Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

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Trusting God (or What To Do When You’re Just Not Feeling It)

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photo by Paulo Nicolello via Unsplash

There are mornings when I’m just not feeling it.  During my prayer time, as I review the plan for the day, I say to God, (out loud sometimes), “Remind me again, why me?”

Those are the days I write it out.

I turn to a fresh page in my journal and continue the conversation.  For instance, here’s a recent entry with my annotations in italics:

First I write a question I have for God: What good do I have to offer this day?

My fierce clarity.  (I know!)  I never have fierce clarity.

My deep wisdom.  (I know!) The ‘I knows’ are me turning to a friend and saying “Can you believe God is saying this?”

My dedication to Christ’s Church.  (I know!)  This sounds a little more earnest than I usually am.

My savvy and unwillingness to put up with stuff. ( I know!) Again, not my usual M.O.

My subversive intentions.  Now that’s more like it.

The effect of all this is to claim the gifts that seem beyond me but that God can give.  And often does.

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells his followers in Mark 13:11 [NRSV].  Even when the one bringing you to trial is your own self-concern.

IMG_7791In a technology-driven world where there is always something for which there is an app and people are ever in search of a life hack to overcome a problem, it’s easy to see why God has become an after-thought.  If we don’t have the words, we’ve come to believe that it’s on us.  We just haven’t learned the right trick to get us through.

But Jesus knows the dangers of relying on our competence.  The words we need are not within us but given to us.  Our most effective practice is to trust that God will provide…that the Holy Spirit will speak.

When I visit churches I sometimes…no, often…get a whiff of anxious desperation in our worship and work.  Because the culture no longer credits the church with the prominence it once had, we have lost confidence in what we have to offer.  Is it really a killer product if nobody’s buying?  Maybe, we think, we should round off the rough edges and downplay the parts of the Christian message that don’t go down easy.  Maybe we should make Jesus more user-friendly.

Newspaper editors call it “burying the lede” when a writer tells an interesting story without highlighting the main point.  We’re in danger of burying the leader.  (BTW-It’s been tried before. #emptytomb)

What I pray for Sunday mornings and beyond is a warm and gracious invitation to a mystery that isn’t easy to understand or live into.  I pray for a community that isn’t worried about what it thinks it doesn’t have, but instead recognizes that it has all it needs in the gospel of Jesus.  God used Balaam’s donkey.  God can use our willing hands, too.

My other journal exercise on days when I’m not feeling it is to allow the negative voices in my head to have free reign.  I write down all the reasons why I don’t have any good to offer this day.  And then I write—all caps—LIES.  Because they are.  And I’m a savvy guy who has a God-given unwieldiness not to put up with stuff like that.

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

IMG_6997I don’t talk much on this blog about Palestine and Israel, even though you’ll see a link here to my 2014 book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine.  That’s partly due to the fact that the commitment of this site is to understanding rural life and ministry, particularly in the United States.

“But wait!” you may be saying.  “I saw your review of the Skylight Inn BBQ.  I saw your takedown of online surveys.  Heck, I even saw that ridiculous picture you posted of a screen window captioned with a dad joke.  Your editorial standards are pretty darn lax.  I think you could fit in more about one of the major conflicts in the world today.”

To which I say, “Thanks!  I had no idea you were reading so closely!”  But also.  Yes.

In my defense (and just why am I being defensive, anyway?), I did post a reflection last fall after my last trip to the region.  But there’s more to say.  Much more.  And some of it feels like a strange mirror on our own divides here in the U.S.

Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s exquisite new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, I am aware of how much Halevi’s way of talking about the conflict has given me a language for speaking about it.  Halevi is an American-born Israeli who lives in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, separated by mere yards (and a security barrier) from his Palestinian neighbors who live…where?  Palestine?  The West Bank?  The Occupied Territories?  Judea?  The conflicting names for the same land form part of the disparity Halevi wants to overcome in this book, which is structured as ten letters intended for his unknown neighbors on the next hill.

Halevi has been attempting this journey for many years, though he started out as an unlikely candidate for the job.  A writer and commentator, Halevi began as a right-wing Jewish idealist.  His vision for the land of Israel included not only the West Bank of the Jordan, but the eastern bank as well.  

Since the 1980s when he moved there permanently, however, Halevi has been evolving along with his country.  “Few societies are as malleable, so prone to fundamental change in so short a time, as Israel,” Halevi says. (172) And he himself has undergone major shifts, thanks to a stint as a soldier patrolling Gaza, a spiritual journey into the Palestinian territories in the late 1990s that resulted in his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden, and his current role as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he has been trying to build bridges with American Muslim leaders.

I met Halevi in 2011 on my first trip to Israel.  He is a wise, warm soul who is more than ready to acknowledge that Israel has its flaws.  The 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation?  “It was your side that suffered the most devastating consequences,” he tells his interlocutor.  “Some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.” (82)  The occupation?  “It penetrates the soul” and Israel must end it “not just for your sake but for ours.” (108) The fatal flaw of the settlement movement? “The sin of not seeing, of becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” (106)

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Yossi Klein Halevi

But don’t let these insights convince you that Halevi is a dove.  He sets out with all his spiritual openness to understand the Palestinian situation, but he is just as insistent that the Israeli narrative be heard as well.  “Can we,” he asks, “see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice?” (21)

For the Palestinian neighbor to see this, s/he must hear about the long longing of the Jewish people, which was always a desire for return to this land.  In the 19th century, “the impetus for creating a political expression of the longing for return—restoring the Jewish relationship to Zion from time back into space—was dire need,” a need for an end to homelessness and persecution that gave birth to Zionism. (35)  

The only home that the Jews had ever had was in this land.  When suggestions were made that perhaps another place might suffice, (Uganda was offered in 1903), the Zionists refused the option of becoming colonialists and pursued the dream of return.   And when the opportunity arose, they came, from Eastern Europe, yes, but from all across the Arab world as well, to join the Jews who had remained in the land.

Halevi effectively shows the inaccuracy of the saying that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel.  But the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again.

“Jewish history…spoke to my generation with two nonnegotiable commandments.  The first was to remember that we’d been strangers in the land of Egypt and the message was: Be compassionate.  The second commandment was to remember that we live in a world in which genocide is possible, and that message was: Be alert.  When your enemy says he intends to destroy you, believe him.” (110)

These commandments haunt the Israeli response to Palestinians today.  They are, at the same time, called to see and respect the Palestinian, but also take seriously the constant denials of Israel’s legitimacy that permeate Palestinian media and culture.

“We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless…’cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty.  The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.  That is the cycle we can only break together.” (115-6)

There is so much more here, as there is to any discussion of this seemingly bottomless relationship between the two peoples.  Halevi pushes hard on the religious understandings of both sides, believing that diplomats have been wrong to ignore this dimension.  “For peace to succeed in the Middle East,” he says, “it must speak in some way to our hearts.” (7)  In doing so, Halevi mostly reduces the conflict to Jews and Muslims, despite the fact that Christians still make up a significant minority of the Palestinian population.

The one place where a Christian does make an impact on Halevi’s story is on a joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz.  A Melkite priest from Nazareth, Abuna Emile Shoufani, takes a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to the concentration camp—a group that included Halevi.  Despite his skepticism, Halevi was moved by the experience and appreciated Shoufani’s idealism.  “A Christian with an open heart to both sides had managed to bring Muslims and Jews together in Auschwitz.” (189)

American Christians try to bring so much intensity to Israel and Palestine.  We either accept Israel uncritically as a sign of God’s end-time plans or attack it mercilessly for the suffering of the occupation.  We are generally pragmatists who want to choose sides and fix things.

But what the Christian Shoufani brought was an openness to hear and see the people in front of him, in all of their humanity and with all of their story.  It’s the same openness Halevi is striving for.  He recognizes that the ongoing conflict is devastating to both peoples and it is “a spiritual crisis.” (186).  He wants to be heard, but he is listening, too.  There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

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Jarena Lee and the Day the Preacher Stumbled: Exhortation and the Methodist Future

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

The preacher was in trouble.  It’s hard to take the life out of the story of Jonah, but somehow he had. Struggling preachers are not unusual.  We’ve all had a Sunday.  Or several.  But in early 19th-century Methodism, including the AME branch of Methodism, (of which this preacher was a part), the official preachers had a back-up—exhorters—and Jarena Lee was just such a person.

Listening to that poor preacher, Jarena was convicted by “supernatural impulse” to stand and expound on the same text.  It was a daring act because it sure looked like preaching.  And women didn’t preach in those days, (although a number of Methodist women had taken the lead in what looked very much like preaching roles in Wesley’s movement, though they never had the title).  

Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:

“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”*

Jarena was a forerunner of all the women who now have their calls recognized in denominations like my own—the United Methodist Church.  But something else gets my attention in this exchange—the role of insiders and outsiders in a local church.

514UrBuBTgL._SX425_Early Methodism was on the move.  Its circuit-riding preachers traveled large circuits and they were frequently reassigned to new circuits on an annual basis.  They were not meant to become enmeshed in a particular church or community.  They had “nothing to do but save souls,” as John Wesley put it, and to organize small groups to continue the work of growing in holiness.  They couldn’t help but be considered outsiders, or in the lingo of the Eastern Shore where I live, ‘come heres.’

The exhorters were the insiders, the lay leaders who kept the Methodist societies going when the preachers weren’t around.  They were the ones who could encourage and inspire.  To use a modern word, they were the ones who could contextualize the message that the preachers proclaimed.  It was a role that men and women fulfilled.

Even when the preachers were leading the worship, the exhorters would supplement their sermons in the way that Jarena Lee did, sometimes offering fiery, charismatic, and evangelistic calls after the preacher did his best.  One Methodist exhorter, Thomas Saunders noted, “It is common with us for men and women to fall down as dead under an exhortation,” accompanied by numerous conversions.**

IMG_6635Methodism has changed since the days of Jarena Lee.  Our clergy now settle in and are encouraged to become real residents in the communities that they serve, even if they still retain their membership in the larger Annual Conference.  Lay servants, lay speakers, and certified lay ministers are the heirs of the exhorters.  Women and people of color now take on leadership in all these roles, hopefully without worry that their call from God might lead to their expulsion from the church.

The insight that early Methodism had, though, that ought to be retained is that a vital and healthy church depends on the interlocking wisdom of insiders and outsiders.  Outsiders bring new ideas and a broader vision of the Church.  People in the community bring a knowledge of the history and deep currents of a particular place.  Both have gifts to give.

So much of the tensions in rural America these days relate to how much agency local communities have in determining their future.  With declining populations, changing economies, and other challenges, small towns begin to doubt their capacity for building a vibrant community like they remember they once were.  

It’s the same for churches.  But the Methodist genius of connecting the native capacities of the local and the animating energy of the committed “traveler in the midst” still has the potential to renew the Church.  It’s how God moved Jarena Lee.

*David Henson, “Jarena Lee: The Pioneering Female Preacher You Never Hear About,” Patheos.
**Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 80). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

The Writing Life–It Came for Me: Poetry

On visiting Hunterdale with kin long after Grandma died:

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photo by Simson Petrol via Unsplash

It was pathetic to look at–

Grandma’s glorious garden overgrown with grass.

Her long back yard littered

with automotive and boat wrecks.

The scuppernong vines half

the size they were back when.

Still, amidst the mess, I could make out the spot

where I first knew my Uncle Bill as the person he was.

I could hear him talking with my dad over the neighbor’s arbor.

The rich, languid pace of Bill’s voice.

The more clipped but equally spacious tones of my father.

The rhythm so familiar.

The timbre soothing

in the deep way of Grandma’s stillness.

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photo by Henry Perks via Unsplash

And there I was,

looking at the spot where a great tree once stood

and beneath which I watched

Uncle Bill work on his journal.

It was a rag tag Woolworth’s notebook of a thing

filled with random quotes and stray reflections,

clippings from newspaper cartoons and articles.

I was transfixed.

In the summer of ’77, I would have been 13 years old and full of life.

Maybe it was ’78.

When I got back home

I bought a big, spiral-bound thing with a purple cover–

–5 subjects!–

and started my own.

I didn’t know what to do with it.

It was enormous all empty like that.

I filled it with Mark Trail comics

and paeans to Uncle Bill

and lost and found loves.

In such lost groves and abandoned arbors,

beneath trees that only root in memory now,

in books with uninked pages,

in the company of blood so strange and yet familiar,

the writing life–

it came for me.

–Alex Joyner

Normal is How America Got This Way: A Review of The View from Flyover Country

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photo by Omar Prestwich via Unsplash

“The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society,” Sarah Kendzior says.  “Complaining is beautiful.  Complaining should be encouraged.  Complaining means you have a chance.” (225)

Sometimes it takes a critic to get things to change, and Kendzior is such a critic.  Her book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, is misnamed, but her targets are well-chosen.  Looking back on the essays about the decline of America, which she wrote during the Obama years and which form the bulk of this book, she says, “in the era of the audacity of hope, I made a case for the audacity of despair.” (xii)

The book is misnamed because, even though Kendzior is located in St. Louis, her concerns are much larger than the forgotten Midwest where she begins her flights from flyover country.  She begins where I began this blog—with the recognition that the national media and the narrative of the Great Divide have turned the heartlands of America into a crude stereotype—a vast landscape of racist rubes who can’t discern what serves their own self-interest.  

“There are endless variations of ‘America’ in St. Louis alone,” Kendzior declares.  “This insistence that we have an inherent divide has in some respects become a self-fulfilling prophecy…America is purple—purple like a bruise.” (xvi)

Having begun here, however, Kendzior’s essays, which she originally wrote during her time as a reporter for Al Jazeera, quickly move from the local to the structural.  She wants to know why America isn’t working and she documents it with a sustained focus on a narrow range of issues.  

In Kendzior’s America, higher education is broken.  Adjunct professors are getting food stamps and living in their offices.  Students are leaving college with mountains of student loan debt and declining job prospects. Unpaid internships, available mostly to the wealthy elite, are replacing entry-level positions in careers like public service and the media.

Structural racism continues to limit the potential of black communities and black youth.  Though Ferguson, which happened in her back yard, is a mere footnote here, Kendzior sees its symbolic importance.  “St. Louis is a city where black communities are watched—by police, by spectators—more than they are seen, more than they are heard.” (108)

Journalism, which even into the 1970s had space for reporters without academic degrees, is now dominated by people with the means to get graduate degrees.  Even so, most journalists who can get a job are seeing their income potential shriveling.  

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Sarah Kendzior

This is important “complaining.”  It focuses attention on why, even when the economic indicators are rising and the unemployment rate declines, we continue to feel that all is not well.  For Kendzior, the 2016 election was not a radical departure from the norm, but the inevitable result of the “normal” we had already been experiencing.  “‘Normal’ is how we got here.” (231)

“Income inequality remains at a level unrivaled in modern U.S. history, as does household debt. Wages remain stagnant of in decline.  Higher education remains an exorbitant barrier to middle-class jobs, which middle-class jobs continue to disappear.  Geographical inequality…remains rampant, with prestigious jobs clustered in cities few can afford.” (231-2).

No wonder Kendzior feels “we live in the tunnel at the end of the light.” (29)

There’s much that I appreciate about the passion and analysis of this book, as well as Kendzior’s knack for the well-turned phrase. What I miss here is a reckoning of the capacity of the “flyover country” to persevere and renew itself.  By turning her attention so fully to the systems that are broken on a national level, the place Kendzior lives and the people with whom she lives disappear—just as they do in all the media reporting she decries.

In her great new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser quotes Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit priest who explored the Great Plains in the mid-19th century.  De Smet was mystified by the “strange people” who settled the region, defying all the “lethal obstacles placed in their paths by climate, weather, or disease.”  

“Nothing frightens them,” he said.  “They will undertake anything.  Sometimes they halt—stumble once in a while—but they get up again and march onward.” (106)

Those Midwesterners still exist.  I’m all for acknowledging the tunnel.  But it doesn’t have to mean the absence of the light.

Full disclosure: Flatiron Books provided me with a copy of this book for review.

Han Solo and the Myth of the Heroic Leader

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There’s no doubt that a charismatic leader can have a big impact on the size of a congregation.  It’s what most churches ask for when I go around doing consultations about the missional needs of the congregation as they prepare for a new pastoral appointment.  “If we had somebody who would knock on doors and preach dynamic sermons and inspire us with their boundless energy, things would change around here.”  Oh, and young with 30 years of experience, too.

But there’s a limit, and solo artists hit it sooner or later.

In this occasional series, I’ve been returning to a book by Jacob Armstrong, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, to see what lessons rural churches might learn about adaptation.  Armstrong points to the lies that emerge when congregations get fearful about the future, and one of the pressures they place on pastors is the untruth that “you have to do it on your own.”  Even Moses didn’t have to do that, Armstrong says.  God gave him elders within the people of Israel to help carry the load.  

“The example of Moses is that we need each other to effectively lead and live into God’s vision for our community,” Armstrong says.  “But, unfortunately, the example of Moses wore off a long time ago.” (65)

I’ve seen the effects of the myth of the solo, heroic leader. It takes its toll in an overinflated sense of capacity when things are going right and an even more destructive denigration of our capabilities when they aren’t.

So what’s a pastor to do?

Armstrong talks about the power of teams that are focused on the vision.  Teams that own a vision larger than the pastor’s skill set help congregations become living, breathing agents, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  They also energize the members of the team to discover and use their own gifts.  Effective teams, Armstrong says, “love, learn, and lead together.” (69)

For most small churches, the team cannot be built on a staff structure.  The team IS the congregation.  A wise pastor will not see the Church Council as a body of workers to whom assignments can be delegated nor as a demanding supervisor adding more tasks to an already overwhelming to-do list.  The Church Council is a gift—a group with the potential for loving, learning, and leading WITH the pastor.

Especially with so many churches experimenting with what a smaller council structure could look like, why not try some new experiments in how that structure could operate?  Couldn’t each gathering include a time of learning together? Worshipping together? Reconnecting with one another and the vision?

Instead of disconcerting obstacles, these ‘team gatherings’ could be the beginning of new life.  In fact, as in the early church, Armstrong notes, the future of our churches lies in “small groups of people who then start other small groups.” (71)

Recently, I saw the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.  It featured a familiar American type—Han Solo likes to think of himself as a talented loner who gets by on his charisma and skills.  The movie celebrated his charms, but you can’t help but notice – Solo is rarely solo.  He’s at his best as part of a team.

Come Write at The Porches with Alex

Soul of Place - FlyerDo you like where Heartlands goes–exploring the places that make the world rich and miraculous?  Would you like to develop that sense of place in your own writing?

Then why not come to the first Heartlands writing weekend?  Located at The Porches Writing Retreat, in beautiful, secluded Norwood, Virginia–a site featured in a 2017 Heartlands interview.  Spaces are limited!  Email: alejojoyner@yahoo.com

Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism: The Ed Ayers Interview concludes

Is there reason, as a historian, to be an optimist?  Edward Ayers, among other things the co-host of the BackStory podcast and radio program, narrates a troubled chapter of American history in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.  In the first two segments of this interview we have talked about vicious political climates and racialized narratives.  But here, my former professor talks about the pendulum of history and Confederate monuments, something he’s been doing a lot of thinking about in his multiple roles:

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photo by Dean Hinnant via Unplash

So the grand theory of history here behind what you’re doing—-you’re saying there are these big counter-forces at work during this period. If the South hadn’t seceded, emancipation wouldn’t have happened. If the South hadn’t resisted civil rights for blacks, there wouldn’t have been voting rights and office holding for blacks. If Northern Democrats hadn’t provided cover for Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard. Is that how history works in America? Not through compromise but through the opposition of grand forces?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? That’s one reason I think that we’re watching the foundations being laid right now for a new Progressive Era. I think that the opposition to Trump is going to be a major force over the next 15 or 20 years. That may be wishful thinking.

I would say that, partly because of the two party system, American history does seem to move like a pendulum rather than like an arrow. One set of accomplishments cannot be taken as a [common] accomplishment; they are taken as the embodiment of a partisan initiative. You certainly see this today in the [US retreat from the Iran deal], for no particular reason other than the predecessor did it and the current president’s undoing it.

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Ed Ayers

I’ve not gotten any criticisms from anything [in my argument] yet, really. I’ve just gotten some grudging comments from people who aren’t really in sympathy with this whole kind of social history/inclusive approach. If you’re gonna criticize it, then the implicit argument here is that this diminishes the intentionality of the Republicans and of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t mean for it to do that, but that would be the criticism. The argument is that the Republicans knew all along they wanted to end slavery. That’s why they created the party. They did whatever it took along the way to do it, and then they did it. And they instituted as much Reconstruction as they could. The flip side of that is that the white South resisted every step along the way and won a large part of what they wanted, which is local control. 

So I’m trying to put the two things in interplay and showing that neither of those stories —either the triumphalist one or the defeatist one—is true, but rather that each side is making the other. 

These are what we might think of as dark matter. We now know the dark matter accounts for most of what’s in the universe. You can’t see it but it has gravitational effects. The Northern Democrats and the African-American people in the South and white Southerners are the dark matter that moves this great national story in ways that we can’t understand otherwise. I don’t know that it’s a grand theory as much as it is trying to explain all the orbital irregularities that we see in the story.

And if we don’t understand what the Republicans were up against, then we can’t understand really the depth of what they accomplished. I think it’s what’s surprising to people about this: I’m not following any traditional rhetoric about this of celebration or of condemnation. I’m just saying we put everybody in the screen…we put everybody in the same frame and then we see they’re making each other’s history. 

I said in my Lincoln Prize address that to only look at one party or one side is like trying to understand a battle by only looking at the maneuvers of one army. That’s the basic idea of this book: we can’t understand any part without at least trying to see how all the parts fit together.

I always think of you as an optimist about the course of history. Do you feel like an optimist?

Yeah, I do actually. I think what this story shows us is that things that are far worse than we can imagine can happen and that things that are far better than we can imagine can happen too. The capacity for both swings of the pendulum are with us all the time. History has these capacities that can be tapped by people of vision and good will and ability and those reservoirs are all around us all the time.

Having watched the Civil Rights movement in my own life as a child, and to see everything suddenly change reveals to me that people of good will can make remarkable things happen. It seemed impossible at the time. I think that can happen again.

But we can also see that reservoirs of hatred and mistrust are always there, as well. I think it’s useful to know that we have to be careful that we don’t talk ourselves into the Civil War the way Americans did. On the other hand. that we need to be determined to make the most of the reservoirs and possibilities that we do have, too.

One of the things that seems to resonate between those times and these for me is this idea of how shame plays a role in the dialogue. In the Reconstruction Era, you say that the South was willing to admit defeat and the end of slavery and the Confederacy, but that the Republicans wanted more. They wanted repentance and confession of some kind of moral error. How did that dynamic play out, and are we seeing some of the same sort of language in our political life today?

Yeah, I’ll be curious to see if my fellow historians believe this. This is another kind of dangerous argument because it suggests that the Republicans were perhaps self-righteous and made problems that they didn’t need to make, which is the way that Reconstruction has been understood. These guys were fanatics, right? [is how the argument goes]. 

I guess it’s understandable to me why people who had tried to destroy the United States would be held accountable for what they had done. I think I’m the first one to actually locate that word ‘rebellism.’ That’s a great word. [The Republicans] recognize that the reality is that if they don’t kill that attitude, then whatever political events happen, that’s going to come back. All that to say that it’s an entirely legitimate thing that the Republicans want. It’s also probably unrealistic.

16301481_BG1A lot of Confederate monuments were testimony to the fact that they were not going to give up their ‘rebellism.’ They were never going to admit they’d been morally wrong. They were willing to admit that they’d made a mistake strategically in giving away slavery for political independence, but they were never willing to admit that it was illegal or that it was wrong in the eyes of God.

You see those quotes in the [Southern] papers even as the Confederacy is dying that say, “We feel that we had vindication from God to do this.” Volume One [Ayer’s book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies] is all built around the 23rd Psalm. That’s one of the most striking changes in the first part of the war is the way that the Confederacy recruits the Deity. They celebrate Lee and Jackson as particularly Christian soldiers. 

If they didn’t have that…if they didn’t believe they were fighting for exactly the same ideals that the United States had been built upon…they could not possibly have waged this rebellion if they did not share the faith in this ideology with the North. They would not have been able to have changed people’s minds in a matter of weeks that something that you had opposed for years—secession—was now an essential act and that if you do it you are morally superior. If you don’t really have the larger religious framing of that it doesn’t happen.

So that’s another reason that the white South doesn’t change its mind—the idea of “We’ll be tried by adversity.” They have a script for that. They understand, “This doesn’t mean we’re wrong; it could mean that this is a trial to see how we bear it.” That helps give them a resolution that they would not have had otherwise.

In your description of the people of Staunton moving the bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery, the Lost Cause narrative is already there, which is something that I think of as developing later, once the Confederate memoirs start coming out.

Here’s another place where I’m kind of doing something dangerous. That makes the Lost Cause look more plausible. It makes you understand that it’s not just a new word for white supremacy. These were your sons that you’re burying and then reburying.

The whole idea for everything I ever do is: we’re not gonna understand if we don’t try to see it through the eyes of the people who were enacting it. We’re not going to understand the Lost Cause if we don’t understand the real grief that motivated it. The trick there is to see that grief can be wrapped in other kinds of purposes as well. That’s the tricky thing.

We have a meeting here tonight in Richmond about the Monument Avenue Commission. We’re coming to a conclusion of that and I think people are slowly coming to see that the knee-jerk formulations—“It’s just history and you can’t change it” or “[The people who erected the Confederate monuments] didn’t mean anything politically by it” are not true. On the other hand, for people who are standing on the other side [it’s important to understand that] the people who are building these things are still grieving for sons and fathers they lost. It’s also important to understand this if we’re gonna move forward—what all the people who put the monuments up originally meant by them.

Thanks for the book. I hope it gets a broad readership. It should.

Yeah, you know, getting a Lincoln Prize…all my friends here who are not in the history biz were most impressed that I beat Ron Chernow [author of Alexander Hamilton] and winning the Avery Prize from the Organization of American Historians. But I think that our impact comes from classrooms for the next twenty years. I hope, that’s where the impact comes from—people actually have a chance to think about it a little bit rather than just reading the book then moving on.

So there’s not an Alexander H.H. Stuart musical coming out?

They did actually do a stage dramatization of it at the Black History Museum in Richmond based on words of four characters: two white, two black, two men, two women. It was very powerful. Just the words and a few of mine along the way. So it would make a great movie or a great miniseries. So if you could make that happen I would appreciate it 

We’ll get Lin-Manuel Miranda on it and see what he can do with it.

That’d be great.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”