By Chuck Reece
I know the feeling. I know it all too well. It's down in my bones. It has woven itself so thoroughly into the fiber of my being — into who I am and what I have become — it never disappears.
The feeling is the fear that came with the disappearance of my mother. Cancer took her when I was 11 years old. My experience, of course, was far different from any of the 11-year-old immigrants from places like El Salvador and Honduras who are now sitting in cages in U.S. Government detention centers. I was blessed with aunts and uncles galore, all of them trying to help.
But none could take away the fear that settled inside me and never left.
My most vivid memories of childhood come from the months after my mother’s death. My dad’s work, of course, had to continue if we were going to eat, and he often had to work late to keep up. What I remember is standing in the living room window, scared to death, mortified I would never see Daddy’s car coming up the driveway. I knew he was coming, I had knowledge of my safety, but what was in my brain could never penetrate the place inside me where The Fear lived.
The Fear never leaves you. It lives inside any child who is separated from a parent. The damage cannot be undone. You never forget staring out that window, deathly afraid of being lost forever.
Over the last few days, seeing photographs of children held in detention centers along the Texas-Mexico border, one question kept rattling in my head: What must it be like for them to stare that fearful stare through a chain-link fence, waiting and praying for a parent’s face to appear, with no way to know if one ever will?
I know what it would make me feel like. It would, to paraphrase an old song, make me want to find a hole in the wall, so I could crawl inside and die.
One evening earlier this week, in the private Facebook group we keep for members of The Bitter Southerner Family, I asked folks to share their reactions to those scenes from Texas. The next morning, I awoke to find about 5,000 words’ worth of answers from more than 130 people. Here is a small sample of what we heard:
“This whole thing is shameful. Also, I'm having a bit of a crisis of faith. The Evangelical Christians and the Conservative Christians have turned me into an Appalled Christian. That said, I'm thankful for the faith groups that have (finally!) spoken out strongly over the last couple of days and for Catholic Charities, which I believe has been hard at work at the border. But this whole situation is really hitting me in a deeply spiritual way, if that makes any sense. I feel this is spiritually, morally, ethically wrong ... yet I don't know what to do about it.”
“This is not how my parents raised me, not how I raised my kids. At the center of the America I know, there is compassion and empathy and love. All of that is f-ing gone and it makes me fighting mad.”
“Both my parents served in Europe during WWII. I was raised on stories of German children turned in to the Gestapo, of boatloads of children turned away from the shores of countries that wouldn’t take them in. The question always was, who would do this? Who would turn them in? Who would let this happen? The answer was the people who would let this happen were monsters — and the ones who took them in, putting themselves and their own families at risk, were heroes.”
“In 20 years, when we look back, you are either going to have been the monster who let this happen again and is hated or the savior who put aside their own privilege to stand for these fellow humans.”
“It makes me cry when I realize the government, which is acting in my name, is torturing children and using the Bible to justify this policy. “
“I struggle to acknowledge the fact that we've sentenced many of these children to abuse and exploitation by denying them the fiercest protectors to which every child is entitled by God, by nature, by government, by literally every acknowledged authority. “
One reader, the rector of an Episcopal Church in Houston, brought history to bear, pointing out that Romans 13, the chapter of the Bible cited by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions as justification for the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, had been used similarly 168 years ago, in an editorial about the Fugitive Slave Law. That law required escaped slaves to be returned to their owners, even from non-slave-holding states. Describing the editorial, published in the North Carolina Standard newspaper, the good father wrote, “It opens with anti-Semitic words about ‘the Jews who clamored for the blood of Christ’ being ‘deaf to all voices but those of Hate, Malignancy, and Vengeance,’ which are then applied to Christians in ‘Free States’ who, ‘under the cloak of sanctity,’ are ‘fanatics’ and controlled by an ‘evil spirit.’”
Our friend Father Neil Alan Willard concluded with this: “Yes, people who claimed to follow Jesus actually wrote these words and believed them. This is why Christians should be very cautious when they are tempted to quote Romans 13 in the name of law and order.”
Evidently, the most powerful Southerner in America, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, lacks such caution. On Monday, more than 600 clergy and lay members of Sessions’ own church, the United Methodists, announced they would bring charges that could lead to his expulsion. They claim he has violated the church’s Book of Discipline by committing child abuse.
A common thread runs through all the thinking we’ve heard from The Bitter Southerner community: Our nation’s current dilemma feels far bigger to them than politics. This crisis challenges fundamental assumptions about who we are as Americans — our morals and ethics. For some, this moment has brought them to, as one put it, “a crisis of faith.”
I am a man of faith. You couldn’t tell it from my churchgoing record, but I am. Like many raised in the hellfire-and-brimstone churches of the rural South, I reached a point in my life where I could no longer hang with doctrine that claimed heaven would be filled only with People Like Us. Thus began my decades-long absence from organized religion, but I could never shake the sense there was something worth believing. Nor could I escape the notion that acts of faith, even uncertain faith, could yield rewards — love, kinship, fellowship, community.
The truth is, it was only a few weeks ago when I read what is probably the most accurate definition of the God I feel I know. It came in the latest novel, “Southernmost,” by the great Kentucky writer Silas House. And it came in the form of a 9-year-old character named Justin, the son of a Holy Roller preacher who has decided to leave the church.
“Justin used to think the trees were God. But today, right here, he thinks the ocean might be God. All that power and weakness, spread out for us to see. The ocean can do so much when it wants to, and sometimes it can do nothing but go in and out, waves and smoothness. The ocean is a mystery and so is God. They are both so big we cannot see all of them at the same time but we can catch pieces of them here and there. Justin believes God is big like the ocean. Even bigger. But lots of people don’t. They think He’s small enough to fit in a church house or an offering plate or an ancient book. He’s not, and His mind is even bigger than Him. People look at the ocean and they usually only see blueness. But there are so many other colors. Right now Justin can see ten different shades of blue, and lots of greens. There are lines of brown and the white lips of the waves. When the light hits the water in a certain way there will be even more colors: red, orange, peach, purple. At night there will be gray and the farther he could swim out into the ocean he could find the water darker and darker until it was black on a cloudy night. Justin thinks God’s eyes are that color: everycolor. This is the kind of talk that would horrify his mother, but he believes God is in everything and everybody. Pieces of him. He doesn’t just mean the spirit, he means the actual chunks of God.”
I reckon I am one of those chunks, and now, in my middle 50s, I have found myself wondering if I might find a place of faith that feels like a real community to me, if I might find comfort in the rituals of a church. Thus, I’ve begun exploring, and right now, I think the Episcopalians have some attractive points. They don’t much care who you love, the rectors don’t scream at you about hell, and everyone jokes about their drinking. You’ve heard it before: “Wherever there are four Episcopalians gathered, there will be a fifth.”
So, last Sunday, my wife and I hit the closest Whiskeypalian church. And during a prayer, I heard the rector ask God to bless the children being separated from their parents at the border — and to bless the ones who are separating them. Immediately, the vengeful, smash-the-state punk rocker who lives inside me thought, “The separators deserve no blessings.” But then, I thought about the words of Silas House’s fictional little boy — and realized that to take his words seriously, I had to admit the separators are chunks of God, too. Maybe they just don’t know it yet.
But they can be reminded, and that’s why all our acts of faith — regardless of how we define our faith — are important right now.
One of the responses in our Facebook group this week came from our own contributor and former intern, Mamie Davis, who is studying at Belmont University in Nashville. Mamie wrote:
“Each article I read and photo I see, I am reminded of my elementary school in Columbia, Missouri. I was so fortunate to go to school with children from all over the world. Refugees from Uganda and Burundi, children of international students from Taiwan and Germany, immigrants from Mexico and Romania ... the list goes on and on. I learned to read and write by reading to my peers who did not speak a word of English. There was one young man I remember entering my class in third grade. Everyone pronounced his name wrong for a semester until he finally had the courage and communication skills to correct us. I can’t imagine those peers of mine being ripped away from their parents after they had already been ripped away from everything that they knew and loved. A lot of them had seen their families and homes torn to shreds. My heart is broken. I am angry. Worst of all, I don’t know what I can do that will actually be productive other than donating to causes and calling government officials. Those things don’t feel productive to me anymore, and unfortunately, I think that is why so many people my age aren’t participating in politics. For the majority of my life, I’ve seen civilian efforts to create political action fail. My friends and I talk about politics, and as much as I try to talk them out of the mindset, the overarching theme is: ‘What’s the point? Nothing will change.’”
Perhaps, then, the answer is to stop thinking of the current state of our nation only within the political framework. Perhaps we can think of our responses as acts of faith — actions that bear fruit regardless of time, regardless of the regime in power.
As for me, I’m settling on three acts of faith. First, I will have faith in the laws and the essential decency of the American people. And yeah, I remember that part of the Bible about how faith without work is dead. So, this act of faith requires recognizing the children in detention need legal advocates if they are to be reunited with their parents. They need lawyers. Many organizations are mustering to provide those services: the National Immigration Law Center, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, and the Hispanic Federation among them. One of our readers also drew our attention to a Texas organization called the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), raising funds to ensure every kid in an immigration court in Texas has legal representation. (In 2017, RAICES notes, 76 percent of such children had no representation.)
Such organizations will get every dollar I can spare until this situation changes.
Second, I will have faith in the power of constituency. I spent more than two years working in the office of the governor of Georgia, and I learned quickly the surest way to get a politician hopping is to flood him with phone calls, emails, and good old-fashioned letters on paper. Thus, I’m about to get a little obsessive about telling my representatives at the federal level exactly what I think. And if your state responded to President Donald Trump’s call to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border, persistent knocking on your governor’s door is also necessary.
In other words, I have faith that politicians fear being ousted worse than anything.
Finally, I will have faith in other people — the ones who believe all human beings are called upon to love their neighbors as themselves, the people who remember blessings are due to the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
I am willing to put my faith in people of faith because I’ve seen and heard their examples all my life.
As I was writing our recent story about the folklorist Bill Ferris, I listened to the stories he had recorded in Mississippi in the 1960s and ’70s. The tale that touched me most deeply was recorded in 1976 and told by Pecolia Warner, an African-American quilt maker from Yazoo City. She recounts a day when a white Bible salesman came to her house. Ms. Warner had no need for another Bible: Every room in her house already had one. She was cooking dinner at the time, and the salesman praised the aroma coming from her kitchen. Ms. Warner immediately invited him to supper with her. Steak and toast.
She concludes her story this way:
“Now suppose I had turned him down. What does the Bible say? Don’t drive a stranger away from your door, because you don’t know who you’re driving away. That’s how Christ did when he came to this woman. He came in the shape of an old raggedy, dirty person, and the woman turned him down. Drove him away. And the next one too.
“She said, ‘Lord, I don’t have nothing.’
“He asked for a piece of bread. She said I just got enough meal in there to cook a hoecake for me and my child. And I don’t know where I’ll get the next meal.
“He said, ‘I asked for a piece of bread.’
“She goes in there, and she scrapes the barrel. She cooked the last meal she had. She said, ‘I don’t have no silver and no gold. But such as I have, you are welcome to it.’ He sat down and ate a piece of it. And that was the last she had. She didn’t have no lard, no sugar, no nothing. He told her, ‘God will bless you.’
“And this man got up and went home. Left out. Before that day was gone, she had whole barrels of flour, meal, sugar, and rice — everything that she needed. Where did that come from? That was a blessing from God. She don’t know how she got it. She didn’t have no money to buy it. Now how she got it? It was a blessing from God. And then she said, ‘Don’t never drive a stranger from your door because you don’t know who you driving away. You could be driving Jesus Christ away. Don’t turn nobody down when they ask for a piece of bread. Give it to them. And I don’t care who it is — white, black, blue, green, or yellow. Tell everyone, ‘I’m home. Come on in.’
“I’ll go in there and fix them something to eat. If ain’t nothing done, I’ll fix it.”
The more I listen to that story, the more I believe Ms. Warner represented the essence of who we are as Southerners and as Americans. If we are to do right by her memory, it’s our job now to look into the places where evil dwells, and if we see that ain’t nothing being done, we take it on ourselves to fix it.
Obviously, we can no longer count on most of our political leaders to do that. Especially those who use the Bible as a shield, but would fail to recognize Christ himself at their own front doors.