‘Don’t steal my blessing…’ or Understanding the South

As some of you know I play Peter Pan part time, serving our church youth group, and frankly I have a ball doing it. We take a mission trip each summer and it’s often the highlight of my year. We go to different parts of the country, often to Indian Country, but this year to West Virginia. I wanted to have our group (eight adults and 28 youth), experience Coal Country and introduce them to the Scotch Irish and Presbyterian traditions of the South.

We stayed at Bluefield College, Virginia. We traveled each day into Pocahontas, West Virginia to rebuild and paint homes, repair roofs and construct ramps for disabled folks. We joined up with Group Workcamps, and so 400 adults and youth descended on a town of 300. Pocahontas is a town the coal industry left behind when the mine closed in 1955. The town was founded in 1880. Europeans, African Americans and Indians came to the town to work the mines. The history of it all is stunning: an early coal mine explosion—killing more than a 120 miners—both blacks and whites together. Their race couldn’t be determined post mortem, which on its own made history–it was the first burial of blacks and whites together in the United States. We also visited the African American Methodist Church, in which the first miner’s union was organized. We admired the magnificent churches of every stripe, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, as well as a synagogue. And to top it off, we viewed the opera house that had seen better days. Myth number one was broken: these towns were incredibly diverse, it wasn’t just the Scotch Irish, but people from all over Europe and beyond.

At the end of our week we drove back to Nashville and went to a water park to cool off—a much-needed break! But in buying tickets I felt that we were being over-charged, and like a good Yankee I negotiated hard. I failed miserably and threatened not to buy the tickets. A man, standing nearby, turned to me and said, in a southern drawl, “Couldn’t help but overhear your dilemma. The Lord has put on my heart that I should make up the difference between what you thought you were going to pay and what you have to pay. I was a youth pastor once too.” And he then explained how his house had experienced water damage and in a payoff he had more than benefited and wanted to “pass on the blessing.” We demurred. But then he said, “Don’t steal my blessing.” And I knew this was serious. I backed down my fellow leader and lawyer friend, and this Southern Baptist pulled out $200 and put it in my hand. I said, “Hey, will you come pray with our youth group?” He said, “Sure.” And we walked over and I told our group what had happened and their jaws dropped. I asked our new friend to pray, and before you knew it he had prayed us into a revival, long, hard and loud. Needless to say, afterwards, our youth were dazzled and dumbfounded.

On the plane ride home I sat next to a stranger. Having long ago taken the oath not to talk to strangers on planes, I broke my promise and struck up a conversation. I argued, listened and loved talking to this man for the next five hours. He was a Nashville native, a Presbyterian of Scotch Irish heritage, a hunting and fishing guide and a delightful interlocutor. We talked fish, bears, religion, the South, and how he didn’t like Lincoln, and why this lovely Baptist man had given me the money, and how the South doesn’t like government welfare because it “steals our blessing.” “For us,” he said, “This is what we do in the South, we help each other out; what that guy did for you happens all the time. We’re Christians, we have to give and by giving we are blessed.” And suddenly, the push back against Obamacare and against “government handouts” made some sense, although I still don’t agree! And my Presbyterian friend looked at me and said, “You liberal professor types will never get it!” And we agreed to disagree. But I came away “blessed” in many ways, thinking, “Maybe the South has something to teach me about helping those in need and passing on blessings.”

After we got back to the Nashville church, following our water park break, our youth said, “Let’s pass on the blessing and give the $200 to this Nashville church for them to use for their youth ministry.” And we did just that; we didn’t want anyone to steal our blessing, much less the government or ourselves.

By the way the best book on the regional cultures of American life, and particularly on the Scotch Irish, is David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

 

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  • Copper Stewart

    The problem with the “Christianity” that I have experienced in a lifetime in West Virginia is that it is “Christian tribalist” — it is NOT routinely extended beyond the church family, and when it is it is controlling and ideological. I came to see the Christian religion as not only false, but socially and intellectually destructive. I am one West Virginian who believes that those who authentically want God must choose another religion.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Thanks, Cooper, Fascinating insights. What I hear from you and think for myself on American Religion, particularly in the South, is that it (Christianity) IS the common culture, so one has to be a Christian, and it becomes the civil religion that props up everything else up, whether good or bad…. and so this tribalism, which exists potentially in all religions, can become exclusivist and repressive, as you mention. I was trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, but you lived it, I haven’t. Thanks for your insight.

  • Marta L.

    James, my family is from the mountains of northwestern NC so not so far from where you were, though I also grew up in a university town so the culture wasn’t exactly the same. I found this post like a breath of fresh air. I currently live in the Bronx, in a working poor neighborhood with neighbors from lots of different religions and backgrounds, and tend to get frustrated at the news I hear coming out of the South. You reminded me of why I love that region even as I’m frustrated by it.

    I did find my own slice of NC to have the neighborliness and generosity you describe. The town had neighborhood closets and cupboards (where anyone could come pick up donated food items, winter coats, etc., at no cost), and a lot of the donations came through the churches. There was also a real spirit of helping each other out with no explicit strings attached, to anyone around there who needed the help. There were two problems with this, though: we were more likely to know about problems from folks who were active in church; and since the world was so communal, there was often a lot of pressure to stay in the fold. Not formal or anything; but I knew that if I expressed some of my doubts (and I’m still an orthodox Christian!) I would put more than just my faith in jeopardy, I’d risk my friendships and (should push come to serve) not have a safety-net to fall back on. That’s a lot of subtle, perhaps unintended pressure on people. I also agree with you, there’s just no way individuals have enough resources to correct basic injustices like the current state of low wages you can’t live on or the bad access to health care.

    Still, I think there’s a lot to be said for this “don’t steal my blessings” approach. We should help our neighbors out, not just because we have to legally but because we recognize this is what it means to be good. For me, the balance is seeing my tax contributions in this light and also giving generously to individual charities – I view April 15 as an opportunity to pay it forward, because I see the good work those taxes do in my neighborhood and how they help out people I love. I tend to think many people in the South often swing too far in the opposite direction, just as many of us NYC liberals often swing too far toward letting the government share our blessings and not making the personal, spontaneous connections. But it’s good to be reminded that this swinging too far comes out of a desire to help, a desire to be the one doing the sharing, rather than the selfishness you might think was always at work if you watch MSNBC.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      So well put… the experience really challenged me and our group to rethink common prejudices, and my talk on the plane was eye opening and really wonderful. I still believe in universal health care, and often, in my mind, the libertarian spirit that percolates on the Christian Right has opened the doors to business people, who now more than ever, rule the world, the opportunity to hide behind an anti-government rhetoric. I’m afraid I do think corporations rule our world, manipulate our foreign policy and are now shaping are social policy. The romance, however, of Christian charity is irresistible but its in context where so many lives are being destroyed. This is the irony of stealing our blessing. Elysium is here.

  • JohnE_o

    Trust me on this – the South takes all the government handouts it can get – and then some!


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