How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

Hiking with a Summer Storm at Your Heels

On Sunday, the final morning of our trip to Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable Dunes, we woke to a still, hazy morning. The largest group of hikers that had camped at Au Sable Point East with us had already silently packed up and left before 7:15 in the morning when I woke, which I remember finding a little odd (principally because they seemed to be college-aged and I, at least, was not wont to get up early and exert myself during my college days). Our other neighbors were in the process of packing up as well. Seeing the sun through the haze, I ran off to the beach to snap a few photos before breakfast.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This serene scene belied the weather that was to come that morning. As we strapped our tent and bags to our packs, my sister said, “Do you hear that? That sounds like thunder.”

True, it did sound like thunder, but it also sounded like it could be a distant logging truck or some such noisy thing (which is what I wanted to believe). Within another 30 seconds, though, there was no mistaking it. It was most definitely thunder. Fast-moving thunder indicating a storm quickly approaching us.

With 1.7ish miles to go, almost all of it steeply uphill, we lost no more time getting our packs on our backs and getting the hell out of there. We each had a 5-Hour Energy metabolizing in us and knew the car was less than an hour away, which was powerful motivation (as if the impending storm was not enough). The question was, could we manage to get up that extremely long, steep incline before it became a river of mud should we be caught in a deluge?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The thunder got closer and louder and the woods around us grew very, very dark, except for when the occasional flash of lightning lit up everything around us. I thought about the metal frames in our packs–the only metal for hundreds of feet, most likely–just as a loudest, closest, angriest ball of thunder burst right over top of us.

“Do we have a plan here if the sky opens up?” I asked my sister.

We did not.

The only plan was to get to the top of our climb before the rain. She suggested I say a prayer. And so with every labored, frantic step over root and sand and dead pine needles, I prayed aloud. And after my prayer was through, I prayed silently, thanking God for every dry step I took.

And you know what? It never did rain on us. We could occasionally see rain off in the distance when we passed quickly by an overlook we had lingered at the day before. We could see that it had rained on the parking lot when we got to the car. We could see that it had rained on the road when we drove back to the ranger station in Grand Marais.

But not a drop of it rained on us.

The storm passed by us and left us unscathed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is not to say we were not wet. If you had witnessed our triumphant emergence from the forest, you might be forgiven for thinking we had been caught in the rain because we were drenched with sweat from the effort. When I looked at my phone to check the time I was dumbfounded. I think it’s quite possible that we made the hike in little over thirty minutes, about half the time I figured it would take us with the incline and my blisters (which, by the way, did not hurt at all the entire climb, but started to hurt the moment we hit the path that led from Log Slide to the parking lot).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This Sunday morning hike is not one I will soon forget. It was almost as though God decided that because we had not been in church we might need a reminder of His power–and His mercy.