The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes

When I explained to my Tallahassee host that I was trying to visit a different church every Sunday as part of my cultural exploration, she asked, “Have you been to a UCC church yet?” I shook my head no, and Currie concluded, “Great! You can come with us tomorrow.”

Chopping VeggiesI knew that the United Church of Christ was a fairly liberal organization, which was confirmed by the rainbow flag on their sign. Currie, her mother, and I all arrived at church and were greeted with the smell of boiling veggies. The church kitchen is only a few feet away from the front door, and I saw half a dozen women inside chopping and measuring. Currie explained to me that about once a month they provide the food for a local soup kitchen, and the parishioners all help prepare the soup before and after service on that day. They call it “Onion Sunday.”

Currie began introducing me to people, explaining that she was hosting me through Couchsurfing, and that I was in the middle of traveling the country. She loved to tell people about my visit to the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, which seemed to fascinate everyone. I met a woman named Nancy whose professionally friendly and calm demeanor I recognized instantly as being indicative of a clergy member. She would be leading the service.

I met several more women and sat down with Currie in the worship space. It was a bright, modern, yet cozy room with chairs instead of pews and a band set up in the corner. At this point I had met only women. As more people filed in I did an informal headcount. The gender ratio was 6:1 in favor of women, many of whom were clearly couples. It seems judgmental to brand any congregation as a “lesbian church,” especially considering that they clearly had men there as well. Still, it was a clear and defining characteristic, and seeing as out lesbian women are a numerical minority within the existing minority of homosexual people, it is at very least statistically interesting. I couldn’t help but think of my friend Markie from college, who always seemed to take delight in any social situation where she could identify complete strangers as fellow lesbians. She had a field day with the Hunger Games midnight show crowd.

The band began playing the gathering song, and lyrics accompanied by relevant stock photos appeared on a screen next to the cross. Rev. Nancy welcomed the group and added that she was a bit nervous. Her partner was traveling and would be arriving home the next day. She asked for our prayers for safe travels. The week’s scripture was read, which was the very appropriate story of Mary and Martha. After the sermon another woman got up to say a prayer. She rustled through a few papers on the podium and then looked over to Nancy, indicating that she couldn’t find the prayer she was supposed to read. The congregation chuckled quietly as Nancy went over to look through the papers, sure that the prayer was there somewhere. As the humor level in the room grew, Nancy threw up her hands and gave up on the written prayer entirely. “Many people come here saying they were turned off by organized religion,” she said. “And we’re anything but organized.” Everyone laughed and Nancy opted to do the prayer herself, extemporaneously.

As soon as the service was over I watched as Currie darted up to the front of the room. The worship space was decorated with several quilt panels. There was a set of three near the front of the room depicting the sun shinning down, and one of the panels had been pushed over just enough so that the rays of light no longer lined up correctly. I had noticed it myself, but it had been driving Currie crazy. She ran up to fix it, which seemed appropriate. She had been the one who quilted it, after all.

Currie asked if I wouldn’t mind sticking around to help with the soup, and I said I’d love to. Together we set to work chopping several pounds of squash and assisting in the proper assembly of the church’s food processor. By the time the last squash was done everything else had been completed, and the soup had only to cook for a few hours before it would be ready to serve.

Food ProcessorFor the most part, my day at UCC seemed very ordinary. Unlike some of the churches I’d visited, it reminded me a lot of my own experiences in the Episcopal Church – the decorations made by parishioners, the jokes when things went wrong, the community meeting together to make a huge amount of food they weren’t intending to eat. The congregation was welcoming and friendly, yet still seemed to represent one specific group. I happened to be relating the story to an openly gay man I met later on my trip, and he explained that in his home town of Washington D.C. he belongs to a church with a lot of other gay men, yet for whatever reason they can’t seem to attract or keep any lesbian couples. However he knows of another church in town that has a thriving lesbian population, but doesn’t have any gay male couples in the congregation. It’s strange to think of this level of homogeneity being created in a subgroup that typically devotes huge resources into societal diversification. But we’re all human, and maybe deep down we still have that ancient savanna need to create our own tribe. As much as we want diversity and know that it is healthy and helpful, it’s also a lot of work. It’s hard to be around people who are different – people who won’t always agree with you and won’t want to do things the same way. When individuals go looking for a new community they are looking for somewhere they belong, not somewhere they stand out.

The church I go to is traditionally Japanese-American, and not really on the beaten path of my normal week. I ended up there when they needed to hire a new sunday school teacher at the same time I was looking for some part-time work. It was just a coincidence. But I believe I can say with absolute certainty that I would have never happened upon the church on my own. And if I had, I probably would have taken one look around and decided I didn’t belong. I would have been wrong, because I do belong there, and I like the people there. And if I’m not careful, I will seek out a community of people who are just like me. But that way leads to an unfounded certainty of conviction. It leads me to believe that my world view is universally accepted as true, and those who would say otherwise are simply crazy, stubborn, deviants.

I’m not knocking the women of this particular UCC congregation for seeking harmony in each other. They deserve it more than most, since the outside world is so likely to provide them with disagreement. But it’s important to remember that no one is above comfort-seeking. No one is too enlightened for simple conflict avoidance. We are the amalgamation of the people we spend the majority of our time with, and it’s easier to be with those who would reenforce that which we’ve established in ourselves, rather than fight it with something new and different. One man described it to me as “The Hardening of the Ought-to-Bes.” If there is no one around to question the way we see the world, it is likely that our view of the world will stay the same even as the world itself changes. The women at UCC have no choice but to encounter conflict in their lives, but they have found a small section of their week in which they can be who they are and think how they want without trouble. Certainly a few hours of peace a week is an acceptable trade off for one’s sanity. But I think most of us have the proportions swapped, and would do well to let go of a bit of comfort so that we may make way for a little conflict. It’s our best and only insurance against becoming the crazy, stubborn, deviants we claim to abhor.

Several Unrelated Things that Happened in Tallahassee

Two CapitolsMake no mistake, the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee is hideous. It is a tall, rectangular, austere, Soviet monstrosity. It towers over the city and was built in the late 1970s, a time when a lot of mistakes were made. The historic capitol directly in front of it, however, is quite lovely. It was built in the mid-1800s and has that quintessential Jeffersonian dome in the middle. These days the old capitol is a museum, which I managed to duck into a half hour before closing. Both the senate and house chambers were being repainted, but I could still look inside to see the adorable old rooms. I checked out the various museum exhibits, including a collection of old political cartoons that marked the various debates that have come up in the state’s political history. I wandered through the old governor’s office and watched a video message from the current governor, Rick Scott.

Governor Scott was having a bit of trouble next door, as my visit came about a week after the Martin/Zimmerman verdict. Several police officers were coming out of the back entrance to the current capitol building as I walked past. Inside a group of young people had set up shop in front of the governor’s office, demanding that he hold a special session of the state congress to re-examine the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. The building was closed for the weekend, and the protestors were expected to remain there without air conditioning until it re-opened on Monday morning. Unable to get in until Monday, I took a few pictures of the building’s exterior, trying to find its good side. It doesn’t have one.

It started to rain and I rushed back to my car to meet my host Currie and her mother at a local Mexican restaurant. The three of us were going out for dinner and a movie. We saw The Great Gatsby, and Currie and I agreed that either too much or not enough seemed to happen in the film.

Be JoyfulWe went back to Currie’s house, which is unbelievably adorable. The walls are all brightly painted, the curtains and upholstery covers are handmade patchworks of Currie’s own creation. There is art on every wall and an old stained glass piece in front of every window. Sometimes words and phrases are written directly onto the wall, including my personal favorite in the living room: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

GatorCurrie helped me plan out some of my activities for the next day, and invited me to come with her to church in the morning. After the service, I headed over to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of seeing an alligator. I was, after all, in Florida. I pulled over several times to scan the water, but always came up short. At one point I parked my car next to a couple of locals out fishing, and on my way back from yet another fruitless search one of them called out, “There’s a little gator over here if you want to take a picture.” Apparently I had been wearing my intentions on my sleeve. I walked over to where the woman was pointing and sure enough, there was a tiny alligator, not much more than a baby. I took a picture and thanked her.

The nearby Riverside Cafe had been recommended to me, and Currie told me to get the smoked mullet if it was available. While pulling a filet of smoked fish directly off the bone is not normally my cup of tea, the fish was pretty good. After lunch I headed up to Wakulla Springs, which is one of the many places in Florida that can lay claim to a “Fountain of Youth” connection. Despite the warm temperature, the spring water is always a bit chilly. That doesn’t stop hundreds of visitors from flocking to it every year.

Jumping into the SpringsSweaty from the heat, I decided to throw on my swimsuit and join in. Wakulla is well-developed, with parking, bath houses, food, and a lodge. There’s a floating dock for swimmers to rest on, and a two-story tower structure for jumping. Local minerals give the water a brown hue, which creates the sensation of swimming in over-steeped tea. I swam out to the dock, and sat there with the other swimmers to warm up again. I imagined conquistadors pushing their way through hot, muggy, swampy forests, only to have the trees open up to reveal a beautiful lake that had sprung up from the ground. A lake that was cold and dark, but always safe to drink. Wakulla Springs didn’t need to be the Fountain of Youth, it would have been fantastic just as it is.

Back home Currie showed me an article in the newspaper advertising a poetry reading that evening. She thought might interest me as a writer. I decided to go, but got a bit wrapped up in writing and suddenly found myself running late and rushing to the coffee shop. When I arrived the place was about half full, and there was no indication of a performance taking place. I went up to the counter to ask, and the barista said, “Yeah, they’re doing that sometime tonight.” He pointed to the next room to indicate where it would be, and I ordered a drink. As I was paying a group of about six or seven people my parents’ age walked in and began rearranging chairs and throwing their coats over them. I asked if they were using all the chairs at the table (since it seemed there were none left), and one of the men said with a smile, “Go ahead and sit wherever, we’ll figure it out.”

As everyone settled in with their drinks, I learned that there was considerable miscommunication about the time of the event, but that the featured poet would be arriving soon. The baby boomers were all friends with each other as well as with the poet herself, and most were part of the local writing and theater scene. I told them about my trip and my writing, and one man handed me a business card saying, “Let me know if you’re ever interested in producing one of your plays in our area.”

The poet arrived and gave her reading. The space was small and cramped, and she had to read with audience members pushing in on all sides, including behind her. While her poetry was good, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable performing it and tended to make jokes about her work and herself as a way to make things seems more casual. She was reading partially out of her published book of poems, and at one point asked the audience to call out page numbers at random to decide what she’d read next. After it was decided that enough time had passed, she gave her bow and we applauded. As I was getting up to leave, one of the men I had been chatting with earlier came over to me.


“I live just down the street,” he told me. “This group of us, we’re all old friends, and every Sunday we gather at my house to watch Masterpiece Theater. Would you like to join us?”

The cafe is situated right next to a lake, and we walked a few blocks on the shore to the man’s house. It’s a big, beautiful place with dinosaur stained glass in the windows. There were bowls of candy all over the coffee table in front of the TV, and I was given a plate to load up on the food leftover from the evening’s potluck. The poet eventually joined us, and fixed herself a plate as well. I called Currie to let her know I’d be a bit late, and she laughed as she told me she wasn’t surprised I had managed to make some new friends. I found a good spot in front of the TV, and the seven of us watched a delightful evening of intriguing British mystery.

The next day I said goodbye to my wonderful host and headed back towards the center of town. I’d been told that the view from the giant, ugly capitol building is quite nice, and I was intrigued at the prospect of seeing the protestors after they had been held up in the building all weekend. I went inside the new capitol and was greeted by a polite gentleman with a pamphlet map of the facility. He pointed out some of the highlights, and I made note of where the governor’s office was. I assumed I would see some protestors walking around, but I couldn’t pick out any from the handful of people passing by. I did, however, see an awful lot of police officers. I walked over to the section of the building that held the governor’s office. There were several more cops, including a pair standing on either side of the lobby entrance to the office. These two seemed more serious and intimidating than the others. I walked up slowly, pretending to be interested in the photos of past governors that lined the hallway. When I got close to the lobby I hesitated, and one of the officers gave a huge, friendly smile. “You’re welcome to go in,” he told me. I thanked him and went in the lobby. No one was there. I walked back out.  I wandered around for a bit, checked out the observation deck, and even slipped into the interfaith chapel for a moment. Before leaving I made one last pass near the governor’s office, this time seeing five or so young people sitting on the lobby couches. A friendly-looking woman was standing nearby. She looked to be in her early twenties, and was looking at me as I looked at the protestors. She was one of the organizers of the protest for the group Dream Defenders, and we struck up a conversation. She told me about their protest and the interaction they had with the governor the previous Friday.

“We asked for a special session to reconsider Stand Your Ground,” she told me. “He said he wouldn’t do it, but that he’d pray for us.” She shot me a sarcastic smile.

I asked where everyone was, and she said most had gone off to shower and eat breakfast. They planned to return later that day and stay until the governor listened. I wished her luck and was on my way.

Capitol with DolphinsAbout a month later, the Dream Defenders ended their protest. They planned to move their efforts towards individual lawmakers and registering young voters. Before I left Tallahassee I talked to my host Currie about the protest and she shook her head. “The problem is that everyone in the state legislature likes the law. We need to get rid of them first.” Perhaps she’s right, and that seems to be the conclusion the Defenders have come to. When I think back on Tallahassee, one moment comes to mind more than anything else. While I was touring the historic capitol I sat down to watch a short intro video about the history of government in Florida. Near the end, as the film began to cover modern day changes, the narrator proudly claimed, “Florida has won awards for good government.” There was no expanding on the statement, just a single sentence implying that at one time someone, somewhere, felt that the State of Florida was doing something well. I wonder who it could have been.

Ms. Cherry and the Parsonage

I had about an hour to kill in Montgomery, and decided to check out the parsonage for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This was the house Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in with his wife and kids for most of the civil rights movement. It’s an ordinary white house several blocks away from the church, the kind that would otherwise go unnoticed. The house on the corner has been turned into the visitor’s center and museum, which is where I met two older black women working behind the counter. I asked if there were any more tours today, and how long they would be (I had a prior engagement back in Prattville). One of the women said she had one more tour scheduled, but there was a very special group coming for it, and the tour might take a bit longer. “I have my regular tour, my VIP tour, and my extra special VIP tour,” she told me. “They’re getting the extra special one, so it’s going to take a full hour.” They offered to have the second woman take me through the house quickly before the group arrived if I was in a hurry, but I didn’t feel like I could turn down an opportunity for an extra special VIP tour. Especially when I realized I was talking to Ms. Cherry.

If you look up the TripAdvisor reviews for the parsonage, you will find that nearly everyone mentions the fantastic qualities of Ms Cherry. Adjectives used to describe Ms. Cherry and her teaching style include: amazing, eloquent, touching, inspiring, incredible, phenomenal, sincere, informative, comical. Nouns include: knowledge, personality, authenticity, treasure, a gift. Three different reviewers also referred to her stories as giving them “chills.” There are no negative reviewers for the Dexter Parsonage. And every word is true.

When the treasured group arrived I found out why they were so special. This was an association of teachers, and Ms. Cherry is a retired school teacher from New England. She sat us down in a small theater in the museum, where we watched a brief film. Then it was Ms. Cherry’s time to shine. She pulled out a scrap book of clippings and photos, pointing to the various civil rights leaders that came through Montgomery. She pulled framed photos off the walls and told the story of King’s life. She would be in the middle of a story when a name would come up, and she’d turn to us saying, “You know who Diane Nash is, of course.” When we responded with blank stares she would let out an exasperated exhale and launch into the story of yet another fantastic human being. Many were people she knew personally, and were people who knew Dr. King. As she went through her presentation I started to realize how much of walking museum Ms. Cherry really is. She explained to us that she was all set to settle into retirement after many happy years of teaching, when she felt a calling to work at the parsonage. She is still working because she feels that she must. She is personally preserving the lesser-known history of civil rights, and I can’t imagine what will be lost when she’s gone.

Opening the DoorAfter a lengthy, informative, and hilarious presentation, it was time to go over to the house. We walked up onto the porch and Ms. Cherry grabbed one of the teachers. He was a young man who just happened to be from Ms. Cherry’s home state, and she took a real shine to him. She pulled open the screen door and handed him a key. “You’re about to open the door that Martin Luther King Jr. opened every day,” she said. There was an impressed sound from the crowd as the man blushed with humility. There was a pause, and Ms. Cherry looked at him. “Don’t you want someone to take your picture?” she asked with a smile. We all laughed, he handed over his camera, and suddenly every camera was out to record the moment.

In the house Ms. Cherry talked about the daily life and struggles that the King family faced. She showed us remnants and marks from bricks and bombs, and explained how even when a guest was staying over, no one could sleep in the front room out of fear of what might happen in the night. She talked about the night the house was bombed while Dr. King was at a meeting arranging the famous Montgomery bus boycott. King rushed home to ensure his wife and young child were unharmed. A crowd of furious black supporters gathered outside the house, ready to erupt into violence in defense of their leader. Dr. King stood on the porch and urged peace, telling the crowd to disperse without incident. They did as he asked, and as Ms. Cherry tells it, many lives were saved that night.

The final room of the tour is the kitchen. Ms. Cherry talked about how bad things had gotten for King in his final weeks, and how dangerous his work had become. She told us how he would always send flowers to his wife back home while he was away, and she pointed to a vase of plastic carnations on the counter behind me. “The last bouquet he sent was made of plastic flowers, and when Coretta called to ask him about it, he said, ‘I wanted to give you something that would last.'” Dr. King knew the reality of the threats he faced. I had seen video of the speech he gave the night before he died, and thought it was a mysterious fluke that it seemed to contain such premonition. Now I realize it wasn’t a fluke at all. He knew what he was doing would kill him. He knew it was coming soon.

Ms. Cherry sat down at the kitchen table and told a story from a few years earlier in King’s life. It was the story of a difficult and sleepless night when the reverend came into his kitchen to be alone with his thoughts. He began to speak with God. It was the moment King said he let go of his fear of death. It was the moment he talked about in that final speech, when he said that he had been to the mountain top. Sitting in this kitchen, Dr. King found the faith and courage to continue the fight, and see it through until his end.

Ms. Cherry paused and one of the women stifled a sob. Ms. Cherry told her it was okay, to go right ahead and cry. I had been politely listening to the story without much thought, but hearing the other woman start to cry almost brought me to tears. Suddenly I was flooded with emotion, and so was the entire room. Ms. Cherry said that normally no pictures are allowed in the house, but “if we do it quickly no one will know.”

Me and Ms CherryI offered to take the photo so the entire group could be in it with Ms. Cherry, and Ms. Cherry insisted I get one with her as well. Back in the museum she gave the group leader a packet of “special materials” that she had put together just for them, but then said she’d make one for me too. Inside was more information on the house, a photo she’d taken as one of the original boycott buses drove in front of the house, and a list of qualifications to join “Ms. Cherry’s Character Club.” It’s clear that for Ms. Cherry, character is everything, and to her it’s everything Dr. King was about. She reminded us that “the measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In trying to write an ending for this post, I asked myself how Ms. Cherry might end it. I think she might tell you to imagine a small, 1950s kitchen, painted yellow with light blue accents on the furniture. I think she would ask you to imagine a young Dr. King sitting at the table alone at night. And then I think she would repeat to you the last public words he ever spoke:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

The Atheists of Alabama

I mentioned to my CouchSurfing host in Birmingham that I was visiting different churches as part of my trip. An atheist himself, he suggested I try to track down an atheist group before I left the South, as they might be able to provide an interesting alternative perspective. I thought it was a great idea, though I had almost no idea how to find an atheist group. Churches are pretty simple to track down, what with their easily identifiable buildings and denominational websites. I asked around online and eventually found a freethinkers group through The site said the group would be having a coffee meeting and a happy hour get together while I was in town, but gave no info about where or when. I emailed the group’s coordinator asking if they would be okay with a visitor, and gave full disclosure of my Christian roots. I told them that I was interested in talking and learning, not debating. I didn’t want to start a fight. The coordinator, Sandi, emailed me back to explain that some of their members are “discreet” about their atheism, and she normally tries to warn everyone before letting a visitor come to a meeting. There just wouldn’t be enough time to get the word out before the week’s regular meetings. However, she knew that several members would be happy to talk with me while I was in town, and we set up a lunch meeting.

We met at Sinclairs, a popular restaurant in Montgomery. It’s surprisingly easy to show up at a restaurant and find someone you’ve never met before – you just look for the person who’s looking for you. I sat down with Sandi, a college student in her early twenties, at an empty table set for five. She said the others were running late, and gave me recommendations on the food. I asked her how she got involved, and she told the story of growing up Christian, slowly letting go of her beliefs, and eventually seeing a flier for a freethinkers group on her college campus. Now that she’s active in the atheist community, she’s discovering that lifelong friends of hers are also atheist. Whenever she finds herself defending her views to someone who claims they don’t know any atheists, she confidently tells them, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know they are.”

Church with FlagsEventually the rest of the group showed up: Paul, a tall, thin, white man who spent most of his life quietly defending his faith to others and himself – until he moved to Alabama. Once in the South, his internal disagreement with the faith he saw around him was so strong he became a full, proud, atheist. There was a slightly older man who was generally quiet, and a young black man. I’m not certain if they would want their names known, so I’ll refer to them as Alan and Mark respectively. Mark explained his troubles with being a black atheist, and how when he expresses his beliefs, people often respond with, “But…you’re black.” To hear Mark talk about it, it seems that atheism is strange to many in the South, but a black atheist might as well be a unicorn.

I asked if they could elaborate on why some of their members didn’t feel comfortable “coming out” as atheist. Alan explained that one member of their group lost custody of his kids because the judge thought they would be better off in a Christian household. Many worry about the backlash from their family, others from their jobs. The lunch group explained how difficult it can be to form such an organization, especially living where they are. How do you find new members if existing members can’t even admit their own participation? How do you let people know about your group without coming off as atheist evangelists? And what do you do once you’re together? Paul explained that some members are just looking for a support group – somewhere to meet with like-minded people and to talk about their personal struggles. Others felt like it was a starting place for activism and political action – that they should be lobbying against laws that discriminate against non-Christians, and working to create a more accepting society for atheists. Still others felt that the group could be a conduit for good works – that they should be donating to charities and organizing the same kind of social justice events that are normally hosted by churches.

In short, they have the same problems of any small group, including most small churches: getting new members, holding to your ideals, spreading your ideas without forcing them, and trying to figure out how to make a real impact in the world. It’s a hard business for any organization, and they have to do it in relative secrecy.

I had been told that in the South, one of the first questions people ask is, “What church do you go to?” My friend Christine told me it was how people placed you, in the way generations past might have asked for your last name. I asked the atheists how often they encountered the question, and they said it’s fairly common with anyone you share more than a few words with – on bar with “So what do you do for a living?” If an atheist answers the church question honestly, there are a handful of responses she/he is likely to get. There are those that will react with scorn and try to pick a fight. Some will attempt to casually convert them, maybe inviting the person to come with them to church. And my personal favorite response: disbelief. An atheist? You? Sandi said she often hears the phrase, “But you’re so nice!” Perhaps this is my favorite because it reminds me of the response I got a lot in college. I was in a liberal major at a liberal school in a liberal city in a blue state. When I told people I was religious the typical response was, “Really?” with a tone that said, “but you seem so normal!”

It was hard to get Alan to say much at all, though when he finally did, he spoke with more distain for religion than anyone else had voiced. He didn’t like that members of their group insisted that they treat religious people and groups with respect. “I don’t respect them,” he said in a quiet, deep voice. I could understand why he kept quiet. Just talking seemed to stir up pain.

As we were walking out of the restaurant, Paul expressed that he was pleasantly surprised with me. At their coffee meeting the night before, my request to attend a regular meeting was discussed. He said that he had been one of the loudest voices against letting me visit the group. He said, “If she shows up, I’ll be the first one to kick her out!” We talked some more and he asked if I would be joining them for happy hour later. I gently reminded him that I was, for good reason, not invited. He laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”

After listening to their stories for over an hour, it was clear that these atheists were facing the same kind of discrimination that so many have faced before, and many continue to face today. They want the freedom to be who they are openly. They want equal treatment under the law as well as in society. They don’t want to be surrounded by the constant reminders of a culture they’re not a part of, and they certainly don’t want the government upholding those reminders. It’s a story you could tell about race, gender, or sexuality. It’s the story of civil rights.

The question I ask myself is, “What can I do?” I already agree with them on every point. I don’t think religion should dictate custody. I don’t think the ten commandments belong outside a courthouse. When they describe the kind of religion they’re surrounded by, I don’t agree with it. I don’t subscribe to a hell-based theology. I don’t believe in literal interpretations of Genesis or Revelation. I don’t think homosexuality, abortion, or contraception are inherently sinful. And I live 2000 miles away, in a very different faith culture. So what can I do?

Church SignsI figured I could start by listening to their podcast. Sandi and Paul recently started podcasting, and I subscribed before I left Montgomery. So far they’ve only had seven episodes and I’ve listened to them all. But it wasn’t easy. Not because of the content, which was generally interesting and informative. But the Sandi and Paul I heard online weren’t the same Sandi and Paul I met in person. They laughed less. They swore more. They used insulting and hateful speech. They called people morons and inbreds. Sometimes their reasonings seemed to be based in rhetoric rather than logic. I felt I was being yelled at not as a Christian, but simply as a listener. It’s the same way I feel when I listen to Glen Beck.

I’ve seen it discussed at length how the anonymity of the internet allows normally nice people to become hateful. Because there are no personal repercussions, they can behave in a way they normally wouldn’t. I think the same may be true when you are allowed your own microphone, and your audience becomes anonymous. If you can’t see your audience, you will never see the pain your words may cause. After all, the words aren’t hurting you.

While I’ve never attempted a head count, it’s safe to say that the majority of my friends in Seattle are atheist or agnostic. As far as I know, this difference is generally inconsequential to our friendship. Occasionally they will say something that really grinds at me, and I know I do the same. But we don’t talk about it much, and when we do the conversation is civil. I think it’s because there’s a lot of power in the presence of another human being. With a real person right there, you’re painfully aware of their thoughts, fears, and emotions, and you realize that your personal convictions are not worth causing them pain, no matter how sure of those convictions you normally are. It’s true even with a total stranger whom you will never meet again – such as a young woman traveling through your city, or some people you found on the internet.

It’s embarrassing to think that something as seemingly huge as a belief or non-belief in a higher power can be instantly undone by the mere presence of a human. I suppose it’s because once in front of you, such things become a real person, not just a set of silly and false ideologies. And you realize that as right as you know you are, there’s always a little room for doubt. After all, here’s an ordinary person who doesn’t agree. They must have their reasons. And perhaps humanity shares a more universal and overwhelming faith – in people.

The Highs and Lows of Parenthood

I hadn’t seen Kevin or Christine in ten years. When I first met them, I was a teenager and they were a young married couple who had recently joined our church. Eventually they rented the house next door to my parents, and had their first son, Kell. Kell was only a year old when Kevin’s job with the railroad forced the family to move to Michigan. Over the years my folks have managed to see them a handful of times, but I never had the chance. Several years ago they moved back to their home state of Alabama, which is where they were when I knocked on their door.

I enjoyed some long overdue hugs with the Kevin and Christine when I walked in the house. Kell is eleven now, and the oldest of their three boys. I recognized him the minute I saw him, which is strange since I normally have trouble recognizing my own family in baby pictures. Kell looked at me with a mix of happiness and trepidation, and I could tell that Kevin and Christine had explained to the boys that I knew Kell when he was a baby. As the youngest in my family, I’ve been in a similar position plenty of times. I’m often called to feign recognition of people I met when I was too young to remember, and I did my best to assure Kell that it was okay if he saw me as a stranger.

For Logan’s part, he came right up and asked if I knew him already. I told him no, since he was only four and I hadn’t seen the family since they left Seattle. Ian, age eight, chimed in with various questions trying to ascertain the exact relationship I had with his parents. How old was I when I knew them? How old were they? Where was this? Was he born yet? What about Logan?

Logan on ChairThe two youngest boys then insisted on giving me a tour of the house. While adults are inclined to show you the bathrooms, the room you’ll be sleeping in, and where the extra towels are kept, children have a very different view of their own home. This is where Ian keeps his toys. That is Kell’s train. This is a bathroom. That is a toilet. This is Mom and Dad’s room. This is Dad’s side of the bed and that is Mom’s side of the bed. This is where we eat. That is a chair.

They also have a black cat that was found in a pipe, named Piper. Piper is one of the most accommodating cats you will ever see. This is a necessity if a cat is to live with an eight-year-old boy who is in love with her. Ian is constantly picking Piper up, hiding her inside boxes and closing the lids, and throwing stuff on top of her. Piper does almost nothing in response, which seems to be in everyone’s best interest.

While the parents made dinner I was pulled into Ian and Logan’s room to play an intense and elaborate game of make believe. There were dinosaurs. Time went from day to night. For some reason I had to hide in the closet. Logan insisted we need to build a fort, and Ian responded with confidence, “I got this.” The boy is a regular engineer.

Maru in a BoxAfter dinner and a lengthy argument about why Logan had to sleep in his own bed and couldn’t sleep with Katrina in the play room, the two youngest boys went to bed. As the evening started to wind down, the adults began to reminisce. We talked about what we remembered from Seattle and what has happened in the ten years since. I commented on how laid back Piper was, and the night ended, as so many do, with us watching youtube videos of Maru the Cat jumping into boxes.

I woke up the next morning when Logan crawled into the bed next to me. He was trying to be sneaky and I wasn’t ready to get up, so I pretended not to notice. Eventually he tired of this game and left. A few minutes later he came back, got into the bed, and then left again. As the house began to fill with sound I got up, and at Logan’s insistence played another round of make believe, which he referred to as “that same game we played before.” Almost nothing about the game was the same. At one point we had all been shrunk down to a very small size. We had to rescue ourselves.

Christine invited me to join her and the boys to go swimming at the local YMCA. We got all of the boys ready to go and showed up at the pool door to find there was a camp using the pool today. It wouldn’t be open for another twenty minutes. For those of you who are not used to caring for a set of three young boys, twenty minutes is a gruesome length of time. Christine loves her children, but they are clearly a handful. I could see the blood drain from her face at the thought of standing outside the pool with three anxious boys for a full twenty minutes. We made it through. It wasn’t easy. At once point Logan headbutted me in the stomach. I don’t know why and neither did he.

In order to swim in the deep end, children have to pass the swim test without using googles or floaties. To pass, one must swim under the dividing rope, get to the wall, and swim back. Kell has long since passed his swim test and sports a small plastic necklace to prove it. Ian is practicing for his test, though he’s clearly got a ways to go. When we got into the pool, Ian clung to his mother so that she could help him practice. Logan clung to me since he can only barely swim. Kell was tall enough to reach the bottom, and was therefore mostly on his own. Over the next 45 minutes Christine and I played a game of pass the child, taking turns for which little boy would be clinging onto us for dear life as we walked around in four feet of water. Ian practiced going under the rope (which mostly consisted of him insisting he wasn’t quite ready yet), and Logan, Kell and I played with the floaties as we jumped and splashed around. The entire time we were in the pool I don’t believe I spent more than 10 seconds without a little boy clinging to my arm, and Christine had even less free time. When we finally got out of the pool and the boys were drying off, I looked over to Christine and asked, “So how do you do this when it’s just you?” She sighed and shrugged and looked exasperated, indicating she had no idea.

After meeting up with some people in Montgomery, I drove back to the suburbs hoping to catch Kell’s wreath laying ceremony at the Prattville Cemetery. It was Founder’s Day, and Kell and his Boy Scout troupe were supposed to participate in the ceremony to lay a wreath on the grave of Daniel Pratt. I was running a bit late when I got a text from Kevin indicating that the heat, combined with the size and volume of mosquitos, was making for a pretty miserable ceremony. He suggested I was better off going straight to the house and meeting them there. They wouldn’t be staying much longer.

A Star and a ChurchOnce they returned the three of us set out for the city again so they could show me the sights. I was excited to get to spend some time with Kell. While Logan and Ian are great, they tend to dominate the situation, and as a result I hadn’t had much time to hang out with Kell, who seemed like he had turned into a pretty smart and interesting young kid. Kell loves trains, and we pulled over to watch a few cargo cars pass through the city. We saw the “First White House of the Confederacy,” as well as a civil rights memorial art piece that unfortunately was under construction. I talked with Kell about Loving v. Virginia, and he told me about what they learn in school regarding civil rights. At the Capitol Building I took one of my favorite photos of the trip. From the top steps you can see a star memorial on the ground indicating the spot that Jefferson Davis stood as he was sworn in as the first president of the Confederate States of America. One block down the street is the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the struggle for civil rights is said to have begun – the church where Rev. Martin Luther King preached. So much happened between the foreground and the background of that photo.

As Kevin, Kell, and I were pulling into the driveway back at the house, I noticed a cat I hadn’t seen before in the yard. I pointed it out, and an excited Kell yelled, “Where is it?” The cat darted behind our car, Kevin pulled in to park, and Kell hopped out. I looked out into the street to see where the cat had gone, and it was in the street violently seizing. I had never seen such a thing. It was so horrifically unnatural – it belonged in a movie about black magic. The cat had been hit by a passing car. Kevin and I watched as the convulsions slowed to a stop, and the cat became motionless. I looked around for Kell, who was no where to be seen.

“Perfect timing,” Kevin said with a sort of sad sarcasm he’s always been good at.

Kevin explained how Kell is especially sensitive about animals, and takes it really hard when he sees animals in pain. We walked in the house and Kevin started calling out for his son to make sure he was alright. From the kitchen we heard Christine yell, “He’s in here.” We walked in to find Kell pressed into his mother, hugging her so tight she could barely hug him back. After awhile he let go, and sat at the kitchen table wiping away his tears.

“Do you think the cat be okay?” Kell asked his dad.

“No Kell,” Kevin told him honestly. “It won’t.”

The four of us stayed in the kitchen, consoling Kell as Kevin and Christine made dinner. When he seemed to be getting better, Christine sat down next to Kell to rub his back in that comforting way mothers have. Kell leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and told him, “After your brothers go to bed.”

We all ate dinner, and Kevin gave Christine a break from the kids. She took me to downtown Prattville to see the end of the Founder’s Day festivities. Most of the activities were closing up, but we managed to walk around and see a few stores. There was a man dressed up as Daniel Pratt, and a woman dressed as his daughter. It’s a small town, and Christine kept running into people she knew. Most were other parents, and they talked about the latest updates on their respective children.

Back home, the family had dinner and Logan and Ian were put to bed. This is when I found out what Kell had whispered to his mother earlier. Ian has a bad peanut allergy, but it’s not nearly as bad as the fear of peanuts he’s developed as a result. Which is why the family always eats SunButter and why Ian doesn’t know that there’s a jar of peanut butter hidden on the top shelf of the pantry. Christine pulled out the peanut butter and a jar of jam from the fridge. Kell had asked his mother for a secret peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I stayed up late talking with Kell. He’s a good kid, and Kevin and Christine are just as wonderful as I remember them. Before bed Christine walked up to me with a big smile, holding a box she had found in the recycling bin. She put it in front of Piper, and the cat jumped inside. Just like Maru.

Birmingham Legacy

After my disappointment in Memphis at only getting to see part of the Civil Rights Museum, I was glad to hear the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham had also received rave reviews. The museum begins with a short film about the history and origins of the “separate but equal” state we found ourselves in during the 20th century. The last shot of the film shows a set of water fountains – one for blacks and one for whites. The screen then rises up and reveals a set of matching replicas that mark the entrance to the museum. Because a person could walk on either side of the constructed fountains, it almost seemed to imply that one entrance was for whites and one for blacks. Most of the other patrons watching the film were black, and walked on the side marked with the black fountain. Whether this was by choice, accident, or unconscious implication I’m not sure. I crossed to the other side of the theater to follow them, even though it was more crowded. In the end, no one entered on the white side.

The museum has replicas of black and white school houses, info boards about important court decisions, and old advertisements that played on black stereotypes. There’s a full Ku Klux Klan robe on display with a placard listing it as an “anonymous donation.” At one point I walked into a room filled with faceless, life-sized human figures etched in glass. Over the speakers I heard voices reciting the old white sentiments of the era, and a projector showed the words on the wall. Some were polite. “I don’t believe there is a race problem in Alabama.” Others were not. “I don’t want my kids in school with niggers.” Other museum patrons passed through the room as I stood there, staring at the wall. I couldn’t move. I listened to the whole horrific tape, only leaving when it began to loop. I wanted to cry.

Gates at Kelly Ingram Park

The exhibits continued, talking about bus boycotts and freedom riders. More-so than in most history books, the institute gives a sense of the danger of the time. These were protests that could end your life. This was a world in which you could be murdered by a mob and no one would stop them. A world where fighting for justice meant dying without it. Walking out of the Institute, two different black men nodded hello to me as I passed them on the street. I thought about the things I’d read inside. For a black man in the south in the 1950s, looking at a white woman the wrong way could get you killed.

I had lunch at Miss D’s, a soul food place down the street that was recommended to me by my host. He told me it was a classic “meat and three,” meaning a serving of meat plus three kinds of vegetables. The definition of vegetable was pretty broad however, and encompassed any number of other side dishes. I sat down with my comforting plate full of starch, the only white person in the restaurant. It was two days after the Treyon Martin verdict, and the story was playing on the TV. The newscaster was speaking with viewers who would call in with their two cents, and a man on the telephone was saying, “I can’t believe that in 2013 we’re still talking about racisim.” The host seemed to stumble a bit, and I will admit I also wasn’t sure what sentiment the man was trying to get across. There was an awkward pause before he elaborated that it seemed to him that we should be done with this already, and that we sorted out this kind of racism a long time ago. I remembered a video I’d seen inside the institute. An older white woman from the 1950s was saying how she didn’t think they had a problem with prejudice in Birmingham. She told a story about her involvement organizing an art contest for children, and the winner was a young black boy. When the boy and his family tried to visit the exhibit where his art was on display, they were turned away. They were not allowed in to see the art. They contacted this woman to explain the situation, she made a few phone calls, and the family was let in. She didn’t see that it was much of a problem. It was just a misunderstanding and besides, everything worked out in the end.

Dogs at Kelly Ingram ParkAcross the street from the Civil Rights Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, which hosts a number of commemorative statues, especially in reference to the violence against the Children’s March that took place there in 1963. On TripAdvisor, many people had recommended the park for it’s beautiful and moving statues, but complained that there were an awful lot of panhandlers there. When I first walked up to the park, an older black man approached me. In my normal life I admit that I probably would have done my best to ignore him and get him to go away. But I’m on an adventure, and standing in broad daylight twenty feet from a parked police car seemed as good a place as any to start a conversation with a homeless man. His first words were to let me know that he was not a danger and not trying to hassle me, and then asked if I was about to see the park. I told him I was, and he offered to walk with me inside for awhile. He gestured to the statues and said he was about 8 years old “when all this happened.” He’s lived in Birmingham ever since. I asked him if things had changed, and he said yes, they certainly have. He hesitated as though he was about to say more, but then only repeated, “Yes, they have.” At one point in our conversation he asked if he could have twenty dollars, and I told him I could give him one dollar. I handed it over and we talked some more. After a while he told me he should probably go sit down somewhere, because to be honest, he was “a little drunk.” As he was leaving, he handed the dollar back to me, telling me to have a nice day.

I continued around the park, and found a shady spot next to a fountain to sit down. There were many seemingly homeless people in the park. Most were keeping to themselves. All were black. A man got my attention, but I couldn’t hear him very well. Once again, in my everyday life I probably would have used that as an excuse to ignore him, but instead I got up and went to sit beside him. We talked for awhile, and I learned he was an army veteran. He told me he wasn’t homeless, that he had a home. But his home was a long way out of town, and there was no bus from here to there. He had to be in the city to get his benefits from the V.A., so “this is where I am.” He asked if I could spare $1.36 for him to buy some comfort, and I gave him the dollar the first man gave back to me. He thanked me, and said with an earnestness that I could not help but believe, “this will come back to you two-fold.” As I left I casually said, “Take care of yourself.” He pointed to the sky and replied, “He’s taking care of me.”

Alabama TheaterI thought a lot about how to end this. I thought about other times in my life I’ve experienced or witness racism. I thought about a busker in Scotland yelling out offensive noises to a friend of mine who sometimes seemed like the only black person in the U.K. I thought about that same friend explaining that his last name comes from the salve holders who owned his family. I thought about George Zimmerman, and how someone had said that if his last name were Martinez we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It reads like a bad tree falling in a forest joke: “if a hispanic man shoots a black man in Florida, does anyone care?” I thought about a friend of mine in high school, whose college admittance essay was about moving from North Dakota to Seattle and encountering racial diversity for the first time. I thought about the church in Mobile, and the park manager in Chickasaw. And I got no where. I can’t think of a single insightful thing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. And that is our legacy in the United States. We can talk it to death and still not fix it. This is something we did that got us where we are, for better and for worse. And sometimes it makes me angry, sometimes I feel guilty, sometimes I don’t even notice, and sometimes I want to cry. And sometimes the best I’ll be able to do is take the word of an old drunk man I met in a park who told me that things have changed. Yes, they have.

All of the Other Things that Happened in Birmingham

I met Jon, my couch surfing host, at a BBQ joint in Birmingham for lunch. Back when I was in the southwest, I was often told where to get good Mexican food. Since Kansas City I’ve been told where to get good BBQ. As an appetizer the waitress brought us slices of plain white bread and sauce for dipping. I had never seen such a thing before. I talked with my host about the various attractions that had been recommended to me for Birmingham, and he added his own two cents. Jon is a regular host for CS, and is used to travelers. We figured out a plan for my afternoon, determined a good time to meet back at his home later, and then he went back to work.

Vulcan PointingMy first stop was Vulcan Park, a lovely public park on top of a hill overlooking the city. While the skyline is nice, the real view is of Vulcan’s godly posterior. The largest cast iron statue in the world, the Roman god Vulcan looks over the city, a testament to it’s early roots in the iron and steel industries. For whatever reason the God of Fire and the Forge has been given an apron but no pants, and his bottom seems to sit in the uncanny valley between realism and fiction. It’s hard to look away.

Liberty from BelowAfter the park I headed over to the scaled down replica of the Statue of Liberty that sits on the grounds of the Boy Scout Headquarters. While the online reviews clearly indicated that it was probably not worth the trip, it seemed like just the sort of kitschy American thing I had to see. There is absolutely nothing of interest in the area directly around the statue, and standing there I started to count how many versions of the Statue of Liberty I had seen in my life compared to how many there invariably are in the world. I certainly didn’t expect Birmingham to be the site of so many large statues of Roman gods.

I had some time to kill before my host would be home from work, so I looked up a coffee shop not too far from his place where I could do some writing. The classic chalk menu on the wall behind the register had less than a dozen items. It was the kind of place that offered a limited selection of specialty drinks. No coffee was just coffee, but strange combinations like Dark Nigerian Pomegranate Roast and Wild Mint Apricot Tea. I don’t like coffee, so I usually order a hot chocolate or a hazelnut steamer (steamed milk with a flavor shot). I was trying to figure out if they would even have hot chocolate at such an esoteric place when the barista noticed my confused and vacant stare.

“Were you thinking coffee or tea?” he asked.

“Tea,” I told him, knowing I’d at least prefer it to coffee.

“Have you ever had a tea latte before?” he asked.

I suddenly realized that my normal aversion to coffee and my inability to get a job as a barista had turned me into one of the few remaining Seattlites who had no idea what a latte actually was.  I must have stuttered or mumbled or just stared awkwardly for too long, because eventually he added, “It’s sort of a half tea, half milk.”

“I’ve never had it,” I told him, “but it sounds good.”

“In that case, I would recommend the almond chai tea, it makes a great latte.”

I agreed, knowing that in terms of food I tend to have good luck by trusting the advice of locals. I claimed a table and set up my laptop while he fixed my drink. It was absolutely delicious, and the chai latte would become my new go-to drink at coffee shops for several weeks. It was a blow to my finances to be paying for a regularly priced beverage for once, but at least I finally had something to buy in a coffee shop that felt grown-up. Odd that I had to go to Alabama to learn how to order like a Seattleite.

Back at the apartment, Jon and I decided to cook up some frozen fare at his place rather than go out to eat. We feasted on re-heated chicken breast and talked about people we’d met and places we’d seen. I asked him if he felt Alabama was as bad as it’s often portrayed. He told me that while you’d certainly find that sort of racist redneck mentality out in the country, Birmingham was a city like any other. He told me a story about a conservative friend of his that moved out of South Birmingham because it reminded him too much of Berkley. “Cities are cities, country folk are country folk,” he said.

SlossThe next day I went to see Sloss Furnaces. It’s an old iron plant that is now a historical landmark. Many of the old structures are still there, and visitors are invited to walk around the grounds and explore. There are a few arrows painted on the ground to let you know where the info boards and cell phone audio tour stops are, but for the most part you’re on your own. Truly dangerous places have been permanently blocked, but there are any numbers of heavy doors to open and dark, dripping staircase to walk down. The whole place looks like the beginning of a Bones episode right before you find a dead body. There’s ivy climbing up the walls and old chairs next to the machines. There are basements and tunnels and rail tracks leading nowhere. I felt like I was eight years old. This place begged for imagination.

Old ChairJon was heading straight from work to “The Hash.” A hash group is typically referred to as “a drinking club with a running problem,” which is a very accurate description. Jon invited me to participate, but both running and drinking beer are on the top of my list of things I do not want to do. Instead he suggested I meet up with them at the bar after the run.  He told me it was Hawaiian themed, but if I didn’t have anything special to wear I would still be welcome. I showed up at the Tin Roof bar at the suggested time, but I didn’t see Jon or anyone else who looked like they’d just been running. I did see a man in a grass skirt ordering a drink however, and I walked up to him.

“Are you a hasher?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “I was just grabbing a beer.”

“So where is everyone?”

“Oh, they’re all meeting in a back alley first, it’s just a couple blocks form here.” The bartender brought him a beer in a plastic cup and the grass skirted man closed out his tab. I explained that I was staying with one of the hashers and was told to meet them.

“Oh cool. Do you want a ride?”

In terms of seemingly bad ideas, getting into a car with a strange man in a grass skirt who is drinking a beer and has offered to take you to a back alley in an unfamiliar neighborhood should be pretty high up on the list. However circumstances being what they were, this felt like a completely safe and reasonable thing to do. We found the rest of the group in a parking lot at the end of the alley, drinking beers and donning running gear and coconut bras. What followed was a highly organized ritual of initiation, tradition, music, lore, posturing, and hierarchy. I felt like an anthropologist.

TracksThe group circled around, everyone with a drink in hand. Three new members were losing their “virginity” with this event, and that required them to recite what they had learned about the group as well as share a handful of personal, intimate, and/or embarrassing details about themselves. They also had to chug a beer in time with a group song or risk dumping whatever remained in their glass on top of their heads. There was a toilet plunger, called the Hashit, that got passed to a different member at the end of each hash. It seemed to be awarded based on some inept or despicable deed as determined by the group. This week it went to the runner who managed to lose his driver’s license in the middle of the run. Each new carrier is asked to add an item to the Hashit, and at the time I saw it the thing was covered in knickknacks and decoration. It should be noted that whoever is in possession of the plunger also uses it as their beer glass. It is commonly filled via “donations” poured from the cups of the other members.

I lost count of how many tunes were sung. They reminded me of old camp songs, but perhaps from a camp specializing in crass and overt sexual discussions. There were songs for people who’d done something well, songs for people who had screwed up, songs for birthdays, songs for announcements, and one song at the end for anyone who had not managed to be in the middle and get sung to already.


After about 20-30 minutes of drinking, swearing, and sexual innuendo we headed back to the Tin Roof. This was a particularly special night, as one of the members was getting named. After participating in a certain number of hashes a runner is given a name by the community, usually involving some sort of vulgar pun. This name is generally tied to the specific person and probably relates to some embarrassing part of their past. As such, the naming process involves the runner relating to the group the most horrific, peculiar, and unusual stories about herself, her running, and especially her sexual history. There is a clear theme going on here. Once the stories have been told, the runner steps aside while the rest of the groups debates possible names, eventually voting on one. The runner is brought back to hear the runner up options and is given her new hash name. It doesn’t matter if she likes it. This is now her name.

The new runner seemed pleased with her name, and drinking was enjoyed by all. The night continued with yelling, dancing, and general bar shenanigans. It was like being back in college. Or possibly some mix of college and what high school is like in movies. Drinking is important. Talking about sex is important. Dancing is important. Covers of your favorite 80s rock songs are important. And no one questions the fun. No one stops to wonder if maturity has merit, because it clearly doesn’t in this arena. Jon and I stayed late into the evening and were among the last to leave.

Close up on city map

I looked up Hashing online later, and was surprised to find how widespread it is, and how common most of the traditions I saw were. At the time, they seemed so unique and specific, as I suppose most traditions do when you’re an outsider. The age range at the hash seemed to be as low as 21 and as high as 40, and I wondered if there comes a point when you just feel too old to be singing dirty songs and drinking out of a toilet plunger. Or perhaps one never out grows such things, only finds new outlets for them. Perhaps that’s why we so often associate aging grandpas and uncles with off-color jokes. For me, I could certainly see the appeal, but I wondered how long I would be able to keep up such a thing before I started to feel like I was wasting my time. But we all have our own immaturities we hold on to, whether it’s bad TV shows or eating junk food or never doing the dishes in a timely manner. Maybe maturity is just the word we use to describe giving up the things we love that we’re told are bad for us. Or perhaps it’s the point at which consequences finally outweigh old joys. After all, it’s not easy to get up in the morning after a truly great hash.

Color by Religion

It seems obvious to me that if one of my goals for this trip is to experience culture, I need to go to church. And I do. Nearly every Sunday, no matter where I am, I find a church to attend. In New Mexico I went to the 300-year-old Catholic mission church, in Kansas I visited the infamous Westboro Baptists, and in the Ozarks it was a nondescript First Baptist. While in the South I knew I wanted to visit a traditionally black church, and maybe even catch one of those big gospel choirs you see in the movies. With nothing else to go on, I looked up the tourist website for Mobile Alabama, and scrolled through their list of “historical churches.”

Outside Big ZionI arrived at Big Zion on State Street almost an hour early, and killed time by parking down the street and writing. I didn’t want to park directly in front of the church for fear someone would notice me. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but I knew I didn’t want to deal with it. The sign outside said that worship started at 11AM, but there was a prayer service at 10:45AM. I figured this would be a sort of collection of hymns and prayers and might be a nice way to ease into things. I re-parked in front of the church at 10:35AM and sat there. I was very nervous, though I’m not sure what about. I saw a few people enter the church. Every face was black. The men wore suits. The women wore single-color skirt suits with matching hats. I worried that my dress wouldn’t be up to snuff. I worried that I would only be seen as an outsider. I worried that I was single-handedly responsible for all oppression white people had ever lobbed onto the rest of the world. And I was being stupid. It’s a church, right? All churches welcome visitors. They would welcome me.


I walked towards the building. The doors were closed, but I saw one slightly ajar and went inside. I was in a foyer and no one was there. I heard voices through a door in front of me and quietly walked in. I was expecting a worship space but found myself in a parish hall – the kind of place you’d host potlucks and meetings and pageant practice. A few tables were set up, and a couple of women were seated. I walked over to them, expecting someone to say something. No one reacted to my presence, so I asked one of the women, “Should I sit here?” indicating the table next to hers. “Of course. Sit wherever you’d like,” she said with a smile. She was polite and nice, and then turned away.

A few more people filed into the room, including an older man who took his spot behind a podium. I felt distinctly out of place. I looked down at my forearm. Four weeks in the hot desert sun had given me a dark tan, and I’d never felt so incredibly white. People were looking at me. I didn’t belong. Anyone could see that.

The old man began a short bible study regarding some of the lesser covered and terribly uninteresting old testament kings. At the end he asked if any newcomers would like to introduce themselves. He looked directly at me and gestured, which was something of a relief. It was a signal that we could all stop pretending they didn’t notice I was different.

I stood up. “My name is Katrina and I’m driving around the country. I saw this church on the Mobile visitor’s website and thought I would come worship with you.”

The mood lightened. I had put my cards on the table and there were smiles all around. I suppose I felt at ease because everyone knew that I was truly “just visiting.” I wasn’t trying to join. I wasn’t looking to push myself into their community as a form of one-woman gentrification. Of course it’s unlikely that any of them thought of it this way. But it’s how I felt, and my admission of transience was the only thing that could make me feel better about the situation.

The old man asked if I would be joining them for worship and I said yes. After the bible study everyone stood up and milled about, talking to each other. I was a little lost, having no idea how I walked through the main church door and ended up in the parish hall. I asked one of the members if it worship was upstairs, and they confirmed. They pointed back to the foyer and told me to head up the stairs. An older gentleman offered to lead the way, and I walked slowly behind him.

Inside Big ZionThe worship hall was beautiful and full of that old church charm. It was decorative but not ornate. I saw a few people in matching robes and got excited for the possibility of that great gospel choir I was hoping to find. Big Zion’s denomination is African Methodist Episcopal Zion, a wordy title befitting the grandchild of a series of denominational separations. The service began with a song, and I will admit I was a bit disappointed by the size and talents of the choir. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t fantastic. And the music wasn’t all clapping and dancing; it was mostly regular hymns. I had set my expectations very high, based on an idea that all black churches must be full of passionate and fantastic singers. Perhaps they should have been wary of me.

I sat alone in my pew, politely following along with the service. When it came time for the sermon I learned that the preacher was also a visitor. He was from out of town and filling in for the regular minister. He preached a sermon meant to be about the AME Zion community specifically, but it could have been about any church or organization. He talked about how we often want new members to come in, but we only want the ones we like. We want new members who are educated and rich. We want new members who will participate in all of the programs that need help. Most importantly, we want new members who won’t try to sit in our pew. I laughed with the rest of the congregation at this last comment, knowing all too well the impossible task of getting parishioners to sit anywhere but their normal pew.

“As if the Holy Ghost will only come to that one spot,” he added with a laugh.

He talked about unity, about not judging each other, about focusing on others rather than our own petty squabbles. He said that if we were truly following the Gospel, we wouldn’t have to preach it with our mouths because people would see it in our actions. “You don’t have to tell someone you’re holy,” he said. I wanted him to come preach at the next Episcopal General Convention.

Near the end of the service there were announcements. The preacher reiterated that he was a visitor himself, and had no way of knowing who in the congregation was also visiting. I stifled a laugh at the thought that anyone could see me and honestly think I belonged. I had worshiped there for nearly two hours, and I still felt like my skin was flashing neon. He asked if any guests would like to introduce themselves and I stood up immediately. My story of traveling and visiting churches along the way was met with smiles and applause, and I was put at ease once more. The service ended.

And then everything changed.

I believe that I can, with total confidence, say that I have never been hugged by so many strangers in such a short span of time. Everyone wanted to meet me. Everyone wanted to hug me or shake my hand. Everyone wanted to wish me well. The welcome I was so desperate for when I walked in the door overwhelmed me as I was trying to walk out. One woman actually ran over to my car to stop me before I left. She and her husband used to live near Seattle, and she wanted to wish me well on my journey.

There have only been a few times in my life where I felt like a racial minority, and I look at those times as gifts. It’s not easy for a white person to understand the length to which skin color effects your daily life, and I see these incidents as opportunities to grow. What’s funny to me is that the church I attend in Seattle is historically Japanese-American, and the majority of our members are Asian. While we at the church adore our Japanese roots, the congregation is no longer strictly Japanese and we would be thrilled to see some other faces walk through the door. It would mean that we had reached out to people truly outside our own community. Big Zion is a different church with it’s own history and circumstances, but for all I know they feel the same way. For all I know they struggle with the same dilemmas we have in Seattle of welcoming new people without overwhelming them. They are a church like any other – filled with their own spirit, their own human failings, and their own desire to see new faces walk through the door.

Big Zion InfoI had no reason to be nervous or afraid of Big Zion. The true mystery is why I thought they had to be so different. I suppose it’s the same thinking that made me assume they’d have a big choir. It’s the same thinking that keeps churches wishing for “the right” new members to walk through the door. And it’s ultimately what forced the original Big Zion parishioners to gather together in the first place: we assume people who don’t look like us, aren’t like us. We assume that they must want different things, share different ideas, have different feelings. Odd, because I’ve also found that when people talk with someone who does look like them, they tend to assume the other person shares the same political and social beliefs. Neither of these tendencies are helpful, because they are often wrong. It’s as though we’re still carrying around our ancient fear of those outside our own tribe. And at least in my case, knowing that kind of fear is irrelevant isn’t always enough to change my thinking. But I did the best and only thing I could do, perhaps the only thing we can ever do, and the thing that I find myself doing a lot lately. I went anyway.