Is America becoming great again…by accident?

In the past 6 months it has become trendy for folks on Facebook to express what a downer it is to see so many political posts clogging up their news feed. Some have been so turned off that they left social media all together. We all understand that what is happening is that they do not enjoy anyone saying “Hello, from the other side!”

Having taught U.S. Government for a few years, I sense that this election has accomplished something that I had long since thought impossible. Back in the day, I would beg my seniors in high school to become engaged in the process of democracy as a way to make it more healthy, vibrant and responsive to the people being governed. More often than not they would look at me with their dull eyes and say, “I am only taking this class so I can graduate Ms. E.”

The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and under-nourishment. 

(Robert M. Hutchins, 1899 – 1977)

Things have changed with the 2016 election and I say “Hurrah!” Have you ever seen so many people with strong stands on any number of issues willing to go to press (you know, Facebook) or the streets to share them? That is the definition of a healthier democracy when citizens leave their apathy about government behind and begin organizing demonstrations, donating money to causes, holding the other team accountable and caring about their country in deep visceral ways. I say, the election accomplished what I thought was gone from our country–deeper engagement with the values and goals that we all hold dear.

The democratic ideal in local government implies that active participation of the citizens in local affairs is both a goal in itself and an instrument for strengthening democracy in society at large.

(Kjellberg, F. 1995. ―The Changing Values of Local Government‖ in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol 540, 40)

Maybe we can read our “friend’s” posts with gratefulness knowing that freedom of expression is a value we all hold dear. Testing our own beliefs by listening to the other side is a tried and true way of growing in understanding of how complicated and multi layered are the difficult issues our country faces. It just seems senseless to withdraw into a small, isolationist “unfriending” world. After all, we don’t need government to graduate…we need it for community well being!

First World Problems!

Why does it seem that people in developing countries trust God and praise Him with more passion than people in the western world?

That was the question raised during a recent women’s Bible study on Psalm 33. Asked another way, does possessing more “stuff” dull our desire to worship God with all our heart, soul and strength?

That question reminded me of an article written by Calvin Miller in The Disciplined Life in which he makes 9 drastic suggestions to help westerners who have grown numb and comfortable to increase their appetites for worshiping God.

According to Miller, the following are “nine rather drastic steps wealthy Westerners would have to take to truly identify with the developing world”:

1. Take out the furniture: leave a few old blankets, a kitchen table, maybe a wooden chair. You’ve never had a bed, remember?

2. Throw out your clothes. Each person in the family may keep the oldest suit or dress, a shirt or blouse. The head of the family has the only pair of shoes.

3. All kitchen appliances have vanished. Keep a box of matches, a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, a handful of onions, a dish of dried beans. Rescue the moldy potatoes from the garbage can: those are tonight’s meal.

4. Dismantle the bathroom, shut off the running water, take out the wiring and the lights and everything that runs by electricity.

5. Take away the house and move the family into the tool shed.

6. No more postman, fireman, government services. The two-classroom school is three miles away, but only two of your seven children attend anyway, and they walk.

7. Throw out your bankbooks, stock certificates, pension plans, insurance policies. You now have a cash hoard of $5.

8. Get out and start cultivating your three acres. Try hard to raise $300 in cash crops because your landlord wants one-third and your moneylender 10 percent.

9. Find some way for your children to bring in a little extra money so you have something to eat most days. But it won’t be enough to keep bodies healthy—so lop off 25 to 30 years of life.

In reality, giving up our stuff is no guarantee that we will draw closer to God. Our relationship with God is not really a matter of what we give up but of who we are devoted to. Still, the growing discomfort I felt when reading each item on this list makes me know there are things that I am more devoted to than the One who provided those things.

Hillbilly Marriage

Another way the hill people of my family differ from J.D. Vance’s in Hillbilly Elegy is in the area of marriage. J.D. grew up surrounded by instability and tumultuous home life both in his home and the home of his grandparent’s. The story of Granny Lawhorne’s married life painted a very different picture.

Grandmother Henson

My grandmother Henson lived with us for about 5 years before I was married. She loved to tease me about Ed who had started coming around to see me. We were so poor we didn’t have no mop so when it came time to scrub the floors, I’d put on my brother’s overalls and get down on my hands and knees to scrub the floor. Grandmother Henson would mumble and giggle around her corn cob pipe saying, “I hope he don’t ketch ya'” The more she would say it the more she would giggle. She tried to make me think Ed wouldn’t want to marry me if he saw me dressed like a man!

Granny at the schoolhouse with Ed and Lacy

When Ed and I decided to get married he was 19 and I was 15 years old. We went to the preacher’s house and who was there but two other boys who had always tried to go with me. One boy’s name was Lawrence Wilmer and the other was Lacy Coleman. Lacy said he was going to try to keep Ed from having me but I’d already decided I didn’t want to have nothing to do with him because he drank. Funny thing years later after Ed died of a massive stroke Lacy and I did marry–of course he had stopped
drinking by then! Mama would have never let me marry a Wilmer because she said they were all lazy!

Ed and I married on Independence Day 1928. We often celebrated our anniversary by splitting open a ripe watermelon that had been kept cold in the spring box at the home we shared.

For the first 7 months of my married life we lived with Mr. Paul Lawhorne–Ed’s father. Paul was a man who really cared about the way he looked to others. It took him a solid hour to get ready to go anywhere. Everyone was always waiting on Paul to get ready.

Granny in the 20’s

Ed had gotten a job at the silk mill in Buena Vista when we first got married. It was so unlike our people who cut wood, or farmed as a living but here was Ed going to the “city” for a public job. It seemed like some of our relatives were jealous thinking we had “gotten above our raisings.” Ed just always wanted his children to do well and worked hard to provide for them. His mother died of “Bright’s disease” — some kind of kidney problem when Ed was only 8 years old. Her name was Leanna Coleman and she was 49 years old when she passed. She said to Paul, “Now Paul, take the children to church and raise them like I did.” Paul did just that for the children.

I was the one that told Ed we needed to get a place of our own. I always felt that Mr. Lawhorne didn’t like us living with him and the house over the mountain was real crowded so we got a place on Factory Street in Buena Vista.

In June of 1929, Junior was born while we lived on Factory Street. Dr. Thurman looked at how big his hands were and said, “Oh my goodness, he’s going to be as big as Joe Winston!” Joe was the biggest, strongest black man in Buena Vista at the time. I was proudest of that boy as anything in my life. I remember feeling like I finally had something that belonged to me. I never had a doll or nothing like that as a girl so this little boy was something special!

Hillbilly Revel!

I recently completed J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy.  As I read, I was struck by how sorrowful his story was and how different from my own family’s hillbilly story. I interviewed Granny Lawhorne, the young girl with the bow in this photo, in November 1995 when she was 83 years old.  As she recounted the difficult plight of being an Amherst County Virginia hillbilly; her tale was sprinkled with deep belly laughs and joy.  There was no elegy edge to her story at all.

Well, I’ll just tell you, my mama’s name was Emma Henson Burch and she married my daddy Frank Benjamin Burch on August 20, 1892.

Daddy was 20 years old and Mama was 15 at the time of their wedding. They were married at the Oronoco Church of the Brethren on Route 60 at the top of the mountain near Buena Vista, Virginia. They got married right after a revival meeting and then left the church in a horse and buggy and went 20 miles or so to Pleasant View where Emma’s sister Molly lived. That was the way honeymoons happened in them days. Mama went to housekeeping with a straw tick and a frying pan. She had to gather field straw to fill the tick for their bed and she cooked all their meals in that frying pan over the fireplace. One of her relatives had given her a few small potatoes so they would have something to cook.

That was all they started married life with. They didn’t have a stick of furniture but they managed to raise 10 children and Daddy never held a public job. You know I think people would die today if they had to live like we did then. The worse problem we had was how to get clothes. We grew and put up our own food but there was no money for clothes. Mama made shirts and underwear for my brothers and underwear and dresses for my sisters out of cloth the she saved from 25 pound flour sacks.

What I remember about my life as a child was working!  As soon as I was big enough to stand up on the stool at the sink, Mama put me to washing dishes. The older you got the more jobs she put you doing. We did have some good times though. We had get togethers called “Bean Shellins,” “Corn Shuckins,” and “Molasses Pulls.” At the corn shuckins, they would hide jars of moonshine in piles of unshucked corn. The men shucked corn like crazy trying to uncover those hidden jars! Moonshine was one of the ways that folks in the mountains could get their hands on money. The Colemans and the Noels and others all had family members who served prison time cuz they were caught by revenuers selling whiskey.

I also remember it being a good time to go to church. We walked 5 miles each way to get to Oronoco even when I was a young child. If they were holding nighttime revival meetings we would hear the 11 o’clock whistle blow down in Buena Vista and still have about three quarters of a mile left to walk.

As I read J.D. Vance’s book it occurred to me that while his Mamaw saw church as “breeding grounds for perverts and money changers,” Granny found solace for her soul and strength to follow the upside down values of Jesus’ kingdom at church. Her 93 year life was characterized by hard work, deep love for others, exuberant joy and resting in the grace of God.