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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Renorming: Conversing with Dr. David C. Forbes

Shaw University Divinity School successfully navigated the gamut of accreditation, receiving reaffirmation from SACS along with our entire university, and being recommended for full reaffirmation, with no notations, from the visiting team of the Association of Theological Schools.  That latter one is not official yet, but we anticipate a good result when the Commission meets this summer.

We thank Dean Bruce Grady for his leadership during these years of self-study and complex change in our degree programs.  We have made and implemented a number of significant changes such as shortening our degree programs and reshaping the curriculum outline.  We have added needed faculty and begun work on more comprehensive plans for fundraising to increase student financial aid.  Dean Grady has been instrumental in all these accomplishments.

He did so well that the higher echelons of administration have given him a promotion.  He will now begin to serve as Interim Vice-President for Institutional Advancement.  We are proud of him and anticipate good things for the university and divinity school because of this new work he will undertake.  We are also sad to see him go after four good years of working together.  But God has not left us orphaned.

We are blessed to have the experienced and dedicated Shaw Man Dr. David C. Forbes as our Interim Dean.  He has been part of our divinity school family for many years, and he has been deeply involved in the life of Shaw University at all levels.  He was profiled last year during Black History Month, and I found the article very intriguing.  His work in SNCC and as a leader of Shaw students is impressive, and his many years of pastoring display an admirable record of service to God's church.

Dr. Forbes and I have a common experience that has drawn our hearts together in recent months.  He lost his wife of many years, Hazel, four years ago.  It was for him, as losing Everly has been for me, both wrenching and disorienting.  In a couple of recent conversations, he said to me that he has come to realize this time in his life can be characterized as "renorming."  The normal, of living a life shared with Hazel, has been taken away.  And now God's Spirit is at work to renorm a life, give it a new normal, orient it in new ways that both hold on to the good of Hazel in his life, but also point his energy and creativity toward new opportunities in this time without her.  Based on the profile I linked above, he had already learned some things about renorming when he led students to protest discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement.

That is an encouraging word to me.  I have already been at work theologically to address the notions of normativity and how assumptions of whiteness preclude understanding of other church traditions considered to be the productions of outsiders and marginal people.  This calls for a renorming, for the capacity to say as I wrote some time ago, that black theology's normativity also deserves acknowledgement.  Of course, that move challenges the very notion of normative theologies.  Figuring out the path beyond that challenge is clearly something like what Dr. Forbes is calling renorming.

Moreover, I have written repeatedly about the disorientation of life without Everly.  Having organized my life, in many ways specifically about helping her to flourish and succeed, much of that purpose seemed to vanish when she died.  I definitely had to reorient.  Renorming is a good word for it.  What is the normal that emerges from all that Everly poured into my life, now that she is gone, but also now that God still has a purpose for my continued living?  That is a renorming.

We have been renorming our understanding of our work at Shaw University Divinity School for some time.  The pattern that was succeeding through the early years of the millennium came face to face with the economic conditions that continue to keep the 99% struggling in this era.  Students are finding it harder to afford graduate school.  Educational systems have tightened up the availability of financial aid.  School loans have held high interest rates while huge, wealthy banks get their money for free and continue to make up schemes for trading paper and building houses of cards as a way to make more and more money.  People's homes remain foreclosed with little or no help.  Jobs are still too scarce, and the wealthy have become bolder in claiming that they deserve to be rich and the rest of us deserve the pittance wages they pay.

If we want to survive as an educational institution, we will have to keep renorming.  We'll have to find a way to provide education in the most affordable manner for today's students.  We'll have to make more financial aid available to them.  We will need to meet them where they are and remake ourselves in the form of service that is suited to our Servant Lord and to building a servant people.

So thanks be to God for both Bruce Grady and David Forbes.  May their leadership and ministry flourish in new roles, and may we see the signs of the Reign of God all around our distinguished, historic, and innovating Shaw University Divinity School.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Our Anniversary, a Day to Remember That There Is Good in the World

A year ago I sat at a dinner table with Everly, David, Naomi, and Lydia.  There was a bouquet of flowers from the children to honor the occasion.  Everly and I were sharing our 33rd wedding anniversary.  We had been busy all day at the beach and looking around in Cozumel.  Back on the ship for dinner, we were having a good time and happy to be together.  I toasted the evening and said to all our Broadways gathered that night, "It's been thirty-three great years, and we will do this again thirty-three years from now for our 66th anniversary."

It was a joyful time, even though Everly was struggling with back pain and other cancer pain.  We were together with our three children for this vacation on the cruise ship, just the way Everly liked--there was no planning of meals or preparing and cleaning them up, no driving or finding hotels.  We just moved in for the week, slept when we wanted, ate the food, toured as desired, and relaxed.

Through her long illness, I tended to hang on to any optimism that I could.  I kept up my hopes, and on our anniversary I focused on the possibilities for managing cancer and living a long time.  In fewer than two months, she would die.  But at that point, I was pushing the idea of having 33 more years together.  As it turns out, we are stuck with only 33.  The rest of the years are what might have been.

So today, I am looking back across many anniversaries.  Because the recent history of dealing with cancer still looms so large, memories of many of those days do not seem so clear.  For our 20th anniversary, we took our first cruise.  It was on a small cruise ship and lasted four days.  Everly and I relaxed together and did some touring to ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.  On our 13th anniversary, I passed my dissertation defense to complete my doctoral studies.  When I got home to bask in that moment, I received a call offering me my first job as a professor, a one-semester sabbatical replacement at Elon College, just down the road a ways from Durham.  That was a day to remember. 

On our second anniversary, in California, we took a weekend trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we stayed in a bed and breakfast and enjoyed the beauty of the village.  Our first anniversary was a day spent at Pier 39 in San Francisco, discovering a little kiosk called "Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chippery," which was getting ready to expand to be a huge national chain.

That first anniversary was, of course, one year after two very young people, practically still kids, had mustered up the courage to make commitments to one another to "let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor."  We promised to share our whole selves and whatever possessions we might have or acquire.  We gazed into one another's eyes, surrounded by an unfaithful world where people seldom keep their commitments, and promised unending faithfulness to one another and to the God we both serve.  We received the encouragement and embrace of God's people, the church, to help us live up to these commitments we made to one another.  And we never looked back.

On that day, the potentiality of a loving, caring home began to take shape.  It was six years later, back in Texas, that our love for one another and for God was enlarged to include a tiny baby boy.  That treasure came just days before our anniversary.  Then every three years another child arrived, fairly close to our anniversary day, until we had received the blessing of the three beautiful children who have now grown into their own adulthood.  That wonderful uniting of two lives to make a home has borne fruit in these beautiful people--David, Naomi, and Lydia.  Were Everly and I not able to accomplish any other good things, we could be satisfied to see so much goodness come into the world as these three people bring every day.

I faced this day with some trepidation.  A day for good memories is now also a day to be reminded of the depth of my loss.  The anniversary date returns, but the life together is no longer what it was.  I got some good advice to seek out some friends who would be understanding of how this day matters and affects me, and ask them to spend part of the day with me.  So I called one buddy to meet me for breakfast, since we were already working on getting together.  The middle of the day was teaching a class, and I could press through that responsibility without much difficulty, mixing in a reflection on Everly and this day as appropriate.  Then after class, my friends Willie and Jay hung out with me for the afternoon and evening. 

There were extra blessings of phone calls from family and friends, texts and messages of support.  What had seemed would be a very rough day turned out to flow along smoothly.  My boat was buoyed by the love and support of others.  I didn't sink.  I kept on sailing through.  There were tears at times, some moments of heartache, some times of feeling deep love, and all the kinds of emotions that one might expect.  But no great wave of sadness swept over me.  There was sadness, but not despair.  I made it through the hardest "first" yet. 

This will be, I think, a difficult two months.  From this time last year and on through July, the news was never quite good news.  There was still hope that a new treatment regime might put us back on a track toward shrinking the tumors.  There was encouragement that radiation could make the increased back pain go away.  There were possibilities that continued to keep me as busy as necessary to facilitate Everly's seeing the doctors and going to the clinics where we hoped to find help.  But finally in early July, the possibilities began to disappear, and eventually only one likely outcome remained.  The shift from medical intervention to hospice care came suddenly, and she only lived a week beyond that change.  So the milestones coming back around at this time of year are not necessarily the ones I would wish to be remembering.  Even so, I need to live through them reflectively and receptively with eyes and ears for what I need to understand about those whirlwind days of 2013.

I know that the conventional wisdom says to try to remember the joyful happy times and not only the sad and painful times.  I get that.  I don't really need people to be reminding me of it.  I have not forgotten the beautiful, pleasant, joyful, contented times of living with Everly.  But I also cannot deny the pain of those days when hope for recovery turned to hope for relief and ultimately to hope for release from all her suffering.  Hope never died, but we had to learn to hope in new ways.  Just like I wrote about her dad, she had fought the good fight.  She had run the race and finished the course.  She could now receive the crown of righteousness that her virtuous life had earned, that Jesus had provided by grace. 

So I can remember all these things.  But especially this first year, I also must remember and reflect on the days which were passing so rapidly, so filled with frustration and questions, too dense for full understanding while we were in the midst of them.  Days that for me might have seemed full of anticipation for a turn toward the better were the very days in which she was not getting better.  She had some sense that her end was coming, even though she was determined not to give up.  I was less aware, or less ready to see the signs.  She was weakening fast, and I was still grasping at potential remedies.  All too soon, her struggle became too great to bear.  Remembering this is also a good thing.  It is an honoring of her whole life.  I'll not deny the strength and courage she showed as the disease slowly took away her capacities to live with the vigor she had always known.  They were days of struggle, days of loving, days of intimate conversations, days of grace upon grace.

How many people get 33 years to share a good life together?  Not nearly enough, if that life can have the kinds of joys that Everly and I were able to share.  So this date on the calendar, May 24, will remain a day to mark what is good in the world.  A young singer, Marc Scibilia, penned some lyrics that touched me deeply when I first heard them about a year ago, just before our cruise.  Is it a great song?  Maybe not, but it does speak a clear truth about how one ought to face the vicissitudes of existence.  Find the good, and hold onto it with all you've got.
It takes a lot of time.
There's so much you've got to leave behind.
But hold it like a treasure if you can find
Something good in this world,
Something good in this world.

There's so much hard earth to dig
In these days of curse that we live.
I'm absolutely sure that in the midst,
There's something good in this world.
There's something good in this world.

And life will try to take
Your innocence and your grace.
But no matter what comes to your door,
You've got to keep looking
For something good in this world.
As long as a memory of Everly remains in me, I will never doubt that there is something good in this world.  She is the treasure to which I hold, the one I found to be the good worth living for and even giving myself up for.  I'll let nothing take that from me.  Today is a good day, a reminder that there's something good in this world, and I have known her.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Family Memories of Herbie

Since Herbie's funeral on May 10, not quite two weeks ago, I've spent lots of days either driving or trying to get over a really bad sinus cold.  There has been lots to think about, with Herbie's passing, my kids starting to make plans to scatter around to different states, and the tenth month since Everly died.  I've meant to write, but the time has simply not been right for getting it done.  So now that I've got a minute and I'm catching my breath, it's starting to flow.

After Herbie's funeral in Houston, the family that was available gathered for a meal and conversations.  We enjoyed the time together, and it ended fairly quickly as we all started to leave Houston to get back to our homes stretching across Texas and Mississippi.  I was blessed to have all three of my children to ride with me back to Austin and Salado.

They started off telling stories about Grandpa Herbie.  There were various stories about riding and driving the golf cart.  Apparently Herbie was not a model instructor for driving the cart.  Lydia in particular, but all of the kids, noted that he would drive directly toward an obstacle, such as a tree, as if to run into it, then at the last second steer suddenly to avoid the crash.  Herbie never tired of the same routine, and David said that when he let them drive, they did not know any other way except to go fast and make sharp, sudden turns.  Once, he says, he was driving and found himself about to steer them down a steep hill, and Herbie had to intervene to avoid a bad crash.  Although they were not "allowed" to drive the golf cart, they all had their turns.  When Herbie's back got so bad that he couldn't enjoy playing golf any longer, he sold the golf cart.  That was, for all the kids, a very sad event that meant the end of one of their favorite Grandpa activities.

They also remembered various games he would play with them.  David emphasized the "sack o' taters" game which involved throwing the kid over his shoulder and carrying him or her around, calling the kid a sack of taters.  Then equally abruptly, he would toss the kid off his shoulder and onto the couch or the bed.  I recall this game from my childhood and from playing it with my kids, but it was Herbie that played it ad infinitum.  As I mention below in the remarks, there was a game called "couch" that involved sitting on the kids, a game of pillow baseball in the living room, and lots more roughhousing.  "Toast" was a game much like couch, and we are all a bit puzzled by what the name was supposed to mean.  I think it probably had something to do with how toast pops up out of the toaster, and the kids were trying to pop up while being held down by Herbie. 

They remembered with their cousin Kenny that Herbie would grab them when they walked by.  Kenny would intentionally go by Herbie's chair to incite him to grab him with his legs, as pincers.  Naomi remembered doing that as well.  I can imagine my little ones grinning, walking by slowly, terrified and hopeful all at once that Herbie would grab them and cause and outpouring of giggling.  As Emily emphasized, Herbie loved to tease her in whatever way would create the most distressful fun for the two of them.

These stories went on for some time.  It makes me realize that their memories of Herbie are of active fun times.  They remember going to the swimming pool at the clubhouse in Country Place, where Herb and Marie retired.  They remember going to NASA repeatedly and seeing the rockets and spaceships and the places where Herbie worked.  And they remember slowly outgrowing the roughhousing kind of play, so that visiting Herb and Marie involved a different kind of enjoyment, including going to CiCi's Pizza, which Herb liked at least as much as the kids did.

Eventually, my kids returned to a familiar conversation about all the terrible foods I made them eat when they were growing up.  Nancy Bumgardner says any time that at least three of her kids are together at her house, they start in on the same thing.  Everly and Eric and Ruth did the same about their parents.  Jerene and I do it, too.  Parents are so mean and hateful, and it's great fun to act that way.  We secretly know they love us more than they resent us.  It was a good ride home with my beloved chirrens.

To shift back in time a little, the last time I sat for a conversation with Herbie, he had a lot to say.  In the last months, it was sometimes a struggle to figure out his words.  Once in a while, he seemed to be talking about a world that was not quite the same one his listener could see.  But other times, it was just the difficulty speaking after the stroke.  On this occasion, I concluded that he was talking to me about how he started to be called by his official birth certificate name, Herbert.

I have been told that when Herbie was a boy, he decided that he wanted to be called Billy.  His real name, Herbert Spencer Estes, seemed to him to be an embarrassing name for a kid.  He wanted to be an athlete, a cool guy, so he chose a name suited to his preferred identity.  Apparently he was called Billy all the way through high school.  Later in life, when he would return to Port Arthur where he grew up, if someone referred to him as Herbert Estes, his old friends did not know who people were talking about, until someone said, "You know:  Billy."

On that day when I sat with Herbie, he was telling me that he did not go by Herbert until he joined the Army.  As we would know, the Army would call him by his official name.  So he was Herbert S. Estes to the Army.  Now Herbie was known for being hard-headed, independent, and not very keen on being told what to do.  Most of us who have heard something about being an enlisted member of the Army know that these are not the characteristics most cultivated among privates and foot soldiers.  So as Herbie told me that day, the Sergeant was often calling out his name.  He said the Sergeant gave him speeches most every day about how he should behave as opposed to Herb's tendency toward being rebellious and independent. 

Herb says he came to go by his birth name because of the daily speeches from the Sergeant.  And he added a bit of information that the family may not have known.  He said the Sergeant called him by his full name with the middle initial.  But he changed the middle initial a bit for emphasis.  Herb said the Sergeant called him "Herbert Ass Estes."  I'm sure it made him mad back when it was going on.  Or maybe he laughed inwardly way back then in the same way he chuckled to tell me the story a couple months ago.  From Billy to Herb and Herbie, via a loud-mouthed Sergeant calling him Herbert Ass Estes every day.  That's a funny story of how he learned to accept his name.

I'm sure I could think of plenty more stories about Herb if I kept at it.  But let that be enough, with the addition of the ones the family shared with me to tell at his funeral.  I wish I had the remarks of two other friends, Larry McSpadden and Coach Newcomb, who really had all of us laughing with the typical antics of our beloved Herbie.  If I get those later, I'll post them.  In the meantime, here are my remarks from his funeral.

Herbert Estes was a man who made an impact in the world.  Much of that impact came through his family.  As I looked at the collection of photos from that his daughter Ruth put together for us to view.  I noticed the inward strength, even swagger, that the young man Herbie displayed, or should I say “Billy,” (his chosen name when in his younger years he preferred not to be known as Herbert). He gave the appearance of a man in control.

It was an independent streak that remained visible throughout his life.  Herb had confidence in his intellect and his strength to be able to do whatever he set out to do.  An athlete, an exceptionally careful and clear thinker, Herbie was not waiting for others to tell him how things are or how they should be.  Ruthie says that he passed this characteristic on to his children.  He let her know that she should stand up for herself, whether it be in so small a matter as getting the order right at a restaurant, or in dealing with a teacher or supervisor whom she felt had been unfair.  Ruthie says she thinks Everly, above all, learned this characteristic from him.

Herbie liked to do things his way, and the children had to learn the way to influence him.  Everly said they had to make a case for how buying shoes or an outfit at this particular time was going to be a big savings over waiting until later.  If they could make it through his third degree, they could usually purchase their desired item.  Otherwise, it was back to the drawing board to try again another day.   

On Sundays, the kids loved to get to eat at the cafeteria.  But Herbie was strict in his requirements.  If the line had reached a certain length, they would not be able to eat there.  The kids would hope and pray for church to let out on time, and hope for no traffic, and then one kid scout would be sent inside to check the line length.  Sometimes, they had to drive on to the hamburger joint which was the backup.  If they were blessed to get to go to the cafeteria, they obeyed strict rules about drinking water and not the colored fruity drinks.

When Herbie started to face living his life with heart disease, he did not let it simply defeat him.  He took on the best available science of diet that medicine could offer in each era.  That, as we know, changes about every decade.  But Herb eventually harnessed some dietary strictures along with exercise and reduced his weight, and probably also lengthened his life.  He would have a big bag of some food--it might be bread, or celery, or popcorn--when he sat down to watch a ballgame, and he would say, “I can eat all of this I want.”  So he would eat, and stay with his diet, and it did all the rest of us good to change some of our habits, too.

Ruth mentions how she came to realized how brilliant Herbie really was.  It happened when she was a college student and was struggling with a physics class.  Herbie told her to bring her textbook and work home for the weekend to see if he could help.  She says Herb took her textbook and looked it over for about an hour.  Then, for the time they had available, he worked through all of her assignments, tutoring her through the entire course.  It only took him an hour of refreshing his memory to get her through college physics.

Marie remembers him as a good husband in so many ways, always providing for the family and making time to be with them.  She says he was always so proud of each of his kids.  All three are like him in many ways.  All have good mathematical minds and have applied their abilities in different fields of work successfully.  I have also watched Marie shake her head when she talks about his efforts to keep the cars and the house in good repair.  I must say that in many ways it was Herb who inspired me to try to work on household repairs and car maintenance.  And I sympathize with him in having worked on a project only to find that my efforts did not achieve the goal.  

Now I can’t say that I have ever put my foot through the ceiling while working in the attic, something Herbie did more than once.  And I don’t remember ever finishing a project on the car only to find several remaining pieces I had somehow not reinstalled.  Everly says she remembers him methodically taking apart the car engine, placing nuts and bolts and parts in little paper lunch bags, arrayed around him in the garage.  As she remembered it, usually there was a bag of parts left over after he had put things back together.  Surely she exaggerates, but maybe not too much.  I never had that happen, but probably it is because I did not try to do such ambitious projects.  Herbie believed he could figure out how to fix most things and saw no reason to pay an exorbitant fee to someone who might do no better than he could do himself.  Then again, the story of the Volkswagen bug headed down the street with the engine on fire is still a cautionary tale.  As I said, Marie shakes her head.

And Marie was often heard to say, “Herbie, you are worse than the kids!”  Herbie loved to play.  He loved sports play, he loved board game or card play, he loved roughhouse play, and he loved teasing play.  One game he played with his grandkids was called “Couch.”  In this game, he would find a kid sitting or lying on the couch, then sit down on the kid.  When David or Naomi or Lydia tried to get up or escape, he would hold them in place and say, “Couch. What’s wrong?  Why won’t you be still?  Couches aren’t supposed to move.”  They would play baseball with the pillows and chair cushions, eventually knocking over a lamp or decorative item.  “Herbie, you are worse than the kids!”  She would shake her head.  

Herbie enjoyed being with kids.  I remember when I was first getting to know the family, there were always several more kids around the house than just the three Estes kids.  Herbie liked having them around.  The family would make popcorn often in the evening, play games, watch a ball game, and the more the merrier.

Emily says Herbie showed his love through mischief.  He would steal her prize possession, her stuffed bunny rabbit, whenever he got a chance.  She would spend what seemed hours searching for it so she could go to bed.  She tried preemptively hiding bunny rabbit from him, but usually he would find her hiding place and rehide the rabbit.  It kept her on edge, this constant battle of teasing and mischief, of getting her feet tickled, of playing roughhouse games.   

Kenny learned that when he walked by Herbie sitting in a chair, Herb would reach out and grab him, often locking him between his two legs.  Kenny would try hard to get away, and eventually when he did, he would come right back because he also knew what Emily said.  Herbie’s mischievous play was his way of showing love by sharing a good time and laugh with his grandkids as much as possible.

He loved kids athletics, and that meant being involved with Everly's and Eric's, and maybe Ruth's (although she can't remember that) Little League efforts as well as any other kids in the neighborhood or church group that needed a Dad around.  Ruth says he would go gather up her friends for sports or church or whatever.  He liked being around kids, and especially liked ball games.  Many of us know the rumor that circulated that Marie and Herb must be having marital problems because the gossip columnist of the neighborhood paper kept seeing him alone at the little league park.  But it was just his enthusiasm for games, sports, and kids.   

He loved watching Emily play softball.  She says he was her biggest fan.  But Herbie would wander off from her game if she was not playing or it got uninteresting.  John said they had to make sure he wore a brightly colored shirt so they could find him among the fans at the multiple ball diamonds where they would play.  He was an independent soul.

Eventually, as Herbie had to give up some of his hopes for becoming a champion golfer, and as he had already far outlived his life expectations after three heart surgeries and a carotid artery blockage, Herbie again adjusted his diet.  Ice cream became the priority.  And chocolate.  He was going to enjoy his last years eating stuff that he had avoided for so long.  Kenny remembers when Herbie fell in the kitchen with a broken hip; he was lying on the floor waiting for the EMS to arrive.  Kenny went to sit with him.  What did this injured man want to talk about?  Herbie told Kenny to go get him some chocolate nuggets to eat while he was waiting.  When the family went on a cruise to the Panama Canal, Kenny and Herbie made four trips a day to the deck where the free ice cream cones were.  It was special Grandpa time for Kenny, and all you can eat ice cream for Herbie.  He was enjoying his final years.

Herbie loved Marie.  Before they were dating, she had heard that he was not the best behaved young man.  But after his army service, when he went back to college with a new seriousness, he set his eyes on her.  His sister Ruth remembers his coming home from a date with Marie, saying, “I just went out with a woman who could be Miss America!”  He loved her from the beginning to the end.  He depended on her in so many ways.  In his hard struggle this last year, when he felt most distressed or alone, he ultimately would call out “Marie!"  He called her name because he knew she was his rock and his shelter.   

We all miss him.

Grimacing While Running Life's Race, Finishing Life's Course, Wearing a Crown of Victory

It's been nineteen days since Herbert S. Estes died, late in the evening in his bed, with Ruth and two nurses present, on May 4, 2014.  He struggled a bit with his final breaths, fighting down to the end.  Was he feeling pain from his heart or his breathing?  We really don't know, but it would not be surprising if there was some pain.  Although he had not struggled with the same kind of pain that his daughter Everly did last year, as tumors did their damage to her backbone, liver, and other places, he had endured pain in his body as the brain, nerves, and muscles stopped working as they should.  His many years of heart and arterial disease had also given him pain, off and on.  It could have been a bit of angina that he felt in those closing minutes.  There was a grimace.  It's stuck in Ruthie's memory.  She hopes he was not hurting too bad as he left us.

But the grimace could also be the grimace of a competitor.  Herbie's decline was exacerbated by his loss of hearing and his loss of vision.  Both of these were indirectly related to his heart and artery disease, with other complicating factors.  Not seeing clearly, and not hearing very much, he was often confined to a world all his own, an inward looking life of memories and imagination.  Through the last year of his life, there were times most every day when he seemed to be in another place from where the others in the room were. 

Sometimes he felt the need to protect the family and himself from potential dangers.  In those cases, we were reminded of his athletic body, because he could grab one of our hands or arms and hold and pull with great strength.  He still had that grip strength even on May 4.  Other times, quite often in fact, he was at some kind of contest.  It seemed that it might be a track meet.  He would talk about running a race, and about trying to win.  This race, this competition, easily slipped over in our imaginations to be a kind of metaphor for his struggle to live and to come to the end of his life. 

The imagery that Paul the Apostle uses in his writings as he approached his death was present in our thinking.  In Corinthians he wrote about training to run, and running in a way that one can win.  In Galatians and Philippians he wrote about hoping that his running would not be in vain.  To friends in Ephesus, Acts tells us that he hoped to finish his course.  He urged Timothy to train, and in his last letter to Timothy announced that he had finished his race.  Everly's favorite verses come from Paul's letter to the Philippians, and they also contain this imagery of pressing on toward the mark.  We can't be sure that we knew everything going on in Herbie's mind, but we have strong belief that he was through memory and imagination running a race to win.

Running a race to win can mean trying to keep strong and keep going as long as possible.  So a grimace can be part of the evidence of a runner giving it all he's got to keep going and stay ahead of the competition.  Unless my imagination is way off track, I think it is at least partly true that Herbie's grimace, on many days, and on May 4, was the grimace of a competitor, a runner, striving to win a race. 

There is ambiguity in Paul's imagery about the race, and it is inherent in the concept of a race.  On one hand, there is the struggle and effort to be ahead.  Someone else is always running along behind, maybe closing the gap of the leader, pushing to get ahead.  Then there is the end of the race when the winner is decided.  Being ahead, winning, during the course of the race, is not yet a victory.  That's why there is a constant striving.

Who were Herbie's competitors?  I think of it as the various illnesses of his heart, arteries, brain, muscles, blood, etc.  He was struggling to stay ahead of their diabolical progress to consume and defeat him.  He was trying to keep himself present, out ahead of their threatening and damaging progress.  He was fighting the good fight. 

Sometimes Herbie did think he was in a fight.  It was heartbreaking for Ruth, Marie, and others who would be in the room with him when he mistook them for a threatening presence.  It was not all the time, but it was a regular thing that happened.  This fighting was to the family a sign of his suffering, his discomfort with the remains of his life.  Being so isolated by bodily weakness, lack of vision, and lack of hearing, he felt threatened.  We fear he even felt alone at times. 

Of course, that is not so different from anyone's struggle with terminal illness.  Everly only briefly struggled with that kind of mental isolation for a couple of weeks while she was in the hospital in April 2012.  The combination of advanced tumor growth, too strong a dose of chemotherapy drugs, and pain medications put her out of her usual consciousness.  But even after that short episode, the experience of her cancer often made her feel alone.  Inability to sleep, inability to work, struggling with maintaining a body under attack, always hurting somewhere, long nights awake--all of these were isolating experiences.  In that way, Herbie's acting out of his frustrations and isolation is part of what many people suffer as they approach the end of their days.  Herbie felt alone, but his family made Herculean efforts to reassure him of their presence and love, and he clearly knew that up until the very end.

Herbie, like Paul, could say,
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-9, NRSV).
I mentioned it in my last post, but I want to close with quoting the full remarks of my niece, Emily Finkelstine, which are relevant to this point.
After Herbie’s worst stroke, I found myself wondering a lot why God would allow the end of his life to be so full of pain and confusion. My reasoning was that if God works for the good of those who love Him and God works for His glory to be seen in the world, then at least one of those things should be evident and visible in suffering, and I couldn’t see it. But eventually, I saw the glory. I saw it in the unbreakable bonds of familial love…in the way that Granny Ree and my mom and the whole family cared for him and watched over him, even on the hardest days. And most of all, I saw it in the way that even when Herbie knew nothing else, he still knew the name of Jesus and he sure still knew how to sing hymns, nice and loud and off-key and full of praise.
I used to pray for freedom for Herbie a lot, whether that meant miraculous healing, returning home to Jesus, or even just having the knowledge that his soul was free in Christ even as his mind and body were held relatively captive here. It wasn’t until I moved back into the house after my freshman year of college that I realized Herbie shared my prayer; he would often cry out for freedom and for victory. So, as difficult as it is to say goodbye, I know that he has those things now. I know that he is free and that he is reveling in the blessings of Christ’s victory over death. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Herbert S. Estes, My Father-in-Law

Sunday we sat vigil as Herbie's heart raced to maintain his weakened body in the last stages of his struggle.  The signals he gave us were ambiguous.  We thought he might be about to die, but that thought has arisen across decades, only to have Herbie rise up to defeat the odds.  But this time was to be the last battle.  He clinched his fists throughout the day.  Now and then he pushed and pulled his arms when he felt the need to struggle.  Mostly he rested calmly.  He listened to the loving words of his family and the nurses who were caring for him.  He listened to hymns, and even seemed to join the song once or twice.  He heard the words of scripture read to him.  He lay peacefully as we gathered for prayer through the day.

Finally, he gritted his teeth one last time.  Ruth, his daughter, once again assured him that it was all right for him to go.  He had lived a good life.  He had loved his wife and children well.  They would look out for one another after he would be gone.  So it was all right for him to let go and enter into the arms of God.  He breathed his last breaths, and his pain and struggle ended.  With tears of grief and thanks, we offered praise to God for the gift of this good man and for the end of his frustrations and suffering.

I first met Herb Estes when I was 18, invited by Everly for a gathering of Baylor sudents in the Houston area during our winter break.  In the three-plus years that I was courting Everly at Baylor, I had many more opportunities to visit her family and get to know him.  One of the first things I that was obvious was his comfort and enjoyment at being around children and young people.

An odd thing to note is that Everly and her siblings, as well as all the kids who showed up at their house most every day, called him Herbie and called Everly's mom Ree, short for Marie.  Everly, Eric, and Ruth had picked it up from all the other kids.  Herb and Marie were strong supporters of the youth ministry at church and in the community, and they allowed the first name familiarity with those young people.  Since everyone else was calling them Ree and Herbie, their own children took up those names as well.  So have all the rest of us.

Herbie was an engineer, trained in mechanical engineering.  He was gifted at "figgerin'," at analyzing how things work.  As a boy, he liked to make up games involving thinking and math.  His father loved to talk about the games Herbie made up, and he always insisted they should have gotten them copyrighted so they could have sold them and made lots of money.  Herbie loved all kinds of games, but especially the ones that involved math or complicated strategy.  He would figure out a game fairly quickly.  Once he figured out the key elements of a game, the rest of us were pretty unlikely to ever win again.

Of course, many games have elements of chance built in to make sure that no single strategy can dominate.  For that reason, I could occasionally win a game of backgammon.  In some games, like Texas 42, I often insisted on certain "table rules" to try to handicap Herbie's capacity to find an exotic path to victory.  Usually, this did not help the rest of us have a chance.  I never learned to play bridge, but Herbie was a master of the game.  He played with other rocket scientists.  He played online and in local bridge clubs and leagues.  And he almost always ended up a champion.

Herbie loved sports, too.  He played guard in football, and was known for his speed as a pulling blocker.  Not only did he play in high school at Port Arthur Thomas Jefferson, he also played on the college team at Lamar.  Of course, football is not a lifelong sport.  Herbie played whatever sort of game he could, and for lifelong skill development and fitness he took up golf and tennis.

Tennis was the game of his brother-in-law, Henry Parrish, a champion at many age levels throughout his life.  Golf was the game Herbie tried to master, hoping eventually to play on the Senior Professional tour.  Back injuries and pain eventually took that game away from him.   When he was younger, he coached kids in Little League Baseball.  Everly remembers being on a team when she was very young.  He also tried to get her started in tennis.  But she was just not interested in playing sports.  Eric and Ruth both took up sports for enjoyment.

Not only was Herbie good at games and sports; he was also a fierce competitor.  Sometimes this made it hard in the family for playing games.  The kids remember feeling they did not have much of a chance of becoming good enough to compete with him.  He encouraged them to learn to play their best.  Herbie was hard-headed about many things, including about sports.  He was not popular with the umpires down at the Little League diamond, often pressing his disagreements through long arguments.  It was his passion for seeing the games played well and played right that drove him.

We all sometimes get carried away concerning things we care about.  Let there be no doubt that Herbie cared about kids, about the joy of athletic activity and achievement, and about doing one's best.  He did not have much interest in halfway doing things that he loved.  There was a time, after his own children were too old for Little League, that Herbie still could be found at the neighborhood kids' baseball games on many nights.  Rumors began to spread that Herb and Marie were having marital problems, since he was spending this time away from home in the evenings.  Of course, it was not true.  He simply loved young people and sports, and Marie had no such interest in going down to the ballpark night after night.  She had other things to work on and do.

Herbie started out studying at the prominent engineering school, Texas A&M, where he was required to be part of the military-style corps.  But Herbie had a powerful independent streak in him.  He liked to think for himself.  He liked to have good reasons for what he did.  He did not like anyone telling him he had to do anything.  As Everly told it to me, Herbie could not stand "playing army" in the corps.  So he left A&M, and soon he was drafted to serve in the army.

After two years of service, he returned home to start back to college, more serious and committed to his education.  He majored in mechanical engineering and mathematics.  During this time he courted and married Marie Weaver, a member of his home church who had been taken under wing by his mother.  They began building a marriage and started a home that lasted for over 58 years.  He became a bright young graduate and got recruited into the aerospace industry, into a new branch of engineering.

First he worked for Convair in Ft. Worth.  There, he and Marie met many of their lifelong friends, some of whom were seminary students preparing for ministry.  Everly was born during this time.  Soon he was hired away by Martin-Marietta in Denver.  Eric and Ruth were born during the Colorado sojourn.  One favorite family activity is pulling out the letters Marie exchanged with Herb's mother, Palmer, faithfully reporting on the young family that had moved so far away.

Eventually, Herbie got the opportunity to join NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  The family settled in Sagemont, a new suburban housing development in southwest Houston.  There they stayed until his retirement, thirty years later.  They raised three wonderful children, and supported and served in the work of three different churches over the years.  Herbie worked on the Apollo project, focusing his mathematical calculations on how to get the spaceship to the Moon.  He said that once it got there, it was someone else's job to get it back home to Earth.

He was from the slide rule generation of engineers.  He had already been working for a long time before computer programming became an important part of his work.  He learned some basics of programming to be able to do his job, but during the last decade of his career he said that the new computer programming languages were changing so fast that the older engineers simply learned to depend on the newly hired computer science graduates to cover that part of their work.  That left Herb the job of solving the big problems that the crunched data helped him analyze.

He later was involved extensively in the design of the Space Shuttle.  During those years, he traveled regularly to southern California to work with partners at Rockwell who were building the spaceship.  One of his brightest bridge partners was an engineer from Rockwell named Fuk Ing.  No joke.  Everyone had that reaction, too.  But Herb and Fuk were unbeatable at bridge.  Once the Space Shuttle program got through its testing phases and started conducting space missions, Herb's work was done.

He spent the last few years of his career working on one of the most difficult problems still remaining for human space exploration and science near Earth:  the debris problem.  Finding, identifying, sizing, tracking, and predicting the movements of thousands of pieces of debris in orbit is a critical task to prevent damage to expensive equipment and priceless human beings working in space.  But Herb was happy to retire.  He loved doing his work, but he loved his time with family, playing golf, and getting to do things he had been to busy for before.

Herbie wanted to travel when he retired.  He was at first very ambitious, talking about buying an RV and simply going on a several-year adventure.  Marie did not share his enthusiasm for being thoroughly uprooted, so they settled in a retirement community in Pearland where he could play golf every day, play bridge, and stay in touch with friends.  During those years, they hosted their grandchildren for summer vacations, made several trips with tour groups and friends, and enjoyed visits from their children and their families whenever possible.

Herb had struggled with heart disease since he was young, having multiple bypass surgeries three times, beginning at age 43.  He was one of the star cases for the pioneering Houston based DeBakey cardiology practice, one of their longest surviving success stories.  Later, the artery blockages affected his hearing and eyesight, making life more difficult for Herb.  Not hearing and seeing well, he stayed busy with online bridge and backgammon tournaments and managing his retirement account and stock portfolio online.

From the time I met Herbie, he was always working on a system, an algorithm, a trick to beat the stock market.  He was convinced there was a way to win, and he was mostly very successful.  When he got very interested in technical analysis of stocks, I found myself not understanding more often than understanding what he was doing.  But it was one of our more enjoyable topics of conversation over the years, talking about what he was trying to do with his stocks.

Herbie drew me into his life in many ways.  We were always welcome at his home to eat, to visit, to stay, to watch a ball game, and to play games together.  He would take me, always a duffer, to play golf every time I would visit.  We would talk about the family and the work that each of us was doing.  We would talk about our churches.

Herbie was not one to take his faith at face value.  He intended to understand what he believed.  If he thought someone was teaching without careful thinking involved, he would not accept it.  As an engineer, he was probably tempted to try too hard to overcome mysteries and figure out God's inner workings.  He would rather have it all nailed down.  But even with that tendency, Herbie never seemed to me to close off considering another idea. 

When Everly and I were in our early 20s, we had moved to California for my seminary education and joined a church in the heart of San Francisco.  Not long after we joined the church, everything was thrown into uproar as the members began an argument, a process, a time of study on the church and homosexuality.  It was not a brand new question, but it was not yet widely discussed in 1980.  During the intensity of that period, Herbie came to visit us and went to church with us.  I might have feared he would have been aghast and condemnatory toward us for being in this situation.  Instead, he listened intently and raised reasonable questions, talking through the theological and biblical ideas that were floating around from the more traditional heritage and the more innovative reflections.

In this way, I felt that Herbie was always ready to consider theological ideas if I was ready to offer reasoned conversation about them.  Simply putting an idea out there as if there were no other possible conclusion would never fly with Herb.  But just because an idea was new or different from his previous thinking, that would not stop him from giving it honest consideration.  He always respected the learning I had, but he never assumed I was going to be right all the time.  When I was invited to preach at Everly's home church in Houston, I preached from Galatians about being set free in Christ.  I talked about a human longing for freedom.  Herb challenged me after the sermon, suggesting that it might be more accurate to say that humans long for security primarily, not freedom.  He wanted to know why I took the position I had taken.

In recent years, when I was deeply involved in theological reflection on the economy, he took a great interest in that as well.  Like many of his generation, he was influenced by conservative politics and their concomitant economics.  But he never dismissed my work.  He wanted to know why and how we came to take certain positions.  He was a good conversation partner on economics.  And he seemed often to come to agree with the proposals that I and my organizing partners were putting forward.

Whenever Herbie had been hospitalized for heart surgery or other reasons, he was not a good patient.  Remember I said that he was fiercely independent.  He did not like doctors and nurses telling him what he had to do.  He did not like being hooked up to machines and confined to a bed.  He would plot to gain his freedom.  He would jerk the breathing tube out of his own throat.  He would pressure his family to sneak him out of the hospital.  He may be the worst patient I've ever known.  And the key issue is that Herbie wanted to decide for himself what he was going to do.  He wanted to be independent, free.

Herb's health continued to decline for several years before he died.  There were Parkinson's-like symptoms, continuing arterial and heart issues, and a host of ailments.  As Herbie grew weaker, had a stroke, had trouble communicating, and was unable to do things for himself, he expressed his wish to not continue living under these conditions.  He was heartbroken to watch his oldest child, Everly, die before her time when he believed it should have been him to go first.  Yet he did continue to live, surviving crisis after crisis. 

He was very concerned that he had made provision for Marie and his children.  He wanted to be sure that he had done all that he should have done.  So you could say he lived with two drives.  One was that he wanted to make sure his family was taken care of.  The other was that he not have to continue living such a diminished life.  These two seemed to be in conflict with one another.  I sometimes wonder if another passion was at work--his competitiveness.  Was he simply not willing to let the sickness win the battle?  Was he fighting and unwilling to give up, even against his own expressed willingness to leave this life?  I can't say for sure.  But it does fit with his character in a way.

During the last months of his life, he was not always a good patient, in character with his past.  When he did not have the strength to get out of bed on his own, he would shout, "Freedom!" over and over again.  Other times he would shout, "Victory!"  He was fighting to win a contest, and he shouted out his desire.  We puzzled about it, but knew he hated not being able to get up and do what he wanted to do. 

His granddaughter Emily noted that he did not like being confined in a weak and uncooperative body, and that all his shouts of "Freedom!" and "Victory!" have finally found their fulfillment.  He is no longer limited by his declining health.  He has taken off the perishable and put on the imperishable.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  Free at last, he is no longer stuck in the bed unable to do what he wants.  He has been crucified with Christ; nevertheless, he lives.  He is united to Jesus in the resurrection.  There is no doubt that he, like the Lord Jesus, loved the ones God has given him, and he loved them until the end. 

Friday, May 02, 2014

Wendell Berry's Inquiries into Whiteness and It's Inherent Wounds

I'm going to analyze some thoughts from Wendell Berry's reflections on race.  It is a complicated book, and as he admits, not finally very satisfying to him or to the reader.  But before I get started, I want to comment on some of the impetus that led me to pull out the book and finish it.  I had started reading it over a decade ago, but put it away after a few sittings because the framing of the issues was too painful for me.  But with many years passed, I have worked through some of those hard questions and realities.  I found myself this time more ready to push through his process.  But first, why did I pick it up?

A few days ago I was thinking through some of the burdens that have weighed on me in my middle adult years.  Some of them go back to a church crisis when my family and other white people entered into conflict over the relevance of race for congregational life, and particularly whether it was appropriate for a traditionally all-white church to assume, even to prefer, that blacks not be part of their church if their presence means changes in the programs, worship, and habits of the congregation.  Some other burdens go back to workplace struggles and experiences of betrayal as colleagues set their faces against one another.  I did not come out of any of these experiences unscathed.  And I don't mean to say that I was a passive recipient of the conflicts.  I was in the middle of them, and certainly I deserve some blame for the way that things went.

It occurred to me that in my more recent struggle of grief, I have been very public and open about the wounds I have suffered through the illness, death, and loss of Everly.  My friend Willie Jennings, who listened and walked beside me in all of these struggles, has often urged me to write the story of my church's conflict over race.  It was two decades ago now.  I have told a version of the story in face-to-face gatherings, leaving out names to avoid demonizing people.  Sometimes, after this many years, I can tell the story without breaking down in tears, but not always. 

At Willie's insistence, I have tried a couple of times to sit down and write about it.  But I get bogged down in minute details or I get anxious about coming across as self-congratulatory while condemning others.  The anger and the disappointment remain, and there lingers also a level of confusion in those emotions and details that make it hard to tell a story I can believe in.  By comparison to my pain of living without Everly, these wounds remain hidden.  To those who know me, fragments of these watershed events exist in their image of who I am.  But much of it they would have little reason to know.

The sideways movements of thought are unpredictable, and that thought of my hidden wounds brought a mental leap to the title of a book by Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound.  It is a pair of essays, written approximately two decades apart, analyzing his personal story of growing up in white supremacist America (not the official Klan type, but the generic US white folk type).  He brings his memories of relationships into dialogue with poetry and other literature, looking for angles from which to gain greater insight into the significance of race in US culture.  He is intentionally trying to think outside the frames in which race is conventionally analyzed. 

Would any of his reflections on the hiddenness of the wound of white supremacy and black slavery breed insight into my own hidden wounds, interlinked as they are with race?  I'm not sure that I got a good answer to that question, but let's try to parse out what he believes the hidden wound or wounds to be.  I say wounds because it is an exploratory book.  By its nature, it arrives at partial conclusions, then turns another angle on the problem to see what has been missed or what else might appear.  Ultimately, by taking up the topic again after two decades, he again puts himself in the position of reframing the issues, renaming the wound:
once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind (6).
Berry initially focuses on the contrast between the myth of benevolence, which sees whites as looking out for their inferiors (the blacks), and the violence inherent in slavery.  He says that this violence might remain hidden from the believers of the myth most of the time.  But their complicity in the violence and dehumanization of slavery became clear if they ever came to sell or buy a slave.  This commercialization of a human being rips away the veil and shows the slaveholder for what she or he is--a purveyor in flesh, a user of persons, a profiteer on misery.  To sell a slave was to allow some other owner, perhaps one who does not believe the myth of benevolence, to do whatever he will with that person.  It was to hand the slave over to hell.  There could be no more blissful denial of the violence.

So one angle on the hidden wound goes back to the harm done to slaveowners' conscience as they came to face, and perhaps to adjust, to their willing terrorizing of blacks simply because of their racialized identity.  Here, perhaps, he foreshadows a theme taken up by contemporary black studies scholar Anthony Pinn.  In Terror and Triumph, Pinn argues that the quintessential moment of terror in the slave system was the auction block.  There, naked, displayed, handled, on the market for use and disposal by one's enemies, the slave faces the blank abyss of terror.  Pinn picks up themes here shared with existential philosophy, and follows them to similar conclusions about the necessity of building anthropocentric and humane systems of meaning to ward off and rise to the challenge of this terror of existence. 

So from the other side of the market exchange, Berry also finds the slave market, the auction block, as the quintessential signifier of the wound, a wound that remains and still fails to be healed.  He analyzes a certain type of literature which seeks to mask the horrors of slavery by side-stepping them, almost ignoring them, in order to elevate the heroic nature of Southern patriotism on the model of medieval chivalry and knightly virtue.  There are many strategies by which to keep the wounds hidden, and Berry is convinced that they do harm rather than heal.
I have already said enough, I think, to make clear the profound moral discomfort potential in a society ostensibly Christian and democratic and genteel, but based upon the institutionalized violence of slavery (14).
Berry links the hidden wound of slavery to the philosophical/political/social/theological/cultural conviction of the split between mind and body.  Of course, contemporary philosophy is filled with arguments about the origin of this dogma of modernity, with various figures, historical precedents, and movements contributing to it.  Mind-body dualism becomes a critical move of conscience, according to Berry, for slaveowners who profess to be Christian and to believe in democracy:
consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit (15-16).
Here in this empty space Berry locates the wound.  It is a wound he finds to be born from the contradictions of a slaveholding society.

Yet their wound from the era of slavery is not fully descriptive or explanatory of the continuing hidden wound of a culture.  It is generative of the wound that continues, but it does not encompass all that the wound has become in our times.  This wound of personal conscience, manifest and multiplied across congregations and a nation, exists as a structural feature of culture.  It takes form and gains momentum, reshaping Christianity, democracy, morality, law, and whatever aspects of society and culture in which its implications spin out to their conclusions.

If there is such a duality of mind and body, it is more than an inward analysis of the white man, a theory of human nature applied to each atomistic person.  Ultimately, Berry says that whiteness comes to be identified with mind or spirit.  And by dyadic reasoning, blacks are the body of society.  Mind rules over body, rises above body.  Body serves mind, does the hard, necessary work, so that mind can flourish.

Such a dualistic structuring of culture leads to another way of understanding the hidden wound.  Whiteness separates itself from the material necessities of existence.  Thus, even though in the nineteenth century, almost all people were engaged in farming, it was coming to be looked upon as n----- work, work to be avoided by the people at the top.  White culture shifts its understanding of a good life toward monetary success, measured by competition to have the most, be the richest with the best things, the greatest status.  The dirty, sweaty, exhausting side of farming life can't be good life.  This judgment carries over to all hard and dirty work, from cleaning and scrubbing to disposal of garbage to any necessary but difficult labor.

Berry says that this transition was underway during his formative years (65ff).  As a child, his generation was groomed to leave the farm in order to achieve and succeed.  His grandfather still had some memory of the goodness of work on a farm, of knowing the land, of observing each plant, insect, bird, and animal. 
He kept the farmer’s passion that sees beyond the market values into the intricacy and beauty of the lives of things, and that hungers to preserve and enrich the land. To him crops and animals were not only to be sold, but to be studied, understood, admired for their own sakes (70-71).
But probably better than his grandfather, their hired black farm worker Nick knew that good came from provision, and provision came from daily hard work.  As a boy, Wendell found himself linked to Nick, and to an older black woman, Aunt Georgie, in ways that gave him a glimpse of a different world in which success was not the rat race.  It was a view of reality that did not require the denial of dependence upon the earth.
As for this world, there were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And as I have already made clear, Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity (72-74).
Again, the wound of racism on whiteness takes a more complex form.  Unlike the standard frame of saying that racism is simplistically white oppression and black misery, Berry believes that he finds in the memories of Nick and Aunt Georgie another account of reality.  Yes, they suffered from racial oppression.  They were denied opportunities.  They lacked what others had capacity to acquire.  None of their misery or oppressions should be denied or diminished.

They also were part of a community of people who had found a path to goodness in life that was linked to their closeness to the soil and to the land.  They understood the way that life is not fully under our personal control.  They recognized that they had the skills and desire to make a life no matter what others might hatefully seek to deny to them.

Whites, separated from the land, from the knowledge that comes from living with the land, from doing hard work and producing basic necessities, lost all sense of their dependence.  They were the captains of their fate, the shapers of their destinies.  Yet they had forgotten and abandoned the basic knowledge of how to live in the world, demanding that others deemed less valuable provide for them.  Whites have, by Berry's judgment, lost key elements of their humanity by creating for themselves an artificial environment of monetary transactions and technologies of power, a mechanized world which devalues people and celebrates accumulation.  Berry describes here numerous sociological insights one might find in Anthony Giddens's account of the modern nation-state.
That I have thought to ponder at such length over the lives and the influence of two black people is due largely to my growing sense that, in the effort to live meaningfully and decently in America, a white man simply cannot learn all that he needs to know from other American white men. That is because the white man’s experience of this continent has so far been incomplete, partly, perhaps mostly, because he has assigned certain critical aspects of the American experience to people he has considered his racial or social inferiors (77-78).
This division of people takes theological form through the doctrine of salvation.  As J. Kameron Carter has recently demonstrated, a certain kind of soteriology emerges as Christianity accommodates itself to white supremacy.  It is a version of Gnosticism, by which salvation becomes an elevation into the spiritual and intellectual being of whiteness, and the bodily aspects of humanity become relegated to the lower races, be they Jews, blacks, or others.  Scot McKnight has called the Evangelical theological version of this turn "the soterian gospel."  Berry points toward this problem as well, describing the turn to "believing" as the essence of salvation, by which the churches set aside the transformation of a whole person and focus on the mind.
Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man’s Christianity has been its soothing bandage—a bandage masquerading as Sunday clothes, for the wearing of which one expects a certain moral credit (18-19).
Having restructured social goods around abstractions of success, stocks, bureaucracies, paper empires, bank accounts, and such, salvation would seem to be to take joy in not being tied to such material concerns as soil, crops, care of animals, rain and sunshine, drought and flood, famine and plenty.  The wound remains hidden and the wounded do not even know what they have lost.  Not caring whose lesser bodies do the hard work, the model of the executive moves production from this town to a far country, replaces human workers with machines, and produces thousands upon millions of items for consumption without ever having to put hands to the task of making anything.  The achievement comes at the cost of a great, gaping emptiness, a wound that is hidden, that separates people from the beauty, the power, the joy of creation and knowing our place in it.

Berry's agrarian themes emerge as an essential aspect of his arguments.  He draws upon literary works which bring a powerful and distant successful person into relationship with the peasant, the worker, the lowly person.  In all of these works by Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Homer, Mark Twain, and Dostoevsky, he examines the way that the person of elevated class gains insight into goodness and joy through conversation, sharing meals, and living alongside those who are deemed inferior.

Trying to understand whiteness from the inside, one faces the challenges and limitations of one's own perspective and formation.  Berry acknowledges that blacks generally know "harsher truths about the whites than the whites have ever admitted to themselves--and the whites know it" (92).  Thus he knows it is dangerous and questionable for him to try to interpret his memories of the life of Nick as a key to understanding what is lost to whites through their assumptions of whiteness (75).

This confession, at the heart of his methodology for the first essay, points toward what emerges as a key idea in his overall analysis.  That is, in the language of Willie Jennings, the appearance of a racialized world and the rise of white supremacy represents a fundamental "disordering of desire" in humanity.  Misdirected, distorted, perverted desire comes to be accepted as the natural desire of human existence.  As Berry often states, the wound is in part the inability to recognize our common humanity.  Jennings says that we have deserted, even lost, the God-given desire to know one another in the beauty of all our differences.  This does not go away simply by acknowledging that blacks and whites can be equals.  The structures of culture and society, that have formed as scar tissue around the hidden wound of white supremacy and black slavery, reach much farther. 

It remains that the understanding of reality and of success means to have the most stuff, to live in abstract relation to the land, and to take care of the hard work and necessities of life by "sending a n-----" to do it (106-07).  Whether it is killing in war, cleaning up trash, monitoring machines that produce, or simply dispossessing the unnecessary people and putting them aside to waste away, the class/race divisions still demand that those at the top "send a n-----" to do it.

These kinds of divisions undermine the possibility of recovering the kind of joy and love intended for human social existence.  They still rank people by false measures and ignore the common need for food, clean air, worthwhile work, shelter, and friendship.  This wound also means that the land and its intricate web of life, unknown to the ones who are at the top and making the decisions that move the lesser beings around the chessboard, is being used up, abused, and thrown away. 

The human link to place, to soil, to everyday needs, to hard work, has been broken.  All momentum is away from those things, which are the very things that give life.  Desiring to be separate from those with whom we are made to share the bounty of creation, and desiring to be unimpeded by the limits of sustaining the land on which we thrive--this is the disordering of desire.  And the wound will not be healed until we learn to desire to know and love one another as persons, and to know our land, our home, and rejoice in its intricate beauty and power to provide for us.

So through several transformations, the inquiry into the nature of the hidden wound of slavery, of white supremacy, entails a longer narrative linked to modernity, to colonialism, to European world domination, to the destruction of the natural world, and to the alienation from creation in humanity, in the land, and in all other existing things.  Berry's inquisitive journey sheds valuable light on the legacy of racism and its continued emanations and productions, the ongoing woundedness that wounds the world.

As for the relevance of the book to my recognition of "hidden wounds" in my history, there certainly are some insights for me to draw from Berry's work in these essays.  First, I have not always recognized the expansive character of the construction of white supremacy that through its creation of an inferior blackness extends to the entirety of creation.  Willie Jennings's work on colonialism in Peru also makes this sort of argument, and the links between race and species extinction and environmental degradation are demonstrable.  My own occupational and self-imposed confinement to an abstracted world shows me to be swept along by this torrent.  Remembering my past fascination and engagement with the details of the world around me, my previous participation in the hard labor of daily existence, pulls me toward a different way of organizing my days.  That's a bigger set of issues that I will not pretend to quickly solve in a paragraph.

Second, observing the complicated and adventurous intellectual work Berry did in these essays speaks to me about the intricacy of the task before me as I seek to understand, describe, and find healing for wounds I have allowed to remain hidden from myself and the world.  The road of progress is itself difficult to find.  It may depend on memories, previously considered irrelevant and even trivial, that must be brought to the foreground and examined in new light.  It may require study of comparable narratives through which to shed light on my own story.  It demands willingness to think outside of the standard ways of telling the past, of my way vs. your way, of simplistic dyads, of comfortable cover stories.  And it probably only happens as I risk to tell and retell the stories in which I live.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church Sesquicentennial

Our church in Durham is celebrating its Sesquicentennial this Sunday.  Between the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, former slaves, some at least from the Stagville Plantation, organized a congregation in the boundary area of Durham County and Granville County.  When in 1933 their land was appropriated to build a military base, Camp Butner, these families moved south into Durham County, taking their congregation and their church building with them.

Some settled in the Mill Grove community, north of the main city but still in the central part of the county where the Eno River flows past Roxboro Road and Old Oxford Highway.  Many continued sharecropping and farming.  Some developed commerce in trades such as home construction and furniture making and repair.  Ultimately descendents of these settlers struggled for education and advancement, scattered to all parts of the county and beyond, and they have influenced this region in many ways.  I'm proud to be adopted into their family.  Here is a write-up from the local paper.

April 30, 2014
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughn

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