I left Trumbull County in 2007, planning to never return. I moved to Chicago and made it my home. I finished school, got married, and took a job. My loyalty to my hometown didn't die. I leased a Chevy Malibu, ate at the Hot Dog Shoppe while home for holidays, and compared all Italian food to the Valley's. But I never planned to return.
Yet just a few weeks ago, my wife and I settled into Warren for the foreseeable future. When I run into old friends and acquaintances and tell them I've moved back, they generally look at me with a mix of confusion and pity.
You see, in the opinions of some, I have made a mistake.
Take a drive around the county, and you'll likely find a bumper sticker that says, "Stuck in Ohio." While I recently discovered this catchy slogan belongs to a video production company, this little phrase hints at a sentiment all-too-common in the Valley.
I've learned over the last few weeks that it's one thing to return to Ohio; it's another to return to the Valley. Ohio, and especially the Mahoning Valley, is not a place you choose to live. You get stuck here. You don't choose here.
I left the Valley, which is what so many people want to do. So why in the world move back to Warren?
At its most basic, my reason for returning is spiritual. After all, I return to the Valley with 'Pastor' in front of my name. As such, my wife and I believe that God is our boss - where he tells us to go, we'll go, and willingly. Yet, we also return believing that there is hope for the Valley. Surely, hope in the spiritual sense, but also in a more general sense: hope found in the hearts of men and women who choose to act to make our Valley better.
You see, the problem with a "Stuck in Ohio" mentality is that in believing ourselves to be stuck here, we become part of what makes our Valley worse. When we choose to be "Stuck in Ohio" and choose hopelessness, we become part of the problem.
A friend recently told me that there are no hopeless situations, only people who choose to be hopeless in them. The Valley needs more than shale, industry, or a new politician. What the Valley really needs is more people who choose hope.
Hope will show up in our Valley when we begin to ask not what our Valley can do for us but what we can do for our Valley. Hope will show up when we choose to act: Take an elderly neighbor to the grocery store, invest in local businesses, donate time and money to local charities, run for office, mentor a single mom down the street, or tutor kids in the neighborhood.
So, the next time you hear people complain about our Valley, ask what they're doing about it. I'm sure you'll give them pause. And in the meantime, I invite you to choose hope.