Tourism and the community God calls us to be.

Earlier this month, thoughtful advocate Ami Worthen published an Op-Ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times, calling on the Buncombe County Commission to repeal the Occupancy Tax. Doing so would cut off revenue to the Tourism Development Authority, resulting in its demise. Not surprisingly, the TDA had a fairly strong response which took a different look at some numbers, but did not seem to address the issues of sustainability and quality of life that are at the root of Ami’s Op-Ed. The discussion that has taken place in subsequent letters to the editor, Op-Eds, and on social media has moved me to explore how my religious tradition might speak to the issues raised.

Which, it turns out, is kind of a lot. There is a great deal of discussion in the Bible about how we are called to live in community with one another. Much of the narrative in the Hebrew scriptures is an account of how the leaders of Israel and Judah failed to abide by God’s instructions to live humbly, love mercy, and act justly. The result was the worst possible outcome imaginable: destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the people from the land.

Yet God, who always seems to be providing examples of mercy and humility as well as justice, did not intend for this situation to last forever. Just as prophets had warned that the behavior of their leaders was not sustainable, they also promised that the people would flourish in the land again one day. Writing of God’s vision for a restored Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah said:

They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

The promise is that the lives of people in this new Jerusalem will be stable economically for sure, but that stability goes hand in glove with environmental sustainability. No longer will the produce of the land be gathered up a horded by a few, and it will not be exported to foreign lands, leaving nothing for the ones who have toiled to plant and harvest. Likewise, the people will know a greater degree of stability socially, knowing the home they have invested in will not become uninhabitable by them for any reason, including economic displacement. The bottom line for all of the people is that they will be able to work with dignity and live lives infused with joy.

Joy can be a difficult metric to quantify and measure, especially across a spectrum of social experiences and economic classes. What is measurable comes from focusing on people in a few economic and demographic segments and defining success by the amount the consume. While this is easy to rationalize, it does not seem congruent with the vision that God has for our communities.

The TDA might appropriately claim that, given the reason for its creation, it must have a narrow focus. As an agency of our government, however, the TDA exists as part of a larger tapestry. It is the role of that government, and our representatives on the County Commission, to see that whole picture. Writing in the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII called on civil authorities to pay particular attention to the lives of working people. It is essential, he wrote, that “they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create.”

This is essential on a practical level, since it decreases conflict along lines of economic difference, but it is also essential to living into that vision which Isaiah articulated. The current operation of the TDA obscures that vision by holding out the hope that, as certain segments of our community prosper, that prosperity will trickle down to everyone else. This hope has proven false all too often.

Saying that the TDA has distorted our vision of community is not to condemn tourism per se. It is to insist that the TDA, as an agency of our government, is a part of a larger picture rather than its focus. It’s appropriate, therefore, that the County Commission consider the broader impact of growth and the role tourism can play in creating, and mitigating, those impacts for everyone who lives and works here. As a person of faith, I believe that God’s vision is of a sustainable, dignified, and joyful community and people. My hope is that our government will work to make this just such a place.

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