Social Justice in the Buckle of the Bible Belt

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Kentucky dirt roads

“What were your impressions of today?”
“My impressions are that if I’m not careful, I might move to Kentucky.”

Almost as soon as I crossed over the border from Tennessee, the landscape changed. There were more hills. Thicker trees. It reminded me of home in Vermont.

The weekend was spent drinking tea, eating garden-fresh veggies, walking, and discussing matters of social justice. Berea is a unique place. A small city of about 14,000, it boasts a lively artistic community, the first abolitionist church in the south, and the liberal arts Berea College. It is a hub of progressive thinking located in the buckle of the Bible belt.

On Saturday afternoon we went to a panel on community policing and police brutality. It was hosted by Berea College students and featured four community panel members, including the city mayor and the chief of the Berea police department. The dialogue in that room was incredible. There were high tensions due to recent events in Ferguson, MO, which is just under six-hour drive away. This being the first meeting between the Berea police chief and the Berea college students, it could have been an ugly conversation. In fact, I’d say that in most communities it would have been an ugly conversation. But there was a stronger force held in the room than anger or frustration or sadness or fear: respect. All parties ultimately respected themselves and each other to such a degree that real, productive dialogue could occur.

I couldn’t help but think back to events that I have witnessed in Albuquerque over the last several years, with a police force that now has a national reputation for excessive brutality. There is so much anger in Albuquerque over the killings at the hands of APD officers. How could some of the earlier conversations gone differently if all participants agreed to the same rules of conduct that were followed in Berea this past Saturday? Could they be implemented now, or is there such a thing as it being “too late” to expect respect?

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Sunday afternoon concert by Dr. Javier Clavere

On Sunday morning I attended the worship service at Union Church, where Rev. Kent Gilbert (also my wonderful host for the weekend) preached a powerful sermon on forgiveness. Stakes were high here, too, because the church is working hard to pass a fairness ordinance in the city that would protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination due to perceived gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. The final public hearing on the ordinance was Tuesday. No one knows how the city council will vote.

These kinds of communities are so inspiring. Rev. Gilbert told us in his sermon about how back in the early days of Union Church, many men couldn’t attend the Sunday service. They were too busy riding shotgun around the church – literally, riding around with shotguns at the ready – in case anyone decided to attack the anti-slavery church in a slave-holding state. Shotguns aside, how much have our politics really changed?

I left Kentucky wondering when I could return. And I haven’t even mentioned the new English Country Dance series, the Berea College professor who played all of Mozart’s sonatas in a weekend, or the lively contra dance in Lexington. All of these things make up what a community should be: joyful living, plus a fierce drive to work towards social justice and equality for all. Someone get me an “I ❤ KY” tshirt or something, because I’ve gone ALL fangirl.

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Road signs

A funny thing happens when you travel. You re-learn how to say “yes,” and also how to say “no.”

“Why yes, I will stop to take that photo.”

“Sure, why not check out a honky tonk bar?”

“Awesome, that exit looks like it has something cool to check out!”

“No, I will not go back to your apartment with you.”

“Nah, I don’t need to pay that much to sit in some hot water.”

“Thanks for the invite, but I think I’ll enjoy some alone time today.”

The words “yes” and “no” are our basic markers as we navigate our day-to-day lives. We can choose to get off at exit 1A, or we can choose to stay on I-40 for another 7.2 billion years.

NM2VT_7_TN IMG_0788 bw squareYet when we are at home with our friends and our routines, the opportunity to shape our day by choosing one option over another isn’t always as pronounced. At home, our days can feel driven by obligation, or expectation, or sheer habit. On the road, every moment feels like a momentous choice.

Texas: YES.

Arkansas: YES.

Tennessee: YES.

Adventures: YES.

Spending a rainy day inside this hostel with tea and grad school application essays: YES.

Remembering to live in the moment: Oh, yeah… I mean, YES.

The tension in coming and going

Nostalgic for blackberry hunting, rain storms that stay for days, and nude, hidden pools.

Grateful for twenty-minute rushed climaxes of thunder and cool evenings with no bug bites.

Nostalgic for sweaty ceiling fans and endless books.

Grateful for quiet houses with effective cooling systems.

Nostalgic for the one bookstore that had air conditioning, and the leather couch that I claimed as my refuge in July.

Grateful to have options.

Nostalgic for shared meals.

Grateful for green chile. All hail.

Nostalgic for rolling green mountains that welcome me into their abundance.

Grateful for the jagged mountain line that keeps me humble.

There is a tension in coming and going. There is a tension between homesickness and the attempt to live in the moment. We could make pro-con lists about everything in life, and while these lists may make the choice easier or more clear, they won’t take away the necessity of choosing. I chose the American southwest for nearly five years. I am grateful for so many things I have experienced here. Now I am choosing home. And it feels so good.

Humility

I realize this is crazy. A new caller, not even a full year into this new role, calling in communities along a cross-country road-trip? Who does that?

I guess I do.

These past two weeks I’ve gone to two different dance camps and talked with three of the national callers I most admire. I admitted to all three that I realized this was an insane idea. I also admitted to all three that this is how I learn. I would make a terrible Italian; I’m not very good at doing life slowly. I learn in big leaps. That’s how six months after I first picked up a dance card I was calling my first full evening. (Also, I have a fantastic community of other callers pushing me to develop my skills. Shout out to the New Mexico Caller’s Collective, started by Erik Erhardt.)

Watching these national-circuit callers do their stuff on stage was a practice in humility. There is so, so much to learn, and I have so far to go. It is also incredibly humbling to see how willing these guys are to be mentors to young callers like myself. Who does that?

I guess callers do.

This is part of the folk process. This is how we sustain our community: we bring up the next generation and help them succeed. Right now I am accepting all of this help, all of this mentorship. I will be for years. For now, I can only try to accept their generosity as gracefully as possible, and hope that someday I am able to give back to the community in a similar way.

My movie soundtrack

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 Me and Grampa, about 6 months before he died.

My grandfather wanted to be a cowboy, like he saw in the old Western films. In some ways he was almost there: he was ornery, had a southern drawl, and the kind of stupid courage that makes people speak loudly about things they don’t understand. He was a writer and a musician in his spare time, and is a major source of inspiration for me in both of these pursuits. He is also the reason I came to New Mexico.

It is sometimes hard to drive through the regal landscapes of New Mexico without feeling like I’m in one of his Western movies. Dynamic rapid sky, impartial reclining mountains with their jagged elbows, and tufted-roadside-desert grasses have been known to take me entirely out of myself.

Especially when I have the right song on.

My grandfather also had a flair for the dramatic. So I know he’ll get me when I say that my coming to New Mexico felt like fulfilling his lost dream. It seems to make sense in a grand story arc between his life and mine. Almost cinematic. And as my road trip will be starting soon, I wonder what kind of movie it would make. Adventure? Romantic comedy? Avant-garde experimental piece? Family film? (Probably.) Thriller? (I hope not.)

What is your favorite soundtrack for the car? What makes you feel like you’re not only going somewhere, but you’re having an epic time doing it?