Salty Returns

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"I feel a strong spiritual pull to go back to the South."

These are the words of Deborah Brown as quoted in a recent New York Times article, "For New Life, Blacks in City Head South." The article describes how many African Americans from New York and other cities in the East and the Midwest United States are moving south for better opportunities, just two generations after their ancestors moved north for the same reasons. A 2005 article in Black Enterprise noted that this "reverse migration" can be dated to the 1990s. Indeed, I was one of those people who found myself in Georgia and North Carolina in the early 2000s, not far from my grandparents' birthplaces.

About 100 years ago, many African Americans from the southern United States moved en masse from their homes. African American history refers to this as "the great migration." Between 1910 and 1940, when factory and government jobs opened up in the north, and there seemed to be an escape from the Jim and Jane Crowism of the south, almost two million African Americans left their southern homes. Another 5 million traveled during "The Second Great Migration" between 1940 and 1970. They moved along the railroad lines between Jackson, Mississippi to Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit; westward from Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma to Kansas and California; and up the eastern seaboard to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. My grandparents were in the latter group.

They were all looking for a better life, a "promised land."

The references to the Hebrew Scriptures are evident. Just as the oppressed Hebrews left slavery in Egypt to find the promised land of milk and honey, so African Americans left a place of civil and social discrimination to find a better life.

There are many reasons to move: more bang for one's housing buck, discrimination in the so-called promised land, an environment that promises more fruit for sustenance. The newspaper article suggests all of these.

But it strikes me that Ms. Brown talks about Spirit. She feels "a spiritual pull" to go back to the land of her grandparents. Something divine is calling her south.

Jewish and Christian scriptures talk a lot about what it means to geographically move when God calls you forward. Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans; the Israelites left Egypt; Jesus left Nazareth; the apostles left Jerusalem.

As scripture engages what it means to go forth to new lands, I'm disappointed by how little it talks about how difficult it is to leave home. Over and over again, in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the faithful are told to leave home with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They are told to trust that God will care for them.

"Take nothing" (Mk. 6:8).
"Let the dead bury the dead" (Mt. 8:22).
"Remember Lot's wife!" (Lk. 17:32)

I do remember Lot's wife. She is the one that turned into the pillar of salt. The way I learned it, the sodium chloride crystallization of Lot's wife was a condemnation for looking back. It was punishment for sin. The moral is: "Don't look back. Press forward. Obey God."

But that's not what scripture says.

As the city of Sodom is doomed for destruction, and Lot's family is permitted to escape, angels lead Lot's family out in a hurry. Lot indicates that he only has time to make it to a nearby town, and the angels assure him that the town will be safe.

Genesis 19:26 simply reads: "Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt."

There was no admonition not to look back. There is no declaration of sin, punishment, or condemnation. We simply have the story of a woman who missed her home.

I understand this. It's hard to leave a place you've called home. The memories of a place called to Lot's wife as they might call to us: the fields where you played tag with your childhood friends, the rocking chair where you nursed your child, the tree beneath which you buried the placenta of your firstborn, the altars where you worshipped.

6/27/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
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  • Monica Coleman
    About Monica Coleman
    Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University.