“How can I search for beauty and truth unless that beauty and truth are already known to me in the depth of my heart?” So wrote Henri Nouwen on the profound ways that the most personal and the most public are woven together, inextricably and integrally connected for all of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are.
I was recently in Opelika, Alabama, looking over the shoulder and through the heart of my friend John Marsh, who is spending his life for his city. In the strange ways of the heart, he sees himself implicated in the way things turn out for this place and its people. “I am pressed by a vision, one that sees beauty in the restorative work of places as well as people. Opelika is where this vision finds purchase. I see possibilities, images of resurrection, and my heart longs to bring them to pass.”
Before last fall, I’d never heard of Opelika, I’m sorry to say. Settled in the middle years of the 19th-century, when the Civil War came the quiet railroad town known for its cotton became part of the heart-aching brokenness of the nation, with buildings burned, businesses lost and the lives and livelihoods of both white and black transformed, for both blessing and curse.
A century-and-a-half later, much has changed, and recently John has been at the center of most of that change. We walked around the town together, seeing building after building where imagination has met industry, and businesses of different shapes and sizes are now flourishing, each one a story of hope and hard work.
In the year 2014, the Overall Company in Opelika is the hippest coffee shop for nearby Auburn University students. Housed in the history of the building that once made Eagle Overalls, its cool factor draws people in all day long, finding it a place that is almost home. With remarkable attention and creativity, John and his wife Ashley have built a business people want to come to, and they have apprenticed two younger couples in the business of business who now own both the coffee shop and the pop shop (artisan popsicles) next door.
John is an entrepreneur with a capital E who works and works and works to connect his visions with life. The longer I listened, the more I thought of the story of Johan Sebastian Bach, who reportedly responded to the question from his children, “Papa, where do you get all the ideas for your music?” And he told them, “I stumble over them as I get out of bed in the morning.”
From coffee shops to co-working spaces, from houses to office buildings, from hotels to restaurants, from movie theaters to mill houses, in and across this city John is dreaming of what might be, of what could be, of what should be. He speaks with yearning about the meaning of the marketplace, of the good work of good work for everyone everywhere.
His latest dream? Before this week is done men and women who have long struggles with addictions of all sorts will be welcomed to Opelika, and into John’s vision of vocation. He is persuaded that it is a word that has to have meaning for all, especially for those who have spent years more unemployed than employed. They are “the least of these” as Jesus said, wanting us to remember to remember. And amidst all that has captured John’s heart, this seems to matter very much to him and to those who share his life and labor.
John’s story is still being told, as is the story of Opelika– but they are unusually twined together. More than most, he has chosen to live into the conviction that his flourishing and his city’s flourishing are integrally connected. The one won’t happen without the other. I think the prophet Jeremiah would have smiled.
(The quote of Nouwen is from an essay that John Marsh wrote for The Washington Institute; see below. The other links are to videos and an article that tell the fuller story.)