Prayers for the Perps

By Don Rollins

You don’t know this country until you’ve snaked your way down through the Smokies and Blue Ridge as they parade, resplendent in their summer garb. Amazing scenes at every gap and gorge. Humbling stuff when one ponders his or her place in the cosmos. Annie Dillard suggested that our true role in life is to make sure that Nature never plays to an empty house; if that’s so, the green-carpeted Appalachians is a show every able-bodied American ought to see at least once.

The occasion for my latest excursion through those majestic mountains was, after five years in the semi-frozen tundra of Minnesota, the beginning of a new interim ministry. South Carolina. “Upstate” (northwest) South Carolina, to be exact. The land is beautiful; the hospitality genuine. But there’s no getting around it: being a Yankee can still be a detriment. (This is not an entirely unmerited state of affairs, given the number of my fellow Northerners who make a pastime of ripping on the natives; the saw of sarcasm cuts both ways.)

Yankee interlopers have for years registered shock and outrage over race relations in some parts of the Deep South. Yes, your first roof-sized Stars ’N’ Bars will rile the blood. Yes, God, guns and gays still matter here. But Upstate race relations are more nuanced than that. In just two weeks I have met (mostly working-class) folks — black, white and brown — who turn on its head the one-dimensional caricature of the South still circulating in progressive circles elsewhere. The Southerners I’m talking about are not stereotypes; they’re archetypes. They’re grassroots, populist archetypes of Everyman and Everywoman, updated for this century and will be damned if they’re going to be reduced to the neat categories of oppressor and oppressed. In their neighborhoods, people of color and whites hang together. They intentionally volunteer in ethnically diverse activities. They lobby for more multi-racial school programs. They build coalitions on behalf of low-income individuals and families.

Still, the progressive subculture notwithstanding, this is not the Mayberry of race relations. Just last week a rural, predominantly black church was vandalized in the form of a swastika and the word, “nigger,” sprayed across their wayside sign. The incident did receive front-page status in the local paper, but nobody in my liberal circles seemed all that worked up about it. My fellow freethinkers, Northern as well as Southern, were genuinely surprised that I wrote a related letter to the editor. Frankly, I think they were more interested in the theatrics of their philandering governor and insult-hurling congressman.

But the lack of outrage is not the real story here. The real story is what that little congregation did next: they prayed for the tagger(s) who painted their sign. One more time: they prayed for the perpetrator(s). They did not resort to a head-in-the-sand quietism, as though the vandalism was anything less than a hate crime; yet they refused to let the toxicity of that bigotry victimize them a second time. And so they prayed for their enemies.

I remain a true skeptic about the state of indiscriminate love when it comes to American religion, and there’s just too much ongoing evidence for me to believe that that’s going to change anytime soon. But I think I might be just a bit less of a theological buzz kill from this point forward. I have to be. I’ve been witness to some folk here in the hills and hollows who, when faced with the worst kind of hatred, responded with the best kind of love.

Postscript: As of the submission deadline, no suspects have been named.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister now living in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2009

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