Pastor Walter Mitty drove up to Manitowoc last Sunday after church. He liked living in the big city. Most of the time. But lately he found himself daydreaming not only about taking a couple of days away from urban living but also about actually living in a small Wisconsin town like the one in which he grew up.

As usual his sister-in-law Susan and his two nephews greeted him like he was family, which, of course, he was. Spending that year with them while his brother was dying kind of sealed the relational deal. 

Conscious of his fantasies, he asked Susan after dinner, “Do you like living in a small community like Manitowoc?”

Susan laughed. “If you live in Valders or Francis Creek, Manitowoc is a big city. I mean, 30,000 people, Walt! But I guess for someone like you living in the middle of nine million people, Manitowoc is a hick town.”

“Seriously, Susan,” said Mitty suddenly feeling a little defensive, “we have professional sports, museums, a world class orchestra, Lollapalooza, Navy Pier, an awesome skyline …”

“Of course,” Susan interrupted, “before he died, Herman and I really enjoyed visiting you, and the view of the skyline from Navy Pier is wonderful. Liked to visit but wouldn’t want to live there.

“See, Herman and I used to get up early in the morning and drive out to Milash Creek, hike to the Lake and watch the sun come up. You remember how the water sparkles like diamonds when the weather is clear.”

“Are you trying to say that all of that cement and steel and glass can’t compare with nature?”

Mitty’s sister-in-law gave that some thought and said, “I guess it’s like the Tower of Babel, Walt. The Chicago skyline kind of says, look what we humans can accomplish. Narcissistic in a way. But as you know, 10 minutes from where we are now we can be out in the country, hiking around Maribel Caves or canoeing in Collins Swamp. The beauty I see in those places points to a creative power greater than Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright.” 

“Wait a minute,” said Mitty laughing, “I’m supposed to be the one giving the sermons here!”

Monday morning he got up while Susan and the boys were still sleeping, picked up a large coffee and one of those egg, sausage and English muffin sandwiches from the new Dunkin Donuts on Calumet Avenue and drove along Lake Shore Drive — the Manitowoc/Two Rivers version of it — to Point Beach State Forest.

He would hike along the beach to the lighthouse and back later, but he liked to begin his visits to Point Beach by parking at the beach at an angle where he could watch the sun come up over the lake. Alone. Before the families in the campground finished breakfast and came to the beach.

And he would pray. Wouldn’t say much of anything. Words seemed inadequate. He understood exactly what Susan was talking about the night before. When he looked at the monumental architecture in the Loop, he would always be impressed, but he never felt loved.

Then his mind segued to politics and thought for the thousandth time, “How could a sensitive, religious person like my sister-in-law vote for Trump?!”

No longer feeling very prayerful, he picked up the Tony Hillerman novel he’d been reading, and immediately was transported southwest to Navajo Country. He found himself underlining comments the author made about Navajo culture.

• A Navajo, like a rancher anywhere, would need access to water, to grazing, to a road, and above all a soul-healing view of — in the words of the curing chants — “beauty all around you.”

• “Really, Jim, Washington’s a nice place,” said Janet Pete, a city Navajo. “It’s cleaner than most cities, and something beautiful every place you look and there’s always …”

Jim Chee cut her off. “Beautiful what? Buildings? Monuments? There’s too much smog, too much noise, too much traffic, too damn many people everywhere. You can’t see the stars at night. Too cloudy to see the sunset.”

• The old Navajo would get up at dawn and roll his wheelchair to the door. Then he would sing the song to Dawn Boy and bless the morning with his pollen. Next he would take a look at his mountain.

• “I grew up knowing it’s wrong to have more than you need,” Chee explained. “It means you’re not taking care of your people. Win three races in a row, you better slow down a little. Let somebody else win. 

That doesn’t get you admitted into law school,” Janet said, “Or pull you out of poverty.”

“Depends,” Chee replied, “on how you define poverty.” 

Then Mitty got it. What Susan felt was a kind of an unspoken feeling of not being understood by what Jim Chee referred to as “tree huggers,” members of the Sierra Club who wrote letters to their representatives in Washington about preserving nature, would visit nature “as often as possible,” but would never live in a small town like Francis Creek or even Manitowoc.

Susan disliked Trump immensely. Would never want her boys to view him as a role model, but she still felt this community of like-minded people — many of her neighbors in Manitowoc — who voted for Trump, even though the Sermon on the Mount in no way informed his values. 

She liked Joe and Jill a lot but it seemed like they felt sorry for people like her; like he could not understand how she, a single parent trying to pay the bills with what she made working at the bakery, was happy and wouldn’t move away from Manitowoc to Chicago even if her income doubled.

Tom Holmes writes a regular column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...