Five Lessons & Carols for Southern Liberals

(This essay first ran in the website “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Southern Culture & Politics,” Dec. 8, 2019)

The word has gone forth. Our historic Episcopal church has done what many thought was impossible – we got rid of the name that the church had borne since 1903, R.E. Lee Memorial Church.

Confederate shadow

Photo from Hillsville, Va., by Doug Cumming

After the slaughter in a black Charleston church in 2015 and the neo-Nazi violence of Charlottesville in 2017, we finally replaced a Confederate symbol, Robert E. Lee, with the original name that Lee himself knew when he saved the war-shaken parish in his final years in Lexington, Virginia – “Grace.”

Now, after an interim rector oversaw two years of “healing” and a new rector has arrived, my church finally has a future as well as a past. The Bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Virginia sent praises for our spiritual journey out of a “time of trial in the life of the parish.” A letter from the national Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the cool preacher whose sermon went viral from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, said it all: “God has been at work in Lexington.”

When I was in the middle of this “time of trial,” between the rise of Donald Trump and the end of his first year in office, I wasn’t the only member of the parish who was struck by the parallels between our church’s divisions and America’s. Old-guard defenders of keeping the “Lee” name formed an unmovable “base,” and a significant number of parish leaders, like today’s elected Republicans, would not deviate from the base. They finally admitted, okay, maybe we’ll change the name someday, but not now. It would be mere “political correctness,” disrespectful of a great military hero and Christian gentleman, they said.

As Congress moves inexorably, painfully, through the Constitutional process of impeaching the President, I am remembering lessons I learned from this parochial name-change experience. The lessons seem relevant. But I can’t be sure, since no one in our church wants to talk about what we went through. “Healing,” apparently, means silence. So this is for you outsiders, my “Five Lessons and Carols” in this Advent season.

One, taking time is nice, but doesn’t change many minds. The Charleston, S.C., shooting triggered a call for a “Christ-centered” discussion of our name. I agreed, as a member of the elected governing body, the Vestry, that we shouldn’t rush. We opted for many house meetings, and then promised a Vestry vote that would require two-thirds to change the name.

Grace signI was among those who felt the congregation should have time to process the controversy and be listened to. As a mass media professor, I was influenced by pollster Daniel Yankelovich’s book Coming to Public Judgment. That book optimistically describes how people process controversies over time, opening up new understandings and giving all opinions due respect. This un-hurried process doesn’t necessarily yield agreement, Yankelovich says, but it does lead to “public judgment,” a feeling that the matter is settled and we can move on.

This, it turned out, was wrong. At the end of 2016, nine out of 15 vestry members voted to change the name, one vote short of the super-majority. Nothing felt settled. Everybody was mad. Families left.

Then we tried another time-consuming – and expensive – process simply to repair the damage. A pair of consultants guided an ad hoc church committee for nine months to issue a beautiful 15-page report recommending nuances of compromise, including (to much shock and surprise) restoring the historic name of “Grace Episcopal Church.” The vestry split again, worse than before. More “no-change” old-guard had been voted onto the vestry (beware of backlash in 2020!). Then Charlottesville happened, and the gulf widened. With each side dug in, we barely passed the name-change, this time by a simple majority, and a two-vote margin.

Two, for opponents of change, “the right time” is never. Early on, many wanted to end the discussion with a congregation-wide vote. That’s not Episcopal governance. We distributed a survey instead. Opponents of change took the results as a vote – two-thirds against a name-change. The people had spoken, they said, and the vestry shouldn’t overturn the will of the people.

After Charlottesville, which was about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee 70 miles to our northwest, the problem with being R.E. Lee Memorial Church rattled us again. But the old-guard felt it was not the right time – since “our” Lee was not the general on horseback but the church’s former senior warden. Yes, we’ll change our name at some point, they said, but not now. One vestry member was so appalled at that, she resigned.

Three, niceness isn’t enough. I have a friend, a former Democratic operative and Obama administration official, who is finishing a how-to book for political liberals that seeks to extol the wisdom of Machiavelli. “Being Good Isn’t Enough,” she plans to title it, quoting “The Prince.”

I found myself slowly giving up on attempts to be gently persuasive – listening, praying, praising the good will of all sides – and instead, started counting potential votes. I found myself being Machiavellian, I confess. Some, recognizing that, saw me as the Enemy. I came to see my many opportunistic saves, barely keeping a name-change possible at a half-dozen key times, as miracles. It must have been the Holy Spirit. Machiavelli, intensely anti-church, is under-appreciated as a good Protestant realist. Nancy Pelosi, a good Catholic, likewise.

Four, understand tribal identity. You may think that it’s enough to stand on transcendent ideals like the Constitution or the rule of law – or God.  But we’re in an age of identity. Even an Episcopal church, spiritually led by bishops and declaring a gospel to the wider world, will close up like a tree-house boys’ club when the wider world has a different view of its name. If you don’t like it, you can leave, some actually said. Belonging to a church, or a political party, has become more determining of position than any of the institutional beliefs supposedly held by that church or party.

Five, after the change, don’t look back. After the name change, the hurt was much deeper than I anticipated. Not that this was the cause, but one of the most influential leaders of no-change resigned from the vestry and checked into Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital and another was struck by cancer. Our interim rector, charged with “healing,” brought in a couple of monks for a day-long workshop on reconciliation, and it worked like a dud. After a powerful sermon on reconciliation, one old-timer came up to me in tears and apologized. But no one else has said a word to me about “the late unpleasantness,” as one Sons of Confederate Veterans widow calls it.

Good things have been happening at Grace Episcopal Church. Our new music director has brought in African drums, college musicians and cool new songs we’ve all learned. An international conference on peace and reconciliation in South Sudan was hosted by Grace Episcopal in September. Our new rector, the Rev. Ellis Tucker “Tuck” Bowerfind, was the Virginia diocese’s co-chair of a committee on race and reconciliation.

None of this would have happened at “R.E. Lee Memorial Church” at this time in history. And yet, no one wants to tell the story of how we changed. When the local weekly paper asked me to cover the South Sudan conference, a reference I made to this history was sugar-coated, pre-publication, by a call from the church to the editor, when the church couldn’t reach me (this is how small-town journalism works sometimes).

I’m telling you this story, because I think it’s a good one. But I’ve accepted that I can’t tell it in my church community. That’s my penance. And if the Democrats don’t blow it, I for one don’t intend to gloat or rub it in. This is my Christmas carol: the future is good; blame is not.

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Down to the entryway of higher education

For millions of Americans, community college is the gateway to higher education, job skills and a better life. Last fall, for me, community college was a gateway in the other direction.

It led me, temporarily, out of the bubble of elite higher education.

With a semester off as a tenured journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, I spent this fall teaching a writing/research course at Surry Community College. Every week, I drove the 130 miles from Lexington to stay at our son’s farm in Fancy Gap and taught a class of 16 challenging students on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Dobson, N.C.

Walk in the woodsI recommend the experience to other university professors. We have a lot to offer — and something to learn.

It was Trump country. And yet, I found more diversity there than at W&L. Four of my Surry students were Hispanic. One young woman wrote in an assignment of her mother’s Hispanic shoe store getting ripped off by a few shoplifters. An African-American single mom in her 30s wrote in another assignment a memo to the principal of her daughter’s elementary school, questioning the decision to pull her daughter out of the regular class for special help.

One student managed the local Dairy Queen. Another worked at Chick-fil-A. Four were “Early College” high school students. Four were repeating the class. Four more failed to show up or dropped out.

Virginia has a system of 23 community colleges and an ambitious goal of making “first-generation college student” an obsolete term, with a college graduate in every household. North Carolina’s community college system, once considered one of the most progressive in the country, has 58 campuses.

The funding of this system seemed criminally low for being “progressive.” My pay as a one-class adjunct barely covered mileage and meals, even with the extra $4.70 a week thrown in for my Ph.D.

But the experience was rewarding. It freed me from a privileged liberal arts environment and tested my real value as a teacher. If this was left-behind America — Trump’s unrewarded supporters and demonized immigrants — what could I teach them about writing?My class

A lot. Nonfiction writing, I tried to show, is personal empowerment. Instead of a research paper, I gave assignments I thought could be useful to them: a memo, an op-ed, a press release, a blog post, a publishable book review. Writing, I said in every way I could, is connecting with a real audience. It’s thinking logically, supporting assertions, making claims that persuade.

And what a time for applying these ideas — with the U.S. House engaged in the ultimate Constitutional exercise from the Age of Reason: impeachment of a duly elected President.

I wanted to show respect for them, as they did for me. So for class discussion, I used a few good opinion columns I could find that leaned slightly in Trump’s favor.

Professors in their ivory towers wonder what could have gone so wrong with America, that so many citizens could elect a big-time real estate cheat and reality TV star. For some of us, our reaction is a sincerely baffled curiosity, with a sense of obligation to serve the common good in a time of need with our modest skills – teaching, scholarship and service.

Community college, as W&L’s provost told me, is “where the real heart of American education is happening right now.” A Harvard-educated law professor recently left his New York university to teach a semester in ethics in “Appalachia,” to try to understand what went so wrong in 2016. Evan Mandery was turned down by a Tennessee community college, but eventually taught at Appalachian State, writing that he took solace in the shared moral values he found underlying the argument of liberals and conservatives (but not libertarians, who he said valued abstractions over empathy).

I suspect that other professors would like to teach at least one term or course at a community college, if such experience were rewarded by their home universities. But that would take a fundamental shift in the reward system.

Community colleges could help by making it easier for us to teach there. I was dismayed at how many hoops I had to jump through — for almost no pay.

But there are rewards. For me, the best reward was to be let into another world, sometimes poignantly expressed. “I come from the kind of place where the tobacco grew and the factories fell,” one student wrote. “The place where I’m from has little to offer and little to gain.”

This op-ed appeared in a slightly different for The Roanoke Times, Dec. 2, 2019, A-7.

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Michael Cohen’s Lesson

Michael Cohen's Lesson

They’re cheering Trump in Atlanta, cheering him in Monroe, La.

This is the world of TV that Neil Postman warned about in Amusing Ourselves to Death, now taken over the whole American brain and nervous system, our national politics. The system now seems to have no memory, not even of the TV drama we saw 10 months ago. Mine isn’t so good any more, and spending time with Daddy, whose memory gears are totally stripped, makes me wonder if I remember correctly that scene on CNN back in February.

That was when Michael Cohen, Trump’s “fixer” for 12 years, came clean in sworn testimony before the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings. Cohen was a broken man, the very image at the heart of the gospel, confessed and empty and ready to begin to be a full human again, humble, in tears, bearing witness. And Cummings was up there on the dais, the son of sharecroppers and a black Baptist, looking like a preacher, judging but sympathetic.

“If we as a nation did not give people an opportunity after they made mistakes to change their lives, a whole lot of people would not do very well,” Cummings said. He seemed to be rising to that heroic level that Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina attainded during the Watergate hearings. “We are better than this,” he said. “We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.”

Cohen sat silently listening to this sermon, and began to cry.

Cohen is spending three years in a federal prison now, forgotten. Elijah Cummings is dead, and seems forgotten.

Republicans now have joined hands to defend Trump against this impeachment inquiry. They are doing, in their own fashion, what Cohen warned them that he had done for so many years.

“Everybody’s job at the Trump organization is to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen said.

“Every day, most of us knew, we were coming in, and we were going to lie for him. And that became the norm.”

Every day, the Republicans have their talking points, their defenses for Trump. Back in February, against the dramatic scene that played out between Cohen and Cummings, their  defense was that Cohen admitted he had lied, over and over, so why should we believe him now?

That’s an interesting catch. If someone who has lied and lied and lied for his boss wants to come clean, what can he do? Confess. But he’s a liar. So his confession must be a lie.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

[This was first published Nov. 12 in the online “Like the Dew: A Progressive Journal of Culture & Politics.” Caricatures by DonkeyHotey via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.]

 

 

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Review of ‘Deep South Dispatches’

Herbers, John N., with Anne Farris Rosen. Deep South Dispatch: Memoir of a Civil Rights Journalist.Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018. 260 pp. $28.

Look up John N. Herbers’s byline in the New York Times Historical database and you find 1,157 articles from 1963 to beyond his retirement twenty-four years later. Most of these trace the climax of the Civil Rights movement out the South and, after 1965 in Washington, the larger vectors of political and social change through Watergate (“Nixon Resigns” was Herbers’s story ) and the Reagan years.

Herbers is one of the heroes of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Race Beat. Roberts and Klibanoff feature him, “low key in manner and speech,” as the first reporter to write about the formation of the white Citizens Council, the only United Press reporter to cover Emmet Till’s well-covered murder trial, and the head of UPI’s Jackson, Miss., bureau when its talented staff alone recognized the race story as highly newsworthy when most of Mississippi preferred that it disappear.

Deep South Dispatch, Herbers’s posthumous memoir, richly expands on those war stories from the perspective of this self-effacing man who was “present with his notebook at an astonishing array of journalistic hot spots,” as Gene Roberts writes in a Foreword. Indeed, he puts us in a hundred vivid places, historical but particular in his memory: the sloping porch of Fanny Lou Hamer, inside the homes of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, Klan rallies, sidewalk marches in the in rain in Selma, and more.

This is a different kind of hero story. It covers in 33 shorter chapters most of what The Race Beat covers in 23, because Herbers was there for virtually every big battle. More than another history of the Movement and the press, this is also the kind of biography, or autobiography, our journalism students need for inspiration today. Perhaps I see in Herbers too much of my own still-living father, who as Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau chief covered the same territory at the same time. Herbers was apparently away a lot more.

Like most of the reporters who brought the movement to the nation, Herbers was a son of the white South. He was raised in “genteel poverty” in the Depression, with forebears whose Faulknerian roles in the Confederacy and in a lover’s murder-suicide in Arkansas start this memoir. He served in World War II after high school and began his career reporting for the Greenwood, Miss., daily. He had discovered college on the G.I. Bill and discovered journalism at Emory University. He wrote for the campus paper edited by Claude Sitton, who would later precede him covering the South for the Times.

Herbers’s daughter Anne Farris Rosen, like me a journalist and professor because of the lessons and inspiration from our fathers, ran across these early chapters in a desk drawer. Why did this narrative end with the Till trial, just when his career covering civil rights began? He told her he had already written the rest, in news stories. But that was with the “sterile eye” of the dispassionate observer, she writes in her Preface. Fortunately, she worked with him to continue this “sensitive and introspective narrative” in the same style.

The result is testament to a life fully lived within the high duties and discipline of journalism. Autobiographies by white southern journalists in the civil rights years speak in various voices. This one has an appealing directness in the way it strikes the common themes of the genre. Herbers reflects without bitterness on the conundrums and insanities of the Deep South, how it could be so polite and violent, so spiritual and earthy, so backward and boosterist, all at the same time. He describes white “moderates” who struggled with their conscience and even “thought their way out of the Mississippi orthodoxy.” But they remained silent, unwilling to offend social relations or good manners, as even Herbers saw in himself. He could tell his four daughters not to use the offensive language they heard visiting their Mississippi grandparents. But, “Why didn’t you tell Grandmother not to use those words?” one daughter asked. “She’s my mother,” he answered. “You always respect your mother.”

At Harvard, during his Nieman fellowship in 1960-61, he asked himself the questions put to Faulkner’s Quinton Compson up there: What’s the South like? Why do they live at all? “The only answers I had were family, heritage and familiarity.”

Those conservative values were sharply tested by the demands of Herbers’s beat, especially the merciless expectations of his New York editors at the Times when he alone could cover the latest skirmish for the nation’s leading newspaper. Herbers spent weeks away from home in battlegrounds like Selma, Birmingham and St. Augustine. Often the only time he could see his awesomely enabling wife and daughters was when a vacation or holiday promised a break – but then an editor would call to send him back to the battle instead. He extracted himself from one such assignment in time to reach his family by midnight before Christmas in Memphis. Summoned back to St. Augustine when he was ready to take his family to another coast of Florida, he took them to St. Augustine instead, covering the most violent clashes of the movement while his family stayed nearby at a beach.

Herbers was relentless in following the story into dangerous places, but he could usually blend in with his diffident manner, southern accent, short-sleeve shirt, and reporter’s notebook cut in half to keep hidden. At a wild night of clashes in Marion, Alabama, the target of white thugs was not only the non-violent protesters but also the news media, especially those with cameras that could be smashed. A man in a hat and overcoat suddenly clobbered NBC reporter Richard Valeriani bloody. Herbers, who was standing within range, guessed that the assailant picked Valeriani because of his curly black hair, Italian features and northern accent.

One theme of the genre is what the book But Now I See, by Fred Hobson, calls the white Southern racial conversion narrative. Herbers experiences his conversion gradually and reasonably. He was often running after Martin Luther King Jr. or getting tips from him, noting in a long interview on a screened porch with iced tea how King was so calm and measured, despite death threats everywhere he went. “I left feeling I had been schooled at the feet of the philosophers, historians, and theologians I had encountered during my Nieman year at Harvard.” But the deeper conversion came, as it did for so many white southern reporters on this beat, from the visceral experience of the mass meetings in black churches. “As I sat through hours of music and preaching,” he writes of one of the first of these, “I began to analyze my own identity and heritage. I felt ashamed about the injustices and cruelty my people had inflicted on blacks even though we shared a common religion.”

The book’s subtle revealing of Herbers’s inner life is uniquely effective precisely because it is so restrained. The discipline of a lifetime of careful observing, in the end, delivers not flamboyant self-discovery but a spiritual insight that brought me to tears. A southerner is more moved by the sense data of fragrance, touch and memory than by abstractions. So Herbers, on assignment far from home, cherishes the feel, smell and colorful borders of the cotton handkerchiefs he kept from his father’s store and bedroom. The smell of his father’s sweater he wore once somehow framed an epiphany he describes at the end, as he came upon a dirty drunk on a downtown street in Minneapolis. He was writing a story about urban poverty.

“I plunged my hands into my sweater pockets for a small bill to give him,” Herbers writes, as something wells up in my eyes. “Suddenly I felt surrounded by Pop’s love, assuring me of my well-being even as the man on the bench may have never known paternal affection. For one tied so closely as a mere observer to the physical world of communities and nations, I nevertheless became increasingly aware at that moment of the spiritual world around me and how its messages come to us in metaphors. The invisible, unspoken work of a spirit, seemingly unrelated to natural law, sustains humans and ties them together.”

Herbers died at 93 on March 17, 2017, six weeks after burying his wife and just before the publication of this life-rounding book.

–My Book Review for Journalism History, Summer 2019

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Glimpses of Buckhead, 1930-40

Something I learned about the cultural and economic life in parts of north Atlanta in the 1930s and ‘40s, from online U.S. Census data.

I looked up a 1930 page that includes my uncle John Kiser, when he was 2 ½ years old. He and his twin Martha were born in New York, but now living at 109 17th St., Atlanta, in the household of their parents Dr. William H. Kiser (31, born Georgia, child-specialist doctor) and Ellen F. Kiser (35, b. in Illinois, occupation: none), with older sister Lucy P., 4 ½. The house is an apartment, rented for $150/month.*

record-image_undefined-4.jpgNearby, at 141 17th St., is the house of Robert B. and Nellie H. Troutman, valued at $20,000. He is a lawyer in general practice, and they have a son and a daughter, ages 12 and 7. They also have (“private family”) living at the same address one Francis Hall (25, Servant, Nurse, Negro), and Roberta Jones (34, Servant, Cook, Negro), and adjacent at 147, a Clifford Jones (33, Servant, Butler, Negro).

I notice a lot more live-in African-American servants looking at the 1930 U.S. Census page for the part of West Andrews, Atlanta, where my mother, Emily, was living.

At 6 W. Andrews lived Douglas B. Wright (35, born Texas, occupation “Painter”) and his wife Gertrude (31, born Georgia, occupation “None,” both parents born Massachusetts), and their four Georgia-born children at the time, Walter W., 5; Emily, 3 ½ ; James O.B., 2 ½; and Douglas O., 9 mos. Also in the household, Bu (?) Butler, 50, “servant,” Negro, widowed. (In the 1940 census, Douglas B. Wright reports his occupation as “civil engineer” in “own office.”)

At 18 W. Andrews lived Harry Williams (49, investment banker in stocks & bonds), his wife Marion, 34, their one-year-old son Harry Jr., and two Negro servants, Lula Dovis (?), 33, and Hattie Simmons, 35.

At 16 W. Andrews, office supply manager Robert W. Neel, wife and four children also had a live-in Negro servant, Frances Strickland, 25.

At 10 W. Andrews lived Frank G. North (50, born S. Dakota, “official” in cotton mill supplies), with wife, two daughters and two Negro servants, John and Ida Hall.

At 8 W. Andrews lived “soft drink” official Samuel F. Boykin, 55, his wife Annie, 50, their daughter Frances, 17, a Negro servant, Margaret Gill, 22, and a Negro nurse, Charlotte Scott, 64.

In the 1940 census, there are fewer live-in servants on this part of W. Andrews. Among occupations such as juvenile court judge, salesman and insurance executive, there are two “servants” in two homes, and in a third, a maid and a Butler, who are married.

*In the 1940 census, William Kiser (age listed 36?), is living without family in Hartford, Conn., in what appears to be a housing unit with many occupants, maybe a medical school dorm? Living in the same unit with Dr. Kiser, apparently, are an Ola Jackson, 25, born in Georgia, and her mother, Lillie Jackson, 65, born in Alabama. It’s not clear whether these two are there as helpers to Dr. Kiser.

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The Mist of History

Living in Rockbridge County, I’ve learned to accept the idea that there are three distinct kinds of “history.” First, there’s the history of historians, the gentle “arguments” of history professors in the three colleges rooted hereabouts and in the lectures you’ll hear Column footin Lee Chapel or Virginia Military Institute’s Jackson Memorial Hall reappraising the Civil War. Then there’s public history, the stories and monuments that give educated folks a sense of pride, or guilt, in the grand narratives. We have plenty of that history here too.

And then there’s what really happened. This is a realm of ghosts and coffins beyond our knowing. I look for that underneath the double-bullseye sidewalk bricks and granite pavers naming the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” In a ditch dug by a work crew along East Washington Street, below the layers of red clay and limestone gravel, I see Progressive Era sewer pipes. But I wouldn’t expect to see deeper layers of real history. The early settlers of Lexington removed about six feet of street and earth to get down to this level. The original doors on the older houses are that far above the sidewalk.

Go to the cemeteries here for the buried kind of history, or see the sunless things buried in libraries, local historical societies, the two courthouses and a dozen or so proud little museums around Rockbridge County. You wouldn’t believe how many splendid little museums there are. In one Saturday afternoon, you can drive north to the once-bustling town of Brownsburg for its modest two-room museum, further north to the McCormick Farm exhibit on the county line, back to Lexington for the Miller’s House Museum at Jordan’s Point (where the Maury River, Wood’s Creek and the old canal come together) and up the bluff to VMI for the two polished museums of George C. Marshall and the Institute.

At Natural Bridge, now a well-managed state park 12 miles south of Lexington, you walk under “the most sublime of Nature’s work,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia about his purchase from King George III.

Canal boat

Canal flatboat as would have carried goods on the old North River canal in the 19th century.

 Pass underneath the chilling power of the limestone arch, and down the path you come to the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit. This native American tribe is said to have lived here for hundreds of years. The woodland Monacan tribe itself may be 10,000 years old, but only recently has it achieved federal recognition. History, as Gertrude Stein said, takes Time.

There’s something that is both rock and bridge about this area. It was a bridge to elsewhere, a passthrough place on the Great Wagon Road. That was the Appalachian dirt road to the southwest for the Scots-Irish migration, and the way Sam Houston went (his 1793 birthplace honored in two markers at Timber Ridge Wayside). Today, it’s a crossroads, the midway point between Atlanta and New York, the place where in the 1940s Hodding Carter Jr., the great Greenville, Mississippi, newspaper editor, would stop with his family on the way to their summer vacations in Maine to lecture the children on the Civil War (recalled Hodding III in a talk here at Washington and Lee University). But it’s also a rock, a sanctuary, a separate peace in the Valley where the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies squeeze a little closer together.

“It is a region with a different soil, a different climate, different scenery, and a population more distinctly sui generis than any,” wrote John Sergeant Wise, who spent Lex Carriagethe Civil War as a VMI cadet and whose father Governor Henry Wise (a Washington College graduate) helped bring on Virginia’s secession with his day-long interview with the mortally wounded abolitionist John Brown.

In Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, with its buried veterans of the American Revolution and Confederacy, the statue of Stonewall looms with mystic power (at twilight, the Haunting Tales-Lexington’s Ghost Tour makes you believe the head turns sadly toward the grave of his first wife, Eleanor Junkin, the grave plot where Jackson as VMI Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Artillery Tactics came to pray daily).

So many graves in this cemetery (photographed by local super-star photographer Sally Mann) hide their own histories. General E.F. Paxton had died in the Battle of Chancellorsville with Jackson in 1863, at age 35. The simple headstone has only a single incised quotation: “It is well with thee.”

His father Elisha had hauled timber and crops down the North River (now the Maury) and built the Paxton House (now restored in Buena Vista’s Glen Maury Park, where old-timey festivals and rallies continue alongside the river).

“What we need is history,” said George C. Marshall. A quote from his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize address in the Marshall museum says the path to peace is to study with “almost scientific accuracy the circumstances which have marked the breakdown of peace.” That takes time, which is something we have here.

[This is the slightly edited version that ran in a magazine published recently by the Visitors Centers of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, 2020 Inspiration Guide.]

Marshall poster

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Shade for sale?

We worked in the lower pasture getting fence posts and yellow jacket stings (two, that is, for me), then met William in Dobson at the Mexican restaurant called Tlaquepaque. It’s bleakly set between the highway and that giant chicken processing plant, Wayne, where a few hundred cars of the Puerto Rican workers broil in the sun to molten temperatures. The cracked asphalt lot and gravel that serve as a giant stove top to the Tlaquepaque building are nearly at that level of heat, so Alyssa parks the Yaris in a lonely strip of tree shade 50 feet in back. Wm Avis & AlyssaWalking across that waste, holding Avis’s either hand, they make such an iconic picture of the Human Race starting anew, I take a shot of them on my iPhone. That shade for the car is so valuable, yet nobody is making money off of it. I wish I could figure out how to do that, like the person who first figured out that millions of people would pay $1 or more for plain old drinking water in plastic bottles. I’d be a gazillionaire, and save the world.

Shopping at Food Lion in Dobson the day before, I parked next door in a back slot at McDonald’s that was covered in tree shade, mildly illicit for a Food Lion shopper – but free.

There are but two new missions left on this God-given planet in my lifetime, and the lifetimes of my children and my students. One is to make adjustments for the rising temperatures, rising seas, and preposterous storms – adjustments for ourselves individually, and for whole groaning populations. (Here on these old weathered steps to a ramshackle house off the Blue Ridge Parkway, coffee in hand, I’m making my adjustments 2000 feet above the Carolina foothills, which are themselves 1000 feet above the the Outer Banks in the path of Dorian. Ominous clouds drift overhead from that directions.)

Mission Two is to begin shifting our energy sources from hydrocarbons to solar and wind, and to engineer our cities, economies and appliances for greater and greater efficiency. (Fortunately, the engineering part is well underway. The latter part needs a huge goose, something like a Pearl Harbor that gets something like a carbon tax passed in a jiffy.) Mission Two won’t get us to a leveling off of CO2 and climate change for 40 years, but still, it’s our mission.

If I could figure out how to corner a market on shade – to franchise it as Dixie Shade, or “Beyond a Shadow” – I’d address both missions at once, and make a killing.

 

 

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South Sudanese gathering in Lexington: One step

This past weekend, a different civil war drew nearly 100 mediation experts, Episcopal bishops and war victims from as far away as South Sudan and Omaha to the little city where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are buried.

The three-day gathering, “Uniting the Diaspora to Act for Peace,” was declared a success at the churches that hosted it, primarily Grace Episcopal and Lexington Presbyterian. The weekend was a rare mix of light cultural exchange between Lexington and South Sudan – with ethnic foods, African singing and colorful crafts – and heavy discussions regarding mass violence and elusive justice for that east African nation.

Helen Abyei, Noel Kulang, bp Augustine

Small-group discussion at Lexington Presbyterian, l-r, Helen Abyei, Noel Kulang, and Bishop Patrick Augustine

The American Civil War that draws history buffs here is dwarfed in scope by the last 60 years in the Sudan, then the largest nation in Africa.  After two lengthy post-colonial civil wars, South Sudan split off in 2011. But two years later, it fell into its own civil war. A fragile peace agreement last year is holding, but more than two million people remain displaced by the conflict, according to Jacqueline Wilson, a mediation consultant who helped organize the Lexington conference.

And that’s not including the thousands in the North American dispersion, or diaspora, such as a diminishing community of about 80 in Roanoke.

“The diaspora has continued to come together in various forms,” said Wilson, who has visited the Sudans dozens of times since 2005 for the U.S. Institute of Peace and for her Georgetown University dissertation on “blood money” retribution. “I think what made this one unique was the radical hospitality, as it’s been called here in Lexington. I’ve not seen that before.”

Fr Joe and Bp Justin

Father Joe D’Aurora of our local Catholic church, St. Patrick, greets the Most Rev. Justin Badi Arama, archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan

Members of various local churches picked up the visitors at airports, offered their homes and kitchens, helped with funding and organizing, and even joined in some of the conference sessions and the Sunday morning service at Grace Episcopal Church.  That local engagement was something Wilson said she had not seen in previous gatherings she attended Boston and Minneapolis.

The conversations at the conference revealed a variety of projects and experiences with deep roots in South Sudan and with techniques of mediation. These include:

  • Bishop Martin S. Field, of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, asked for help in compiling a directory of all the scattered communities of South Sudanese in North America. The largest may be in Omaha, which has about 10,000, according to Lyndon Graves, a board member of Aqua Africa who came from Omaha.
  • Projects to bring clean water to South Sudan through purification plants and well-drilling were represented by officials from two different agencies, Aqua Africa and Water for South Sudan.
  • Meriel Wright, a volunteer from Norfolk, accepted donations for a small regional agency called Outreach Africa: Lost Boys Foundation, which helps pay for schooling for the displaced orphans known as the Lost Boys of the Sudan.
  • Dane F. Smith Jr., a U.S. senior advisor for Darfur who helped mediate the conflict there in 2011, spoke about the need to recognize faith-based peacemaking and nonviolent direct action as “the best hope for lasting peace in the country.”
  • “Tribalism No More,” a short didactic play by Helen Achol Abyei, was rehearsed and performed at Lexington Presbyterian Church on Saturday.
  • The Rev. Sue Bentley, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Roanoke, described how her church has served as a “multi-tribal, multi-denominational” nested church and community center for the Sudanese community in Roanoke.
  • The Rev. Joseph Bilal, who came to Lexington from Juba, South Sudan, described the launching of The Episcopal University, where he is Deputy Vice Chancellor and project director.

At the start of the Sunday service, which packed some 200 worshipers into Grace Episcopal, acting rector Rev. James Hubbard welcomed those who came from South Sudan or Roanoke, “from North and South, East and West.” The Archbishop of South Sudan, the Most Rev. Justin Badi Arama, who had come from South Sudan with his wife, Joyce Solomon Eremadowa Modi, was the celebrant for the eucharist.

Other priests in the service were the Most Rev. Heath Light, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia; the Most Rev. Patrick Augustine, the Episcopal bishop of Bor, South Sudan, and the Rev. Richard J. Jones, emeritus professor from Virginia Theological Seminary, who gave the sermon.

“We welcome all men and women,” Hubbard said, “all gay and straight, all black and white, Asians and Native Americans.” Christians, Muslims, Jews and “those who do not claim a faith tradition.”

Mayor greeting Friday

Mayor Frank Friedman greets the gathering on Friday night with a prepared statement.

Why did the South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace (SSDNRP) come to Lexington, after its precursors had met in cities such as Des Moines and Denver?

The answer is Marc Nikkel, a much-respected teacher and missionary in southern Sudan from 1981 until his death on Sept. 3, 2000. Nikkel was ordained a deacon by Bishop Light, then became a priest in southern Sudan.

Last year, Grace Episcopal Church was planning a celebration of The Feast of Marc Nikkel for this Sept. 1. But it could not get a commitment for a visiting preacher involved in the South Sudanese diaspora movement. Hubbard finally asked, What’s the problem? The SSDNRP might be having its first conference that weekend, but was unable to find a willing venue.

Why don’t you come to Grace Church, he offered. And so it happened.

In 1987, armed fighters in the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army abducted Marc Nikkel from where he was teaching college in Mundri, the Sudan. It was July 7, in the middle of the night in that hot, war-ravaged country.

The guerilla soldiers held Nikkel in their camps for six months, but didn’t harm him. They had too much respect for him, or at least knew the great respect so many others had for him. They only wanted to know, as he heard them demand through clenched teeth that first night, “Why didn’t you leave when you were ordered?”

“He was a man of God,” said Bilal during dinner at Grace Church on Friday.  Nikkel had been Bilal’s mentor and seminary instructor in the 1980s. When Nikkel left Africa in 2000 in the final stages of cancer, he told Bilal not to cry at their parting. He seemed happy, Bilal said. “He said we will be able to meet again.”

Lengthy religious letters from Nikkel in the Sudan and various places of exile from 1981-2000 were published in a book called “Why Haven’t You Left?” Sue Bentley, the Episcopal priest at St. James in Roanoke, remembers reading some of those letters addressed to the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia. She and Nikkel had gone through ordination from that diocese together, under Bishop Light.

At the service Sunday, Bishop Light spoke of the interdependence of members of “the Body of Christ” that brought the Diocese of Southwest Virginia together with the Episcopal Church in southern Sudan. He said the process was called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, an alternative to the us-helping-them paradigm.

“Each church has something to offer and something to receive,” Light told the congregation. “I offered an invitation to the Church of Sudan, but I’m also aware of what we’ve received, and it’s significant. We received prayers, we received Marc Nikkel, who lived in this diocese, went to seminary here. . .That is a gift that the Sudan has sent to us. And now we are privileged to have another gift in Archbishop Justin.

“He brings the witness of a people who have suffering and who continue to be a community in separation here in this country,” Light said. “We have been enriched by their presence and in the relationship.” His words provoked something unusual for an Episcopal church service: applause.

Jacqueline Wilson

Jacki Wilson, mediation consultant

Most conferences include a lot of unplanned conversations and networking, but that seemed to be the serious heart of this one, by intention. Jacqueline Wilson, the mediation consultant, said she had left the U.S. Institute for Peace to explore a different “paradigm” from the standard “cease-fire” peace accords that are only between the armed actors.

Those sorts of peace accords are rarely sustainable or “transformative,” she said. She has come to believe the problem is that negotiations between armed actors need to include civil society, such as people of faith and religious leaders. “Leverage can be gained through the inclusion of other parties, other stakeholders, to put pressure on the armed actors and to hold them accountable,” Wilson said in an interview.

A transformative peace process needs “process design and mediation skills,” she said. The Lexington conference was intended to be part of such a process, with “adult-learning principles” of engaging everyone rather than dishing out lectures and expert panels, Wilson said. The conference program included a 10-point “Discernment Listening Guidelines,” such as this: “Do not challenge what others say. Let go of the need to be right.”

Sharon Massie, program director for Grace Episcopal, spoke for about 10 minutes to the conference about such a “transformative” process that had taken place over a difficult two years at her church, around its being named “R.E. Lee Memorial Church.”

The name, to honor Lee for his leadership role in the church from 1865 until his death in 1870, was changed from Grace to R.E. Lee in 1903. In 2015, the mass shooting of black church members by a neo-Confederate in Charleston, S.C., prompted a difficult discussion around whether the “Lee” name should be changed.

Massie described how the church hired professional consultants who guided a team of six parishioners on a process designed to be not “conflict resolution” but “conflict transformation.” The consultants cost the church $16,000. The team, after nine months of intensive work and “listening” to the congregation, reported back a host of recommendations. One was to restore the original name, Grace.

The vestry, in a second split vote, rejected that recommendation. Then the deadly Charlottesville protest by white nationalists took place in August 2017, and the name-change re-emerged. It passed by another split vote. Massie described how the process had led to a deep transformation that was visible everywhere in the success of this conference.

Several people came up to her afterwards to say that her talk was “powerful,” she said.

On Sunday afternoon, conference attendees made commitments to take specific actions back home around three areas, written on a tear sheet on an easel as “Reconciliation,” “Hate Speech” and “Tribalism.”

“We did brainstorm how to deal with reconciliation and healing, mitigating hate speech, and mitigating tribalism,” Wilson said. “Maybe acknowledgement (of wrong done in the past) may be enough. We couldn’t get that specific because each situation is unique.”

The results of the conference seemed to be summed up in a song that Grace Episcopal’s music director Martha Burford taught the congregation at the Sunday service, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with . . . one step.”

 

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Free movie, pointing to local South Sudanese gathering for reconciliation

LEXINGTON, Va. – A one-time screening of the movie “The Good Lie” at Washington and Lee University is open to the public on Friday evening, Aug. 16, to raise awareness of a historic meeting of more than 100 South Sudanese leaders two weeks later in Lexington.

Movie_PosterThe movie, starring Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde”) and several South Sudanese actors, tells the story of one group of the “Lost Boys” who were settled into Kansas City, Mo., by an initially clueless helper played by Witherspoon.

The movie will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Stackhouse Theater, Elrod Commons. Afterward, the Rev. Richard J. Jones, emeritus professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, will describe the upcoming Labor Day weekend conference of the South Sudanese Diaspora Network for Reconciliation and Peace (SSDNRP) and will moderate a discussion.

Jones, the founding president of the Episcopal Church’s network of support for the Church in the two Sudans, is secretary of the newly formed South Sudanese diaspora group. The seven organizers of “Uniting the Diaspora for Peace” are religious and tribal leaders among the tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees throughout North America. They are being hosted by Lexington Presbyterian and Grace Episcopal churches for this first conference of SSDNRP Aug. 30-Sept. 1.

“We look forward this Labor Day weekend to making music, putting on a play by a Sudanese author, celebrating evidences of solidarity among North American Diaspora communities, and enjoying food prepared by the Sudanese community of Roanoke,” Jones said.

“We believe we have invited leaders who will also help us develop our capacity to deal with truth,” he added. Among the conferees are Jacqueline Wilson, an associate of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and retired U.S. ambassador Dane F. Smith, Jr.

Thirty-five years of civil war in the Sudan, formerly the largest nation in Africa, killed or displaced more than a million children and adults. After a U.S.-brokered ceasefire and a popular vote that split off the newest nation on earth, South Sudan, tribal fighting dashed initial hopes for peace there.

Differences among some 64 tribes and languages, primarily Dinka and Nuer, fed the continued violence in South Sudan. But among the North American diaspora, common bonds of faith and close ties with the homeland have led to a series of peace-building meetings that eventually led to this conference in Lexington. Conferees will be staying in the homes of church members in the area.

“The Good Lie,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, was directed by French Canadian Philippe Falardeau and produced by Ron Howard. Reviewers praised its sensitive, fictionalized portrayal of young men from South Sudan made orphans by civil war. Critics noted approvingly that marketing Reese Witherspoon as the star (who doesn’t appear in the first 35 minutes) was a smart strategy to lure Americans into a movie that delivers a powerful understanding of the Sudanese experience of suffering and hope.

“This moving story possesses an honesty that compensates for any of the more obvious tugs on our tear ducts, most of which arrive in the latter part of the film,” wrote Susan Wloszyna on RogerEbert.com.

W&L’s Africana Studies Program and Department of Journalism and Mass Communications welcome the public and members of the academic communities to the screening and discussion.

 

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The Wright stuff

The sky over the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a dazzling blue playground dotted with kites. In that blue, a slow cub plane pulls an advertisement that says, “$15 Rides All Day. . .OBXAIRPLANES.COM.” The sun is blinding. It’s hot, in the 90s, and the stunted grass planted over this national park at Kitty Hawk in the Great Depression harbors

sand spurs and tiny cacti. But visitors from toddlers to grannies are here in the hundreds, and they seem to be enjoying plenty of liberating space and open air. A young woman is jogging the paved walks that wind up and down the Big Kill Devil Hill that is crowned by the 60-foot Art Deco memorial. She is sweating, wearing earbuds. The Wright brothers struggled up this giant sand dune with their glider more than a hundred times before the slopes were planted with green ground-cover to save it for history. Warned to stay cool and drink water, the jogger says in passing, “I do this a lot.”

Orville Wright, aviator Sen. Hiram Bingham and aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

My wife and our friends at this Nieman class reunion all head for the Visitors Center, with its modern cypress paneling, smart snippets of history, its reproduction of the two-prop biplane that flew four times on Dec. 17, 1903. . . and good air conditioning. This Visitors Center has just undergone a two-year renovation of its mechanical systems. It’s up-to-date in every way. But I felt an itch to see the world’s first runway first. I couldn’t wait to go to those two old sun-browned outbuildings (reproductions of the brothers’ wooden work sheds), and trek to the lofty Memorial. From a distance, the memorial reminds me too much of the sad Voortrekkers Memorial in South Africa, but up close, I found it deeply moving. It invites Americans to contemplate the bottomless meaning of what the Wright brothers did. Or I should say, “limitless” meaning.

It’s where Man took off. On the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing this month, it’s good to visit that first liftoff from earth 66 years before that. It was important to be first: For America to be first (Mankind’s and DaVinci’s old dream tripping out of self-educated tinkerers in a bicycle shop in Dayton) and for Wilbur and Orville and little-credited sister Kate to beat those other guys (in the way of American enterprise and competition), Langley in Washington, Whitehead in Connecticut. Deeper meanings, still: I remember from a deceptively sing-song-y poem by Robert Frost he called a “skylark,” a mile-long poem of three-beat lines and silly rhymes called “Kitty Hawk.” In that poem, he hides a little of his incarnational Christian belief that is also the bedrock of my faith.

. . .God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Westerners inherit
A design for living
Deeper into matter
Not without due patter
Of a great misgiving.
All the science zest
To materialize
By on-penetration
Into earth and skies
(Don’t forget the latter
Is but further matter)
Has been West Northwest.

Aside from spirit-in-matter, and the Frosty idea that science’s historical path has been west-northwest, I am struck by another way to see what the Wright brothers did. They kept their secret away from the world. As they perfected the yaw, pitch and roll of the wings, as they improved on their chain-driven propellers, they kept their work militantly private. Off on the Outer Banks on repeated trips, they didn’t talk to the press or to Alexander Graham Bell or the gossipers back in Ohio. They only talked to a single patent lawyer at home. They made sure they had pictures, drawings, proof. But they didn’t seek publicity. They sought the patent, and the credit of history.

“Be in known that we, Orville and Wilbur Wright, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Flying-Machines, of which the following is a specification.” So begins their patent of May 22, 1906, reproduced in the Visitors Center.

What they were about was not only Mankind’s leap off of the Earth, but also exercising a Constitutional right. Article 1, Section 8, number 8, gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” They had contacted the U.S. Weather Service to ask where they could find an open, sandy place with steady winds. “Kitty Hawk, North Carolina” would be the best, the federal agency told them. The feds were their collaborators. No one works alone under our Constitution.

More than a century after the Wright brothers, American inventors are losing those rights to China in two of the areas that will create jobs and possibly save the Earth: electric cars and photovoltaic solar cells. As I looked down from the Memorial onto that world’s first runway, with its thin rail, sized for bicycle wheel hubs, I was thinking: Who will capitalize on the great shift from a fossil fuel economy that is already underway? Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. It’s even hotter now, so I’ll head for the Visitor’s Center.

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