My Hometown

It was an interesting weekend in my Kentucky hometown.  About 20 Black Lives Matter protesters, led by a student from my college alma mater, were confronted by 250 counter-protesters, including men on roofs with assault rifles.  The pictures in the newspaper were cringeworthy.  I probably should not have been surprised.  After I transitioned, I was told it would be better if I did not attend my high school reunion.  They said, “There might be trouble.”

I have not been back to my hometown since my mother’s death, when a few high school classmates, all female, talked with me about the state of affairs in our little town.  All were educated, generous-hearted, and I dare say fierce women who have worked hard to bring much needed education to their neck of the woods.  They reminded me that there are definitely two sides to my Eastern Kentucky home.

I am not going to mention the name of the town because the 250 counter-protesters represented only about one percent of the county’s residents.  They did not speak for everyone.  The county is 99 percent white, with a median family income of $35,000.  There are a lot of similar counties in Kentucky, most of them made up of people of Scots-Irish descent.  They have been fighting pretty much everybody for the better part of 2,000 years.  I love the way they are portrayed by the writer Chris Offutt.  These are Appalachian people, clannish and proud.  They have fought an inordinate number of our wars for us, have remained on the edge of poverty for generations, and tend to look unfavorably on outsiders.  And yet.

It is true, I have been rejected by a lot of people in my hometown.  When I went back for my mother’s funeral I was greeted by one sole man.  But a number of my mother’s female friends, all in their 80s and 90s, greeted me warmly, by name.  They did not misgender me, or speak unkindly, or gossip about me in the outer hallway.  They paid their respects to my mother, and to me.

That little Eastern Kentucky town nurtured me.  When I arrived as a 15-year-old from northern Ohio, people welcomed me.  From the owner of the five and dime to the school principal to the the radio station program director, I was offered opportunity and friendship.  I was loved and encouraged and told, “You are going to make something of yourself.”  Of course, I did get more encouragement than at least half the population, because I was a male.  But a lot of my female classmates received the same encouragement, if not the same opportunities.

I was voted most likely to succeed in my senior class, and I did, because of that love and nurture.  The bank president helped me understand the importance of managing finances.  The radio station chief engineer taught me how things worked in the real world.  My high school teachers were saints, earning next to nothing while giving their whole hearts to help us move beyond the limitations of our Scots-Irish Appalachian roots.  I love my hometown.  And yet.

My hometown also helped me become a racist, who stayed unaware of my racism for all of my male life and the beginnings of my female life.  It taught me that men were to lead, and women were to follow.  It was an insular culture, suspicious of government, post-secondary education, people from either coast, Roman Catholics, Jews, and, well, anyone who had come from afar.  And afar wasn’t far.  You could come from elsewhere in Kentucky or West Virginia or Southern Ohio and not be suspect, but outside of that, you were watched with a wary eye.  And yet.

I had a wonderful high school teacher who walked me through the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and why I should care.  My father and his good friend, the town physician, were always deep in conversation about the broader world and the complexity of poverty, and working with people where they are, as you try to move them in the direction of broader knowledge and understanding.  There was the young teacher who pretty much forced me to go to an honors weekend at a state university where I heard a Kentucky congressman talk about the idea of what America could be, if we dared to be great.

I had good friends who received the same kind of nurture and went on to become physicians and engineers and Fortune 500 CEOs and bank presidents and social workers and teachers and school administrators.  Many of them came back home to serve those who showed up as counter-protesters this past weekend.  They taught their mothers and fathers and know the fears that cause them to keep their families close and their weapons closer.

If this protest and counter-protest had taken place in any other small southern town, I would have thought, “Oh God, I’m glad I don’t live there.”  But it didn’t.  It happened in a town that shaped and formed me.  No, I would not want to live there now.  I am fortunate to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a transgender woman can be asked by a neighbor to consider filling a vacancy on the town council, serve as a pastor in a church that doesn’t pay much attention to my gender identity, and be positively profiled in local newspapers and magazines.  I get a lot of nasty mail.  I need to live in a nurturing place like Boulder County.  But I still love my hometown.

These are complicated times.  There are bad players with bad motives, but most people are just unaware or frightened or both.  Most of the counter-protestors this past weekend are not bad people.  They are just sadly uninformed.  What would it mean to love them well?  How might I make the kind of difference in their lives that causes them to see those 20 protestors as made of the same stuff of which they are made.  Today, I have no answers, just sadness.  The town that nurtured me well was not very nurturing this past weekend.

There are times I am not very nurturing either, times I am self-centered and frightened and just plain ignorant.  We all have a tendency to want to take the speck out of our sister’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own.  But we are all human, made in the image of our creator.  We all get misty eyed when we sing Amazing Grace, stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, and cry when our babies are born and our mother’s die.  We all want to love and be loved.

I don’t know how to fix this divide.  I am so tired of it.  And I do love my hometown.

Well Now, I Believe That’s a Fire

I’ve kinda been all over the place lately, from feeling hopeful to angry to frustrated to hopeful again.  In other words, my life during Covid-19 is going pretty much like yours.

Over the weekend the Washington Post played a video of a young Methodist associate pastor surrounded by an angry crowd that descended on Gettysburg because they heard Antifa was planning a flag burning at the historic site.  The pastor, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, was there to visit the grave of an ancestor.  His timing wasn’t great.  Looking for someone to confront, 50 right wingers surrounded the associate pastor, who recorded the encounter.  One guy said, “Just because you’re gay you think you can say this stuff.”  The pastor said, “No, I’m a Methodist pastor and my denomination does not allow that.”  The pastor was eventually rescued by a park policeman who suggested it might be in his best interest to move along.

The whole thing was surreal.  I can imagine a friend of the pastor asking, “What’d you do today?”  “Well, I was out minding my own white, straight and definitely not gay Methodist pastor business when I was surrounded by an angry mob.”  After watching the video, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while.  It’s taken about a day to process it all.

About a half hour ago, I came to my back patio to start writing this post.  Immediately I noticed a forest fire a few miles west on the east-facing slope of Coffintop Mountain.  Since the fire is nowhere near hiking trails or dwellings, I’m sure it was started by a lightning strike from the dry thunderstorm that blew through an hour ago.  The fire is definitely growing.  I just went inside and got my binoculars.  When you live in the foothills of the tinder-dry Rockies, forest fires make you nervous.

I feel better now because I can see helicopters dumping buckets of water on the fire.  When they release the water, it looks like a firehose from the heavens.  I’m sitting here fixated on watching the helicopters unleashing their Bambi Buckets.  It’d be nice if God put out fires like that.  You know, “Angry mob surrounds young pastor – God drops well-aimed 250-gallon Bambi Bucket. Video at 11:00.”

God is subtle.  I want God to make herself definitively known.  Buckets of water.  Well-placed lightning bolts, with captions running up each greased streak, “Do not piss me off!  Signed, God.”  I want to see God clearly at work in the middle of this madness.  I want God to speed up the development of multiple vaccines, including the cool RNA ones that are easy to reproduce.  Then I want God to require all anti-vaxxers to take courses in how to protect an entire species.  Or maybe you could take care of the right wingers and anti-vaxxers with the same required course – Identifying Trusted News Sources.

I know, I don’t sound very sympathetic, not even toward the associate pastor.  Since when is an appropriate defense, “I’m straight and you can believe me because I’m a Methodist pastor.”  That’s the best you could come up with, really?  Like I said, I’m not feeling charitable.   But hey, that forest fire looks like it will be coming across Hall’s Ranch any minute now before it burns through town and destroys my house, so this feels like no time to be diplomatic.  I need to get this post written before I have to fill my car with important documents and flee.

I preached last Saturday at Left Hand Church.  (You can always find a link on my public Facebook page – Paula Stone Williams.)  I suggested that America is not God’s favored nation.  I doubt anybody from the Gettysburg Antifa-fighters watched the message.  The truth is that God has not had a most favored nation for a few millennia.  But that does not mean God does not love America.  Truth is, I love America too.  In fact, my love for my country demands that I examine how she behaves.

In my sermon I suggested we can measure America’s progress by answering three questions.  How well are we loving the planet?  How well are we loving each other?  How well are we loving ourselves?  I found both good news and bad news in each of the three categories.

When it comes to loving our planet, I met an amazing TED speaker last week who is chronicling ancient tried and true green answers to everything from building bridges to treating sewage.  (You should look up “Root Bridges of Cherrapunji.) Another TED speaker noted that the number of people who believe America has a problem with systemic racism has doubled since 2016.  Sixty percent of Americans are finally getting it.  That’s a long way from where we need to be, but at least there’s progress.

I really am hopeful.  Yes, American exceptionalism has caused us to turn a global pandemic into a partisan divide, but on the whole, it looks like Americans are caring for their neighbors.  For the good of the cause, the entire country shut down for a couple of months.  That our federal government squandered that collective consciousness is not the people’s fault.  We did what we were asked; we focused on the greater good.

We are a story-based species, which takes me back to the Antifa-fighters and the pastor and the anti-vaxxers.  They each have a story, and you can tell from my snarkiness that at the moment I am not really open to hearing theirs.  I am angry, and I am not ready to give up my anger.  Which clearly means I am a part of the problem.  Of course, the truth is that we are all a part of the problem.  None of us will hear the story of another until we can make peace with our own story.  And that is hard work.

Teilhard de Chardin was rejected by the Roman Catholic Church.  But somehow, he remained willing to do the hard work, which is why he was given to writing lines like this: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Then again, maybe that’s not the best choice for a quote, considering the forest fire at Coffintop.  But the smoke is diminishing, for real.  The helicopters with their Bambi Buckets are doing their job.  The news just said the fire is under control.  Now, if I can just get the fire in me under control.