Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

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What’s your manifesto?

Do you have a manifesto?

This week I read that Chris Dorner, the LA police officer who sought revenge by killing some people, had a manifesto. “Like the Unabomber,” wrote the news reporter. Manifestos aren’t only about destruction, you know, though they seem to get a bad rap. They can give us focus. They can speak our heart’s lovely desires and our life’s creative purposes.

Some time ago, a friend was in professional transition, and asked me to help her draft her “elevator speech,” the one she would use anytime she was able to steal 30-60 seconds with someone who might have a job connection. More recently, I was asked to write a faith statement, something I could tell to anyone who asked.Lift Every Voice and Sing

Then, in typography class this week, we were assigned to choose 80 or more words that mattered to us – song, poem, speech, whatever — and integrate them into a design. Mostly it’s a about learning to work with type, but I found the biggest challenge in choosing the 80+ words.

I considered “this land is your land,” by Woody Guthrie, especially the verses we don’t sing. Know this one?

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

(I think it’d make a dandy, way more singable, national anthem.)

Next, I thought of “here’s to the crazy ones” (which may be Jack Kerouac, Steve Jobs, some folks in the marketing department at Apple, or somebody else altogether); I considered the Ira Glass thing on not giving up, and Anne Lamotte’s irreverent reverence. I thought of “Passover Remembered,” by Alla Renee Bozarth, with its raw images of what freedom can do to a person and to relationships; I often read it in worship during our poverty events at UrbanSpirit. I pondered the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and excerpts from any number of books I’ve read – Goad, Ehrenreich, Krugman, Kozol.  Poets and preachers, from Jackson Browne to Jeremiah Wright; Holly Near and others in the “women’s music” genre who were early influences for me. (“It takes every muscle in my heart to dance at our revolution, but I’m dancing, Emma.”) I thought about Sojourner Truth, Jesus, theologians, scripture, and the psalms and prophets that move me. There’s a lot to consider!

Finally, I landed on the words of the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Sometimes called the Black national anthem, it is a liberation song. So, for this assignment, I set it into the symbols of the gay community — symbols of Nazi genocide, burned into our psyches as they were carved into our forearms, symbols that we only later claimed as our empowerment. I also hear these words speak powerfully to the never-ending struggle for economic human rights; they move me, often to tears.

This song I’ve chosen isn’t my manifesto, exactly, and it isn’t my elevator speech, but it does call me to consider who I am, where I came from and what I want my life to be about.

My classmates in typography at Ivy Tech SoFAD are an interesting bunch of folks. We are all white, and mostly from Louisville/Southern Indiana, but we come from multiple generations and circumstances, and bear our varied perspectives on the world. They educate me; I hope I do the same for them. I’m asking them to post their choices, and offer a word or thought about how they decided.

I’m asking you, as well: what moves you? What would your “80 or so” words be? If you’re willing, add yours — or a link — in the comment section.

taxes and churches: time to talk?

The ministry center I run, UrbanSpirit, used to own a church building. A big, old church building, with, um, issues. Not the least of the issues were the beasts that constantly set off the motion detectors — spider webs, a rattling door. My cat Beckett, which is how I came to adopt him. The alarm system also warned of actual intruders. It was these the alarm was intended to guard against. The problem was there were way too many of the other things. In the beginning, the alarm company would call the police, and I would meet them there, sometimes deep into the wee hours, fearful of what we may find. Most times it was nothing, but sometimes it was something. Either way, I was awfully happy the police were willing to be the ones to figure it out. Eventually, the police department began charging a fee for false alarms — not just us, but folks all over the city. You get one or two freebies, and then you pay. First $25, then $100, I think. I’m not exactly sure of the fee scale.  I thought about being annoyed by this, or trying to appeal. And then it hit me. As a church, we pay no property taxes, so this fine is our way of supporting the work our community protectors do. I began to think of all the other things we get free — lights and streets, bad weather alarms. We had a fire once, and no one sent us a bill for the firefighters’ effort, or the truck time, or depreciation on the equipment, or for the water, which came from a hydrant and wasn’t on our meter. We get a lot of stuff absolutely free. Because we are a church. Are we worth it?

This Sunday, I’ll be leading a discussion at a local church about churches and taxes. I prepared a sheet of info as a discussion prompt. It isn’t a research paper, and all the numbers may be wrong. But it seems worth conversation in a time of stretched government budgets, whether the church is sucking communities dry or providing in-kind value that is way more than the exemptions. The discussion page is below, and you’re welcome to use it for discussion in your own congregation. I’d love your comments here, which certainly would enrich the conversation I’m about to have at church this Sunday.

The church, we say, is all about justice. What is just in this regard? And since no one is likely to change the exemption laws anytime soon, the question for clergy and churches is, as always, what kind of neighbors are we?

hoping for your thoughts…

Taxes and churches… Who’s Zooming Whom