Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Scars of Billy Graham

"America's pastor" died yesterday, and I had to pull myself out of a nightmare this morning. In that nightmare, I was yelling at an old white male minister who had no interest in God's call of women and God's welcome of LGBT people. I think by the time I woke myself from that nightmare, the dream version of me had the old minister on the ground kicking him, while he laughed at me. The nightmare was unnerving and visceral; I curled into a tight ball for more than half an hour upon waking until the terror subsided.

With all the people celebrating Billy Graham's life and ministry, let us not forget the damage he inflicted. To be fair, I have no personal memories of Billy Graham. He was getting old by the time I was born and his son has been far more likely to make headlines in my lifetime. I did grow up in churches that sang "Just As I Am" as their closing hymn every week; later I would learn that was a direct influence of the Billy Graham crusades. My nightmare was likely invoked by the NBC news coverage was airing in the doctor's office waiting room yesterday morning. I tried to ignore it, but saw the blonde woman wearing make-up rivaling Tammy Faye Bakker out of the corner of my eye. She kept talking about her love for Jesus and how he would cure the malignancy of the soul. I could not ignore her claim that she talked someone off a ledge on Twitter that morning. I wish they had just kept talking about the Olympics. It was all somehow related to Billy Graham.

So back to him. One of his legacies is continued rejection of LGBT people. The language itself even seems old to me. It shouldn't, really. It's some more "Love the sinner, hate the sin" bullshit. I shouldn't be surprised. Unfortunately, there's not much else to say about this particular topic. LGBT have been beaten up by the Church plenty, and this prominent preacher added to those beatings.

Not too long ago, Vice President Mike Pence quoted the Billy Graham rule that he would never be alone with a woman he isn't married to. Dinner, some say, while older versions definitely say alone. I grew up with those sorts of rules. Hell, I grew up in a place where men were served first at church potlucks and family dinners. No matter the reasons or interpretation of the rule, it's a clear sign that women are and should be second class citizens. Or maybe it just means that they can't be trusted, and are tempting, and all of the problematic sorts of traditional beliefs about women. I can't help but think of the hindrances to ministry for both genders.

More than that, I think of the man at my church with whom I've spent countless hours alone. I was single and twenty-eight years old when I was called to be the pastor here. He's fifteen years older than me and married. We've kept the Thursday night coffee shop open and carpooled to meetings in other cities. His wife is also an active member of the church. There are about a hundred points in there where all I can think is, "Yes, we should be able to trust each other." I made a promise to be the pastor of this church, which includes not having romantic relationships with members. He and his wife have made many promises to each other, one of which is monogamy. Because I am their pastor, they should be able to trust me. While I was raised with the "abstain from all appearance of evil" version of Christianity, I can't help but think that if carpooling with someone of the opposite sex is an appearance of evil, your worldview is distorted.

As terrible as those things are, I also have this sneaking suspicion that Billy Graham's version of Christianity is inextricable from our current societal ills. His emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus is widely accepted in more conservative versions of Christianity. Faith becomes both private and personal in the come just as you are Christianity. As I consider conversations about guns, food security, education, healthcare, and just about everything else in the public sphere, I consider how little interest there is in the common good. In Arizona, we opt for 55+ housing developments that pay no taxes to support schools; we also rank 50th in teacher pay. Over and over again, we choose what is good for the individual instead what is good for all of us. That's a long list all on its own. It doesn't help anything when faith is about personal salvation instead of faith lived within and supported by a faith community.

I believe Billy Graham tried his best to be a faithful servant of God. I believe his ministry was transformative for many more people than mine ever will be. But that good doesn't erase all of the bad. Some say it's not Christian to speak ill of the dead. Maybe they're right. But whether we choose to talk about the good and the evil of Billy Graham, we will still be haunted by his ghost.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

You are dust...

Home is an elusive thing for me. Bits of home are in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, and Arizona. There are people in all of those places who feel like home. There's the scent of a tobacco barn, of a summer night, of magnolia trees and palo verde trees in bloom. Home, I've been told, is a feeling rather than a place. Maybe that's true, too.

And it's because of that placelessness that I love these ashes. I packed some ashes into little bags last week to send home with parishioners. I have a Ziploc pack of them stashed in my office. The grit and dirt of them is a familiar feeling on my hands. The imposition of them on my forehead remains one of the most grounding acts of the year. The echo of the ancient promise from Genesis sounds, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I know the story of humans made out of the clay from the earth has no scientific merit; I am still amazed by its theological merit. Being formed by the hands of God is less intriguing to me than being formed from the dirt--no, the dust. This is the very stuff that we wipe off our shoes and wash off our cars. More importantly, this dust is the stuff that creates life for us. We do not eat without that dirt. The breads, the vegetables, the fruits, the animals we eat all depend on the dirt.

Most days, I only walk on pavement and concrete. I tried and failed to grow herbs on my patio because Phoenix heat is brutal. The rich smell of freshly turned earth is a memory more than reality now. In childhood, I watched the tractor's blades reaching deep down into our garden dirt, pulling up the rich dirt from below. It would be tilled into something ready to receive the seeds and plants that would grow into food of all sorts. I remember the feel of this dirt under my feet during those first warm days of spring, as I walked along enjoying the clumps of earth breaking apart under my bare feet. A few days later, I would walk behind my father, dropping seeds for corn and beans into the earth. The task got harder as I grew older and farther from the ground, but it remained mine.

Wonderfully, Ash Wednesday calls out the ancient promise, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Perhaps the mortality reminder would be more difficult had I grown up in a different place and time. Appalachia is a little friendlier with death than most places. I grew up trotting through cemeteries, hearing stories of people who died before I was born. They were dear, treasured, and loved even in death. I remember the sketch of her tombstone my grandmother kept folded in her Bible after those plans had been made. I now visit her grave in the cemetery I once walked with her.

There, children were always present at funerals and funeral homes. My cousin and I curiously touched our dead great grandmother when no one was looking. Once the curiosity was gone, we camped out in the women's bathroom on the wicker love seat, sinking our toes deep into the purple shag carpet on the floor.

Older phrases creep into my vocabulary sometimes, courtesy of my grandparents. "Laid a corpse" doesn't sugarcoat much of anything. Having a distant cousin who owned a funeral home made things a little different, too. "He didn't want to be embalmed so George has him in the freezer," doesn't sugarcoat much of anything either.

The fact that you will one day die shouldn't be news to anyone.

But I digress, dust-creatures.

Remember that you are tied to this earth. You are made from it and will return to it. This earth sustains you. Life cannot be sustained without this dirt. Remember that this remains true in the cities and on the farms, and for all people who have ever lived. And you, dust-creature, belong to God through it all.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fall in Love

Well, it's been a while. I've been off celebrating Christmas, and continuing my education, and having the flu, and whole bunch of other things. One of those things included preaching at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I'll leave most of my reflections for some other time. Y'all might appreciate my sermon from that day, though. It's a little break from Jesus and not at all a break from Jesus at the same time. They were in the midst of a series, "Called to Justice, Equity, and Compassion."

Here you go:
Since their daddy owned the sawmill, all the boys ended up nicknamed after saws. They had real names, of course, but no one knew them anymore. Instead, they knew Hacksaw, Chainsaw, and Buzzsaw. There was a year or two in between each son, but by adulthood, they all sort of blended together. Each of them was crazy in his own way—long before crazy had anything to do with diagnosed mental illness. In a different place or if they were wealthy, they all would have likely been dubbed eccentric instead.

It was Buzzsaw who took the cake, though. For two weeks out of the year, he rented a tent. It was one of those big white ones like people use for wedding receptions. His remained mostly empty, wedged as it was between two hills up a holler, with little parking and no clear driveway. Still, for those two weeks, he fervently preached a revival every single night, calling people to repentance. The first year, people thought it might take off. By the third year, word got out that he’d spent the month before dressed as a caricature of a Native American, living in a teepee on a hill back of his daddy’s sawmill, so no one showed up.

Truth is always stranger than fiction.

I rode past the tent that third year, which I think was his last to hold his ill-attended revivals. My best friend lived up that long, narrow, winding road, and I went to her house at least a couple days a week after school. Her family lived in an old, white two-story house, more than a hundred years old. The wood stove had been replaced with a heat pump. A narrow kitchen had been added, along with a single bathroom. Her parents no longer wanted to be married, but a kid still at home meant they had to be. The steel mill where her dad worked had layoffs every year. Once tobacco season was over, a cash crop grown to supplement the income not earned at the mill, her father would spend his days drinking until he was called back to work. He cussed like a sailor, starting most sentences with, “Well, hell…” and smoked Camel cigarettes, no filter. After school, we’d watch Oprah or The Cosby Show, switching the channel when he walked in, always ready with a racist rant. Occasionally, he’d run through the house, then back out with a rifle in his hand. “Starling!” he’d shout on his way out the door, and then we’d hear shots fired at the birds that were pests on the farm.

Those were the good days—the ones where he was fun and amicable and not drinking. He was a mean drunk. Once and only once, he raised his fist to punch his wife. She told him to wait right there, and went to the kitchen, returning with her large iron skillet. “Go ahead,” she said, “but it’ll be the last punch you ever throw.”

They divorced the year after we graduated from high school. The house burned a few years later, and Charlie ended up living in a trailer in the same place. Long before, they’d given up on home insurance. Other bills were more pressing.

To outsiders, they sound like white trash. That phrase isn’t used in Appalachia, though, at least not to the best of my memory. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in northeastern Kentucky. Coalmines were hours away.  The town there had boomed when coal was loaded onto trains and hauled up to the shores of the Ohio River, where it was loaded on to barges and floated farther down the river. Economic decline began in the 1960s, as railroads began to disappear, and industry with them.

In that place, people were and are judged by their cleanliness, paying their bills, and being decent neighbors. Being a mess was just that, and looked down on. That family I mentioned was, for the most part, considered decent people. You could eat off the floor in the kitchen any day of the week and they’d gladly show up to help a neighbor in need. No one was mixed up with illegal drugs of any sort.

The signs of white trash to outsiders aren’t the same as they are to insiders. Moving a trailer on the family land was every bit as respectable as building a house, and far more so than living in the handful of section 8 apartments in town. People like me, who left, who earned bachelors degrees and masters degrees, learned to narrate things differently. We’ve learned of the coal mined, timber cut, and people left behind, exploited by the empire that no longer needs their resources. “Appalachia,” the empire calls that place, proving they can never be trusted by Appalachians. “Appalachia” implies everything of the ruder “white trash.” (Note: in the outsider version, it is pronounced "lay" not "latch" as is correct.)

The stories we tell among ourselves never get told outside, the stories that have nothing to do with white trash.

My grandfather, Pappaw Ted, was born in 1917 or 1918. We never knew for sure, since the courthouse with the birth records burned down. He enlisted in the army when he was 18, though he may have been 16 or 17 instead. By then, he had been grown a long time. He was the oldest of 9 kids. He dropped out of school after 5th grade, able to read, write, and do math that would be more than sufficient for him to raise a family, help manage a household, and work building bridges. His first job was for a Swedish immigrant, doing odd jobs around the farm. There, he learned to drive on the red truck the Swede had, a rarity in eastern Kentucky.

Not long after, his mother died of a heart attack. She’d gotten up that morning, cooked sausage, eggs, biscuits, and gravy for breakfast, sent the kids off to school, then started laundry. She keeled over the washboard that morning, where she was found later, dead at not much more than 50 years old. Pappaw always said it was partly a broken heart; her husband cheated on her at every chance he got.

Every now and then, we’d drive by the house they lived in then. It was a small white house, set back on a hill, with steps up from the road. Even then, a fence cut across the walk. Soon after his mom’s death, his dad showed up at the house with his girlfriend, ready to move her in to take care of the kids. Pappaw met him at the fence with his rifle, and offered to shoot her, instead. He began caring for his 8 younger siblings.

That summer, he planted a garden. They ate  from it and canned vegetables for the winter. They bought chickens and kept them for eggs and occasional meat. Their family was together, but it was hard, and short-lived.

Their dad came and took the two girls to town one day. He bought them new shoes while they were there, and other treats. When he took them back home, as they started to get out of the wagon, he said, “Oh no, leave your shoes here. Those stay with me.” They ended up going home with him, instead, to keep their new shoes.

One by one, all of the young kids ended up back with their dad, the youngest of them, Tommy, wanting to stay with his brother most of all.

By that time, Pappaw was working at a sawmill. His dad was living in a house in the next town over. The back yard of the house backed up to the railroad tracks and eventually, they let the little boy out to play. When Pappaw figured out he was there, he jumped the train and kidnapped his little brother out of the backyard. For the next months, Tommy went to work with him at the sawmill every single day. He hid out of danger in a toolshed, until the work was done.

Eventually, the whole matter ended up in court. At 16, my papaw was given custody of his little brother, now 6 years old. When he got married a couple of years later, the little boy moved in with him and his new wife. By the time I was a child, little Tommy was Big Tom, and lived at the mouth of the holler where my grandparents’ home was. On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, he always came to them with a card, the only parents he really remembered. The day Tom died is the only time in my life I remember my Pappaw crying.

Maybe you hear all that and you think, “Yeah, white trash.” Maybe you’re right. But the stories Appalachians tell are told to convey strength, self-reliance, community, and trust. They are stories of people forgotten about by the outside world—or never cared about to begin with. Like so many places where money has dried up, drugs have become one of the primary industries. Painkillers are dubbed “hillbilly heroin.” Pharmacies appear and disappear in a month’s time or less, just ahead of any law enforcement agency catching up with them. Young men without other jobs make drugs runs, to Miami, most often.

My own cousin is disabled following a massive stroke caused by drug use. He used dirty needles, which led to an infection, which led to a stroke. The right side of his body is mostly paralyzed. Like me, he’s 33. His mother died late last year. Her cancer was dubbed a “lifestyle cancer.” In this case, it was code for prostitution, the profession by which she supported her drug habit. She was 56 years old.

Those hard stories are not as rare as they should be. Communities of all sorts outside the privileged groups can tell them. White trash communities would be surprised, I imagine, by how much they have in common with the brown and black communities they look down upon. These are the people who heard the promise of jobs like they remember and voted for Trump, hopeful, and certain that nothing in Washington would make its way to the hills of Appalachia any way.

I could tell you stories all day. I could tell you beautiful stories from the cemeteries where I played as a child, and my churches, and my schools. We could sing the songs of Appalachia, “Down in the Valley,” and “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and “Pretty Polly.” I could bring out my grandmother’s quilts, made lovingly and with great skill. I could teach y’all how to make cream candy and to churn butter. We could eat biscuits and fried chicken and talk all afternoon.

But what I want you to remember is this: you have to let yourself fall in love.

If you want to do justice, if you want to fight for equity, if you want to show compassion, first you have to fall in love. You have to fall in love with this neighbor who voted for Trump, against all their best interests. You have to fall in love with the person ripping their life apart. You have to fall in love with the people clinging to the old ways of doing things. You have to fall in love with the people who spend commodities like time and money in different ways than you do.

You have to fall in love, because otherwise, you’ll never see like they do. You have to fall in love to see beauty where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love to see strength where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love to see life where your neighbor does. You have to fall in love.

And if, if you let yourself fall in love, you might just find yourself a partner in justice, equity, and compassion in ways you never imagined possible.