Hillbilly Elegy

Vandalism and repentance: New York Times tells story of a mosque and its attacker

Vandalism and repentance: New York Times tells story of a mosque and its attacker

A 21-year-old drifter helps deface a mosque in Arkansas and gets prison time for it. Who’d think there was much of a story in this?

But the New York Times just ran a beautiful piece on the main actors involved and it's worth the read.

I just finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” the J.D. Vance bestseller that spotlights the hopeless multitudes of poor whites in shattered families across Appalachia. Relocate them to Arkansas and you have the perfect setting for what happened next.

FORT SMITH, Ark. -- Abraham Davis was sitting on a thin blue pad on the concrete floor of Cell 3 in a jail in western Arkansas when a guard came around with stamped envelopes and writing paper.
The first person he wrote to was his mother. Abraham, just shy of 21, had barely spoken to her since his arrest a few days before, and he had a lot to explain.
It all began on a night last October when he borrowed her white minivan and drove to the home of a friend. They’d gotten drunk on cheap whiskey. Kentucky Deluxe. Abraham agreed to drive his friend to a mosque in town. His friend drew swastikas and curses on the mosque’s windows and doors while Abraham stood watch in the driveway.
The next day, the vandalism was all over the news. Abraham watched the reports over and over on his phone, his stomach curdling with regret.

I used to live in a city much like Fort Smith. Rich and poor, black and white were at opposite ends of a southern town situated on Interstate-40, but in west Tennessee instead of west Arkansas.

Gangs from nearby Memphis drove up our crime rate. Hospitals and clinics were the largest employers. Neighboring Arkansas was much poorer and destitute but Fort Smith differed from my city in one way: A lot of folks from other countries were moving in.

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New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

To put things in country-music terms, this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that) is about pain, sorrow, alcohol, divorce, blue-collar families, coffee, hard times, opioids and God.

Oh, and waffles.

If you don't live in Waffle House America, let me explain. We are talking about a chain -- in 25 states -- of old-school, Southern-style dinners that serve breakfast 24/7 and attract large numbers of workers and rural folks who don't work normal schedules.

If you want to laugh about the Waffle House world, you can listen to the country-fried tribute song by Stephen Colbert (a native of South Carolina) and alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, entitled, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Knuckleheads."

But the podcast isn't really about laughter. It's about the complex issues that affect ministry to many hurting people in this slice of the American people.

My chat with host Todd Wilken focused on my "On Religion" column this week -- which is about a United Methodist pastor in Alabama who is doing some interesting things while trying the reach working-class people. His name is Pastor Gary Liederbach and he uses his local Waffle House as his unofficial office on weekday mornings.

This anecdote sets the tone:

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner’s middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn’t see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular whom, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called “Chuck.”
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud F-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.

 

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A word from Australia: Rural voters ruled 2016, but journalists should keep an eye on ...

A word from Australia: Rural voters ruled 2016, but journalists should keep an eye on ...

As you would imagine, I am still digging through stacks and stacks of emails and (digital) news clips in the wake of the Election Day earthquake and the news-media meltdown that followed. You don't even want to know the size of my email in-box right now.

While doing that, I came across a think piece on the election results -- from Australia, of all places -- that contained a useful typology that journalists might want to study. This is especially true for reporters who are sincerely interested in what happened with American evangelicals, especially those in predominately white congregations.

It helps to know that the author of this piece. the Rev. Michael Bird, is an Anglican priest and theologian, linked to Ridley College in Melbourne, who also blogs and writes essays of this kind for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The bland and rather wonkish headline on this particular piece was: "US election: Why did evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?"

The key to the piece is that this is not the question that interested him the most. The heart of the essay focused on another question that should be more interesting to journalists: Who are these Americans who everyone keeps calling "evangelicals" and leaving it at that?

Early on, Bird notes that he was in Houston during the GOP primaries and delivered a lecture attended by quite a few conservative Christians.

I began my talk by asking three questions: Why don't Americans use the metric system? Why is the cheese orange? And who are the evangelicals who are voting for Donald Trump?
I got a response of riotous laughter because just about everyone there supported Ted Cruz and hoped a local Texan would defeat the vulgar New Yorker. I asked the last question because, among my hundreds of American evangelical friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I could count all of the Donald Trump supporters I knew on one hand.

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