When Caitlin Gooch was working with elementary school kids as a teacher’s assistant, it was sobering to find that most children were not reading at grade level.
In her native North Carolina, 36 percent of fourth graders are reading at a proficient level, and it’s about the same nationwide, according to The Nation’s Report Card, a congressionally mandated assessment of students nationwide. Adjusting for race, Black fourth graders across the country tied for the lowest average reading score. In North Carolina, White and Asian fourth graders scored more than 20 points above Black, Latinx and Indigenous children on average.
Then, in 2017, Gooch was volunteering at a Scholastic Book Fair with a Western theme and realized not all kids at the fair had enough money to bring books home.
“I know that authors and illustrators have to make money, but it also pains me really bad that books are so expensive,” Gooch said. “Children deserve new books.”
A lightbulb went off for the 28-year-old, who grew up surrounded by horses on her family farm. Gooch established Saddle Up and Read that year with the mission to get more books to kids, using her childhood horse, Goat, as the magnet to draw kids into her book drives.
Gooch fundraised enough money to put down a third of the cost of a trailer to take Goat on the road. A farm in Kentucky sent in money to help offset the cost. Farmers in Maryland donated a truck with 40,000 miles on it.
“I was really happy, because it seemed like at that point people were starting to not only pay attention to Saddle Up and Read, but pay attention to literacy rates, and that’s something that I don’t want people to forget,” Gooch said.
She now travels to towns and neighborhoods in North Carolina, handing out gift bags with books. Gooch has given out at least 200 books this year.
During the pandemic, she hasn’t hosted readings on her farm out of an abundance of caution, so she and Goat are on the road more often. These gifts allowed Gooch and Goat to show up in North Carolina neighborhoods with books and goodie bags.
Over the first weekend in December, she posted a selfie in front of her horse trailer, captioned with a simple request: “See that truck and trailer?” the tweet read. “I drive it to different communities to give books to children in need. Oh and I bring my horse with me. [Retweet] so I can get the word out. I’m in N.C.”
After posting the tweet, Gooch, a mother of three, went to record a podcast interview in her car (it would’ve been impossible inside her noisy house). When she was finished, she looked at her phone and saw a message: “Oprah tweeted you, sis.”
In conversation with The 19th, Gooch talked about bringing together her love of reading with all things equestrian, and her efforts to inspire the next generation of book-lovers.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The 19th: Tell me a little more about Saddle Up and Read. Why did you launch it?
Caitlin Gooch: I started it because I saw that children, Black children, were struggling when it came to literacy, when it came to reading, in general, and even putting together sentences.
In the roles I’ve volunteered in, and my role as an assistant teacher, I get to help kids with their spelling words and their vocabulary. And when they’re struggling to spell three-letter words and four-letter words, I feel like that’s a red flag — especially with some of the children who were in fourth grade and fifth grade.
I took the time to research it and figure out what the literacy rates actually were. I went into a rabbit hole and I found that children of color were far behind their White peers. I looked up reading and writing performance [charts] in every school in my area. When it came to the Black students, the bar was so small and you could barely even see it on the graph. What is really happening? I wanted to get to that part. For me, when I see a need for something, I’m going to work until I can fill it.
I thought, this can’t just be an issue in my area, and it wasn’t. It’s North Carolina and then it’s America, in general. We’re so far behind other countries. What’s the difference here? Why aren’t children reading? What I found is that many children don’t have books at home or they don’t have books with characters who look like them or ones that interest them. Maybe that’s a part of the problem. [Ed note: The 2019 Cooperative Children’s Book Center survey on diversity in young adult and children’s literature found about 12 percent of such books featured a Black main character, nearly 30 percent of books feature animals.]
One: We don’t have a lot of books with representation. Two: The number of those book titles is smaller when it comes to figuring out what children like to read. Of course they’re not all going to be into the same things; they have their own personalities and interests. So with Saddle Up and Read, I said, let’s use horses to get kids excited about reading. Because if they’re excited about reading and they don’t see it as a chore, then just maybe it’ll make it easier for us to nurture that love of reading, and we can use horses to do it. I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t like horses. I’m pretty sure those people might be out there, but I haven’t met them.
What’s your relationship with horses?
I grew up riding horses. My dad has a horse farm in Wendell, North Carolina. We moved five different times into different houses, but the farm has always been at the same place. When I was a kid, I’d wake up, I’d see horses. I mean, we literally use the horses as our mowing system. When I was 3, [my dad] started me out riding, and we’d do trail rides together. At trail rides I ride Western but also ride bareback. So that is where my love for horses started.
What was your relationship with reading growing up?
I love books. I can’t even tell you what books I used to read, but I love reading. I was really into the “Twilight” series. I think I finished that series in a day or something. Books have always kept me centered and at peace. They’ve just allowed me to imagine even more. So I put books and horses together.
Can you say more about uniting those interests?
When I used to work in a child care center, I was the teacher’s assistant, and I was kind of a floater. I worked with 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. And those children, I love them so much, they were so stinkin’ adorable. I used to show them my horse on my phone to really grasp their attention. But sometimes we would be doing something, or it was like free play or something, and they’d say, “Ms. G, can I see your phone so I can see your horses?” This one boy, he was 3 years old, he used to cry if I didn’t let him see my phone and watch the videos.
I would try to talk to their parents and say, “You should just bring them out to the farm.” I felt like I was incredibly blessed to have grown up with horses. How many people does that happen to? I felt like that happened to me for a reason, and I shouldn’t just be selfish and keep my horses to myself — I have to share them. Sometimes I would just wake up and it was so pretty outside, and I’d make a Facebook post that would say, “It’s so pretty outside, bring your kids to the farm.” Kids deserve to have that exposure.
When you decide to hit the road with your horse, Goat, and your trailer of books, how do you inform people where you will be?
A few weeks ago was one of the first times that I actually went into a neighborhood. With a pandemic I’m trying to make sure that I’m being extremely safe. I went to my aunt’s neighborhood because she’s very supportive of everything I do with Saddle Up and Read. I drove the horse trailer, and I’m not that good at backing up. I had to pull forward and back up, and pull forward and back up, because I was in the middle of the road in this neighborhood. I parked the truck and already people were looking out the window like, “What in the world?”
My husband was with me. We got the books out of the trailer, and got the books set up — that way when the kids came, they could just grab their book and their bag and they could leave. Then I got my horse out. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna walk down the street and walk back.”
As I started walking back, there was a group of kids, maybe five, at the horse trailer. They started asking me all these questions about my horse, Goat. They were asking me why I was out there, and I said, “It’s really important that you read.” My husband and I gave them their goodie bags that were donated. Some of them got like three or so books. The bags had hats in them, so the kids put on their hats and went down the street to their friend’s houses and neighbors to tell them to come outside.
I know we all wish the pandemic was over. I’m wondering how you feel handing out books now as so many kids struggle with virtual or hybrid learning, or may be among the thousands of kids nationwide who’ve just disappeared from the roster.
I think this is the perfect opportunity to understand something else: Libraries are absolutely fantastic, programs like mine are absolutely fantastic, but there’s an entire population of kids who are missing out because they don’t have transportation. Where I live, there’s no bus route. The kids who can get out [to the library or to the farm] have that luxury of parents who can bring them in a car.
Those kids who are missing out on school right now because they’re not enrolled virtually and they’re not in physical school, I wonder if it’s just linked to a lack of resources. This is another reason why I don’t advertise [on social media] where I’m going, because sometimes people who don’t necessarily need Saddle Up and Read will show up. I really want to get to the kids that need us first. I’m not going to deny any child, I just would rather make sure I go out to those kids who need it first; that’s what I’m doing it for. I hope I can identify where those kids are who aren’t enrolled in anything and maybe go out and spend some time. Even if I have to say stay 6 to 12 feet away, I’ll read a book to you.
I have reading videos up, and other people have read to their horses on behalf of Saddle Up and Read. But there are kids who don’t have a computer. I really have to figure out how to tap into that. Because kids being out of school is going to have a negative impact on the literacy rates. Who knows how far back this is going to push everything.
What else do you want our readers to know?
Reading to kids 20 minutes a day really helps. Even if you don’t have children, maybe there’s some children [you] can read to. Or maybe they just want to donate to Saddle Up and Read. Or, if they don’t like children and they like horses, they can sponsor one of our horses.
On Dec. 26, millions throughout the world’s African community will start weeklong celebrations of Kwanzaa. There will be daily ceremonies with food, decorations and other cultural objects, such as the kinara, which holds seven candles. At many Kwanzaa ceremonies, there is also African drumming and dancing.
It is a time of communal self-affirmation – when famous Black heroes and heroines, as well as late family members – are celebrated.
As a scholar who has written about racially motivated violence against Blacks, directed Black cultural centers on college campuses and sponsored numerous Kwanzaa celebrations, I understand the importance of this holiday.
For the African-American community, Kwanzaa is not just any “Black holiday.” It is a recognition that knowledge of Black history is worthwhile.
History of Kwanzaa
Maulana Karenga, a noted Black American scholar and activist created Kwanzaa in 1966. Its name is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language. However, Kwanzaa, the holiday, did not exist in Africa.
Each day of Kwanzaa is devoted to celebrating the seven basic values of African culture or the “Nguzo Saba” which in Swahili means the seven principles. Translated these are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics (building Black businesses), purpose, creativity and faith. A candle is lit on each day to celebrate each one of these principles. On the last day, a black candle is lit and gifts are shared.
Today, Kwanzaa is quite popular. It is celebrated widely on college campuses, the U.S. Postal Service issues Kwanzaa stamps, there is at least one municipal park named for it, and there are special Kwanzaa greeting cards.
Kwanzaa’s meaning for black community
Kwanzaa was created by Karenga out of the turbulent times of the 1960’s in Los Angeles, following the 1965 Watts riots, when a young African-American was pulled over on suspicions of drunk driving, resulting in an outbreak of violence.
Karenga called its creation an act of cultural discovery, which simply meant that he wished to point African-Americans to greater knowledge of their African heritage and past.
Rooted in the struggles and the gains of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a way of defining a unique black American identity. As Keith A. Mayes, a scholar of African-American history, notes in his book,
“For Black power activists, Kwanzaa was just as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kwanzaa was their answer to what they understood as the ubiquity of white cultural practices that oppressed them as thoroughly as had Jim Crow laws.”
Overturning white definitions
Today, the holiday has come to occupy a central role, not only in the U.S. but also in the global African diaspora.
A 2008 documentary, “The Black Candle” that filmed Kwanzaa observances in the United States and Europe, shows children not only in the United States, but as far away as France, reciting the principles of the Nguzo Saba.
It brings together the Black community not on the basis of their religious faith, but a shared cultural heritage. Explaining the importance of the holiday for African-Americans today, writer Amiri Baraka, says during an interview in the documentary,
“We looked at Kwanzaa as part of the struggle to overturn white definitions for our lives.”
This spirit of activism and pride in the African heritage is evident on college campus Kwanzaa celebrations – one of which I recently attended. (It was done a few days early so that students going on break could participate.)
The speaker, a veteran of the Nashville civil rights movement, spoke about Kwanzaa as a time of memory and celebration. Wearing an African dashiki, he led those in attendance – blacks and whites and those of other ethnicities – in Kwanzaa songs and recitations. On a table decorated in kente cloth, a traditional African fabric, was a kinara, which contains seven holes, to correspond to the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. There were three red candles on the left side of the kinara, and three green candles on the right side of the kinara. The center candle was black. The colors of the candles represent the red, black and green of the African Liberation flag.
The auditorium was packed. Those in attendance, young and old, black and white, held hands and chanted slogans celebrating black heroes and heroines, as diverse as the civil rights icons, Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Jamaican musician Bob Marley.
It was a cultural observance that acknowledged solidarity with the struggles of the past and with one another. Like the black power movements, such as today’s Black Lives Matter movement, it is an affirmation of “Black folks’ humanity,” their “contributions to this society” and “resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
Karenga wanted to “reaffirm the bonds between us” (Black people) and to counter the damage done by the “holocaust of slavery.” Kwanzaa celebrations are a moment of this awareness and reflection.
Environmentally conscious consumers often ask me whether a real Christmas tree or an artificial one is the more sustainable choice. As a horticulture and forestry researcher, I know this question is also a concern for the Christmas tree industry, which is wary of losing market share to artificial trees.
And they have good reason: Of the 48.5 million Christmas trees Americans purchased in 2017, 45 percent were artificial, and that share is growing. Many factors can influence this choice, but the bottom line is that both real and artificial Christmas trees have negligible environmental impacts. Which option “wins” in terms of carbon footprint depends entirely on assumptions about how long consumers would keep an artificial tree versus how far they would drive each year to purchase a real tree.
From seedling to wood chipper
Many consumers believe real Christmas trees are harvested from wild forest stands and that this process contributes to deforestation. In fact, the vast majority of Christmas trees are grown on farms for that express purpose.
To estimate the total impact of something like a Christmas tree, researchers use a method called life cycle assessment to develop a “cradle to grave” accounting of inputs and outputs required to produce, use and dispose of it. For natural Christmas trees, this covers everything from planting seedlings to harvesting the trees and disposing of them, including equipment use, fertilizer and pesticide applications, and water consumption for irrigation.
Life cycle assessments often will also estimate a system’s carbon footprint. Fuel use is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Christmas tree production. Using 1 gallon of gas or diesel to power a tractor or delivery truck releases 20 to 22 pounds (9 to 10 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
However, using 1 gallon of gasoline produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide, so if a family drives 10 miles each way to get their real tree, they likely have already offset the carbon sequestered by the tree. Buying a tree closer to home or at a tree lot along your daily commute can reduce or eliminate this impact.
And natural trees have other impacts. In 2009, Scientific American specifically called out the Christmas tree industry for greenwashing, because growers’ press releases touted carbon uptake from Christmas tree plantations while ignoring pesticide use and carbon dioxide emissions from plantation management, harvesting and shipping.
Is synthetic better?
Artificial trees have a different set of impacts. Although many people think shipping trees from factories in China takes a lot of energy, ocean shipping is actually very efficient. The largest energy use in artificial trees is in manufacturing.
Producing the polyvinyl chloride and metals that are used to make artificial trees generates greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. China is working to reduce pollution from its chemical industry, but this may drive up the prices of those materials and the goods made from them.
Moreover, to consider sustainability from a broader perspective, production of real Christmas trees supports local communities and economies in the United States, whereas purchasing artificial trees principally supports manufacturers in China.
Going head to head
Recently the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents artificial tree manufacturers, commissioned a life cycle assessment comparing real and artificial Christmas trees. The analysis considered environmental aspects of sustainability, but did not examine social or economic impacts.
The report concluded that the environmental ‘break-even’ point between a real Christmas tree and an artificial tree was 4.7 years. In other words, consumers would need to keep artificial trees for five years to offset the environmental impact of purchasing a real tree each year.
One major shortcoming of this analysis was that it ignored the contribution of tree roots – which farmers typically leave in the ground after harvest – to soil carbon storage. This omission could have a significant impact on the break-even analysis, given that increasing soil organic matter by just one percent can sequester 11,600 pounds of carbon per acre.
Reuse or recycle your tree
Consumers can’t affect how farmers grow their live trees or how manufacturers produce artificial versions, but they can control what happens after Christmas to the trees they purchase. For artificial trees, that means reusing them as many times as possible. For natural trees, it means recycling them.
This is essential to optimize the carbon footprint of a real tree. Grinding used Christmas trees and using them for mulch returns organic matter to the soil, and can contribute to building soil carbon. Many public works departments across the United States routinely collect and chip used Christmas trees after the holidays. If local tree recycling is not available, trees can be chipped and added to compost piles. They also can be placed in backyards or ponds to provide bird or fish habitat.
In contrast, if a used tree is tossed into a bonfire, all of its carbon content is immediately returned to the air as carbon dioxide. This also applies to culled trees on tree farms. And if used trees are placed in landfills, their carbon content will ultimately return to atmosphere as methane because of the way materials buried in landfills break down. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century, so this is the most environmentally harmful way to dispose of a used tree.
All kinds of factors influence choices about Christmas trees, from fresh trees’ scent to family traditions, travel plans and the desire to support farmers or buy locally. Regardless of your choice, the key to relieving environmental angst is planning to reuse or recycle your tree. Then you can focus on gifts to put under it.
The Sunday morning service at Providence United Methodist Church last month began with a few praise songs, as usual, then an opening prayer. But before launching into his sermon, the Rev. Aldana Allen offered a personal testimony.
“I want to begin by glorifying and thanking God once again for my life, my health and my strength,” Allen told his congregants, who listened to the sermon from their cars as part of the new coronavirus routine.
He then proceeded to relate a terrifying incident that happened to him the Sunday before.
On his way home from church, he stopped for gas. As he was driving away, he noticed he was being followed, Allen said. He took an alternate route just to make sure, but the person continued to follow him. As Allen finally pulled into his driveway in a suburb of Charlotte, so did his pursuer, who began revving his car, lunging forward and pulling back.
The standoff in the middle of Allen’s driveway continued for several minutes. Eventually, the pursuer drove off. It was an important reminder, he said, of humankind’s fallenness. He then delivered his sermon.
Allen, who has led the small rural church for the past six years, is Black. His members are overwhelmingly white.
This North Carolina church about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte and several miles outside historic downtown Salisbury, is a microcosm of the old rural South. The country roads leading to the 182-year-old church are dotted with “Trump 2020” signs. Salisbury is the county seat of Rowan County, which voted for Trump over Biden by a 2-to-1 margin, 67% to 31%. The city is the birthplace of Bob Jones, the late Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Some homes here still fly the Confederate flag, and until this summer, a prominent bronze statue of an angel carrying a Confederate soldier stood on a pedestal right outside St. John’s Lutheran Church downtown.
Yet, at Providence United Methodist, race, one of the defining issues of 2020, is being negotiated in new ways. Allen, 48, doesn’t press the issue most Sundays. A Southerner, too, he walks a fine line — not wanting to alienate his congregants or risk a backlash. He did not tell his congregants that his pursuer that Sunday night was white (though he did tell the police who are investigating the incident). He did not point fingers. He did not issue a call to action.
But many congregants said they nonetheless understood.
“Hearing of his most recent experience tells us it’s still out there and it exists,” said the church’s youth leader, Marcie Petty, referring to racial intimidation. “It needs to stop.”
Allen is a Mississippi native who grew up in Tennessee, and has spent most of his career working in white churches. He has won the support of his congregants, in part by keeping the conversation comfortable and closely relating his experience to Christian themes. Along the way he has subtly raised his flocks’ awareness of how racism and racial discrimination continue to pose significant problems for African Americans.
Hesitant at first
The 300 or so congregants at Providence United Methodist did not choose Allen. Pastors in the United Methodist Church are appointed by bishops, normally for a year at a time.
In a commitment to create a multiracial church, United Methodist bishops have been assigning Black pastors to predominantly white congregations for about 50 years. In the Western North Carolina Conference, where Allen is based — covering Greensboro and areas west— there are 24 Black pastors among the conference’s 898 predominantly white churches.
“Our belief is that when people develop relationships, biases that are part of the racial context begin to diminish,” said Paul Leeland, bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference.
The conference has recently begun a larger conversation on how to be antiracist. For many churches, it’s a process. Most white churches are initially hesitant to accept a Black pastor, Leeland said.
Providence, where Allen was first appointed in 2014, was no exception.
“There was apprehension when he was announced,” acknowledged Neal Hall, the church’s lay leader and a lifelong member. “It’s something we’ve never experienced.”
Hall, 59, said his own apprehension faded a few months after Allen’s arrival, when his daughter, who had been in declining health, died. Hall called Allen, who rushed to the hospital where Hall’s daughter Amber was ailing, and stayed with the family, comforting them and reading Scripture passages into the early hours of the morning.
“He was my pastor in a time of need,” said Hall. “That bonds you.”
For Petty, Allen has been a “godly” role model — not only for the church youth but for her two boys, ages 14 and 21. Her eldest, John, had drifted away from the church under the church’s previous pastor. Allen visited her home and spoke to John about recommitting to Jesus and returning to church, which he did.
She has been so impressed with Allen she has invited friends, curious about her Black pastor, to hear him preach.
“He brings people to see both sides and to know that there are changes in the world, and we need to be a part of those changes,” Petty said.
Allen, who graduated from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said he was shaped by the Black liberation theology of James Cone, who saw justice for the poor and the outcast as the very heart of the Christian Gospel.
Married to a Presbyterian minister — the couple has two boys — Allen said he believes providing genuine care to his congregants will reduce racial prejudice and bias.
In a paper for his doctoral program at Hood Theological Seminary, a historically Black school located in Salisbury, Allen recently wrote, “The more I can express our existential commonalities, and emphasize that God is the solution to the human predicament, the more the artificial barriers will fall.”
Stifling healthy conversation
Being a Black pastor in a predominantly white church in the age of Trump has been a challenge nonetheless. The president has defended white nationalists, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and generally exacerbated America’s racial divide.
The death of George Floyd, the Black Minneapolis man killed in police custody, and the subsequent protests that broke out across the nation, moved Allen to once again take a more direct approach.
Ten days after Floyd’s death, Allen used his Sunday sermon to expound on the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan and to recount a story from his youth. At a Fourth of July fireworks display in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a white man drove by in a truck, flicked a beer bottle cap against Allen’s head and then spat on him.
“That is the ugliest experience of racism I have experienced in my life, but it’s not the only one,” he told his congregants. “I share that story because of all the things that are going on in the news. I want you to know it’s real.”
He then went on to say that Americans and Christians in particular need to raise their awareness and show more empathy.
Yes, “All Lives Matter,” he said, but added: “We’re asking you to have empathy for this particular subset of all lives. All lives matter may be theologically correct, but what you are actually doing is stifling healthy conversation.”
Several members said they were moved.
“I will tell you personally I thought everything was taken care of after Obama was president,” said David Shields, a church member. “I thought we were in a post-racial society. Aldana drove home the point that there was a lot of work to be done.”
Not all Providence members appreciated the sermon. A handful felt that church was a place of refuge. They didn’t want to be thrust right back into the storm.
A six-week Bible study about race and reconciliation that Allen started soon afterward was poorly attended. Allen said he wasn’t sure if people didn’t want to engage the subject or were staying away from church because of pandemic fears.
“I hate it for him that the race thing came up, and you hear people saying that they’re tired of hearing about it,” said Pam Ervin, a member who chairs the church’s mission projects. “It’s sad that we couldn’t have these conversations.”
Allen, however, hasn’t given up. Before COVID-19, the church had sermon swaps and common meals with a predominantly Black church down the road, and he wants that relationship to continue.
So far, church members say they’ve been able to see each other as people first, not Republicans and Democrats, but Allen is thinking of starting a Bible class on the nation’s political divides and how people might come together — perhaps around the time of President-elect Biden’s inauguration, he said.
Church members aren’t sure they can find unity on both sides of the political divide, but on racial issues, they said their consciences have been pricked.
“I don’t think that Pastor Allen being here is accidental,” said Hall, the church lay leader. “It’s God loosening us up. Pastor Allen was something we needed, and God delivered because he knew these times were coming. He’s showing part of what that different way looks like.”
The weekend before Election Day, Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, led an interfaith prayer service live-streamed from Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital.
It was All Saints’ Day, and there were prayers for the 200,000-plus Americans who have died from COVID-19. Their deaths are among a number of things Curry believes Americans need to grieve.
That’s the first step to hope and healing, he said.
“You can’t just jump to hope,” the presiding bishop said afterward. “There’s a process you have to go through. There are no shortcuts to it.”
Curry spoke to Religion News Service in the days between Election Day and the projection of a Joe Biden win. The presiding bishop shared his thoughts about what divides the United States, what people of faith can do to help bridge those divisions and why he believes healing is ultimately possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earlier this month, you led a national service for healing and wholeness. Why did that feel important in the days going into this election?
I think part of that is because the country — and the world, but, in particular, the country — has been through a lot. This is clearly a divisive election. That’s self-evident.
But that’s reflecting other things. That’s reflecting the impact of COVID-19. We still don’t know the full social, spiritual and personal impact that’s having, but we know it’s having it.
Then you add on top of that, not COVID-19, but the pandemic of 1619, which goes back into the painful reality of our racial past, of white supremacy, of domination.
So you add that racial reckoning on top of a viral pandemic and all its implications, and then on top of it, America has some deep divisions, and they’re not just racial. There are divisions of class, divisions of those who do feel left out, and they play out deeply. They played out the last time, in 2016 even, in the election.
What will it take to heal those divisions?
I didn’t tell the story at the cathedral, but this was in the 2015 campaign at a Trump rally here in North Carolina — in Fayetteville. There were protesters present. That was sort of normal, if you remember, in that last campaign. And at one of them, this one particular guy, who happened to be an older white guy, punched a younger Black guy who was one of the protesters. He was arrested and charged with assault. He apologized in court for what he did and accepted responsibility for it. And then this is the quote I can remember: He said, “We’re in a political mess, you and me, and we’ve got to do something to heal our country.”
In a subsequent story about those two, the Black guy said to the white guy, “Let’s go out and eat lunch.”
That’s what we must do in America. We must go out and eat lunch together. That’s a metaphor for the hard work of what it is going to take to heal the divisions. When people eat together, over time, they actually get to know each other. And sometimes, a whole lot of stuff you assume about the other, you discover isn’t true. At its best, you discover there’s a story behind why that person thinks or feels the way they do. You may not agree with it, but you can kind of understand it.
Then, you see, we have the capacity to figure out how to do the structural healing. You’ve got to pass laws. You’ve got to change the policy. But the truth is: Changed laws and changed policies don’t change hearts, and until you change hearts, you don’t change everything. You’ve got to take a holistic approach.
That man was right. We are in a mess. We must heal our country. I think some of that is the great work that is before us as a country, and certainly before the church and people of faith.
Can you talk about this idea of Christian unity? Does that identity supersede political beliefs or some of the other divides we might see in the wider society?
I think that is the case. I do remember some instances — I’m going back some years now — when we were close to comprehensive immigration reform. I remember going to see one particular congressperson and making the case for that. He was a devout Christian, represented himself as a conservative and a conservative Christian, but he was open, and I jokingly said, “You know, this is one subject on which I as the Episcopal bishop and the Roman Catholic bishop here, we happen to agree. And I’ve been with some Pentecostal officials and they agree.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, the Southern Baptists were here this morning, and they were making the same point.”
There is some common ground on some questions of moral, human decency and compassion. We actually share common ground because it’s so embedded into the faith, and we share it with other traditions.
You build there. You start from the common ground. You don’t start from the differences. We start from the common ground of common values. And then let that be the moral foundation for practical ways to actually live that out. That’s where there’s differences, you know? And that’s fine. That’s what democracy is about. We sort it out, figure it out, come up with the best solution.
What are some practical things people of faith can do to be part of that work?
Braver Angels has specific programs — With Malice Toward None is one — for churches and civic groups to be involved in, actually bringing together people across political differences. The Episcopal Church has a program, Make Me an Instrument of Peace, which is a five-week curriculum on civil discourse. Again, it’s not about talking nicely. It’s actually some of the dynamics of how do you foster humane, decent and respectful discourse and interchange across differences?
Nothing happens accidentally. We have to learn how to do this. There are other organizations and groups that do this. There’s plenty. We don’t have to invent the materials. We just have to implement them, bring people together for dinner.
For example, what would happen if religious communities of all stripes paired up and said: We’re going to be in a relationship for two years, and we’re going to start out by doing With Malice Toward None. We’re going to do civil discourse. And then we’re going to have a planning group that thinks through how do we nurture this relationship over time? That is very practical.
Failure to know the other is a setup for conflict.
You sound optimistic. Do you think this kind of healing is possible — that it is possible for us to bridge these divides and move forward together as a country after a really polarized season?
Oh, yes. Now, I’m not naively optimistic. I know human progress and growth is possible and can happen, but it only happens as a result of hard work, of struggle over the long haul, and that hard work and struggle includes setback.
I mean, I’m an African American man. I’m a product of the Black community. I’m a product of — go far enough back, you’re into Jim Crow; far enough back, you’re in slavery; far enough back, you’re in the Middle Passage crossing from West Africa over here. I’m a product of that tradition that has learned there is progress and there are steps forward and then there’s a pushback. There always is, but you keep moving forward. You don’t go back.
I have seen progress happen in my lifetime. I have seen the pushback, but I’ve seen we’re always moving forward. There’s a spiritual of the old slaves. I think they were talking about this when they said, “ Keep a-inchin’ along like the inchworm.” That’s how progress happens. It doesn’t happen in quantum. It happens inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, inch by inch, pushback, and before you know it, you’ve moved farther down the road than you ever thought you would.
I believe it is possible for us to be instruments of healing in this culture. And I refuse to give up. As long as there’s a God and God doesn’t quit, I’m not quitting.
Purpose is a word that is on the minds of many millennials, however, for many it seems to be that piece of the puzzle that is hidden; That needle in the haystack that you are searching for.
The frustration of figuring out what one is supposed to do is what seems to open a door to the spirit of heaviness that plagues so many of us. We may wonder, “Why did I go to college? What now?” You may be working a job and wondering where the end will be.
Could it be that you are looking at purpose from a different perspective? If we are to model Jesus Christ, He was first a carpenter before He revealed Himself as a Savior. Carpentry involves accuracy, commitment and focus. Think about it, you cannot build half a chair or half a table. The everyday, ordinary commitments that Jesus had to do, prepared Him for His greatest purpose on earth, the Cross.
Instead of complaining about your job, master the skills that your job allows you to learn. Be the expert at everything you do. Instead of wondering about tomorrow, maximize the 24 hours given today and commit yourself to excellence.
I view excellence like a garment worn each day to let purpose know you showed up ready to live and maximize your potential that day. The worst mistake you can make is to be a replica of someone already existing. Wasting time copying what is already there is robbing yourself of the opportunity of discovering what God the Creator had in mind when He formed you in your mother’s womb. Be inspired by what is around you, but allow yourself room to be an inspiration to others.
One of my favorite scriptures is Ecclesiastes 11:4 (Living Bible Version) “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.”
Instead of wondering what your purpose is, you can:
Become a student of your own life
Study what motivates you and inspires you to want to make a difference
Pray and believe God. However, as you pray, research your passions, and educate yourself. You may be pleasantly surprised that what you have been searching for, has always lied within you.
Prayer for the journey to purpose:
Dear God, as I begin this month of March, teach me to be present, to be aware of what is going on around me, to pause, and be grateful for all the wonderful things You have done for me. I release the fear of missing my purpose and destiny. I put You first and ask You to help me. I want to live a life of purpose, to glorify You. I will honor You and share with others how You have blessed me. So Lord, I exhale and release myself to you. I am ready for this journey. I am ready to take a risk of trusting You…Thank You Lord for hearing this prayer. Amen.