By Corey Fields
We recently visited my wife’s family. Up where they live, you watch a lot of Yankees baseball. At one point they were playing a series against the Rangers in Texas. In one of these away games, the Yankees steamrolled the Rangers 21-5. I remember thinking about how much they must rely on their teammates and the few traveling fans to keep a sense of energy and momentum. With each hit, run, walk, etc., the collective “ughs” from the Texas crowd just kept coming.
Although the Yankees clearly did fine in that game, “home field advantage” is a thing. Its scope is debated, but it’s a factor. It refers to the psychological effect of being in a place with familiar surroundings and supportive fans. Home field is where the fans know your name and cheer for you in a certain way. Home field is where they play your song when you’re up to bat. Home field is where you might know the warning track just well enough not to smash into it while chasing down a fly ball.
I think we adults underestimate it, but we all need a place where we have home field advantage. We all need a place where we feel secure and supported. We all need a place that’s familiar where we can kick off our shoes. It’s how we make it through life.
Environmental psychologist Susan Clayton has written that, for most people, home is not just a place but is a part of our self-definition; an extension of how we see ourselves and who we think we are. This, she says, explains why we decorate our houses and take care of our lawns. When property is neglected, it may be an indication that it’s not considered “home.”
(This is where you’re supposed to start singing Daughtry’s 2006 song “Home.” “I’m going to a place where love and feeling good don’t ever cost a thing, and the pain you feel is a different kind of pain. I’m going home, back to the place where I belong ….”)
My wife, my children and I recently took a vacation to visit my family, and it’s weird to visit my hometown and home church these days. We’ve all gotten older. Some things are the same, some things are different, and every once in a while, there are visual reminders that my hometown is not really home (like all the Confederate flags).
We were built for community, and everyone needs a place with familiar surroundings where people are rooting for them. Everyone needs at least one place where they feel safe and cared for. In a recent Christian Century article, Frederick Niedner wrote poignantly about some of the realities of marriage and family. I was particularly struck by his mention of Genesis 2:18 where it says in the King James Version that God sought to make a “help meet” for the man God had created. Niedner’s translation of that Hebrew phrase (“ezer kenegdo”) is “corresponding strength.”
We may need this “corresponding strength” only every once in a while, or we may find ourselves in circumstances where we need it several times a day. More than anywhere else, it’s in our own homes that we need to find this strength and safety, but for so many today, this is not the reality. Families can be broken and distant. Children can be neglected. The silent and hidden epidemic of domestic violence continues to make people (mostly women) prisoners in a place that is supposed to be sacred.
Of course, for some, there’s not even a roof overhead. In a very good two-part article for Ethics Daily, social worker Jon Kuhrt mentions the “poverty of relationships” that he so often sees among the homeless. “Below the presenting issues … [are] stories of family chaos and the absence of stability within the home,” he writes. “The primary tragedy they shared was not material but relational.”
As it turns out, running out of money may not be all it takes to make one poor or homeless. The deciding factor is often whether one has a network of supportive family and friends. A person can survive things like illness, tragedy and job loss if there’s a place they can go for home field advantage, and practical help. As Kuhrt put it, “Homelessness is not the same as houselessness.”
Having no place or social circle of home field advantage is paralyzing. We become anxious and fearful, and begin to see every new person or situation as a potential threat. We begin to try to carve out some kind of space that we can call our own.
Even beyond situations of broken homes or homelessness, this describes a lot of what I see in the American public psyche these days. Twenty-four-hour news cycles are dedicated to making us feel threatened, unsafe, or part of an unrelenting saga of tragedy. The sure fire way to whip up a crowd and get ratings is to make people believe their home field — their turf — is being threatened by some outside force; be it immigrants, minority communities, or the other political party. All it usually does is make us further disenfranchise those already disenfranchised. Ironically, the more narrowly we define “home” and to whom it belongs, the more threatened we will feel by “outsiders.” At the heart of the gospel is the story of outsiders becoming insiders.
We all need to feel “home” every once in a while. What would it look like for our churches and ministries to be more intentional about providing home field advantage to those who need it most? Who in your congregation might feel more like the visiting team, and what can you do to change that? Who in your community is despondent because they hear more “ughs” than cheers, and how can your congregation come alongside them in ways that no one else has?
In a way, there’s nothing safe about following Jesus. Christian discipleship, when we’re doing it right, is far outside our comfort zone and well beyond our cherished boundaries that help everything make sense. Jesus was clear about this reality, and preached a very difficult message. Nevertheless, people flocked to him, especially the forgotten and the outcasts.
Why? I can only assume that it was because they had finally found a home team.