Writing can be a lonely activity, so I’ve enjoyed having opportunities in recent months to speak to groups about City of Peace. Everyone seems interested in the inspirations for my novel.
I have spoken to members of churches, residents of a town, participants in a book club, members of a mosque, and residents of a retirement community. Whatever the group, people want to know what inspired me to dream up this particular murder mystery.
My answer is always the same: The Town of Occoquan, Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and the City of Sepphoris.
If you think this sounds like a scattered collection of inspirations, you’re not wrong. But as you read the story of Pastor Harley Camden and his efforts to solve a murder and save his community, you’ll see that they actually come together very well. The three interlock in surprising ways, as inspirations for my novel.
The Town of Occoquan
This town of one thousand residents, nestled on the southern shore of the Occoquan River in Prince William County, Virginia, has been my muse since my wife Nancy and I moved here in 2016.
Founded in 1734, the Town of Occoquan has a rich history reflected in many of the buildings in City of Peace: An African-American Church founded by a former slave after the Civil War, a town hall that occupies a former church, and a Georgian mansion called Rockledge.
The town is not afraid to stand apart from the community around it. Before the Civil War, Occoquan was an abolitionist stronghold with residents who opposed the institution of slavery. In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate for president, and he received only 55 votes from all of Prince William County. They all came from Occoquan.
I continue to be inspired by the spirit of Occoquan.
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
Since 2001, I have been senior pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in the City of Fairfax, Virginia. On the wall behind the pulpit is a line from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
This line of inspires me and my congregation because it challenges us to be an open and welcoming community of faith. We always try to build bridges with the city around us and invite people to become part of our ministry and mission. In a world of political polarization, we don’t want to be a Red Church or a Blue Church — we want to be a Purple Church.
I like to say that we are solid at the center, always focused on worshiping God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But we are soft at the edges, willing to work with people of all backgrounds to make our city a better place. For instance, we have partnered with members of a Turkish mosque to feed and shelter the homeless on cold winter nights.
The efforts of Fairfax Presbyterian Church to build bridges inspire me, and such efforts are part of the story of City of Peace.
The City of Sepphoris
When I was an undergraduate at Duke University, I participated in an archaeological dig in the Galilee region of Israel. The experience changed my life, inspiring me to become a religion major and pursue ministry in the Presbyterian Church. It also connected me to my wife Nancy, and started us on the road to 34 years of marriage.
In the Galilee region is the City of Sepphoris, a large city not far from Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. Strangely, it is not mentioned in the New Testament. In the first century, many Jews actively rebelled against Roman oppression, in a time of extreme conflict and polarization. But the Jews of Sepphoris chose not to rebel, and because of this they were spared Roman destruction. The city went on to become a center of Jewish life for the centuries that followed.
Sepphoris is an inspiration to me because I think the city can teach us something today, in our own time of conflict and polarization. In City of Peace, Harley Camden reflects on his own experience of being on an archaeological dig in Sepphoris, and tries to bring its lessons to Occoquan.
Occoquan, Fairfax Presbyterian, and Sepphoris: The inspirations for my novel.
What place or community has been an inspiration to you? Join the conversation through a comment below.