VIEW: Three Stories of the Hard Kind of Love

Hailing from a fusion of rural Minnesota, and Bangkok, Thailand, Benya is the co-founder of Lead For America, and has returned to Waseca to headquarter Lead for Minnesota. She works with over 20 rural and tribal communities statewide on community renewal efforts.

We have survived another Valentine’s Day season, when the word “love” is plastered on TV commercials, boxes of Sweetheart candies at Walgreens, and couple selfie posts on social media. We have expressed our love to our spouse, our parent, our best friend. Perhaps we have tuned into the final episode of the Bachelor and felt guilty for “loving” such a thing.

We use the same word to describe a spectrum of human relationships. With a word that tries to be so much, it also risks becoming nothing. At its worst, it is reduced to a one-dimensional feeling of temporary happiness.

It is easiest to talk about the love that makes us feel good — with our family, friends, romances, and people who think and believe like us. At its best, we love these people unconditionally, and experience the joy of being loved that way in return. This is beautiful love, and we all need it.

But how might we also think of the harder forms of love? The kind which asks us to love imperfect people and imperfect places. The kind that urges us to see the hope in what they (and we) may become.

In my work, I think often about love for place — the combination of culture, vocation, natural landscape, neighborhood traditions, that hole-in-the-wall pupuseria, your neighbor who shovels your driveway when it snows.

I wonder what love for place might teach us about loving people, and how our love for a person might give us guidance for how we love our places — especially when loving one or the other feels like the hardest thing to do.

Think about how we fail to love when we have been conditioned to indifference: when we walk by people experiencing being unhoused. Our instinctive reaction is to turn our eyes away.

Or think about when the heartbreak of racial injustice is numbed down to statistics that seem far away and too systematic to feel like our love can make a difference.

What might love for place teach us about the people whom we learn to ignore? 

St. Peter’s Solace Apartments

One striking example of the power of a love of place expanding to love of neighbor is Solace Apartments, a housing development in the town of St. Peter in southern Minnesota. The founders of Solace saw the dignity in people recovering from chemical abuse and the need for a place that fits that dignity to support their recovery.

Developed by the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, in a collaboration between architects and social service providers, these 30-unit apartments have in-house group and individual therapy rooms, a community space for resident Thanksgiving dinners and child care, and 24/7 access to therapists upstairs.

The love for this place and the people it supports by the residents of St. Peter is a break from the way we are enculturated to see those living with substance abuse as a menace — as a threat to the kind of society that feels easier for us to love.

This project embodies a fundamental understanding that we can be healed when we live and love together.

Learn more about Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership community building and engagement

Little Pink Schoolhouse

There is also the kind of love for a place that is humble, thankless work. I think about a friend and inspiration to me, DeeAnn Britton, whose independent love for place led to the rehab of the Little Pink Schoolhouse between Waseca and Waldorf, which is a small south-central Minnesota town of 226 people.

In the last few years of the life of Lois Yess, a woman in her 80s who lived on farmland outside of Waldorf, she became friends with DeeAnn. The schoolhouse was next to Lois’s house, where she had gone to school from first through eighth grade. Lois had promised her dad that she would always keep the place bright pink.

What began as a neighborly check-in for DeeAnn turned into a friendship. DeeAnn was the first person outside of Lois’s immediate family to see the value in that rundown schoolhouse. The building needed major refurbishing, including a new roof and a coat of paint. It also held an entire history of old schoolhouses in Waseca County and the resilience of students who trudged miles each way to a one-room classroom, regardless of weather, after farm chores were complete. 

The preservation of this history affirmed the sense that there was something notable about the way we lived. It showed how affirmation of where we came from might inspire an impassioned resilience for the future we might create together.

DeeAnn was initially alone in her care for this building, spending her spare time over two years to restore a relic that others had dismissed.

What I love about her story is that she knew how to love something unpopular because she first loved a friend who, in some sense, was unknown to the world. DeAnn preserved Lois Yess’s legacy, and the legacy of the county in which I live, purely because she saw worth in our existence.

Her care was infectious. The more people saw DeAnn care about this place, the more we cared about it, too.

Three hundred people showed up for the open house. Strangers donated artifacts they had from that time. An historian was prompted to research and publish a book on Waseca County’s schoolhouses. 

Convivencia Hispano

Finally, there is the love we have for the places and people that is unconditional, even in the face of hardship and unfairness. This can teach us how to love our neighbors better and call them forward to do the same.

A visit to the Polos building rehab in St. James this fall introduced me to Convivencia Hispano, an organization whose translation means “living together.” The group was created with an initial focus on “public education and economic disparities among Latinos” by laborers at Smithfield Foods. The southwest region of the state holds some of the largest meatpacking plants in the country and some of the most severe educational and economic disparities.

The members of Convivencia come together to love their place and make it a home. They also offer accountability as a form of care. They hold multicultural events, provide interpreters to the schools, and increase the representation of Latino decision-makers in the community. They fixed windows and worked on winterization repairs for nine houses in St. James last fall.

Their story reminds me of perhaps the deepest form of love — one that persists even in the midst of suffering.

It is about finding gratitude in small moments of neighborly kindness. It is about a drive for justice fueled by the possibility unlocked in those moments. It is about how neighborly acts might transform into community care. 

Place-based love has given me a lens to understand how I might love more personally and unconditionally. It has also taught me how my personal love might be expanded outside of myself and into love for place as well.

Neither one is easy, but I have found it to be the only thing capable of transforming both our souls and our main streets.