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.

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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.

The Empty Bench at The Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner

3d11324a8832ade1a45c28b039485cf2The sofa bench in the back of The Book Bin was empty the other day.  The regulars by the coffee window are hesitant to sit there.  A sign on the door indicates that the staff knows that our local independent book store will be a place of mourning and memory for awhile.  The bench was Kirk Mariner’s, a place for reading the paper and sharing in the community that he was so much a part of and that he helped to build.  As the sign says, he was “a true cornerstone of the Shore.”

IMG_6376When the Rev. Dr. Kirk Mariner died, suddenly in the end, it caught us all up short.  The author, historian, preacher, and musician was woven firmly into the texture of this place.  Wines are supposed to reflect the terroir, the environment in which they are produced, and Kirk’s terroir was unmistakably Eastern Shore.  It is there in books that were so particular that they became universal.  If he had not been so identified as a local historian, a book like Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, would be justly recognized as one of the great studies of race and class in pre-Civil War America.

So what’s the best tribute to the man?  A well-done worship such as he fussed over.  An historical record that doesn’t overstate the case but is sure to include some telling anecdote and smiles.  A measured skepticism of schemes.  A lament over communities lost—ecclesial and geographical.  A glimmering-eyed ballad tweaking too-dearly-held nostalgias.  A warm love of the nurturing matrix of congregational song and the long line of Methodists who sang them before.

IMG_6377What will I remember?  The eye and ear for beauty.  The wind blowing through his impressive hair as he headed out to Tangier on the Joyce Marie II ferry.  The insatiable curiosity.  The generous spirit that wanted to see a young preacher do well.  The judicious ‘no’ to push said preacher on to initiative.  The contrarian’s slightly-jaundiced eye.  The off-hand remark that only later lands as the compliment it was.

The fullness of place embodied in a soul.  The trust in a story that began before he arrived and which claimed him as he told and retold it.  A lover in the arms of his Beloved, sung homeward by the Church he needled and cherished.  A sheep of God’s own fold.  A lamb of God’s own flock.  A sinner of God’s own redeeming.  A Methodist.

I give thanks to God for that wonder that is Kirk Mariner.

Obituary from Williams Funeral Homes.

Newspapers, Food, & Churches: An interview with Ted Shockley, part 2 of 2

Version 3In the previous segment of this interview, I talked with Ted Shockley, publisher of Eastern Shore First, our new local paper, about his approach to his work and the way that the community is changing.  Ted has a preference for print (as opposed to online news) and I was particularly impressed with the way he sees a page layout as a visual representation of the community, with businesses existing side by side as they do in real life.  He’s also got an eye for the humanity of the people he covers in those businesses.

In this segment we talked about newspapers, food, and churches.  You know—-the essentials.

So, how has it been?  Working on your own, is that a good thing?

It’s exhilarating. It’s hard to describe, because I’ve always felt like when I worked for any publication, I worked for them like I owned it.  I always wanted to go home and say I put more into it than I got out of it.  I always felt that way until it was my publication.  I like it when it’s up to me to pass or fail.  I like that challenge.

I don’t want to be challenged in anything else.  I was never a great student, and I don’t want to do any chemistry, and I don’t wanna be challenged in any other area.  But I enjoy writing and communicating to a community. That’s been a fun challenge for me.  I like it coming down on my shoulders.

Fortunately, the reading public has responded very well.  It’s been very humbling that people responded the way they have.

Well, I think it was something we needed, right?  

Thank you for saying that.  It’s probably a bad analogy, but I think of this as food.  This is locally grown, organic, farm-to-table journalism.  There are not huge corporations.  There are no investors.

No antibiotics.

No antibiotics.  This is organic.  People want that in a dining experience, and I hope they also want it in a reading experience.  I think of it like delivering a food.

You do the photos?

I do the photos.  I’ve worked with people who are fantastic photographers.  I’m an adequate photographer,  just trying to catch moments.  When I go to an event, I really want to take pictures of the people there.  I might go and cover a concert, and never take a picture of the singer.  I might take a picture of everybody in the audience, because I really want smiling faces.

Yeah.  

FullSizeRender 2When I was a kid and worked at the Eastern Shore News, I would go to Assateague in the summertime.  I had a summer job there for three years, and they let me write summer stuff.  I would go to Assateague, and I’d take pictures of people, and I’d never get their names.  That’s like taking half a picture.   If you don’t get their names, you really don’t have much.

That’s really good.

I also want, whenever possible, when I write about somebody, I want to know who their parents are.

That’s an Eastern Shore thing.

I want to put them in the paper.  If you’re in the ESO ballet, and you’re one of the stars, I want to say you’re the son or the daughter of so-and-so, because nobody does that.

I am doing a story in next month’s issue on the Eastern Shore bakeries.  We have these wonderful bakeries.  I’m talking about an authentic bakery experience where you walk in and the smell.

All of them agreed to do it.  So, I walk in and I’m talking to Shirleen [at the Anointed Hands Bakery].  She looks at me and she says, “You don’t have on your green shoes.”  I said, “How did you know that I wore green shoes?”

She said, “You don’t remember writing about me?”  I said, “Well, I remember the green shoes.  I remember the year.  It must’ve been 2012.”  She said, “You wrote several stories when my son was burned to death.”  I said, “Well, I remember exactly talking to you.  I remember all of those stories.”

It’s good to talk to people three years later, four years later.  These people who you had covered during their worst moments of their life.  And now, they’re successful and happy, have found this great calling, and created this great business.  That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.  She’s a great person.

Those are neat stories.  I know that the mainstream news is important, and we need people to cover when things catch on fire, people die on the roads, and when there’s a shooting.  But I want to write about the new bakeries.

That was humbling to go talk to somebody who…you were there for their worst moment.  Now, you’re going to write about them in their best.

Okay.  

I’m glad to see that there are places [like the Crossroads Coffee Shop where we are meeting right now].  I mean, you can have a McDonald’s experience at any town in America, but we have places that can only be experienced here on the Eastern Shore.

My analogy for newspapers, in addition to restaurants, is that they were like churches.  You have these traditional, faithful readers and they are getting older.  What does this church do, what do newspapers do to bring in younger readers?  I don’t know the answer.

I started from scratch.  It’s a lot easier to start a newspaper from scratch or start a church from scratch than it is to change this 150-year-old tradition.  How do you change that without making everybody mad?  Because you’ll alienate the people who are your bedrock supporters.  And I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I see them playing out everywhere.

One of the movements within churches is to try to get outside the building; moving into places like this which are third spaces, they call them, which is not a private space.  It’s not a church space, but it’s a third kind of space where community can happen and where connections can happen.  

So, we’ve been encouraging people to take their Bible studies into restaurants and coffee houses, and make connections with people who you just meet incidentally.  Even  meetings.  I do a lot of meetings out now.  It’s a whole lot less of a barrier for somebody to walk into a place like this than to walk into a church if they haven’t been there before.

Right.  I’m always looking for these parallel roads.  That’s a good way to think about something like this.  It’s almost like a third space where, as you said, community happens.  Community is a hard thing to make happen.

And when you try to make it happen, it’s forced and artificial.

It’s not very organic.

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Ted’s Truck

When it rises up from relationships, that’s different.   Because we talk so much about needing to get younger and needing to reach people of different generations, sometimes older people hear that as an indictment against what they’ve done and who they are.

It’s all about finding the right words to make everybody part of it.  About finding the commonalities. It’s just fascinating, because it’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include, in my opinion.  What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

It’s so easy to find the words that exclude and really hard to find the words that include…What are the words to make people want to be a part of something?

I hope it’s not sacrilegious to align my newspaper analogies with church, but if people leave and say that they’ve been bored, your church doesn’t survive, and your newspaper doesn’t either.

“Pessimism, Hopelessness & Doom” – Traveling the Virginia Extremes with August Wallmeyer

 

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August Wallmeyer paints a distressing picture of rural Virginia in the 21st century.  His little book, The Extremes of Virginia, which highlights the realities and common challenges of three regions of the Commonwealth—Southwest, Southside, and the Eastern Shore—gets your attention quickly.  You start to see why he calls the regions “the Extremes,” and it isn’t just because they form a crescent on the periphery of the state.  A few examples:

“People in the Extremes areas earn about two-thirds of what Virginians statewide do. People here are older and much poorer. The average poverty rate among the Extremes is 67 percent higher than Virginia’s. In Virginia in 2014, it was 11.8 percent. In the Extremes, 19.7 percent.”

“Suicide rates in some pockets of the Extremes are double, some more than triple the statewide average. Overall, the average rate at which people in the Extremes commit suicide is 18.8 percent higher.”

“The rate of fatal prescription opioid drug overdoses in the Extremes is 56 percent higher than Virginia.”

Something is going on in the Extremes, and these indicators suggest that it isn’t good.  In fact, Wallmeyer says, “There is a pervasive sense of pessimism, hopelessness and doom in the Extremes.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good.

51LveuFwchL.jpgTo be sure, Wallmeyer, a former news writer, trade association executive and long-time observer of the General Assembly in Richmond, appreciates the beauty and lifestyle of these areas.  He is sympathetic to the psychic and spiritual effects of a declining and aging population, lost influence in state decision-making, and the collapse of old economic models.  And he understands that governmental policies are often contradictory and unhelpful.

But he’s not really sure what to do about it.  Along the course of his Extreme journey, he highlights some pockets of progress and people who are trying to make changes.  The high-tech rocket launch facility on the Eastern Shore is one of those bright lights.  The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

After noting the aversion most residents of the Extremes have to being told what to do by people from outside the region, Wallmeyer’s most prominent policy recommendation is to bring in the experts who have been involved in development work around the globe.  “I suggest we use a small fraction of our budget and spend it on some highly qualified outside help with particular expertise in the kinds of situations and problems faced in the Extremes.”  He then outlines the qualifications of these outside aides in a way that seems hopelessly unrealistic: “The task of the consultants must be completely nonpartisan, completely indifferent to election realities or predictions, absolutely neutral in every respect.”

I appreciate Wallmeyer’s effort here.  He has collected some very useful statistics and has offered a clear-eyed portrait of the land I know.  But the reporting is spotty and relies too much on the legislative and bureaucratic world that he seems to know so well.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.  It’s going to require a revival of community, a proliferation of relationships and networks of local connection, and a renewed narrative that restores purpose and meaning to the land and its people.  It is, dare I say it, a spiritual problem that will require the tools of the heart and soul.

The Extremes of Virginia 

by August Wallmeyer

Dementi Milestone Publishing, 2016

126 pages

How to Be Here (and Not There)

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The Crossroads Coffee House

“It is strange to be here,” John O’Donohue says in the opening line of his book, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.  For O’Donohue, that meant attending to the mystery of the particular human life and acknowledging that each of is “the one and only threshold of an inner world.”

It is strange to be here…and anywhere.  The unique features of our lives and of the places we inhabit are threatened by the enticing, unrooted landscape of the virtual world.  What would it look like for churches to be here and not, for instance, there?

What would it look like for churches to be here and not, for instance, there?

“Will this work for East Dallas?”  That’s the question Andrew Forrest urged his church leaders to keep asking as he began a relaunched ministry at Munger Place United Methodist Church.  Munger Place has a long history in the neighborhood, but the struggling congregation needed to think of itself as a new church start.  They could have used a lot of models that were finding success in different locales, but they knew they needed to keep it local.

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Munger Place UMC, photo by church

“We tried to avoid anything that would seem like the big-box retailer was coming in and taking over the beloved mom and pop establishment,” Forrest said in an interview in Faith and Leadership magazine.  “So we kept asking, ‘Will this work for East Dallas?’ And I think that question helped us connect with our neighborhood.”

I cut my teeth in ministry in East Dallas as a seminary intern and there are many ways that that dynamic and growing neighborhood is different from the Eastern Shore, where I live now, but the question is a good one for rural churches as well.  “Will this work here?”

To be clear, asking this question doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying to innovate.  Because something worked here fifty years ago does not mean that it’s the thing that will connect us with the neighborhood we find ourselves in today.  Step one is to spend some time with people who don’t go to church.  You know – the majority of the population.  (Only about 20% of people on the Eastern Shore are regular attenders.)

The days I feel most vital are those where I am engaging with folks in diners and when I set up office at in the community college lounge.  As we build relationships and engage in real conversation with our neighbors we are building our capacity to offer the transforming gospel of Jesus in ways that speak to this place on God’s green earth.  Just as importantly, we will also be transformed when we meet the Jesus who is already present out there (around here?) in the lives of people with lived wisdom of their own.

“We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up.”

“We know that we all have knowledge,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:1.  “Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up” (CEB).  So I aim to be a little less sure of what I know and instead to love the mystery that is within me and around me.

In other words, I aim to be here.  Not there.

Going Underground on the Eastern Shore – the new Harriet Tubman park

IMG_6043One of the dynamics that happens in marginalized places, (and I’ll count the Eastern Shore, where I live, as one of those), is that the people who live in them can internalize that marginalization and begin to believe that nothing significant ever happens there.  Or we latch on to narrow stereotypes of what the region is about, (in our case, oysters and pony swims), and make them carry too much weight in establishing a communal identity.

So hooray for the National Park Service for returning Harriet Tubman to us as a reminder of the subterranean currents that have formed this place.  When the new National Historical Park opened up near Cambridge, Maryland recently, Suzanne and I went to check it out.

IMG_6031The neck (peninsula to most) where Tubman grew up is still a marshy, pine-studded piece of land.  But it was home to a slave economy that once dominated the region.  Mid-Atlantic slavery was sometimes downplayed as a less harsh version of the deep South model, but the stories in the museum make clear that there were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.  Families were rent and punishments rendered that left enslaved peoples physically and psychically scarred.

There were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.

The museum is heavy on narrative and visual representation because there are so few artifacts left from the time.  But it is effective in giving the visitor a taste of Tubman’s faith and grit and determination to liberate her family and anyone else who would follow. She said, “I was free and they should be free.  I would make a home in the North and bring them there, God helping me.  Oh, how I prayed then, I said to the Lord, “I am going to hold steady on to you, and I know you’ll see me through.”

Tubman’s visions of God leading her and others to freedom began when she was hit in the head by a metal weight hurled by a white man in anger across a country store.  Like some scene out of a Flannery O’Connor story, this sudden act of violence was a revelation of God’s redemptive purposes for Tubman.  She wrote a song for the day she left which has all the elements of a spiritual.  “I’ll meet you in the morning, safe in the promised land;/on the other side of Jordan, bound for the promised land.”

img_6040.jpgShe was caught up in a biblical story that gave meaning to the one she lived.  The promised land, despite the colonists’ dream, was not the Eastern Shore, nor even Philadelphia where she fled.  It’s a place approached in song and faith.

When the sun sets across the Chesapeake Bay, it is a beautiful sight.  It can make you feel that all is right in the world.  But there are troubling things below–discontent nurtured by a biblical narrative of redemption and release.  Today, the Underground Railroad may be led by Latino Tubmans who know there is a promised land, and it’s not the same as ‘here.’

Also recommended: Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.

 

 

Rural is Plural

This article originally appeared in the great Topology magazine.

 

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We were in danger of becoming a caricature.  When a parent stood up at a local school board meeting and expressed her dismay at a word being used in two books in the school library, blogposts and news stories from New York to Singapore decried the benighted censorship emanating from our Virginia backwater county.  Because the books were Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But the word was ‘nigger.’

219 times in Huck Finn.  48 times in Mockingbird.  That’s how many times the word (along with other slurs) is reported to have been used.  And oh, the power of the word.  “What are we teaching our children?” the mother, who has a biracial child, asked the school board.  “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

Do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

The school system could have responded by following their recently adopted policy which asks that a “Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources” form be submitted to the school and be considered through a process that would not require immediately pulling the books.  But our schools, like so many of our institutions, have so many policies and the heat of the moment is often quite hot.  So the books were pulled and in the week that followed before their reinstatement, Accomack County became an international symbol of censorship with its accompanying heaps of opprobrium.

There were upsides to the controversy.  People rallied on the courthouse lawn to protest.  When is the last time that people rallied in defense of literature?  Our local independent (and only) bookstore put Mockingbird & Finn on prominent display and sales spiked.  The owner was interviewed when TV crews came to town.  The local (and only) community theater sponsored a dramatic reading of the play based on Lee’s book.  All in all, it was a boost for the arts.

The question raised didn’t fall along simple lines, either.  How do we offer these books with their shocking words to our children?  What sort of context should we give?  Is the freedom of a library book shelf enough?  Or do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

What stuck in my craw, though, was the way my community was flattened by the media coverage.  It’s been happening all fall.  As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

So when the book controversy arose, we suddenly became another piece of evidence for the yawning divide between the enclaves of enlightenment and the continent of disgruntled whites malnourished by their steady diet of fake news.  Not that there isn’t a divide.  Lord knows, the distance from here to the Northeast Corridor seems to grow by the day.  Economic dislocation, declining educational opportunity, racial tension, opioid abuse – they all take their toll.  But we don’t get better by being exotic objects of remote observation.  Or by turning ourselves into such a thing.

Rural is plural.  That’s the thing I know from my life in the rural South.  I’ve had my run-ins with the kind of small-mindedness that lends itself to easy lampooning, but I’ve also been nurtured and challenged by big-hearted, poetic grandeur from the likes of English teachers, non-profit leaders, and country church choirs.  I grew up with and live with dreamers and everyday artists.

If we have a way forward beyond this time of crucial divide, it wofelix-serre-207685n’t be because certain regions hunkered down in their bubble and withstood the assaults coming from the other bubble.  The way forward has no red or blue hue.  It has the character of a river running right through the heart of a land on which unlikely companions seek a new day of freedom and adventure.  And on this journey we will share our best and worst selves, in language coarse and beautiful, with people who come from very different circumstances but with transcendent desires.  Someone should write a book about that.