They Say I’m from South Carolina

My driver’s license says I’m from South Carolina. My passport says I was born in Illinois. I wore a shirt today that prompted someone to ask if I was from St. Louis, Missouri. This represents reality for many of us – we are from different places. I have only lived in The South for four years and wouldn’t say that I have adopted it as my home. But in many respects it feels like home because I have made good friends, our 5 year old granddaughter now lives here, I have figured out where to shop and grab a bite to eat, and this is where I live out my call to community-based and educational ministry.

Being from South Carolina took on new salience in the recent months with the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston in April 2015 then the brutal massacre of nine souls at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in June 2015. I didn’t want to be from South Carolina and when asked, I would say that I live in South Carolina but I’m from St. Louis. Even in those few words I have to acknowledge that whether Columbia, South Carolina; Columbia, Missouri; or Columbia, Illinois, I come from places that share a narrative of racial divides. Nearly every week I passed the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds, displayed prominently on Main Street. Many of us northern transplants never understood why this symbol still flew on official public property. Then suddenly the narrative shifted in South Carolina and on July 10th the Confederate battle flag was lowered to a loud cheer from the assembled crowd.

Why recount this recent history? Why raise these issues in a blog designed to share important research about the church with those who are in the trenches of parish ministry? I share it to remind me (and us) that we are all connected in explicit and implicit ways. Colleagues and I are working on a manuscript now that examines this idea of linked fate. In a survey of metropolitan Atlanta, we asked “Generally speaking, do you think what happens to your racial/ethnic group will affect what happens in your life?” and if yes, then “Do you think it affects you?” Among African Americans, 55% reported that they think what happens to other African Americans will affect what happens in their life and 78% said it affects them most of the time or sometimes. However, just over one-third of whites felt their fate was linked to other whites and even then most felt that it mattered only sometimes or rarely. It is clear that we share a narrative with others who we view are similar to us.

This research examines how people of a racial or ethnic group feels linked to members of the same racial or ethnic group. We are familiar with the phrase “rugged individualism” or “American individualism.” We wear it as a badge of honor because we believe, though I might argue falsely, that our society was built through individual determinism. We too often gloss over the ways in which communities of people have come together to share the American narrative. All too often we forget the advances we have made by coming together rather than acting independently. We let the narrative of the individual stand in the way of understanding how our own lives and actions impact the lives of others, even in distant places.

We have talked a long time about a Christian narrative that is shared across racial and ethnic lines, yet I wonder how many of us understand what it means to do just that. It is time those of us in the majority struggle with what it means to share a narrative with others who are different from us. Neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free…it is a familiar refrain. But we can’t ignore the uniqueness of the narratives and how they have shaped the lived experience of many. We cannot be “colorblind” as if we have melted together into one monolithic society, blind to the social ills that plague and divide us still today. Yet what might it mean to share a narrative? What does it mean to be tied to others to such an extent that you believe what happens to them, no matter where they are geographically, will affect you? What if we take seriously this interconnectedness spanning racial and ethnic lines?

What happened in Ferguson, happened to me (partly because I was a pastor in Ferguson and partly because I am from St. Louis). What happened in Charleston, happened to me (because I live in South Carolina and teach future social workers in this state). When the flag came down, it mattered to me (because it has offended me from the moment I arrived here). But all of these things, and more happened to you too regardless of where you sit as you read these words. All of these things matter to you because they matter to me, and we share a narrative.

I am from South Carolina and so are you. The story of some of us is the story of all of us.


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