There is somebody in your community holding on as tightly as they possibly can
And I'm so grateful for them
Lots of announcements this week:
We’ve finalized the dates for Winter/Spring Barnraisers Project cohorts! Enrollment will start in early January (likely the 3rd or so), with classes starting the week of January 30th. You can add your name to the interest list (and read all the FAQs) here.
You all, we’re one week into joining Lyz Lenz and her Men Yell at Me crew over at the Flyover Politics Discord. Jeez, there are some smart, funny (and very welcoming) people over there! There was a discussion the other day (inspired by Casey DeSantis’ Election Night gown) that was one of the smartest crowd-sourced cultural/political analyses I’ve read in a good while. If you’re a paid subscriber to either of our newsletters but haven’t been able to join, please holler at me and I’ll help you out.
Oh, and here’s a winter housekeeping project that myself and my Barnraisers partner, Carly, will be kicking off thanks to your contributions and support: A lot of past White Pages pieces were written late at night after days of running trainings/raising kids. Also, I am not the world’s best proofreader-on-deadline. What I’m saying is that there are definitely some lingering typos/clunky sentences in The White Pages archives. And that’s fine (resist perfectionism, etc. etc.) but I also know that folks often go back and read the archives (and even use them for workshops and affinity group discussions and the like), so y’all do deserve cleaner copies. Over the next few months, we’ll be quietly combing through back issues to give them that old grammatical spit and polish, but if you notice a typo please know you’re never being a bother. Let us know! We’re in fix-it mode!
That’s all to say: There is some good stuff going down around these parts, none of which would happen without your support. If you’re not currently a subscriber and $50 a year isn’t too much on your budget, it really does help.
I decided that I was going to be a minister on the banks of Flathead Lake. It was during the closing campfire at United Methodist Church Camp, the summer between Freshman and Sophomore year of high school. It looked exactly like you would picture it: There was the fire and the semicircle of seats and the tall rustic cross- two skinny branches that were somehow strong enough to stay upright in the face of frequently tempestuous Montana weather. There was the lake (of course) and the mountains and a metric ton of teenage self-importance and self-doubt colliding with each other. I had just been told repeatedly that— over the course of a lifetime— God believed me to be capable of world-shaking acts but also that—over the course of that week at camp— I couldn’t even convince anybody to make out with me. I had a quickly-developing case of swimmer’s ear and a freshly gifted hemp necklace and we all sang “Lord Prepare Me To Be A Sanctuary” as the sun set and it got so cold so suddenly and, well, there was really only one direction in which that could have gone.
I decided that I wasn’t going to be a minister seven years later— in a liberal arts college classroom that somehow really did look like the kind of liberal arts college classrooms in the movies. It was all aged wood and seats facing one another and chalkboards scrawled with koans like “SIGN DIVORCED FROM SIGNIFIER” and “anti-World Bank protest planning meeting postponed.” We were reading feminist theology. We were talking about the Council of Nicaea and Goddess-centered religions. We were asking questions about the role of powerful leaders from long lost empires in establishing Christ’s divinity as settled fact. I didn’t understand everything we were discussing, but I knew that I desperately wanted to live a politically and morally pure life, so a partial understanding was all I needed. I knew enough to know that I couldn’t be a minister anymore. It wasn’t the right answer, regardless of how much Liberation Theology I read or how many church basement floors I slept on while attending non-postponed protests against partially-understood but deeply-hated global financial institutions.
This isn’t an essay about how I was right when I was fifteen and wrong when I was twenty-two— how self-righteousness and lines in the sand are counter-productive and how you eventually discover that if you try to run from every flawed institution, you just run yourself in circles. That is true, of course. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” and all that. That’s some of what’s on my mind, but it’s not the entirety of it.
This also isn’t an essay about how I was right when I was twenty-two and wrong when I was fifteen— about how organized religion, especially in the hands of men who claim to stare at the divine but just see their own reflection every time— is a dangerous, Empire-enabling force. That’s true, too. Religion has harmed and will keep harming. It has likely harmed many of you— people I love, people I care about, people who deserve an essay just about that. I hope you’ll accept my apology, because this particular essay isn’t quite about that either.
Lemuel Ricketts Boulware was one of Twentieth-Century America’s great forgotten villains, at least for those of us who have a greater affinity for human well-being than for corporate profits. In the 1950s, Boulware served as the Vice President for Labor and Public Relations for the General Electric Corporation. He got the job because, during a period where just about every G.E. factory was on strike, the seven factories he managed were docile and quiet— chock-full of agreeable company men. Boulware had discovered a secret that no other G.E. Executive had been able to figure out— how to convince workers that not only was The Company a benevolent force, but that what was good for G.E. (low taxes, weak unions, plenty of government subsidies but a complete absence of government regulation) was good for them as well.
Boulware marketed directly to his workers and their families. He sold his story in meetings and newsletters and, eventually, a nationally-televised variety hour. That wasn’t his secret, though. Being able to hammer a message home in multiple mediums is more a matter of tenacity than genius. Nothing about that war-on-multiple-fronts would have worked had Boulware not known what to say— had he not been able to translate the various conservative bromides that composed his worldview into something palatable for the masses. He learned that piece the hard way— through hours spent in the towns where his workers lived. He interviewed them, of course, as well as their families. He didn’t stop there, though. He figured out who they trusted and interviewed them, too. He talked to the other guys at the Elks Lodge. He talked to neighborhood block captains. And everywhere he went, he always made sure to talk to the pastors.
Boulware won, of course. He convinced a whole lot of (mostly White) workers that they needed nothing more in life than the invisible hand of the market. He got them to stop striking. And while he didn’t single-handedly speed the plow towards the White American working classes’ broader embrace of every-man-for-himself conservatism, he deserves some of the credit/blame. After all, if you’ve heard of Boulware, it’s likely because of his first and most important convert—a former labor-liberal B-Movie Actor turned General Electric Theater Spokesman turned honey-voiced leader of the free world. There’s a reason why a whole generation of White working class conservative converts ended up being called Reagan Democrats: Boulware was really good at his job.
The nation of small-scale networks of care and support that Boulware discovered as he barnstormed America aren’t around any more. Maybe Boulware and Reagan’s frontal attack on the labor movement and welfare state deserve the credit for killing it— for hollowing out towns and moving us further away from each other (both literally and figuratively). Or maybe Robert Putnam and I have it wrong and we were never truly Bowling Together, because every White American community institution was always more exclusive than inclusive. Goodness knows there weren’t many Black women welcome at the Rockford Elks Lodge back in the day.
But it is true that we were once a nation of unions and now we’re a nation of independent gig workers.
It is true that farmers North and South, White and Black, used to band together in co-ops but now our nation’s primary agricultural relationship is between an individual broke farmer and one of four major corporations.
It is true that twenty first century American Christianity has seen precipitous decline in some places (like the kind of community-centric mainline congregations whose ministers Boulware once interviewed) and skyrocketing growth in others (megachurches— often located on the far outskirts of metropolitan areas— which do offer some very real aspects of community, but often in a pre-packaged, delocalized format that more often asks its congregants for fealty to jumbotronned rock star male leaders than engagement with the world around them).
And it is true that each of those are the kinds of institutions that Lem Boulware first sought to understand and then sought to destroy.
When I decided that I couldn’t be a pastor because the theological and moral math didn’t add up any more, I was hoping that I had dodged an ethical bullet. I had successfully dis-affiliated myself with a flawed institution. I was free to pursue a career in the morally uncomplicated worlds of education reform and nonprofit management and yes I can hear you laughing at me now and yes I am aware of the mistake I made. Listen, I was twenty- two years old and strident.
What I know now is that there are no pure institutions in twenty-first Century America. What I feel now is a deeper and deeper gratitude for those who have made their nest in the Great Imperfect and have stayed there.
I know a whole lot of pastors and a good handful of rabbis. I know fewer Muslim Imams or Buddhist Priests or Hindu Pujaris or a Sikh Granthis, which is my loss. But still, I have friends who lead faith communities with membership in the thousands and those who gather a few friends together for a shared meal.
None of them would want me to romanticize their lives.
I know that now is a particularly difficult time to facilitate a space that attempts to both love and shake its members. I know that the broader trend towards narcissistic consumerism— seeking out only the spaces that affirm the person we’ve already decided to be— has left congregants increasingly likely to reject a religious leader that challenges their worldview. I know that it’s difficult to sustain a localized community in a culture that chooses atomization and isolation.
The list could go on and on, but dammit, isn’t that all the more reason to say Blessed Be all the people trying to hold those spaces together?
I love my friends who are tending to locally-rooted faith communities— Christian churches small and large, synagogues and campus Hillel groups, regional Islamic hubs (like our town’s powerhouse Muslim Women’s Center). I love them because in a world that has too often bought the lie that all we need is our own gumption and this or that VC-funded app, where we are told we join “communities” when we show up for an OrangeTheory workout or buy a Yeti cooler, they remain physically planted and expectantly waiting, present for whomever comes in their doors. At their best, that means they provide shelter for couples whose marriages are fraught or dangerous, empty-nesters who’ve suddenly realized how lonely they are now that there are no high school soccer games to fill their weekends, Queer teens looking for a safe-haven away from school and home and, of course, people who have no house to go home to at all.
Typically, when those of us in justice circles talk about religion, it is to bemoan the religious right’s muscular power and the religious left’s anemia. Here's to all of us who grew up with Sojourners and Tikkun magazines. And those arguments aren't wrong. Joshua P. Hill just wrote a strong version over at his New Means newsletter.
I’m all for more pointedly justice-oriented religious organizing.
That’s not all I’m interested in, though.
A good percentage of my current professional life is spent on what you might call Organizing Match-Making; helping folks who are feeling isolated and alone discover spaces where they can find like-minded dreamers and start building together. In a very small (I hope less Machiavellian way) that has led me down the same path as Lem Boulware. I’ve become a student of community-builders. I’ve become fascinated by the little hubs of trust and fellowship that exist in every corner of our country.
And no, those hubs aren’t always places of worship, and yes, there are many places across the country where the dominant faith communities aren’t at all welcoming to everybody who walks through their doors. That’s why this isn’t a simple essay about how I made a mistake when I was twenty-two years old and how being a pastor is our country’s only good job.
I’m just grateful for the number of times that I’ve been able to point somebody towards an imperfect but beautiful little faith community, that’s all.
If we are so frustrated with how little our world cultivates care and connection, then it would be a mistake not to appreciate every glorious counter-example in our midst.
Damnit, I just want to say it out loud.
Blessed be the folks who hold those communities together— whose congregants yell at them when they talk about Black Lives Matter but still turn to them when the chemotherapy treatments start and they need a shoulder to cry on.
But they’re not the only blessed ones. Because this isn’t just a prayer for the religious among us.
Yes, blessed be the cool rabbis and the non-judgmental ministers, but also…
Blessed be the small town high school English and Social Studies classrooms where kids read the kinds of books that their reactionary school boards try to ban and practice coming out to a grown-up before they can go to their parents.
Blessed be the big city Grandmas who sweep the block every week and always have a snack ready for neighborhood kids, but who know how to give a death stare when the speculators cruise the block looking for a quick, shoddy house flip.
Blessed be the exurban strip mall Planned Parenthood and its ride-or-die collective of escorts.
Blessed be the book club organizers inside your state penitentiary.
Blessed be the coffee shops and restaurants and bars where the town weirdos and outcasts hang out in cities like Kenosha and Kingsport and Texarkana and Stroudsburg.
Blessed be the losing political campaigns that let their volunteers participate in their staff Slack channels, that debriefed after canvassing days to make their people feel connected, that are already planning their first community potluck to plan what comes next.
If the question we’re asking is what perfect, justice-aligned spaces already exist to welcome us, we’ll be waiting forever. What we have instead is a constellation of tiny, flawed and beautiful spaces. And not every single one of them is going to be the right fit for everybody, but that’s why it’s even more important to notice them, to appreciate them, to seek them out when we need assistance and to help them flourish when we have something to give.
We are imperfect people in an imperfect world. The spaces available to us are as broken as we are. The people holding them together are flawed and exhausted. It is the brokenness that makes them sacred, though. It is their imperfections that make me so damn grateful. Blessed be.
Song of the week:
“I See A Darkness” (Now Here’s My Plan version) by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
You might know the original, haunting version of this song. It’s been covered by Johnny Cash and Rosalía. It’s really good, but it doesn’t fill me with hope. This one does. The lyrics are the same (“many times, we’ve been out drinking/many times we’ve shared that we’ve/but have you ever noticed/the kind of thoughts I’ve got”), but the change in tempo just flips the whole deal on its head. The narrator still sees a darkness, but what matters is that he’s got somebody with whom he might be able to figure that mess out.
“I hope that some day buddy, we find peace in our lives.”
[As always, you can find the collected song of the week playlist on Apple Music or Spotify, though full disclosure, Spotify doesn’t have the Now Here’s My Plan version, so if you listen to that playlist you’re getting a third version which is totally fine as well).
White Pages Subscribers Discussion of the week:
I’m about to get on a plane for Helena, Montana, which is just up the road from my childhood home in Clancy. I’m one of the facilitators at a very cool event called “Great Conversations.” Of all the places that I consider my hometown (Helena/Clancy; Columbia, MD; Missoula, MT) Helena is the one that’s easiest to go back to emotionally (Missoula offers the highest highs but I struggle a bit with the way it has changed and I’m also sad that I don’t live there, Columbia is, well, just complicated). So, in honor of that, tomorrow’s discussion will be about what it’s like to “go home?” (whatever that means for you).
As always, if you would like to join our little online community but don’t have the funds for a membership, just email me at Garrett @ barnraisersproject .org.
“What I know now is that there are no pure institutions in twenty-first Century America. What I feel now is a deeper and deeper gratitude for those who have made their nest in the Great Imperfect and have stayed there.” This a thousand times over. Makes me think of my fave Parker Palmer concept of “the tragic gap.”
sir, i could read your writing forever. you deserve a $2000 taylor swift ticket.