Strangers in Our Own Land

The other night my husband and I were watching a Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl. He was sitting at the kitchen table with the laptop open before him, giving the baby a bottle. I was supposedly washing dishes, but really wandering over to him every time an intriguing phrase or story caught my ear. Because I’ll tell you what: That thing was shocking.

When I’d thought of the Dust Bowl before, I’d simply thought of families escaping drought and poverty. I had no concept of immense walls of black dust racing across the plains, swallowing everything and everyone in their paths. I knew nothing of the buckets of dust that women would sweep from the insides of their homes, of how the dust enveloped people so completely that they were unable to see their hands in front of their faces, of how they’d grow ill (and many would die) from having their lungs coated with the stuff.

The documentary showed elderly people telling their stories of that horrible time and I thought to myself: These experiences are part of those people’s heritage. These must be the stories passed down to the people living in those places today. And I know nothing of them.

I know nothing of what it’s like to live in the west, on the plains, with farmland stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. I don’t know how it feels to be held captive by the weather and her whims. I don’t know what it’s like to be a descendant of pioneers, to have stubborn resilience for a heritage.

Neither do I know what it’s like to be a child of immigrants or a great-great-grandchild of slaves. I don’t know what it’s like to be from mountains or shore or desert or city. I don’t know how it is to live in a factory town or a coal town or a fishing village, everyone’s livelihood depending on a tired, waning industry. I am out of my element visiting my husband’s family in the Midwest. I have felt similarly foreign in New England and the Deep South.

All I know – all I really know – is my corner of this land, my way of living.

So when I huff and puff and heave my chest in maddening wonder at Donald Trump’s ascendancy – when I bark an “I don’t understand these people!” – I’m right. I really don’t understand them. I have not lived their experiences. I have not shared their struggles. I have not felt their frustrations.

This is me coming to terms with that.

This is not me saying I think Donald Trump is an acceptable choice for the presidency. I continue to find him shameful in action and in word. I continue to disagree with those who support him. But I’m trying to recognize my own limitations in imagining the millions of individual histories that lead to his rise.

Because the next time I feel like grabbing Joe Trump Supporter by his shoulders and shaking him out of his dangerous delusion, I want to bestow some mercy instead.

There is so much we don’t understand about each other.

And if this election cycle is teaching us anything, maybe that should be it.

These Walls - Strangers in Our Own Land

The Religious Climate In My Here And Now

I was happy to see that Jen of Conversion Diary was revisiting her “religious climate” questions again this year. I always find the variety of answers she gets to be fascinating. (I’ve just realized that I always italicize the word “fascinating.” It doesn’t seem to work for me any other way.)

I’m not sure how fascinating my answers will be to anyone, as I live in the good ol’ U.S. of A. just like the majority of Jen’s readers, but I thought I’d tackle them nonetheless. Because I really like pondering questions of how religion and society interact.

First, let me (1) characterize my own little corner of the world, and (2) emphasize that this characterization, and all of the answers below, simply reflect my sense of my corner. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of my neighbors or relatives reacted to it with, “Where the heck are you? It’s not like that where I live!”

Just like so much of the United States, my State is distinctly divided along cultural/political lines. We have some very liberal areas and some very conservative areas. We have urban areas and rural ones. We have great wealth and real poverty. We have wealthy/intellectual liberal, urban/poor liberal, rural/suburban conservative. And the factions don’t always mix very well.

Too often, they quite purposefully don’t mix at all. Or if they mix in one sphere (say, the workplace), they feel like they have to keep their political/cultural/religious sides to themselves. It’s quite possible for the conversation in #3, below, to be very comfortable and friendly in one setting and extremely uncomfortable – maybe even laughable – in another. Same place; different mix of people; very different outcomes.

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1. WHERE DO YOU LIVE?

In the greater Washington, D.C. area.

2. WHAT IS CHURCH ATTENDANCE LIKE? ARE THERE MANY CHURCHES?

There are lots of churches. Catholic churches in suburban areas seem to be full. Most of the parishes I’ve attended have been standing-room only for the main Sunday mass(es), less full at Saturday and early-Sunday-morning masses. They’ve had anywhere from 3 to 12 masses per weekend and their sanctuaries have probably averaged 500 seats. That adds up to lots of people.

That said, Christmas and Easter masses seem to draw at least three times as many attendees as “regular” Sundays. They necessitate additions to the mass schedule and/or the addition of an improvised worship space (i.e. a school gym). Which tells me that if all the Catholics in my area actually attended mass on a weekly basis, we’d need to get very busy building churches.

In short, Catholic churches seem full, but for every active Catholic, there must be several more who rarely or never attend mass.

Mainline Protestant churches seem smaller and (from my limited experience) emptier. Evangelical churches seem to have bigger, fuller parking lots, so I’d guess they do better in the attendance department. We also have some (not lots) of “mega-churches,” of which I know little.

We also have a fair number of houses of worship for people of faiths other than Christianity. Our region has so many people from other parts of the world, we’ve got members of just about any faith you can imagine.

3. HOW APPROPRIATE WOULD IT BE FOR A PERSON TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT HE OR SHE IS A BELIEVING CHRISTIAN IN CASUAL CONVERSATION?

Per the above, it depends. It would probably always be minimally acceptable. In some parts it would be accepted and encouraged; in others it would seem strange or even inappropriate.

4. WHAT KIND OF FAITH DO THE POLITICIANS CLAIM TO PRACTICE?

We have politicians of different faiths. Most would claim some faith; few would claim none. But even those who claim a faith in common with their constituents would be unlikely to talk about it too widely.

5. HOW COMMON WOULD IT BE TO SEE A FAMILY WITH MORE THAN THREE KIDS? WHAT ARE THE ATTITUDES TOWARD FAMILY SIZE?

Two to three children is considered normal; four is still mostly “acceptable.” Any number over that – or even three/four if they’re spaced closely together – is usually viewed as strange.

6. WHAT WAS THE DOMINANT BELIEF SYSTEM IN YOUR AREA 50 YEARS AGO? WHAT IS IT NOW?

My sense is that 50 years ago my area was more culturally and religiously conservative, if not politically. People were likely more church-going than they are now. There were far fewer religious minorities, but there was still a good mix of Catholic and Protestant Christians.

But that “mix” would have been in the broad sense. I’m under the impression that people of different faiths are much more comfortable with each other now than they used to be. I think the Catholic and Protestant communities were much more distinct and divided 50 years ago. My (Catholic) grandmother still vividly remembers a terrible experience from her childhood, when her (public) elementary school teacher in a predominantly Protestant rural area went on an anti-Catholic rant in class.

Per my answer in #2, there is much religious diversity. Still, Catholic and Protestant Christianity predominate.

7. DO THE PEOPLE WHERE YOU LIVE SEEM HAPPY WITH THEIR LIVES?

Given the current political stalemate in Washington and how dependent our local economy is on the government (many friends are furloughed right now), people don’t seem too happy at the moment. More broadly, I still sense a general unhappiness/sadness/frustration. Even if one’s own family has survived the economic (and political) crises just fine, they’re likely to have friends or family who haven’t.

Thanks for the great questions, Jen! I look forward to seeing what everyone’s got to say!