A time of anticipation – and questioning
By Michael M. Barrick
Note: I acknowledge that other faith traditions have sacred observances now and throughout the year. I make no claims to an exclusive truth. Rather, I simply follow the advice of Mark Twain and write what I know about. So, having been raised by devoted Catholic parents, it is only natural that at this time of year, I ponder Advent.
LENOIR, N.C. – As I gaze out the window above my desk listening to Christmas music and watch the ground silently and magically turn white from a predicted 2 – 4 inch snowfall, I am naturally nostalgic.
My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less.
Yet, as I generally do every December, I am struggling to hold onto what I believed as a child when the snows began to fall in the West Virginia hills. It is a time of anticipation – and questioning.
Naturally, as a child, my anticipation had more to do with the football or bicycle I hoped I was going to get on Christmas morning. Now, in my seventh decade on the planet, I find the season to be a time of questioning.
My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less. It has taken my whole life (well, not yet is hasn’t), to figure out that Jesus simply calls us to love and expressly forbids us from judging others. Amy Grant sings of it in “Emmanuel, God With Us.” The claim of Christmas is a claim of Incarnation, a claim many simply find implausible.
Even if you do believe it, living it is a whole different matter. Others often confuse me for Scrooge in December. That’s not true; I’m always a curmudgeon. The difference in December is that I find it difficult to not get angry since most Christians don’t seem to make much effort to examine and live the implications of the Incarnation.
So, I just get particularly grouchy in December. A lifelong friend, though, has helped me look at Advent differently this year. The question I ponder every December is eloquently and expertly addressed by the late Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian I learned about from my friend, who sent me Dr. Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949.
Dr. Thurman gets immediately to the point on page 1. “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.” Forcing us to study the human Jesus in first century Palestine, Dr. Thurman adds, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”(Italics added).
Dr. Thurman is not alone in asking that question. Several musicians cause me to consider the message and meaning of Advent. Among them are:
- “Grown Up Christmas List” by Amy Grant
- “Summer Sun or Winter Skies” by David Haas
- “Mary Did Your Know?” by Kathy Mattea
Each, like Dr. Thurman, gives us much to contemplate this month – and always.
© Michael. M. Barrick, 2017.
Moore’s racist statement on 1965 Voting Rights Act offers a teachable moment
By Art Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick
Remember when the question “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)” was trending?
Well, Roy Moore of Alabama has forced the nation – and most critically, Christians of all stripes – to ask that question again.
Last week, at a revival meeting – oh, I’m sorry, I mean campaign event – in Jackson, Ala., Moore revealed his racist views when he said that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had created “a problem.” As numerous news outlets reported, Moore said, “They started creating new rights in 1965. Today we’ve got a problem.”
He is right. We do have a problem. Religious-based bigotry continues to be a guiding principle of far too many politicians like Moore. And, he was called out on it by Rev. William Barber, a founder of Moral Mondays in North Carolina, as well as scores of other pastors and laity at a gathering in Birmingham later in the week.
As Christians, Moore’s comments at first infuriated us, as we have seen far too many people – especially teenagers and younger adults – abandon Christianity because of people like Moore who pervert biblical teaching for political gain. Then we realized he had presented us with a teachable moment.
Indeed, we have both witnessed first-hand the caustic effects of politics in religion.
From 1979 to 1989, I served as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. During that 10 year period, I watched in dismay as a highly-respected pastor from the Dallas area was denied a teaching position because he had the temerity to allow his congregation to include women when electing deacons. This was just one event of many in which Baptist seminaries were taken over by fundamentalists so that they could transform the Southern Baptist Convention into what we see today.
As a Southern Baptist, however, I know that the concept of the “priesthood of the believer” requires that I use the brain given me by God to apply the teachings of Jesus.
Not only does political intrigue sully Christianity, but the misapplication of our faith also corrupts politics. Again, an anecdote drives home this point. During a recent election, a candidate for office was working a poll on Election Day and had a voter tell her, “I’m going to vote for you.” When the voter came out about 30 minutes later, she told the candidate, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t vote for you because you were not on the ‘Christian list.’”
Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments.
This is ludicrous. There is no “Christian list.” Neither political party – indeed, no political party – can claim to be the “Christian party.” Indeed, this sort of demonizing of people is entirely inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. This story is one that is repeated across the nation. It causes harm to the political process and our faith.
As a high school representative on my parish council in Clarksburg, W.Va. during the early 1970s, I witnessed the viciousness of ethnic bigotry as churches were consolidated. Parish priests who tried to reconcile the groups often found themselves banished to other parishes or desk jobs.
More recently, right here in Caldwell County, when I served on the Republican Executive Committee about 18 years ago – in fact, at my first meeting as a member – the local GOP opened the meeting by telling me they had a gift for me. It was a Confederate flag that read, “Hell No, I Won’t Come Down!” The reason I was given this “gift”? The Lenoir News-Topic printed an editorial I wrote as a newly elected member to the School Board. In it, I argued that it was time we put a stop to students wearing t-shirts with Confederate flags to school and flying the Confederate flags from their trucks.
That flag presentation was the primary precipitant for me eventually leaving the GOP, though I repent for not doing it immediately; however, I naively thought I could change it. When presented with the flag, I answered the only way I knew how. I said, “I accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.” Many people living in Caldwell County today were at that meeting. In case there is any confusion for them about my answer, I will clarify it. The “gift” was offered in hate. While I did not accept it with hate in my heart, I knew their motivation and wanted them to know it.
Roy Moore and his ilk are the products of such bigotry.
The Bible teaches something far different than bigotry. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5: 22, 23 NIV).
While political leaders applying – and debating – Christian faith is as old as the republic, using our faith to oppress people – as Moore did by saying black people should not be allowed to vote – is simply evil.
We hold a different view. We believe that this is what the Christian faith requires of those in leadership:
- Show a preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable;
- Run a campaign that reflects favorably upon our faith; and,
- Upon election, govern with a servant’s heart.
There is a point-of-view within conservative Christian circles that it is not the role of government to care for the poor and vulnerable. First, Jesus never prescribed how we are to care for the poor, sick, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned and other vulnerable people; he just said care for them. That means we can do it individually, through government or corporately as a church.
We should remember that the only time in the New Testament that Jesus states how our lives will be judged is found in Matthew 25 in the story of the sheep and the goats. There, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40 NIV).
We believe that Christians seeking and in office must live as Christ lived – with a servant’s heart. Scripture teaches, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant …” (Phil. 2:4-7, NIV). So, we must first have a servant’s heart. That is the number one characteristic of a leader.
Once in that leadership position, we must live a life of love. We can – and must – do it. Still, in politics, that is no easy charge. Consider how counter to the political culture this insight is: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13: 4, 5 NIV). These verses warn against everything that is customary in politics. If we behave as most politicians, we are in violation of Scripture. Consequently, we undermine our witness and ruin our chance at our most important calling – “… the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24c, NIV).
Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments. Indeed, as we read in Matthew 19:22, Jesus does not hesitate to respect free will and allow people to walk away from him. So, whether we are at home, in town, at church or a U.S. Senator, we are to live our faith for the benefit of others, not to impose it upon them.
We do not need, nor can we survive, a theocracy. However, we are called to live authentic Christian lives, regardless of our vocation. It is not easy to do, especially in the realm of politics. It is not easy to do so when governing in a republic, with so many voices and so many needs. But it can be done. It must be done. If we do so, we are promised success of the highest order, according to Paul, who also wrote, “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8 NIV).
About the Authors
Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him.
Michael M. Barrick is a writer and educator. He has a B.A. in English and history from Glenville State College in West Virginia. His understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice informs his writing.
Both live in Caldwell County, N.C.
‘We Are Strangers No Longer’ asserts that Gospel requires that immigrants be welcomed
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – The Asheville Vicariate Council of the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte has issued a Pastoral Statement in support of immigrants. The document, “We Are Strangers No Longer,” follows below. (El Consejo del Vicariato de Asheville de la Diócesis Católica de Charlotte ha emitido una Declaración Pastoral en apoyo de los inmigrantes abajo).
In our first pastoral statement over eleven years ago, WELCOMING THE STRANGER, we invited our Catholic community to welcome the newest immigrants to our Asheville area. At that time we were responding to widespread panic within the immigrant community when a number of people were detained and deported. We joined with the bishops of our country in calling for a comprehensive reform of a broken immigration system. In the ensuing eleven years, our Catholic community generously welcomed our newest brothers and sisters. Today, immigrants are no longer strangers, but an essential part of our faith communities. Unfortunately, the broken immigration system of eleven years ago has all but collapsed. Today, the conditions faced by immigrants have considerably worsened.
Where our brothers and sisters suffer rejection and abandonment we will lift our voice on their behalf. We will welcome them and receive them. They are Jesus and the Church will not turn away from Him . . . .
Our immigrant brothers and sisters have called on us to respond once more to the panic in which they and their children live. They never know when their families will be torn apart. Children, many of whom are citizens of our country, live in constant fear that their parents may never return home from work. Parents worry that their children, who have received protection under the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), may be permanently separated from their families and deported. The threat against families is real. The fear is intolerable. After eleven years of failed attempts to reform our laws concerning immigration, families and children are still living in fear.
This situation is happening to our immigrant brothers and sisters here and now. They are our parishioners and have shared with us their rich traditions of faith and family. They make a positive contribution to the life of the Church, the community and the economy. In response to the Executive Order on Refugees this past January, 2017, the president and vice-president of the national conference of Catholic bishops stated:
The Lord Jesus fled the tyranny of Herod, was falsely accused and then deserted by his friends. He had nowhere to lay His head (Lk 9:58). Welcoming the stranger and those in flight is not one option among many in the Christian life. It is the very form of Christianity itself. Our actions must remind people of Jesus. The actions of our government must remind people of basic humanity. Where our brothers and sisters suffer rejection and abandonment we will lift our voice on their behalf. We will welcome them and receive them. They are Jesus and the Church will not turn away from Him . . . . Our desire is not to enter the political arena, but rather to proclaim Christ alive in the world today. In the very moment a family abandons their home under threat of death, Jesus is present. And He says to each of us, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
(Joint Statement, USCCB, 30 January 2017)
And as Pope Francis continually reminds the Church, “the face of each person bears the mark of the face of Christ!” And he adds:
“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. ”
(Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2014)
Through the centuries, people have looked to the Church as a sanctuary where people may turn for help and protection in time of need. As immigrants today look to us for spiritual support in this time of crisis for their families, we are united in calling on our Catholic community and all people of good will to stand with immigrants and their children. We invite Catholic Charities and our area Catholic schools and Faith Formation programs to be especially mindful of the needs of children who are living in fear. We encourage our parishes to respond with generosity to immigrants especially those have been detained and separated from their children and loved ones. And we commit ourselves as Catholic leaders to continue to work and pray for the comprehensive reform of the immigration laws that will keep families united and allow all immigrants to know their dignity as children of God. May our Church always be a sanctuary where no one is a stranger!
Asheville Vicariate Council
Very Rev. Wilbur N. Thomas, Vicar Forane, Rector/Pastor
Basilica of St. Lawrence, Asheville
Rev. C. Morris Boyd, Parochial Vicar
Basilica of St. Lawrence, Asheville
Rev. Patrick Cahill, Pastor
St. Eugene Church, Asheville
Mr. Juan Antonio Garcia, Coordinator
Asheville Vicariate Hispanic Ministry
Mr. Nicholas Haskell, Coordinator
Poverty & Justice Education, Diocese of Charlotte
Rev. Douglas May, Maryknoll Missioner
In-Residence, St. Eugene Church, Asheville
Rev. Shawn O’Neal, Pastor
Sacred Heart Church, Brevard
Rev. John Pagel, Priest-at-Large to Hispanic Community
Rev. Roberto Perez, O.F.M. Cap., Parochial Vicar
Immaculate Conception, Hendersonville
Mr. Robert Phillips, Representative, Catholic Charities-Western Office
Diocese of Charlotte, Asheville
Rev. Adrian Porras, Pastor
St. Barnabas Church, Arden
Rev. Martin Schratz, O.F.M. Cap., Pastor
Immaculate Conception, Hendersonville
Sr. Peggy Verstege, R.S.M., Hispanic Ministry
Sacred Heart Church, Burnsville
Sr. Maria Goretti Weldon, R.S.M., Director of Mission and Values
Sisters of Mercy Services Corporation, Asheville
Rev. Fred Werth, Pastor
St. Andrew Church, Mars Hill
Rev. Dr. Michael Zboyovski, Deacon
St. Eugene Church, Asheville
Ya No Somos Extranjeros:
Declaración Pastoral del Consejo del Vicariato de Asheville de la Diócesis de Charlotte, 2017
En nuestra primera declaración hace once años, ACOGIENDO AL FORASTERO ENTRE NOSOTROS, invitamos a nuestra comunidad Católica a dar la bienvenida a los nuevos inmigrantes de Asheville. En aquella época estábamos respondiendo a un pánico universal de la comunidad inmigrante en lo cual muchos estaban detenidos y deportados. Al mismo tiempo, nos juntamos con los obispos católicos de nuestro país llamando por una reforma completa del sistema quebrantado de inmigración. En los once años después, nuestra comunidad católica generosamente acogió a los nuevos hermanos y hermanas. Hoy en día, los inmigrantes ya no son extranjeros, pero forman una parte esencial de nuestras comunidades de fe. Desafortunadamente, el sistema quebrantado de inmigración de once años atrás ya casi colapsó. Ahora, la situación de los inmigrantes está mucho peor.
Nuestros hermanas y hermanos inmigrantes nos pidieron a responder una vez más al pánico en lo cual viven ellos y sus hijos. No saben cuando sus familias van a ser destrozados. Los niños, muchos que son ciudadanos viven en el miedo que sus padres van a regresar a casa después del trabajo. Los padres están preocupados que sus hijos, que tiene protección por medio del programa de DACA (Acción Diferida para los Llegados en la Infancia), van a ser separados permanentemente de sus familias y deportados. La amenaza contra familias es real. El miedo es intolerable. Después de once años de intentos fracasados de reformar nuestras leyes de inmigración, familias y sus hijos sigen viviendo en miedo.
Nuestros hermanas y hermanos inmigrantes están pasando esta situación aquí y ahora. Ellos son nuestros filigreses y nos han compartido sus valiosas tradiciones de fe y familia. Hacen una contribución positiva a la vida de la Iglesia, la comunidad y la economía. Respondiendo a la Orden Ejecutiva de enero de 2017, el presidente y el vice-presidente de la conferencia nacional de obispos católicos declararon:
El Señor Jesús huyó de la tiranía de Herodes, fue falsamente acusado y luego abandonado por sus amigos. No tenía dónde reclinar su cabeza (Lc 9:58). Acoger al extranjero y a los que están huyendo no es una opción entre muchas en la vida cristiana. Es la forma misma del cristianismo en sí. Nuestras acciones deben hacer que la gente recuerde a Jesús. Las acciones de nuestro gobierno deben hacer que la gente recuerde la humanidad básica. Cuando nuestros hermanos y hermanas sufran rechazo y abandono, nosotros elevaremos nuestra voz en su favor. Los acogeremos y los recibiremos. Ellos son Jesús, y la Iglesia no se apartará de Él . . . . Nuestro deseo no es entrar en el terreno político, sino anunciar a Cristo vivo en el mundo de hoy. En el momento mismo en que una familia abandona su hogar bajo amenaza de muerte, Jesús está presente. Y Él nos dice a cada uno de nosotros: “todo lo que hicieron por uno de estos mis hermanos más pequeños, lo hicieron por mí” (Mt 25:40).
Y como el Papa Francisco siempre dice a la Iglesia, “en el rostro de cada persona está impreso el rostro de Cristo.” Y el papa añade:
Emigrantes y refugiados no son peones sobre el tablero de la humanidad.
(Mensaje Para La Jornada Mundial Del Emigrante Y Del Refugiado 2014)
Através de los siglos, la gente ha visto a la Iglesia como santuario donde busquen ayuda y protección en tiempos difíciles. Pues, como los inmigrantes de hoy nos piden apoyo espiritual en estos tiempos difíciles para sus familias, estamos unidos en llamando a nuestra comunidad católica y a todo el pueblo de buena voluntad a mantenerse a lado de los inmigrantes y sus hijos. Invitamos a Catholic Charities y las escuelas católicas de nuestra área y los programas de catequesis a tener en cuenta las necesidades de los niños que viven en el miedo. Al mismo tiempo, animamos a nuestras parroquias a responder con generosidad a los inmigrantes especialmente a los que han sido detenidos y separados de sus niños y seres queridos. Y nos comprometemos a luchar y rezar por la reforma completa de las leyes de inmigración para mantener familias unidas y permitir que todos los inmigrantes realicen su dignidad como Hijos de Dios. ¡Qué nuestra Iglesia sea siempre un santuario en donde nadie es extranjero!
Encountering a disturbing view of the Christian faith
By Art Sherwood
PATTERSON, N.C. – Last week was a wonderful week, celebrating the 241st birthday of the United States. It is always a good time to ponder enduring statements from our founders, such as “When in the course of human events … ” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
But as John Adams said, it is not just a time for reflection about freedom and liberty; it is also a time for celebration! So, like lots of folk, we celebrated our nation’s birthday with family, as our daughter visited with three of our grandchildren. Enjoying the beautiful mountains of North Carolina under clear, blue skies included an adventurous trip to Tweetsie Railroad.
That is when our celebration was momentarily interrupted and again left me pondering. This time, it was about something as precious to me as my family and our nation – my Christian faith. As I was standing in line so the children could get their pictures taken with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I struck up a conversation with another grandparent doing what I was doing. After a bit, she noticed the logo on the front of my shirt – “The Christian Left” – and asked me what it was about. I explained that it was a counterforce to the Christian right, who abdicated any claim to Christianity in the last election. I then showed her the back of the shirt, which says, “Love Thy Neighbor.” It goes on to list various groups of people, such as “LGBT Neighbor,” “Imprisoned Neighbor,” “Hindu Neighbor,” and so forth. She then responded, “Love is not enough,” and entered into a rant about how if we don’t do something we will become like them. She protested that she was just an old fashioned Bible-believing woman. About that time, the line opened up and we ended our conversation at that point.
I, too, am an old fashioned, Bible-believing person, which is why I found her response so disturbing.
Love is enough. It is more than enough, it is everything. At least, that’s what it sounds like Jesus said in an exchange recorded in the Gospel of Mark (12: 28-34 NIV). Jesus was asked “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But he didn’t stop there. He continued, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
That’s it, Jesus says. Love. It is all that is required, and it requires all from us. It is required of all of us who claim the name of Christ.
The account continues, “Well said teacher. … You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
It’s also noteworthy how Jesus responded and how this exchange concluded: “When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”
I however, continue to ask questions – of those who adhere to a very disturbing view of the Christian faith. Indeed, the brief encounter served to validate the point made by my friend Michael Barrick to me last week, when he said that in North Carolina our political divide is a proxy war of theologies – the theology of fear which breeds hate or the theology of hope which is the path to the love of which Jesus speaks. The former is exemplified by the Rev. Franklin Graham; the latter by the Rev. Dr. William Barber II.
As a lifelong Sunday School attendee in Baptist churches large and small from Texas to Washington, D.C., I am blown away that someone can say they are Bible-believing Christians on the one hand and say love is not enough on the other. I don’t see how they can ignore the entire New Testament that is all about love. Sadly, the tactics of fear used by so-called Christian politicians and their powerful pastor allies is working. It makes me question: What happened to trust in God? What happened to turn your cares to Jesus?
What happened is a terrible failure of teaching by our spiritual leaders who have abdicated their job to lead us to the love of God. This too seems to be clearly addressed in scripture: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock” (Ezekiel 34: 2b-3).
Based on my short conversation in a line at Tweetsie Railroad – and decades of service to Baptist churches and 10 years (1979 – 1989) as a trustee at Southwestern Theological Seminary – I would have to agree with what we read in Ezekiel. The shepherds are attending to their gods of power, money and sex instead of their flocks.
So, the poor and vulnerable are hurt the most, even though Jesus demonstrated preferential concern for them. I can’t quite figure out what’s being taught in Sunday School these days, but Michael and I have concluded that we are, indeed, witnessing a religious proxy war being played out in the North Carolina General Assembly. At the moment, the “Love is not enough” faction is winning.
We can counter that. Take a moment to listen to “We Should Only Have Time For Love” by Claire Lynch. It’s worth a listen. Its message is timeless. And complete. We should only have time for love for one simple reason – love is enough. But we won’t know that until we try it. So it is up to us to keep proving it.
© Art Sherwood, 2017. Photo by Jacob Meyer.
Recent activities reveal not much has changed for decades
By Michael M. Barrick
(Note: Caldwell County, N.C. is in Northwestern North Carolina, along the southernmost border of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide, with the Blue Ride Escarpment stretching into the county. About half of it is mountainous, though the county and Appalachian region end at the Catawba River, at the southern end of the county. The mountains run southwest to northeast roughly parallel with N.C. Hwy. 18. North of that line, mountain ways still prevail; to the south, the urban Piedmont has infiltrated into what was once rich farm land – and, in places, still is – along the Catawba River. Based upon my travels throughout Appalachia, the observations in this essay apply to many regions of Appalachia trying to recover from its dependence upon a mono-economy).
LENOIR, N.C. – Any essay or discussion about religion and politics is full of risks, even more so during the sacred seasons of Hanukkah and Christmas and the time of the African-American Kwanzaa celebration. Add in that we just completed the most contentious election season in memory, and we’ve got frayed nerves. So, first some disclaimers about what this essay is not about.
- This is not a criticism of the Caldwell County schools or anyone working for them. I support public education. I have taught at South Caldwell High School, served on the School Board, was a Community in Schools mentor, and our children attended and graduated from the county schools.
- This is not about the “right” to say “Merry Christmas.” I’m 60-years-old. Nobody has ever told me I couldn’t say Merry Christmas. If I’ve ever offended anyone saying it, I am not aware of it.
- This is not about ensuring that we have a Christian nation. We are not a Christian nation. We have never been a Christian nation. I hope to goodness we never have a theocracy. If Donald Trump moves in that direction, you can be sure it’s for political purposes, not because of firmly-held values. I respect other faiths. I respect no faith. In fact, while it’s nobody’s business what faith I hold (or don’t), I can say that I sure do respect my many friends who are agnostic or atheist. Based on the way Christianity is lived out in this country, it’s amazing anyone claims the faith.
Which brings me to what this essay is about: Caldwell County’s contradictory natures. I’ve been traveling here since I was a young child and we’ve lived here the better part of 25 years. History and geography essentially divide the county in half; that it’s a bit contradictory is not surprising. However, our granddaughter’s recent Christmas concert at the school she attends here in the county – combined with the overwhelming support received by Donald Trump in Caldwell – revealed just how ironic and nuanced this county can be.
The Christmas concert was very well done, sweet and well-received. The staff, teachers and administrators are to be commended for the hard work put into it. However, I did not hear one Christmas song that was remotely sacred. That bothers me, because, well, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I may have missed it, and if I did, I apologize. Maybe they were given legal advice that prevented them from using sacred music. If so, such advice is questionable, because in the past, choirs have chosen to sing sacred songs; it was done at South Caldwell and courts have allowed them.
In any event, at the end, I imagined that somebody would get up, Jimmy Stewart-like, humbly grasp the microphone and say, “Well, uh … that was sweet, but I fear we have forgotten why we gather.” He or she would then start singing, “Joy to the World” and all in the room would join in.
I suggested it to my wife. She quickly nixed the idea. Plus, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
But still, I imagined it. Of course, it would have been inappropriate. It would have upset the children, disrupted the work of school personnel, and potentially escalated into something quite unpleasant. Still, it seemed like the reaction I expect from people who fiercely defend Christianity and all things Christmas.
It seems all the spunk has been taken out of them. That’s what happens when you can’t find work and your communities are slowly shuttered.
Caldwell’s economic decline because of its past dependence upon the furniture mono-economy has left many unemployed and underemployed people. Finding themselves unable to find new work, they have quietly receded into the decaying neighborhoods of our small towns or small homesteads scattered among our mountain regions. Meanwhile, a slow but growing influx of artists, musicians and craftsman offers hope.
Geography is a challenge for us also. Northlakes is nothing like Edgemont. The booming south end of the county is more aligned with Hickory. Meanwhile, farmers in Collettsville, Kings Creek, Dudley Shoals, Buffalo Cove and elsewhere struggle to maintain family homesteads as retirees move into the mountain townships like Globe and Patterson. The artisans moving into Lenoir are adding a flavor to the town not seen since Doc Watson was playing downtown.
So, we do seem to have two Caldwells – the conservative descendants of the county’s settlers and the new settlers, looking to convert Lenoir into an art and music destination or live out their retirement years here.
The best description I’ve heard of Caldwell County was from then-Mayor Robert A. Gibbons Sr. roughly 20 years ago. I was working as a reporter at the News-Topic. My beat included the Lenoir City Council. It led to some interesting exchanges with Mayor Gibbons. When he retired, he called and asked that I tell the story of his roughly 25 years as mayor. In an exhaustive and entertaining interview in our conference room, a very relaxed Mayor Gibbons provided an excellent history of Lenoir and insight into the backroom deals not previously disclosed. Not every comment was printed.
However, one thing he said about Caldwell County was so characteristically descriptive and politically incorrect – not to mention arguably accurate – that I had to print it. I’m going from memory here, but I am confident that this is an accurate paraphrase if not exact quote. As we were concluding the interview, the mayor leaned closer to me across the table and volunteered, “You know, there are two kinds of people in Caldwell County. You have the folks living in the mountains that don’t give a happy damn about anything, and then you’ve got those folks who like that dancing on your tiptoes like they do at the Civic Center.”
That sounds like Caldwell County, circa 2016, to me.
With feet in both camps – a Mountaineer, but also a writer – I get it. As a mountain person, I just want to be left the hell alone. As a writer, I am compelled to seek avenues for my craft, avenues which often include me sticking my nose in the business of others. Obviously, these goals can sometimes be at odds.
The artists and musicians are in the minority. Their venues are limited. The existence of the Caldwell Arts Council and other robust efforts in the area are encouraging. Still, the question is, can the two Caldwells coexist? Can the young people filling Lenoir’s restaurants and bars in the evenings lives alongside those folks whose parents and grandparents filled the furniture plants once humming along 321-A? Election Day makes me wonder. Early Voting revealed a very divided community; for 17 days people screamed at one another as the Board of Elections failed to do its job. The school concert, though, brought folks together. For a short time, for our children, we set apart our differences.
That means we can do it in other ways too. So, wherever you fit in the spectrum, let’s remember we’re all neighbors. Feel free to celebrate your faith. But please be kind enough to let others choose not to. That will be a big first step in healing the wounds caused by a very contentious election season. Only then can we move together to help our community continue its recovery.
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A Festive Kwanzaa! Cheers!
© The Lenoir Voice, 2016
On Twitter: @lenoirvoice