Rural Hopes Gleam from Sacred Spaces
[imgbelt img= sacredtree530.jpg]Rural economic developers may be overlooking treasures hidden in plain sight: the diverse places that residents consider sacred.
A cougar crossed the road.
I was driving a small stretch of East Texas highway, my daily commute, when in a moment — in just seconds, as she raced away — a sacred place was created. I didn’t have a spiritual or religious experience, but the door to wildness opened a crack and I peeked through. A look, a memory, was seared into my mind. I will never forget the sight of that cougar. I will never forget the feeling of awe as I watched her. And whenever I pass that stretch of road, I will look for her again.
How do we identify places as sacred? From one perspective, social, historical, and collective consistency designate a place as sacred. People go to certain spots repeatedly to do certain things (rituals) associated with some aspect of the supernatural. Belief, behavior, symbols, placement, and even architecture come together to produce a place that a group recognizes as significant. For a sacred place to endure as such, the knowledge and experiences associated with it are repeated and passed down through generations. We can all list places that meet these criteria: churches, synagogues, temples, cemeteries, to name just a few, and as well as Stonehenge and the kivas of Chaco Canyon.
But how do we as individuals identify sacred places? How do we bond with certain surroundings through systems of belief — faith? Could thinking in these more individual terms help us design public spaces better? How could this knowledge enhance community development or re-development?
[imgcontainer left] [img:sacredchairs320.jpg] [source]Sacred Places: A PhotoVoice StudyOne participant singled out as sacred this row of chairs built by war veterans, calling them “a testimony that an old/young warrior can produce and create after the trauma of combat.”
To address these questions, sociologist Tom Segady and I designed a pilot study using a method known as photovoice. Members of a community are given cameras and asked to take photographs in response to a set of questions. Volunteer particpants take photographs and in a journal explain why they photographed what they did. Using this method, we wanted to find out (1) what landscapes or landscape features people identify as sacred and (2) how individuals engage their environment through faith.
Originally we had wanted to work with representatives from as many religions as possible, but for the pilot, we decided to work with Christian churches located in Nacogdoches, Texas. We recruited 36 volunteers from seven different churches to participate. The average volunteer was 47, white, female, and married, with an annual household income between $30,000 and $60,000. Participants in our sample were also well-educated; over half had completed a college or advanced degree. After attending a training session, each volunteer was given a “point and shoot” camera and a journal and asked to take photographs in response to three guiding questions:
[imgcontainer left] [img:sacredshoe320.jpg] [source]Sacred Places: A PhotoVoice StudyMany ideas of sacredness were highly personal: “I did not place these objects there. I simply passed by and wondered about the story behind the pair of shoes and broom with missing handle. It made me think of being ‘swept away,’ maybe ‘The Rapture.'”