Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines. Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.
Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home-décor-and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse.
There are sixteen churches in town. The high-school graduation rate is ninety-eight per cent, the unemployment rate is two per cent. There is little crime. The median home price is around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which buys a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard, in a town where the median income is close to sixty thousand. For the twenty per cent of residents who make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, it can be difficult to find ways to spend it, at least locally. There are only so many times you can redo your kitchen. Besides, conspicuous extravagance is not the Orange City way. “There are stories about people who are too showy, who ended up ruined,” Dan Vermeer, who grew up in the town, says. “The Dutch are comfortable with prosperity, but not with pleasure.”
The town was founded, in 1870, by immigrants from Holland looking for farmland, and until recently almost everyone who lived there was Dutch. Many of the stores on Central Avenue still bear Dutch names: Bomgaars farm-supply store, Van Maanen’s Radio Shack, Van Rooyen Financial Group, DeJong Chiropractic and Acupuncture, Woudstra Meat Market. The town’s police force consists of Jim Pottebaum, Duane Hulstein, Audley DeJong, Bruce Jacobsma, Chad Van Ravenswaay, Wes Van Voorst, and Bob Van Zee. When an Orange City teacher wants to divide her class in half, she will say, “A”s through “U”s to one side, “V”s through “Z”s to the other. Once, many years ago, an actual Dutch woman, from Rotterdam, moved to town with her American husband. She found the Dutchness of Orange City peculiar—the way that most people didn’t speak Dutch anymore but sprinkled their English with phrases that nobody had used in the Netherlands for a hundred years.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the question of how much Dutchness to retain caused a religious schism in the town: the American Reformed Church broke off from the First Reformed Church in order to conduct services in English. But, as the last Dutch speakers began to die off, Orange City took measures to embalm its heritage. The shops on the main stretch of Central Avenue are required to embellish their façades with “Dutch fronts”—gables in the shape of bells and step-edged triangles, painted traditional colors such as dark green, light gray, and blue, with white trim. Across the street from Bomgaars is Windmill Park, with its flower beds and six decorative windmills of varying sizes along a miniature canal. Each year, at the end of May, Orange City holds a tulip festival. Thousands of bulbs are imported from the Netherlands and planted in rows, and for three days much of the town dresses up in nineteenth-century Dutch costumes, sewn by volunteers—white lace caps and long aprons, black caps and knickers—and performs traditional dances in the street. There is a ceremonial street cleaning—kerchiefed boys throwing bucketfuls of water, aproned girls scrubbing with brooms—followed by a parade, in which the Tulip Queen and her court, high-school seniors, wave from their float, and the school band marches after them in clogs.
Every June, a couple of weeks after Tulip Festival, another ritual is enacted: a hundred of the town’s children graduate from the high school. Each of them must then make a decision that will set the course of their lives—whether to leave Orange City or to stay. This decision will affect not just where they live but how they see the world and how they vote. The town is thriving, so the choice is not driven by necessity: to stay is not to be left behind but to choose a certain kind of life. Each year, some leave, but usually more decide to settle in—something about Orange City inspires loyalty. It is only because so many stay that the town has prospered. And yet to stay home is to resist an ingrained American belief about movement and ambition.
In most places on earth, staying is the norm. Mobility is regarded with ambivalence: leaving is turnover; it weakens families and social trust. But in America, a country formed by the romance of the frontier and populated mostly by people who had left somewhere else, leaving has always been the celebrated story—the bold, enterprising, properly American response to an unsatisfactory life at home. Americans were for a long time the most mobile people in the world, and this geographic mobility drove America’s economy, and its social mobility as well. Because Americans moved for work, mostly from poor areas to richer ones, after 1880 incomes around the country steadily converged for a hundred years.
But Americans are not moving as much as they once did: the number of people migrating within the country is now about half what it was forty years ago. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, nearly eight per cent of unemployed men moved across state lines; in 2012, two and a half per cent did. Workers used to follow jobs, but now those who do move often go to places where unemployment is higher and wages lower, because housing is cheap. All of this has set off sounds of alarm. Why aren’t people leaving to find work, or better lives, as they used to? Part of the worry is economic: if people become less willing to move for work, unemployment will persist in some places, and jobs will go unfilled in others. People staying put is one reason that regional inequality has risen. But another part of the alarm is cultural. What does it mean that Americans are now moving less often than people in old European countries like France? Has America’s restless dynamism run its course?
Since the 2016 election, staying has taken on a political cast as well. Because suspicion of those who move around—immigrants, refugees, globalized élites—is associated with voting for Trump, attachment to home has come to look like a Trumpian value. And, indeed, of white people who still lived in their childhood home town, nearly sixty per cent supported Trump; of those who lived within a two-hour drive of their home town, fifty per cent supported him; of those who had moved more than two hours from where they grew up, forty per cent. A survey, conducted in 2014, found that more conservatives than liberals valued living near to extended family. The decision to stay home or leave is a powerful political predictor. For this reason, resistance to moving somewhere new can seem to be just resistance to newness as such. Where voting for Trump is attributed to economic despair, staying home is also.
Orange City is one of the most conservative places in the country, and those who leave it tend to become less so. It is not despairing, however, nor is it stagnant. Change happens differently in a place where people tend to stay. But staying is not for everyone.
Dan Vermeer left Orange City, although his roots in the area went back almost to the founding of the town. His great-grandparents on his father’s side emigrated from Holland at the end of the nineteenth century; his mother’s family came a generation later. His father, Wally, grew up on a farm outside town, one of eleven children; his mother, Joanne, was the third of ten; both were poor.
In high school, Dan couldn’t wait to get out—he felt stifled by a moral claustrophobia. He hated the constant scrutiny, everybody knowing everybody else’s business. Gossip is the plague of most small towns, but Orange City was especially judgmental. The Dutch were particular about behavior. They mowed their lawns often, but never on Sundays. Alcohol was considered unseemly; people would usually buy it elsewhere, so nobody would see them. Kids felt eyes watching them all the time. Adults worried constantly about appearances—were their houses clean enough, were their kids behaving nicely and doing well in school, were they volunteering for enough town projects, were they in church as often as they should be? The façades of the buildings on Central Avenue became a metaphor for the way that people tried to hide any difficulties they had living up to these standards: they kept up their Dutch fronts.
But, even more than escaping the gossip, Dan wanted to leave because he felt wedged in. “You are who you are,” he says. “I am a Vermeer, a child of Wally and Joanne, the younger brother of Greg, Brent, and Barry, and in Orange City that’s who I am for my whole life. It’s not that I felt discriminated against—I felt known and loved. But I also felt that that was nowhere near all of me, and that to know who I was I had to define myself on my own terms.” By the day of his high-school graduation, in 1984, he had packed up his car, and at seven the following morning he left Orange City for good.
He enrolled in Hope College, a Christian college in Holland, Michigan. Away from home, he started to feel more intensely religious than he ever had before, and spent his first summer working for a Christian ministry in the Blue Ridge Parkway. He found himself alone there, responsible for delivering two sermons every Sunday for the campers in the park. On Saturday evenings, he drove around and let people know about the services. One man told him, with a smirk, You’re young, and I have a feeling you’re going to question this eventually. I used to be religious, and then some things happened in my life and now I don’t believe it anymore. “That was like an arrow through my heart,” Dan says. “I thought, Maybe he’s right, maybe this is all going to collapse around me.”
The next year, it did. He took classes in world religions, studying Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and the thought occurred to him that he believed what he believed simply because of where he was born. “I started to question not only my religious beliefs but also my political beliefs, and I had this incredible sense of vertigo, where I didn’t know what I believed about anything,” he says. “That was really hard for six months. But after I got through the crisis I had a sense of exhilaration. I felt that anything was possible—that I could put together a world view that was truly mine.”
Photograph by Brian Finke for The New Yorker
When he graduated, he got a mission assignment at a Christian crisis center for foreign travellers in Kathmandu, Nepal. He loved Kathmandu—the mishmash of Western and Eastern, old and new, real and fake. The crisis center was busy. There was a man from Turkey who’d heard that there were jobs in Hong Kong and decided to walk there, got as far as Nepal, and ran out of money. He slept in the bunk under Dan’s, muttering about all the people who had wronged him. There was a young woman who’d had a psychotic break on a hike and had tried to take off all her clothes and jump off the mountain. There was an alcoholic Sri Lankan political refugee with four children.
After six months in Kathmandu, Dan bought a ticket to Delhi and found a bed in a cheap tourist camp. It was so hot there that he couldn’t sleep, and for ten days he walked around in the crippling heat in a daze of existential confusion. He realized that he had no idea at all what he was going to do with his life, and that the nearest person he knew was seven thousand miles away. He felt intensely anxious, but also hopeful. He realized that he had spent his first eighteen years becoming his Orange City self, and the next five years peeling off that self and letting it die. He had travelled halfway around the world to slough off the last of it. Now he could start again.
Some of the kids who left Orange City left for a profession. There was work you couldn’t do there, lives you couldn’t live—there weren’t a lot of tech jobs, for instance, or much in finance. Not many left for the money; you might make a higher salary elsewhere, but the cost of living in Orange City was so low that you’d likely end up worse off. Some left for a life style: they wanted mountains to ski and hike in, or they wanted to live somewhere with sports teams and restaurants. But most left for the same reason Dan Vermeer did—for the chance to remake themselves.
In bigger places, when you started working you met new people, and your professional self became your identity. But in Orange City you would always be So-and-So’s kid, no matter what you accomplished. People liked to point out that even Jesus had this problem when he tried to preach in his home town:
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.
But, while this was for some kids a reason to leave, for others it was why they wanted to stay. In Orange City, you could feel truly known. You lived among people who had not only known you for your whole life but known your parents and grandparents as well. You didn’t have to explain how your father had died, or why your mother couldn’t come to pick you up. Some people didn’t feel that they had to leave to figure out who they were, because their family and its history already described their deepest self.
Besides these sentiments, which were widespread, there was another crucial fact about Orange City that enabled it to keep more of its young than other towns its size: it had a college. Northwestern College, a small Christian school of twelve hundred students, affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church, was founded not long after the town itself. Northwestern offered a variety of liberal-arts majors, but was oriented toward Christian ministry and practical subjects like nursing and education.
Stephanie Schwebach, née Smit, graduated from the high school in 1997 and went to Northwestern to train as a teacher. She had never felt restless in Orange City. “I really didn’t have an adventurous spirit,” she says. “I’m going to stay with the people I know.” Her professional goal was to get a job teaching in the same school she’d gone to as a child.
When she was growing up, she lived next door to her grandparents, and every Sunday after church her family went to their house for lunch, as was the custom then in Orange City. She met her future husband, Eric, in seventh grade, and they started dating in eleventh. Eric came from a huge family—his father was one of sixteen. Most of Eric’s many aunts and uncles still lived in the area, and if anyone needed anything done, like laying cement for a driveway, the family would come and help out.
After high school, Eric thought about joining the military—he thought it would be fun to see a bit of the world—but Stephanie talked him into sticking around, so he stayed in his parents’ house and went to a local technical school to train as an electrician. When Stephanie was a junior in college, they became engaged. He got a job with the manufacturer of Blue Bunny ice cream, and she started teaching. They had two children.
Some years ago, Stephanie and Eric were both working in Le Mars, a town twenty minutes away, and they considered moving there. But then Stephanie thought, It just makes it harder to stop in and say hi to your parents if you don’t live in the same town, and the kids can’t wander over by themselves—we won’t be close in the same way. Instead, they moved into the house that Eric had grown up in, on an acreage at the edge of town, and his parents built a smaller house next to it.
When Stephanie thought about what she wanted for her children in the future, the first thing she thought was, Stay close. “I want them to live right next door, so I can be the grandma that takes care of their kids and gets to see them grow through all the different stages,” she says. “Our kids have told us that once Eric’s folks are dead we have to buy their house so they, our kids, can live in our house, next door. And that would be fine with me!”
In many towns, the most enterprising kids leave for college and stay away rather than starting businesses at home, which means that there are fewer jobs at home, which means that even more people leave; and, over time, the town’s population gets smaller and older, shops and schools begin to close, and the town begins to die. This dynamic has affected Iowa more than almost any other state: during the nineteen-nineties, only North Dakota lost a larger proportion of educated young people. In 2006, Iowa’s then governor, Tom Vilsack, undertook a walking tour of the state, with the theme “Come Back to Iowa, Please,” aimed at the young and educated. He threw cocktail parties in cities around the country, at which he begged these young emigrants to return, promising that Iowa had more to offer than “hogs, acres of corn, and old people.” But the campaign was a failure. In 2007, the legislature in Des Moines created the Generation Iowa Commission, to study why college graduates were leaving; two years later, a fifth of the members of the commission had themselves left the state.
The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted to leave—they were pushed.
In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places. “Even now, my friends there, I’m not sure what many of them do, and I don’t think they know what I do,” Dan Vermeer says. “That’s just not what you talk about.” You could be proud of a child doing something impressive in another part of the country, but having grown children and grandkids around you was equally a sign of success. Go to Northwestern, Orange City parents would say. And, when you get your degree, why not settle down here? There are plenty of jobs, and it’ll take you five minutes to drive to work. When you have children, we’ll help you take care of them. People here share your values, it’s a good Christian place. And they care about you: if anything happens, they’ll have your back.
This pitch was often successful. Even some kids who left soon realized what they were missing. Growing up, Joe Clarey had not liked Orange City; after he graduated from Northwestern, in 2009, he fled to Chicago, where he got a job as an analyst in a global investment firm. At first, he loved the anonymity of the city; he loved his job, too, and started putting in seventy-hour weeks. He worked with a portfolio manager with two billion dollars’ worth of business. At twenty-six, he became a portfolio manager himself.
But then, just when he was right where he’d wanted to be, he found that he didn’t want to be there anymore. He realized he’d ignored everything but work for five years, and everything else had fallen apart. He didn’t have a girlfriend, he had no friends other than colleagues, and he’d barely seen his family or his friends at home. Riding on the El to work, surrounded by strangers, he wondered, What am I doing here? Some relatives had started having serious health problems; then his brother had a baby, and although Clarey wasn’t good with children, he found that he wanted to know his nephew as he grew up. He wanted to move back, but he was embarrassed. What would people say, after he’d gone on and on for years about how he couldn’t wait to get out of Orange City, and after his fancy Chicago job?
He decided to deal with the embarrassment and go home. He found work in a local financial firm, but it felt paltry now to be buying ten-thousand-dollar mutual funds. He thought, I’ve already made one giant change—why not another? One of his high-school friends managed a local Walmart; Clarey found a job in another Walmart, nearby, running the produce department. He discovered that he liked managing people and inventory as much as investments. Meanwhile, he was getting close to high-school friends again, and spending time with his family. “I just wanted a simpler life,” he says. “I’m a big golfer. I get off work at five o’clock, I’m home in fifteen minutes, I’m at the golf course in twenty-five. I fish all the time. I’m at one friend’s house for dinner two or three times a week.” He bought a house and settled in.
It was in large part because of people like Joe Clarey coming back to town, or sticking around in the first place, that Orange City was flourishing. Small towns usually competed with one another to recruit companies from across the country, but most of the industry in Orange City was founded by locals. Diamond Vogel Paints is the oldest industry in town, founded as Vogel Paint and Wax, in 1926, by a Dutch immigrant; it is still run by the Vogel family. A man from Orange City who started a medical-equipment company in Texas moved his business back to town about thirty years ago, and now the renamed company, CIVCO, manufactures ultrasound probes and patient-positioning devices for radiation and oncology. More recently, CIVCO spun off another business, Quatro, which makes carbon-fibre composites for aerospace, medical-imaging equipment, and robotics. Ten years ago, the corporate headquarters of the Pizza Ranch chain moved to Orange City from its original location, in Hull, fifteen miles away.
Orange City thinks of itself as a progressive town—not in the political sense but in the sense that it embraces change and growth. This growth is guided by a group of town businessmen who have known one another for years. Steve Roesner, the C.E.O. of Quatro, lives close to the C.E.O. of the town’s hospital; they played on the football team together at the high school, and both went to Northwestern. Another neighbor and friend of Roesner’s from Northwestern is the chief administrative officer of Pizza Ranch. Roesner is also friendly with Drew Vogel, the third-generation C.E.O. of Diamond Vogel Paints. While other Iowa towns were trying to stave off population collapse, these town fathers had ambitions to enlarge Orange City’s population from six to ten thousand, so they were trying to make the town more attractive to outsiders. There was nothing to be done about the winters, one of the main things people hated about northwest Iowa, and there weren’t any scenic lakes or mountains to promote, but they could provide more things to do. There was already a swimming pool, a movie theatre, and a golf course, but live-entertainment options were limited, so they went in on a theatre with the Christian school. They bought an old sandpit pond and put in a dock so people could fish.
People were always talking about the Dutch work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, but Orange City was in many ways a less than ideal place for a business. Because its unemployment rate was so low, it could be hard to find enough workers, and its isolation made transportation inconvenient and slow. This was why so many Orange City companies were founded by locals: you had to have another reason, a non-business reason, to be there. “If your motivation is only to maximize returns, then you go elsewhere, and ultimately that leads to moving to Mexico or Morocco,” Roesner says. “But it’s not always pure ‘maximize profits.’ ”
Photograph by Brian Finke for The New Yorker
Roesner was not an Orange City native. When he was a kid, his father’s climb up the corporate ladder involved moving the family every couple of years; they moved to Orange City from Minnesota when Roesner was in eleventh grade, and later his parents left again. But Roesner married a Dutch woman from Orange City, and stayed. When he got an M.B.A. and started out on the executive track himself, he decided that he didn’t want to do what his father would have done—he didn’t want to go to Beaverton to work for Nike, or to Minneapolis for a job at Target, then move on somewhere else. “I said to myself, ‘What is all this about?’ ” he says. “ ‘Is it just about me and where I can take my career, or is there something bigger?’ Here, you feel like you’re connected—that you belong someplace.”
The Orange City way of life was so stringent and all-encompassing, so precise and insistent in every aspect, from behavior to ideals, that, when you were in it, it was difficult to imagine other ways to be. Not many of the restless kids had much sense, before they left, of what it was they were missing. But their restlessness often led, later on, to different ways of thinking. People who began by questioning who they were ended up questioning other things, like their politics.
If you lived in a place like Orange City, for instance, you weren’t used to dealing with people you didn’t know. If your car broke down, you took it to a mechanic who had fixed your parents’ cars for decades, and whose son was on your baseball team in high school. As a result, you were apt to find strangers more threatening than if you had left. Also, if you moved to a larger place, you tended to become aware of poverty in a new way. People in Orange City received government assistance, but the town was small enough and prosperous enough that it was possible to imagine a world without it. If you belonged to a church and you had a crisis, church members would likely help you out. If you moved to a city, though, you saw a level of need that could not be addressed by church groups alone.
In a small town, you knew what people were up to most of the time; if someone did something strange or annoying, it often got to you, because it said something about the town, and, by extension, about you. The anonymity of a larger place, on the other hand, was more forgiving. To live in a city was to know that you were surrounded by far too many people to ever keep track of: there was so much that was outside your control that ignoring annoyances, human or otherwise, became a habit. Moreover, repeated encounters with people who didn’t think as you did could pry open a certain distance between your beliefs and your emotions.
Lynn Lail, who moved from Orange City to Texas twenty years ago and now works as a medevac nurse near Fort Worth, finds this sort of dissonance difficult, but has learned to live with her confusion. “I’m still extremely conservative,” she says. “Very old-fashioned in my morals. Down here, we have a huge gay and lesbian community, and some of my dearest friends are gay and lesbian, and that has been a struggle for me, because I was raised to believe that that’s not Biblical. But I love them unconditionally for who they are as people, and I don’t judge them.” Lail moved to Texas not because she wanted to leave Orange City—she loves the town—but because being a medevac nurse in Iowa would have been boring. She wanted to be in a city, where the work was more intense; that choice then led her somewhere politically that she did not expect to go.
People often move for a reason that seems to have nothing to do with politics but then turns out to correlate to politics quite closely. According to a Pew survey, for instance, nearly eighty per cent of liberals like the idea of living in a dense neighborhood where you can walk to shops and schools, while seventy-five per cent of conservatives would rather live in a larger house with more space around it. After people move, the politics of the new place affect them. Those who move to a politically dissimilar place tend to become independents; those who move to a place where people vote the same way they do tend to become more extreme in their convictions.
But there also seems to be something about the act of moving that disturbs people’s beliefs, regardless of where they end up. One woman left Orange City to attend college in a place that was, if anything, more conservative than her home town, but, even so, the experience changed her. “Both of my parents are vocally conservative, so I thought I was a Republican all these years, but my views have changed,” she says. “Living outside of a small rural town gives you a different perspective. When I think about taxes now, what comes to my mind is school funding coming from taxes, which perpetuates poverty, because schools in lower-income areas have lower graduation rates. When I think about immigration, I think, We all immigrated at some point—well, most of us—can we not remember that? But abortion is what people vote on in the Midwest, especially in small communities. If someone says they’re going to try to reverse Roe v. Wade, people will vote for them, regardless of what they say in other areas, regardless of how ridiculous.”
Orange City is just such a small Midwestern community. Opposing abortion is a deeply held religious principle for most people, and its importance is such that, for many, it is the only issue they consider when they vote. Orange City is in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, that of Representative Steve King, who is notorious for making incendiary anti-immigrant remarks. Even though voters in the Fourth District supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by a two-to-one margin, while King vehemently opposed it, they continued to vote for him because he was reliably pro-life. Yet although it was rare for someone from Orange City to change his position on abortion, if he came to consider other issues important as well, his politics shifted significantly. “I would still consider myself pro-life,” John Cleveringa, who left for Michigan to be a pastor, says. “But that has moved down the list. Pro-life is about defending those who are not able to defend themselves, and there are people in this world who have been born and don’t have the ability to defend themselves, either.”
In the past ten years, a large number of Latino immigrants have moved into Orange City and nearby towns to work on the hog farms and the dairy farms and in the meatpacking plants. Although the change has been large and sudden—in just a few years, some school classes have gone from nearly all white to as much as thirty per cent Hispanic—it has been taken more or less in stride. Very few people in Orange City were worried that immigrants would take jobs away from natives; since most white workers didn’t seem to want to milk cows or butcher hogs anymore, it was clear that without the immigrants local agriculture would collapse. On the other hand, the idea of breaking the law offended people. They wanted immigrants, but legal ones.
Occasionally, there were displays of overt racism. The next-door town, Sioux Center, had a weekly cruise night, when young people would drive around and around a park, and some of the cruisers had started flying Confederate flags on their trucks. A prayer vigil was organized in response—about a hundred people gathered to pray and sing in the park as the trucks were cruising. But most people in Orange City were too polite to show hostility. The problem wasn’t so much that people rejected the newcomers openly as that they tended not to see them in the first place. Most of the Latinos attended Catholic churches in other towns, so they were invisible. They didn’t exist.
Because of this, a group of people at the Trinity Reformed Church decided that Dutch and Latinos ought to get to know one another. They decided to host a potluck dinner at which guests would sit together at tables for eight—four Dutch and four Latinos. One of the sources of tension between the communities, insofar as they interacted at all, had been what was perceived to be their differing notions of time—the Dutch were reputed to be rigidly punctual, the Latinos to be late. So the hosts told the Latino guests that the dinner began at five-thirty, and told the Dutch to come at six. The evening of the dinner, the Latinos, knowing that lateness irritated the Dutch, turned up at precisely five-thirty; and the Dutch, thinking to accommodate Latino norms, turned up half an hour late, at six-thirty; and so the Latinos had to wait around for an hour while the embarrassed hosts explained the situation. But, in the end, the dinner was a success: fifty or sixty guests came, and several made plans to get together again.
Last March, Steve King declared in a tweet: “Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Steve Mahr, who owned the coffee shop on Central Avenue, decided to do something. He wanted to demonstrate that not everyone in Orange City thought like King, so he organized a protest in front of the courthouse. Although it was raining that day, he was gratified to see nearly two hundred people turn up. Mahr didn’t grow up in Orange City; he came to Northwestern College from a tiny Iowa town sixty miles away. This was another benefit that the college brought—yearly crops of young people to replace the ones who left. These arrivals came with fresh ideas, but within limits: since Northwestern was a Christian college, it tended to attract those who fit.
One day, someone asked Mahr and another young man who worked in the coffee shop why they had stayed in Orange City after graduating, and both of them said, Kathleen Norris. Norris was a poet who, after living a bohemian life in New York City, had returned in 1974 to live in her late parents’ house in a small town in South Dakota. Seeing how the Dakotas had been eviscerated by the loss of their young, she had come to respect the wisdom of the Benedictine vow of stability—which is, as Thomas Merton put it, a renunciation of the vain hope of finding the perfect monastery, and an embracing of the ordinariness of what you already have. Norris spoke at Northwestern while Mahr and the other man were students there, and convinced them that moving to a new place was not the way to build a new self, because you brought your problems with you. If you didn’t distract yourself with moving around, but stayed where you were and put down roots, you gave yourself a chance to grow.
Mahr also had another reason for staying. He thought of himself as an agitator, albeit a gentle one, and he wanted to push Orange City to live up to its religious ideals. Although he now considered himself a progressive Democrat, he’d been raised in a conservative Christian family and used to vote Republican, so he felt that the people in Orange City were his people and he knew how to talk to them. He believed that Orange City Christians could be moved by certain kinds of moral arguments—ones that depended on the sanctity of life, for instance, or the command to love thy neighbor. He had one such argument about refugees. Suppose you have a hundred babies before they’re born, he would say, and one of them might grow up to be a terrorist—should you abort all hundred babies just in case? Of course not, his interlocutor would say. Well, suppose you have a hundred refugees and one might be a terrorist—should you risk a hundred lives by turning them all away?
People in Orange City were apt to avoid discussing politics, because arguments could get personal, but Mahr thought he could keep things friendly over food and drink. He chatted with customers in his coffee shop all day, and in the evenings he held events to discuss things like race and immigration. When marriage equality passed nationally, he hung up a rainbow flag and put a sign outside—“Wahoo!! Congrats LGBTQ Friends!” One customer told him that she was offended by his sign, that marriage equality was a symptom of degrading morals, and that he had lost her business. He said he understood her position, but he wanted his restaurant to be a place for everyone. Before long, she came back. “What are you going to do?” he says. “The town has one coffee shop!”
Mahr realized that in some ways you could engage people in politics more effectively in a small town precisely because everything was personal and there was nowhere else to go. It was harder to push people in a larger place, who could shrug off the sharp looks of their neighbors, and who didn’t feel personally implicated in the failings of their community.
In his 1970 book, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit—stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice—complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically—it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.
Americans, Hirschman wrote, have always preferred “the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice.” Discontented Europeans staged revolutions; Americans moved on. “The curious conformism of Americans, noted by observers ever since Tocqueville, may also be explained in this fashion,” he continued. “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?”
A hundred years ago in southern Italy, many people were miserably poor, and there were a limited number of things they could do about it. They could emigrate, probably to America; they could join a militant labor union and start to fight; or they could accept the world as it was. Some who emigrated sent money home, which helped, but they were gone, so they didn’t have much ability to improve the place. Many who stayed to fight, on the other hand, became socialists or syndicalists or anarchists, launched strikes, organized coöperatives and illegal soviets, and fomented revolution. People who lived in areas where there was a lot of organizing—where there seemed to be a chance to change things—tended to stay; in places where the revolution didn’t catch on, people left. In Italy at that time, in other words, to stay could be an optimistic, forward-looking thing to do. Staying didn’t mean staying the same; leaving, on the other hand, left a place as it was.
Quite a few people came back to Orange City eventually. Some came back when their kids were little, because they wanted them to have the same childhood they’d had. Others returned when nieces or nephews were born, or when relatives got sick. Discontented kids leaving kept Orange City conservative; homesick adults returning brought a combination of perspective and allegiance that kept it alive.
Vicki Schrock came back. Her family were Dutch farmers who had lived near Orange City for four generations. She grew up poor on a small farm just outside town, the second of five children; she was born in 1979, at the beginning of the farm crisis that crippled the region for half a decade and forced many small farmers to sell their land. She thought vaguely in high school of wanting to go somewhere else for college, but her younger sister was only eight at the time, and she didn’t want to miss her growing up, so in the end she went to Northwestern and studied social work. She met her future husband, Justin, there; they married the summer after her junior year. Justin was from central Iowa and was studying to enter the ministry. One day, Vicki saw a notice on a bulletin board about a Dutch Reformed church in California’s Central Valley that needed a youth pastor. She and Justin prayed on it and decided that God wanted them to go.
They lived in California for three years. While Justin worked in the church, Vicki took a job at a Christian home for pregnant teen-agers, in Modesto. A few months after she started, one of the teen-agers asked her to adopt her baby. The teen-ager wanted the baby to go to a white Christian family that would take the baby far away from Modesto, but she’d found that few such families would consider a black child. Vicki was twenty-two and had not been planning to start a family for several years, but she felt that God wanted her to adopt. She called Justin, who, answering the phone in his car, was startled, but quickly agreed.
Some time later, while Vicki and Justin were on a vacation back home, people from her childhood church told them that they needed a youth pastor and wanted to recruit Justin. Vicki and Justin wondered what it would be like to bring up a nonwhite child in Sioux County, and Vicki wondered, too, if she wanted to raise any kind of kid in the blinkered and censorious atmosphere of Orange City, which she was now even more conscious of than she had been growing up. On a previous trip home, a man had remarked to her how nice it was that they didn’t have teen pregnancies in Orange City as they did in Modesto, and she, dumbfounded, said to him, “Do you really think they’re not happening? I think people here take a different path.” After much indecision and praying, however, she and Justin chose to move home. It turned out better than they’d feared—Sioux County was changing. In their small church alone, there were nine or ten families that had adopted nonwhite kids, and many Latino families were settling nearby.
During the next few years, Vicki and Justin had three biological kids and adopted biracial twin girls from Minnesota. After Justin had served a decade as youth pastor, they moved to Guatemala for a year and a half with the six kids to run a mission center. When they got back, Vicki went to work in a clinic, and Justin took a job at a mentoring organization in town that counselled people in spiritual or material trouble—particularly the unchurched and those new in town, who had nowhere else to go.
Coming back to Orange City from Guatemala was considerably more jarring than coming back from California. They found the town’s prosperity newly astonishing, and they saw how Latino families in town were invisible to people for whom Orange City would always be Dutch. But it seemed to Justin that it could not be an accident that he and Vicki had returned home only to find dozens of people freshly arrived from parts of Guatemala that they had just spent time in. He figured this must be one of the reasons God meant them to come back.
All four of Dan Vermeer’s siblings left Orange City, and only one of them came back. It was normal in town for some children to make their lives elsewhere, but to have five kids and be left with not a single one to show for it was embarrassing. “My mom asked all the time, What did we do wrong?” Dan says. The one who came back was the youngest, Dan’s sister, Julie, and no one was more surprised by this than Julie herself. She had always disliked the town’s tendency to consider itself a shining little Christendom especially beloved by God.
Even when she was a child, Julie had resisted Orange City’s equation of Christian and Republican. She had always been devout; but in third grade she made Jesse Jackson buttons after she saw him on TV, speaking at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When she was growing up, she assumed she would leave town after high school and never come back. But then, her senior year in high school, she got pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby, and she knew she couldn’t raise a child and attend college without help, so she enrolled at Northwestern and raised her daughter at home with her parents. She met her future husband, Greg, in college. After they graduated, they moved to North Carolina so she could study Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School; she then got a job at a small Christian college near Philadelphia.
Julie and Greg lived in the Philadelphia suburbs for ten years. They tried to build a sense of community there, but it didn’t work. They had friends, but after a decade their town still didn’t feel like home. Around this time, when Julie was in her late thirties, her mother received a diagnosis of leukemia, and Julie went to Orange City to be with her as she was dying. She was struck by how many people came to see her mother. She noticed that some of these friends had money and others were poor, whereas in Philadelphia her friends were all very much like her and Greg. Julie thought, Here is a woman who has accomplished basically nothing, professionally, and yet she has had an impact on so many people. And she thought, These are the kinds of deep friendships that we don’t have in Philadelphia.
A couple of months later, her father also became seriously ill and she wanted to take care of him, so she called Northwestern to ask about jobs. She interviewed for the position of dean of student life, and Greg interviewed for a job as a marketing manager in a nearby town. They got the jobs—but in the middle of it all her father died. Now they had to decide whether to go through with the move anyway. They decided to do it, and moved into the house that Julie was raised in. For them, this meant building their lives around relationships rather than professional ambition. Greg’s parents were still living nearby, and all around were people they’d known since they were kids. Julie also felt called by God to serve the town where she’d grown up and the college that had taken her in as a single mother.
She noticed almost immediately that the social world around her felt different. In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. She wasn’t close friends with all her neighbors or her acquaintances from church, but she knew that if she got sick they would bring food and run errands and take care of her children. Still, it wasn’t prudence that prompted her to move home, or even the desire for older friends: structuring her life around relationships was a religious value as well. She believed that because God was a trinity, to be created in the image of God was to be created for relationships; so to make relationships the purpose of your life was to fulfill your human mission.
She thought that her faith was a large part of why she’d returned to Orange City, while her brothers had not. Dan had found his way back to the church eventually, but not the one he’d grown up in—he and his family belonged to a progressive church in North Carolina, where he taught environmental business practices at Duke. Julie, though, felt that to grow up in Orange City was to inherit a coherent and beautiful world view, derived largely from the Dutch Reformed Church. At the heart of it was the idea that there was not one inch of God’s creation that He did not claim as His—that all parts of life were sacred, even the most mundane. Pietistic traditions held that earth was merely a way station to Heaven, and all that really mattered was the state of your soul; Reformed Christians believed that God would return to raise the dead and restore the earth to what it was meant to be. Earth was the final home.
Dan was glad that Julie had moved back into their family house, but he never considered following her, even as he saw the sweetness of that life. “Every day after dinner, my dad used to hold hands with Julie’s daughter and go watch the horses at the neighbor’s house, and chat with him, and then wander back,” he says. “If you love Orange City, those small, idyllic pleasures become what you live for.” Because Julie moved back only after both her parents were dead, home did not feel idyllic to her in quite that way; but she realized that would have been so, sooner or later, in any case. Imagining that moving home could resolve your conflicts and fulfill your longings was as misguided as imagining that leaving would do the same thing. Home should not be idolized, she believed—only loved. ♦