascadian points of view; rather, we promote honest discourse that encourages us to open our hearts and minds to the views of those who are essentially “other” to us. Far from trying to impose a regional monovoice, we aim to create venues for conversation and exchange between different—and sometimes clashing and contradictory—worldviews.
There is generativity in diversity, and if we don’t actively advocate for the full participation of those with whom we disagree, we run the risk of locking ourselves into a closed loop of mutual reassurance and self-soothing—a phenomenon that is of course at the heart of the current political and cultural polarization in the US.
The challenge for Christ & Cascadia is to expand the conversation beyond the circle of the urban, educated folks whose voices can be overrepresented in public conversations about culture shifts and new church praxis. How, for example, might we be instrumental in engaging the unique creation care perspectives of conservative ranchers in Idaho? Is it possible to hold honest conversations about social justice with seasonal migrant workers in the orchards of the Okanagan or the Willamette Valley? What does it mean to truly listen to the stories of the First Peoples throughout Cascadia, and to stay present even when they are stories of trauma and loss caused by the forebears of Christianity in the region?
These Cascadian voices—and so many more—need to be part of the conversation about more vital, impactful, contextual ways to live faith. We need each other in order to be complete—as human beings, as communities, and as a whole society. To do that will take discipline and courage since human nature tends toward ethnocentrism: we instinctively assume that our own cultural lens is the only and best way to view the world. But Christ calls us to practice a more humble and gracious nature; Christ & Cascadia stands on the belief that God will give us the courage we need to make ourselves vulnerable to difference and open-hearted towards what we don’t understand. We advocate for humility as well, since dialogic diversity—and the trust it takes to enter into mutually transformative relationships—means to be always mindful that our understanding of the world will always be limited. In copowering community, though, we can help one another to make our understanding more complete.