When Flo (and Other Storms of Life) are Raging

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

—Isaiah 43:2

As I write this, it looks like the Eastern Shore will be spared the worst of Hurricane Florence, (or Flo, as I’ve come to call her this week).  I’m praying for the people of the Carolinas who seem to be receiving that ‘worst.’  I’m expecting that the United Methodist disaster response efforts, through UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) and UMVIM (UM Volunteers in Mission), which would have come here if Flo had turned our way, will now be headed south.  And I know that United Methodists here will be generous in their support of these efforts.  (Look for special giving opportunities in the next week.)

We did have an epic downpour on Sunday night here.  Roads in the Belle Haven area washed out.  Our camp director, Michael Henry, his wife, Alison, and son, Isaiah, had a harrowing, multi-hour trip back to Occohannock on the Bay that night through the pouring rain.  Also, high tides this week flooded Tangier, Wachapreague, and other low-lying areas.

IMG_7723Incidents like these remind us that we live on a small, strip of sand on the verge of a great, vast ocean.  Most days I don’t take the ground beneath my feet for granted, but when I see the power of the wind and water, I marvel that we can live so many days without thinking about whether the weather will threaten our lives and our homes.

There’s a measure of grace in each day.  There are things we can trust.  Most days we get to live without thinking about the dangers and we receive what we need.  God will provide and God does.

And when the hurricanes come, as they will…when the storms of life are raging…God will stand by us.  Islands may shift, property may be lost, but didn’t we get to discover again this week that we are bound together more in the face of such dangers?  And didn’t we lean into our prayers a little harder?

Whatever Flo may bring, I want to trust that the God who calmed the waters of Galilee and piled up the currents of the Jordan and the waves of the Red Sea is still present in the storm.  And I give thanks for the connection of United Methodists who answer the call when there is a need and remember the promise of Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.” [8:7]

Fracking & A Fractured Land

The Washington County Fair in 2010 should have been unalloyed joy for Stacey Haney and her family.  After all, Haney’s 14-year-old son, Harley, and his goat, Boots, took the Grand Champion Showmanship award.  Paige, her 11-year-old daughter, got awards for her two rabbits, Pepsi & Phantom, and for her Mexi-SPAM Mac and Cheese entry in the cooking contest.  They had a load of ribbons to take back to their small farm in Amity, Pennsylvania.

But things were not O.K.

Harley was sick–some kind of strange stomach ailment that left him listless and unable to get to school.  Stacey had an odd rash.  And the neighbor’s goat, Cummins, had died, his insides crystallized, “as if he’d drunk antifreeze.” (12)  Perhaps, they began to think, it had something to do with the fracking wells and waste pond just up the hill.

Hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking, transformed America’s energy market in the last decade.  By breaking apart shale deep in the earth using millions of gallons of pressurized water and chemicals, the fracking boom released abundant natural gas.  The gas burned cleaner than coal and it was underneath American soil, enabling even environmental advocates to imagine that it might be a bridge fuel to a future when renewables could shoulder most of the load.

In places like Appalachia, where the Haneys live, the new industry brought new life, new money, and new visibility to a region dragged over by previous energy booms.  Landowners, including Haney, got paid for the mineral rights to their land.  Extraction companies like Range Resources touted the millions they contributed to local communities through impact fees and road improvements.  One township supervisor “called them a ‘godsend.’” (280)

But there were other impacts and the Haneys were feeling them.  Over the course of eight years, as Eliza Griswold tracks this family in her powerful new book, they lose their health, their animals, their house, and their trust in just about everyone except a pair of crusading lawyers who tilt at the windmills of industry and the government agencies that should be protecting them.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America is the kind of propulsive read that marks our great story-telling journalist/writers today.  Griswold uses her extensive visits to the region and understanding of this one family to tell a story that is much larger.  She is telling us about small things like county fairs, hard-working single mothers, the ties that bind together neighbors, and the persistent pleasures of small town life.  But she’s also telling us about God, politics, government, industry, and the perils of living in a resource-rich, desperately poor region.

It’s about America, and given the state of things at the moment, that makes it a tumultuous read.  Griswold’s writing has all the flair and clarity of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but unlike that uplifting story of a World War II hero displaying courage and endurance in the face of unimaginable hardship in defense of America, Amity and Prosperity takes us into the places where that endurance is not always recognized and the victories not so clear.  In the eight years since Hillenbrand’s book was published, we’ve moved from Unbroken to Fractured.

Griswold may seem like an unlikely chronicler of this tale.  The veteran journalist has spent years in far-flung places around the globe.  Her last book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, went deep into the heart of Africa and Asia tracing the front line of religious and ideological conflict.  What brought her back was her realization that 

“so many of the problems of collective poverty plaguing Africa and Asia were becoming more evident in America.  I decided it was time to come home, to turn my attention to how we tell stories about systemic failings here in the United States.” (307)

Not that she came back to write a strident, partisan critique.  Amity & Prosperity is far from that kind of book.  Its characters, including Stacey Haney, are complex people who don’t fall easily into stereotypes.  There are plenty of Trump voters, but there are skeptics, too.  What they share, from the days when coal was king, is

“a sense of marginalization and disgust, both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.  Today, the fracking boom has reinforced those convictions.” (6)

Religious viewpoints here verge on the fatalistic.  One older woman says that the poisoned waters from fracking are a Revelation-foretold sign of the end times.  “God permitted this to happen because the U.S. has gotten so far from him,” she tells Griswold.  “I just hope we’re raptured out of here.” (268-9)

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Eliza Griswold

Stacey sees it in more personal terms.  The utilitarian arguments from the Obama Administration become for her a kind of cruel sentence.  The greatest good for the greatest number of people meant that “it was Stacey against the Bangladeshi woman who was losing her farm to a rising sea.  It was Stacey against factory workers eager for a manufacturing revival.  It was Stacey against most of the world, and Stacey was losing.” (223)

The rural landscape Griswold reveals bears resemblance to my own Eastern Shore of Virginia as Monica Hesse described it in last year’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Written in a similar style, Hesse’s book also uses a narrow story, (in her case, a string of arsons), to uncover a larger picture.  What it’s about is personal but it’s also about “America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.”

These reports from the field by remarkable journalists are not encouraging.  Griswold depicts a creaky, hapless, corrupt federal apparatus that is less and less able to confront powerful interests and to address the concerns of rural residents who do not trust the government.  Those who do try to make a stand, like Stacey and the valiant lawyers Griswold describes as Mr. & Mrs. Atticus Finch, must be committed to years of painstaking work with little pay and no guarantee of success.

It’s a credit to Griswold’s talents that she keeps the suspense about the outcome going until the very end.  It’s up to the reader to discern if the best outcome the book describes is the haul of ribbons at the county fair in 2010, which seems so long ago.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Look for my interview with Eliza Griswold, coming soon.

Two Big Reasons for Churches to Talk About Race

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Bishop Greg Palmer

These are dangerous days to talk about race.  If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes.  In impolite company, well, who knows?  For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda.  For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.

It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.

Why?  First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us. 

Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes.  Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites.  Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman.  The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community.  Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB). 

We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race.  When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.

Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together.  We are broken people living in a broken land.  A people of unclean lips.  That’s what Sin does to us.  And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.

I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong.  I’ll say the wrong thing.  Cause unintended hurt.  Expose myself as less than I want to be.  I don’t want to be racist.

But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine.  Racism is in me.  Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.

I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future.  Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings.  The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”

There is realism and hope here:

 “The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship.  “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”  

That sums it up.  Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.”  But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury.  And some of those rebellions are within us.

I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us,  I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry.  And I know there is more to do.  Why shouldn’t it start in the church?

Why We Can’t Live Without Horseshoe Crabs

640px-Horseshoe_Crab_(4035546156)So let me tell you how I think with animals.  I see an animal…say, the harbor seal I encountered once while running down a deserted barrier island…I stop dead in my tracks.  Pull out my phone to take a picture…(natch)…and then time slows down.  I’m aware of the wind, the sun’s position in the sky, the sound the creature makes as it moves.  And I marvel that we share this space and yet perceive it so differently…me through the clunky apparatus of language, theory, and anthropomorphizing assumptions…the creature through its own instinctual drives and fears.

Then it’s gone.  The seal labors to the surf and disappears beneath the waves.  The deer bounds into the forest, her tail becoming a bouncing white feather before I lose sight of her.  The prairie dog chirps and scuttles into its hole.  But they’re still with me and I’m apt to be haunted by them for years.  They show up in poems and sermons, like some patronus of wisdom.

Of course other creatures don’t get such attention.  The black flies I smack into a bloody smear on my legs on those same barrier island trips get no love.  And the jellyfish that show up in the waters around here mid-summer are similarly unwelcome.  They become what Lisa Jean Moore calls “trash animals,” nuisances that we can exterminate or disregard because of their much lower status.

51lqYt1mKGL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Horseshoe crabs often occupy this rung of the chain of being.  But I’ve been fascinated by them since moving to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, just as Moore has been.  That’s why a friend gave me Moore’s book to read, Catch and Release: The Enduring yet Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab.

It’s not what I expected.  But then again I have never read a feminist intraspecies ethnography before.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Moore shares my wonder at horseshoe crabs.  They’re ancient, having existed on the planet since the Cambrian Age a half-billion years ago.  They have blue blood, which has distinctive qualities for detecting endotoxin contamination and is used for testing the safety of all “human and animal parenteral drugs, biological products, and medical devices.” (109)  They’re not really crabs and share more in common with scorpions and spiders.

Most intriguingly, they have a mating process that becomes a spectacle.  For years I have, (erroneously), believed that at high tide on the full moon closest to the summer solstice, horseshoe crabs will gather in the surf of certain beaches in the mid-Atlantic and, by the light of the moon, will begin to march ashore.  A female, the larger of the genders, will usually have a male crab amplexed to her ophisthosoma (yes, that’s what the kids ARE calling it these days) as she emerges from the water and will be accompanied by several other satellite males.  She will will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs in the sand which are then fertilized by the males.  Only about three larvae per 100,000 eggs will make it to juvenile status. (77)  Shorebirds, who adjust their migratory patterns to be present for the occasion, feast on the vulnerable crabs.

All of this is true except for the fact that the mating period is not limited to the one night near the summer solstice.  The season stretches from the end of April through June. (79)  The “one magic night” myth has appealed to the romantic in me, however, (much as Linus longed to see the Great Pumpkin on Halloween), and I have several stories of aborted kayaking trips on that night to Metompkin Island when fog and weather kept me from the beach.

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Lisa Jean Moore

Moore’s book is less romantic and less scientific than I had hoped for.  She approaches her work through a laudable effort to see horseshoe crabs in their relationship with their environment and other species, especially humans.  She talks about how our stories are intertwined, especially in the biomedical field as we have become dependent on bleeding horseshoe crabs for the safety of our injections.  But there are also stories to tell about our shared lives in the face of overfishing and global warming.  Moore also explores the language we use to talk about crabs that is overlaid with our own gender assumptions and anthropomorphizing tendencies.  She talks about our “enmeshment with horseshoe crabs—material, discursive, psychological—and our becoming and being with them.” (93)

There’s a lot to think about when you look at crabs this way.  I confess to being lost in all the theory at times reading Moore’s book.  “Just get to the crabs,” I kept grumbling as Moore talked about her own experiences donating blood and her moral quandaries with her diesel car.  But I’m no less prone to use the crabs as jumping off points for thinking about my life and the world.

They’re survivors, these crabs.  They have their own primitive beauty.  They respond to time and place in ways that are hard to fathom.  Like those monarch butterflies who know, four generations after their ancestors left Mexico, how to get back home.

I’ll get out to see the spectacle some day.  I’ve got the kayak ready.  And I’ll take a picture to share.  Natch.

Why Churches Can’t Be Normal Again

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photo by J.D. Mason via Unsplash

Sometimes I have a fantasy that March 2019 will come, the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church designed to heal our rifts will have passed with a grand reaffirmation of our union, and we’ll all go back to normal.  That’s the funny thing about normal in the church, though—there’s no going back there.

Being the Church in the 21st century is going to involve some of the basics that have made us the Church through the previous centuries, but one of those basics is that the Church does not exist for itself but for God and for the new people God is welcoming in to the body of Christ.  And new people will need new spaces.

At least that’s the argument of Jacob Armstrong, the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee.  In this continuing series where I dialogue with Armstrong’s book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015], I have tried to think about the implications of the ideas here for rural communities like the Eastern Shore.  And much as I love the church as it was, which raised me, it’s hard to look at the changing world around us and argue with Armstrong’s thesis:

“A major adaptation is needed to reach people who have stopped feeling the need to come.  Almost everything will have to change. When worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, and adult discipleship are all built around knowing what to do with the people when they get in the building, we can’t make incremental change here.  An adaptive change is required.” (28)

Easy to say for a guy who is starting a church without a building, (which is what Providence Church did), but that congregation eventually did move into its own space and now they faced a challenge—fighting the temptation to turn inward.  Armstrong proposes a question to counter that temptation: “There are many ways to leverage the land and the buildings you have to serve the community, but for a couple of events a year I suggest pretending like you don’t have those things.  How would you reach out and encounter new people if you did not have a building or land?” (30)

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_For Providence Church this meant holding a free cookout at the local trailer park, recognizing Armed Forces Day with a community event for military families, and showing up at public places and festivals.  Several churches on the Eastern Shore have tried similar things.  Franktown UMC has done that cookout in a local trailer park under a tent.  St. John’s took over the Pocomoke coffee house for a young adult night.  Grace Church went out on the Parksley square for a Halloween Trunk or Treat.  Drummondtown and Metropolitan churches marched together in Accomac on the Fourth of July and Trinity UMC has taken a decorated golf cart and a kazoo band into the Cape Charles parade.

Efforts like these not only help the community know about the churches, they also help the church see and get to know its mission field.  We break the pattern established by that unusual period that reached its peak in the 1950s and 60s when it was possible to build something and they would come.  What happens in our buildings is still vitally important to who we are, but the new people God desires to know about the good news of Jesus are now going to be “out there” for the most part.

I do recognize that the fantasy I have about “getting back to normal” is just that and that the future will have some discomforts as we do the work of adjusting, whatever the shape of our denominational home.  But I also get excited when I recognize that God’s Church does have a future and that the mission it has always had will not be changing.  In fact, I do believe that I am meeting that future in the faces of those who are searching for a home in God’s love.

Sure, there’s no going back.  But there are a lot of places yet to go!

In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #8 American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, it had local appeal for those of us on the Eastern Shore, but Monica Hesse’s exploration of the 2012-13 arson spree here that damaged 60+ structures was masterful writing.  In American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, the Washington Post reporter used the window of the crime to explore what was happening on a larger scale throughout rural America.  And she did it without turning the people she spent time with into caricatures.  The investigators, fire fighters, and arsonists all feel like three-dimensional people.

Good, timely writing about what’s happening in the American countryside made this is a shoo-in for the Heartlands Top 10 Best Reads of 2017 and I give American Fire the #8 slot.  My interview with Monica Hesse was also fun.

Click on the title link above for my review of the book.

A Reporter Comes to the Shore: My interview with Monica Hesse – part 1 of 3

Hesse, MonicaMonica Hesse, an author and reporter for the Washington Post, came to the Shore to write a book about the spate of arsons that took place on the Eastern Shore between 2012 and 2013.  That resulted in the bestselling book, American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, which I recently reviewed on Heartlands.

Monica agreed to an interview with me that ranged from conversations about the Shore to rural life in general.  The first of the segments begins right here:

I’m really enjoying the book. It’s reminding me of Lauren Hildebrand and Michael Lewis. You’ve got that propulsive writing style I really appreciate.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment obviously since both of them are immensely talented

I know you’re incredibly busy getting this off the ground but how do you find the reception so far to the book?

It’s been wonderful actually. It got really pretty good reviews which was obviously a relief because after you’ve spent so much time on something you don’t want to feel like it’s been wasted time and you want to feel like you’re doing your editor proud but moreover, the people who I’ve heard from the Shore who have read it have reached out to tell me that they think I got it right, which is much more meaningful to me because they’re the ones who I’m trying to write about and those are the lives I’m trying to capture.

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I think that is credit to your ability to listen to what was going on here. So what attracted you to this story?

I had an editor once who told me a good story was about two things: It’s about whatever the story is about and it’s about the meaning of life. I felt like this was a story about a series of arsons and a rural county but it was about so much more than that.  It was about love and the crazy things that we’ll do for it.  It was about this moment in the country as a whole and how we were or what rural America meant to the country. It was about community and how horrible situations can bring out heroes and bring out the best in people. So I just felt like this story had so much to it that I wanted to write about and I wanted to try to capture.

I appreciated the way that you used this one very interesting relationship and the things that happened around it as a way to try to paint a bigger picture of what’s going on with rural America. That really came through. What made the Eastern Shore an interesting place to you or what struck you as interesting about this place?

I’m from a place that is not technically rural because it’s a university town but it is a town where you drive seven minutes in any direction and you’re standing in the middle of cornfields.  So to me the intimacy of living in a place where you talk to folks in the grocery store line and you let someone go ahead of you if they have fewer items and you might pull over to check on them if their car is broken down—that feels comfortable to me.  What was interesting to me was to spend time in a place like the Shore that I felt like I knew in some way but then had this maritime history and had this agricultural history.

I had never spent so much time in a place that was so old and had seen so many layers of history roll through it that it really did feel like a thumbnail of America. You have the rise of the railroad, you have the fall of the railroad, you have different styles of farming overlapping and I thought that all of that was just fascinating.  There aren’t many places that have seen so much history in the United States.

Yeah, that’s certainly true. 

Then I guess on a more personal level, when I moved down people would tell me, “Oh, everybody knows everybody around here,” and I thought that that was just an exaggeration. But then on the first day I interviewed the Commonwealth Attorney and I thought, “Well, thank you for your time.”  I thought, “Well, I won’t see this man again unless I need to interview him.”  Then I saw him like an hour later at the Rite Aid and I saw him two hours after that having dinner and it was like, “Oh, right, everybody really does know a lot of people around here.”

The fact these arsons were happening in a community that I was learning was so close-knit— I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the county burn around you and be wondering all the time if it was your neighbor that was doing it.

I was living in Northampton County at the time and I remember those times well and the anxiety.

I bet you guys were wondering,  “Are they gonna cross the county line? There’s only a matter of time before they’re gonna end up coming down here.”

Yes it was a lot of the wondering who it was, wondering why it was so hard to find the folks who did it, but there was also a little bit of,  “Well, something interesting is happening here.”  There was some excitement to it.

Yeah. I loved hearing about that from people, too. I would talk to folks who would say, “We want this to stop absolutely.  At the same time, man, that house at the end of my road I’ve always thought was an eyesore. I mean if they’re gonna burn something could they care of that house?”

Part 2

Love and Arson on the Eastern Shore: A Review of American Fire

51xyeLUVvCL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It’s in the nature of small towns and isolated places to believe they’re special.  Recently I drove through Ayden, North Carolina and found a historical marker revealing that President Washington had spent the night in 1791…10 miles east.  It was something.

So when the Eastern Shore of Virginia showed up in the New York Times Book Review this summer, a lot of us ran out to get the book that put us there: American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse.

It’s a gaudy title that stretches ambitiously.  Those of us who lived through it knew that the spree of 60-something fires that were set during a period from November 2012 through April 2013 constituted a major local story.  But Hesse believed that there was a larger story to be told.  The arson attacks were not just our tale; they were an American one.

“America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be,” Hesse says in the preface.  “But it also involved love.”  And on those two grand themes, the book is built.

Of course, we locals will get hung up on the small things.  We capitalize the Shore when we write about it; American Fire doesn’t.  It’s Pungoteague, not Puncoteague.  Northampton has one ‘h’ in the middle.  There, I got it out of my system.  Those little things won’t bother the general reader.

What those readers will see is a well-researched book with propulsive writing in the vein of Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and Laura Hillenbrand (Unbroken).  Hesse has a knack for structuring her story for maximum effect, doling out details selectively in a way that builds suspense and makes you want to know more.  She doesn’t sink into speculation or make a case for sympathy, but keeps the reader at the level of the action.

Though there are elements that make this a true crime genre book, the question here is never ‘whodunit.’  Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick done it and we know that from almost the very beginning.  What Hesse wants to explore is their relationship, what the fires did to the county, what they revealed about the particular national moment.

“Big-name crimes have a way of becoming big name not only because of the crimes themselves but because of the story they tell about the country at the moment,” Hesse reports.  “And now here were the arsons, happening in the type of rural environment that had been figuratively burning down for several decades, whether in the midwestern Rust Belt or the southern Bible Belt, or the hills of Appalachia.” (60-61)

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Monica Hesse

Hesse takes the long view of things.  She spent time with Miles Barnes and the late Kirk Mariner, our local fonts of historical perspective.  She accurately describes the effect of the arrival of the railroads here in the 1880s, the turn-of-the-century boom and the end-of-the-century bust that moved the counties of the Shore into the wealthiest of rural locales and then reduced them to among the poorest.

She is struck, as are the law officers who come from “across the Bay” to help out with the investigation, by the emptiness of the landscape and the remoteness of the buildings that are burned.  Hesse describes the assumption of the police that someone would eventually see something that would help break the case.  Ron Tunkel, one of the criminal profilers, eventually realizes,“There’s nobody out here at night…Suddenly, it seemed completely plausible to him that someone could light seventy or eighty fires without anyone else seeing.” (129)

Living here, the emptiness becomes less defining over time.  We may live in a sparsely populated area, but we know the population and it becomes our community.  But the struggles that Hesse describes – the poverty, substance abuse, economic decline, etc. – are easily seen, too.

The joy of Hesse’s book is that the characters are vividly portrayed.  We not only get a rich portrait of Charlie and Tonya, but also the police officers, lawyers, and fire fighters who play big roles in the story.  She clearly enjoyed getting to know them, especially the Tasley fire crew with whom she played pool and ate pizza, and she gives them life.

IMG_1899She puts great symbolic weight on the now-defunct establishment known as Shuckers – the Onancock bar where Charlie and Tonya met and dreamed of getting married.  She chronicles its troubles, its demise, and the revival of the site as the Salty Dog and then The Fair Grounds.  She calls it “a palimpsest of Eastern Shore history, on a slab of a parking lot with weeds sprouting through fractures in the concrete.” (230)  Like a palimpsest, it is written over with new stories as the old stories remain beneath.

That’s her closing hope for places like Accomack County.  “Maybe rural America isn’t dying so much as it’s Shucker-ing: adjusting, adapting, becoming something new, getting a new outdoor sign and adding jalapeño hush puppies to the menu.  I’d like to think that.” (232)

I’ve got bigger hopes for the Shore than jalapeño hush puppies.  I tend to think that rural America gets seen as the place that got left behind when America, the concept, moved on.  But places like this may just be lying fallow until the next chapter of their lives will be written.  And they may be places of innovation and renewal as they have been in the past.

Silicon Valley and the urban outposts of the Information Age economy are doing well and have no need to question the engine that powers them.  Places like the Shore are doing deep soul-searching around the basic questions of who we are and what we ought to be.  They are prone to slip into despair or burst into occasional flame, but they are also being pushed to the essence of what we are here for.  And as in a burned-over field, new sprouts will emerge.

As for the book – it’s terrific.  Go read it and check out my interview with Monica Hesse.

Life at The Crossroads

IMG_6021The Crossroads Coffee House made my urban soul sing when it came to town this spring.  (Yes, I have an urban soul.  It shares space and fuels a lot of creative tension with my rural soul.  Welcome to my world.)  Matt and Brittney spent a year transforming an old bank building at the main intersection of Onley, Virginia into a space worthy of the finest college towns and urban renaissance sites in the country.  I’ve become a regular.

It’s got the bared brick walls and steaming cafe apparatus.  Natural light pours through the old windows.  Wooden stairs lead to an upstairs sitting area overlooking the floor below.  The bank vault has been transformed into a lending library.  Blown-up photos of Onley’s past dot the walls.  A horseshoe bar surrounds the service area, which is where you’ll find me.  At the far end against the wall, probably with a laptop in front of me.

Let’s not curse the place by calling it hipster.  ‘Hipster’ carries with it the baggage of the cultural moment.  This is not Brooklyn or Asheville in their grand bubbles of pretension.  Though, as I sit with my $3 Americano, I get the irony.  The cheaper brew at the Club Car Cafe is nearly as good.  But what makes Urban Soul sing is not the accoutrements of the settled Information Age economy.

It’s the space.

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The Crossroads – in the building closest to the intersection

The Crossroads has become just that—an intersection where new segments of the community meet.  Of course, the ‘come heres’ like me like it.  It reminds us of former lives in places where the search for wifi was not a part of your daily calculations.  (Seaside north of Wachapreague is pretty good.  Good luck on the bayside.  If you get stuck down to Hacks Neck you might as well put your phone away.)

Other folks have found their way to The Crossroads, too, though.  Watermen, tourists, construction workers, gadflies, and nurses.  And they will make of the place something altogether new.

It helps that the owners are decidedly local with a deep entrepreneurial heart.  They are idealistic, hard-working, and committed.  You can tell they’ve put their whole selves into this project.  And they care about historic buildings that connect us to our past.

I dream about what this could mean for our small towns.  My old haunt was a small coffee house down the road named The Yellow Duck.  We dreamed there, too, about how to build community on the rural Eastern Shore.  Elvin, the co-owner, said, “If we could just build ten Yellow Ducks up and down the Shore, we’d be a long way there.”

18195047_1357367347666212_6683297359738572051_nThere’s a lot of conversation in church circles these days about third spaces—places that are not private, like homes, or overtly ecclesial, like churches.  The third spaces don’t carry the weight of expectations that those other spaces do.  So, people are freer to bring their selves to the conversation and potentially more open about sharing their convictions with others.

I bring conversations and meetings to The Crossroads these days.  I know the odds are stacked against businesses like this.  There are dark voices on the Shore that haunt every new venture—“It’ll never work here.”

But I’m one of those rare folks who came to the Shore because of its opportunities.  And the main opportunity was to experience and build community in deeper ways than I had.  To go to a place where the church was still experienced as a vital part of that community.  To be shaped by a landscape that I still call the edge of the world and the verge of heaven.

We need spaces to share those dreams.  The Crossroads is one of them.