The Sacred Work of Placemaking
A review of Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace by Christie Purifoy
Being made in the image and likeness of our creator implores us to create. God himself created male and female in his own likeness, then he called those created beings to have dominion and subdue. When I thought about the idea of subduing the earth as a child, it evoked images in my mind of cutting down trees, squeezing the life out of plants and animals, and other forms of death and destruction. Subduing, however, is none of those things. It is wildly more beautiful. Subduing involves cultivating and sustaining the material world along with a concerted effort to acknowledge the creator of all things and the worth he has imparted to creation.
In her new book, Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace, Christie Purifoy challenges readers to take a long look at their environment. Using the places she inhabits, Purifoy illustrates how God has worked in and through her to shape those places, all the while noticing how God has used those places to shape her. In her current home called Maplehurst, a historic red-brick Victorian farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills, Purifoy is met with challenge after challenge: should she spend the money and time required to restore the hand-crafted windows, arched to catch the moonlight? Should she plant that flower garden? Is it worth the effort?
What is placemaking?
Placemaking, according to Purifoy, is the intentional act of planting yourself in a place with the goal of shaping it: “It is deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree. It means allowing yourself to be nourished by a place even as you shape it for the better.” This creative act is not limited to expert gardeners or fixer-uppers. Anyone who lives and works inhabits a space that they are called by God to cultivate. Purifoy writes, “Sacred spaces need not be perfect, but they cease to be sacred if no one cares for them.” And because God has placed this divine call to subdue and have dominion on all people, placemaking is very ordinary and often dirty, but wholly sacred.
Fundamentally, the work of placemaking is connected to the doctrine of vocation. God has called us to live, work, and serve our neighbor in the places where we live. Hospitality, therefore, plays an important role in placemaking. Purifoy shares her experiences leading Bible studies in her cramped apartment and later inviting family and friends to her table for fellowship at Maplehurst. Relationships undergird all of the expansive images in Purifoy’s descriptions of place. Hospitality is that “glimpse, that foretaste, that reflection of the long-desired day when God’s coming kingdom has finally come.”
To be rooted involves connecting yourself to the people just as much as the physical location. And like hospitality, placemaking is “a kind of peacemaking.” To cultivate peace within families or communities is just as much a placemaking endeavor as growing a garden or rebuilding a dilapidated house.
Placemaking and Personal Reflection
Placemaker reads with such clear personal revelation that it forced me to regularly stop and reflect on the places where I have been placed. It is not a quick, breezy read, but a beautiful and challenging one. It does not one-dimensionally paint pictures of Purifoy’s experience, but uses everything in her life to express a theology of living in and loving whatever place God has called us to. And in doing so, she unearthed my own memories.
Memories of my one bedroom walk-up in western Pennsylvania my last semester of college, complete with an outdated pink toilet and tub. Memories of the sprawling backyard in rural Iowa adjacent to the historic cemetery and white church perched on the hill. Memories of our home for four in Illinois where roots and love ran deep. Having moved six times in my eight years of marriage, placemaking has been an ever-present longing in my heart, but one that seemed out of reach.
Purifoy recognizes that longing and responds with hope. Like me, she married young and has moved all over the country. She is intimately acquainted with the feeling of being uprooted and offers this hope to those of us lacking roots: “I wonder if loving and losing a place causes our hearts to fracture. Or does it enlarge our capacity for loving and making some other place well? Placemaking asks that we love a place with all of ourselves, but placemakers don’t always get to stay in the places they have made. Placemaking offers no protection from all the many forms loss can take.”
It’s a risky task, but Purifoy argues that putting down deep, enduring roots is worth it, even when it costs the pain of uprooting and moving on. She put all of the pain I have felt over the years into words—the pain of leaving, of being stuck “in the middle,” of rooting oneself in an imperfect place.
Purifoy set out to write a book about cultivating beautiful places, and in doing so she created a work that transcends simple location, theological exposition, and memoir. In her precise, lilting prose, she calls her readers to account for their placemaking, holding herself accountable in the process. Have we opened our homes to others? Have we shrugged off beauty? Have we placed our own comfort or peace above others and shut them out? Crafting and sustaining welcoming places means working to fulfill our creational mandate to subdue the earth out of love for God and service to our neighbor. And that, most certainly, is a noble calling.