Discover more from Trespasses of the Holy
On Telling Stories...
...and the persistence of the stories we tell.
Communities are comprised of stories. The decisions we make in our various communities, and the way we understand ourselves and our place within the wider culture where we live, are informed by stories. Sometimes the stories are oral traditions - “our family is like this….” Sometimes they come from a canon of authoritative stories, narratives from literature or history or sacred writings. The source material can differ, but the narrative nature of our lives is constant. To be human is to be both story-telling and story-hearing.
When I started digging around in Urban Renewal history, I wanted to know the story of one plot of land in Charlotte. That plot straddles S. Davidson Street between 3rd and MLK. It is the home of First Baptist Church. FBC sits as a prominent symbol, a white-dominant church occupying former Urban Renewal land, right in the heart of what is primarily a government quarter. Just that one sentence packs a lot of information. The building and its environs are loaded with meaning and memory about race, the conjunction of theology and politics, the history of architecture and city planning, and the ways that sacred spaces reflect political, sociological, and economic arrangements. There’s enough there to write an entire book, which, I guess, is what I am doing.
My research was always, on the surface, about what happened when the former neighborhood there got destroyed, and these other institutions moved in. I wanted to know the timeline of events, the key figures who played a part, the state and national context in which it was happening. But from the beginning, I was really trying to dig out the story underneath what happened. I’ve framed the key question like this: “What is the story that people were telling themselves about the events of Urban Renewal?” I’m a theologian, so I especially wanted to know this about churches, and in particular about the white churches who played parts, including - but not only - First Baptist.
You might think that the answers are predictable. And to some extent, you’d be right. They have to do with surface-level missionary benevolence that results in displacement and dispossession, and with unexamined racism. Those answers are hardly turning up new ground. But even if those stories are predictable, they remain no less salient in our time. The narratives persist. One of the strongest temptations for me as a preacher and writer and activist - and I’m not alone in this - is to look at the results of history and to condemn the obvious injustices. But I‘ve been learning to see that the narratives have not changed all that much. Well-meaning Christians today often draw from the same sets of canonical stories that white churches drew from during Urban Renewal. We also tend to draw from the same stories about ourselves and the purity of our intentions. Our society, including our churches, keeps getting the same results.
I suspect that one of the necessary steps to getting different results is unweaving the narratives of the past, exposing them to air and light so we can evaluate ourselves and figure out how to move forward differently. In his landmark article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates said it this way: “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.”
I’m going to be talking about some of the stories I’ve been uncovering. This will be the first time I’ve done so in public - it’s research, fresh out of the oven. The event is Thursday, October 21st as part of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s “Dangerous Dialogues” series. Beginning at 7, I’ll have a 45-minute talk introducing a few important characters from the story, and discussing the narratives that they embodied, a well as the stories that they were telling themselves. We’ll then have another half hour to talk further about the events of that time period and how we see the same narratives operating today. You’ll have the opportunity to push back, ask questions, and join the conversation. The event is happening over Zoom, and no registration is required. Just follow this link when the time comes.
There will be a second part, again with Union Seminary, on November 18 at 7pm. We’ll have some guests on, and the presentation will focus more on the material damages and the call for repair and restoration.
What I’m paying attention to right now: My work has been deeply influenced by the thinking of Willie Jennings, one of the finest theologians in the world. His books and articles have shaped my thinking in profound ways over the past several years. Here is a YouTube video of a lecture of his that I’ve watched several times: “Can White People Be Saved?”
Final Note: Some days I feel like everything is awful. I suspect I’m not alone in that. And then I remember that we live in a world where we still occasionally get a new John Coltrane album. This one drops Friday. Don’t miss it.
See Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 202.