catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 14 :: 2006.07.14 — 2006.07.28


Gone south

For the first ten years we were married, Vicki and I lived within ten miles of my mother’s and sister’s houses and less than an hour’s drive from her mother, sister, and brother; for about half that time, we lived about eight blocks from my mother, and not that much farther from my sister.  Emilie, my oldest daughter, played with her cousins just about every day; we had an extensive network of friends and acquaintances through work and our church; the teachers and parents and students at Emilie’s school were bright, dedicated, and kind, and Emilie had a growing circle of girlfriends; we had doctors and dentists and even hygienists we’d been going to for years.

And yet almost exactly seven years ago, on a relentlessly hot July day, we loaded our two year old and our seven year old, and a few other necessities, into a 1992 Toyota Corolla with a dying air conditioner and drove south for nine hours to our new home in Jackson, Tennessee. 

What we found there wasn’t exactly home.  The heat, which we’d expected to be bad, surprised us by never going away—at eleven o’clock at night, the temperature was still hovering around ninety degrees, and leaving the house brought the same exaltation of burning air as opening an oven door.  It didn’t rain much that summer, but when it did, instead of being succeeded by a refreshing cold front, the storm simply added humidity to the air, making the days thick and leaden.

The people, too, proved to be different from the people in Illinois.  It was disconcerting for us, at first, to walk through a mall and be surrounded by people who talked like the back-country simpleton in a T.V. comedy sketch; there were people whose accents were so pronounced that we had to ask them to repeat themselves so often they must have thought we were imbeciles; and we encountered idiomatic expressions that were either unfamiliar or we’d assumed people no longer used: “I was fixin’ to go to lunch”; “I missed work yesterday because I was feeling puny.”  Children called us “Mr. David” and “Miss Vicki”; college students in our classes would answer our questions with “yes, ma’am,” and “no, sir”: such rote formality surprised us at first, and the implications of reinforcing hierarchical borders felt troubling. 

Cashiers in stores and restaurants were more interested in chatting about the weather or their grandchildren than maintaining an efficient flow of customers through their lines, and complete strangers seemed to feel comfortable breaking into conversation with us in public places.  People who looked quite a bit younger than ninety made their way through pedestrian crosswalks at the achingly slow pace of someone who has bone spurs, shin splints, arthritic ankles, and broken glass in his shoes.  Driving seemed a schizophrenic combination of recklessness and care: people would shoot across three lanes of traffic, apparently without looking, and then roll through their turns without even the gentlest touch on the accelerator, and perhaps it goes without saying that the vast majority of drivers seemed to be convinced that using a turn signal would only add to the confusion of others on the road.  And we understand that there’s no law against open alcohol in vehicles: what does it matter if the passengers in the car are drinking, as long as the driver remains sober?

At least once a year, the local paper will publish a letter from someone defending the Confederate battle flag and pride in Confederate heritage: this letter will invariably state that slavery was not nearly as onerous as most people think.  The public schools are underfunded—the school district has been under a court order to desegregate for the past thirty years, and there are several large private schools in town.  According to friends who grew up in the area, when the public schools integrated, all the white kids evacuated to the newly-established private schools, as parents en masse became advocates of Christian education and college preparatory curriculum.  And people really are much more connected to churches than they seemed to be in the North: one of the first questions most of the people we met when we first moved here asked us was what church we attended, and many meetings and sporting events still begin with a prayer.  Still, it’s hard to believe that hundreds of families underwent an overnight conviction about their children’s education based solely on their religious beliefs, completely free from any racist motives.

During our first few months in Tennessee, I felt as though I was living on a different planet.  I worried that I might inadvertently say something that a native Southerner would regard as unforgivably rude, that my Midwestern accent would trigger somebody’s rage, a frightening thought in an area where more people seem to have access to firearms.  These days, I’m more concerned about assimilation.  The Southern accent is virtually invisible to me now.  We correct our children when they come home saying “fahv” and “nahn” instead of “five” and “nine,” but I can hear Emilie’s accent change when she talks to her friends, and I even catch myself pronouncing vowels more broadly than I used to.  Not long ago, Ian asked me why there was only one black character on a cartoon show he watches—his expectations from attending an integrated school are that half the people in any situation he encounters are going to be African-American.  That’s a good thing, I think, and yet it’s not without its pitfalls, since he’s also told me that none of the black kids in his class like him.  (“What about Blake?” we ask him.  “Isn’t Blake your best friend?”  “Yeah,  but none of the other black kids like me!” he says.)  Emilie has speculated about how she might be a different person if we’d never moved—she’s obviously happier with the way her life has turned out here than it might have if we’d stayed in Illinois.  I’m not as convinced as she is, but I do know that, if the opportunity arose, going back would be just as complicated as moving here.

I’m not writing about this experience with the idea that this is the worst case scenario when it comes to living in a place that you feel is, to some extent, alien. Missionaries and other world travelers experience culture shock far sharper than anything I’ve been through, and many people feel alienated from their surroundings without having to move at all: I imagine a good portion of catapult readers feel alienated from mass-produced American popular culture for one reason or another.  Even people you wouldn’t expect to feel alienated show the symptoms: a church in Memphis created a Christian version of the Statue of Liberty holding a Bible instead of a torch, for the purpose of  (I’m kind of guessing here) calling America back to the gospel, and, if you explore the website at, you’ll find a group who’ve constructed a plan to move thousands of Christian families to South Carolina, form a political majority, and establish a utopia of Christian values and limited government.

I suspect some sense of alienation is appropriate for the Christian life.  In Philippians 3:20, Paul writes “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” and while our particular views on eschatology will shape our reading of that passage, I think one simple, unremarkable interpretation would be that we identify more with the Kingdom of God than we do with the locale where we live.  My personal understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom is not particularly uplifting or beautiful, but I say it with utter sincerity and devotion: Jesus owns my ass.  I look at the Scripture, and then I look at my excuses and justifications and spiritual pride, and I recognize that one is nonsense and bile, and the other is my true treasure and life.

What being alienated doesn’t mean is holding myself aloof from the great unwashed, the people who don’t agree with me or say they hate the Kingdom.  I can’t ever be from Tennessee, but my baby was born here, and I’ve made friends who’ve become a second family to me—even if I somehow wound up moving back North, I’d never hear a Southern accent the same way again, because I associate it with so many people I love and admire.  I don’t have any mastery when it comes to the Kingdom of God: I’m a citizen because I’ve run out of faith in myself, and because God is gracious and loving and miraculous.  God doesn’t choose citizens of his Kingdom based on their spiritual depth and sobriety: the Israelites were about as stable and spiritually deep as a pack of espresso-chugging monkeys—turn your back on them for five minutes and they’d be building altars to idols or whining nostalgically about the gourmet meals the slave masters served.  The Kingdom isn’t for the worthy—it’s for the needy and the wretched, the hopeless and the grateful.

And here’s one of the paradoxes of the Kingdom: God makes citizens out of aliens.  Deuteronomy 10:19 commands the Israelites and, most likely, us, to “show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  I wouldn’t venture to guess which is the least obeyed commandment in the Bible, but I suspect this one is at least a contender.  Once we’ve made the transition from citizen to alien, there’s almost nothing we like better than walling out all those other aliens—gotta stay pure.  Remember the Fox News anchor who announced that white Americans would be in the demographic minority in a couple of generations and then urged his audience to take action against that outrage by having more babies?  And in a similar vein, I can’t imagine the Christian Exodusers get too excited about ACLU members and activist judges and drag queens coming into the Kingdom.  Yet the Scripture couldn’t be clearer.  We need to remember what we were, and we need to treat the aliens around us accordingly.

No analogy is perfect, and the connections I’ve drawn out of moving to Tennessee are less perfect than most.  Even though the Midwest will always be home, moving here has made me much more aware of the ways racism gets hidden there.  And even though I feel embraced by Southerners who are willing to overlook my funny accent and tendency to be brusque, I’m still conscious of the selfishness and fury and pain that informs so many lives.  The work of the Kingdom remains to be done, and by God’s grace I will make my small contribution.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus