Singing the Blues

My sister Donna and I recently took a self-guided blues tour of the Mississippi Delta. It was an extraordinary experience. I grew up in the South, but it never visited the Delta, the emotional heart of the blues. The area runs from Vicksburg, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. This is the rich land which former slaves worked as tenant farmers. The area has a history of slavery, followed by Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan. It was and still is characterized by illiteracy, poverty, and steaming hot weather. It is also noted for some of the most authentic and moving music being made anywhere in our country today. Most people will recognize some of the names associated with the area, such as BB King, and Muddy Waters. If you know about the history of the blues, you will have heard of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House, early blues musicians, all from the Delta, and now long gone, but still influencing American music.

We started our tour in Ocean Springs, where my sister lives, and worked our way north. We had only five days, so we missed a lot, and never made it to Memphis, but what we saw and heard touched me and changed me. Greenville and the Walnut Street Blues Club was our first stop, where the legendary John Horton band was playing. The music was loud and the cigarette smoke was heavy. Everybody was drinking Bud Light. We ordered a couple ourselves and settled tentatively into a back table, wondering if we could really handle all the smoke, but the music soon drew us in. When the band took a break, Horton asked if others in the house would like to make music, and two black men, a guitarist and a singer with amazing talent took the stage. We were hooked. Our tour had begun.

From Greenville we went north to Cleveland and then onto Clarksdale, where we visited Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. Clarksdale has enjoyed something of a renaissance, I am told, since Freeman started club there, and citizens from the area have opened storefront businesses nearby. But for someone like me, who had never been there, Clarksdale looked like a war zone, with vacant lots everywhere and boarded-up businesses. We were not excited about the group at Ground Zero, so my sister and I visited Red’s, which is a real juke joint, with absolutely no commercial flavor. We had trouble finding the place, which was across some railroad tracks, unlit on the outside, and looked as if it were boarded up. Finally we saw the one word RED’S in red paint on the door, so we ventured in. Red himself was behind the bar, and silently waved me off when I offered plastic for a beer. Watermelon Slim was playing, and he was the real deal. He played with his guitar on his lap, and made it yearn and sing with a pick and a miniature whiskey bottle. He also had a half pint of whiskey nearby, which he tippled from time to time.

Other highlights of the trip were a visit to the BB King Museum in Indianola, which turned out to be first rate, and also the Highway 61 Blues Museum in Leland, where we were treated to a spontaneous concert by Pat Thomas, son of the better-known and influential Robert Thomas, musician and folk artist, now long gone. The museum is small and inconspicuous, but has pictures and artifacts of famous musicians from the area; a very knowledgeable young man on-site gave us information not only about the history of blues, but also information about lesser-known sites such as the grave of Charley Patton in nearby Holly Ridge. Our last day was spent at the eighth annual Mississippi Delta Regional Blues Challenge, held at the Blue Biscuit in Indianola. A 17-year-old named Reed Smith won second place, and Sean “Bad” Apple and Martin “Big Boy” Grant took first place.

What struck me about our trip to the Delta was the amazing music that came out of this poverty-stricken area. People sang about desire and betrayal and loss, always loss. The music is raw, and it is real. So much in our lives these days is the opposite – is phony or stripped of true emotional content. This music of the Delta is from the heart, with nothing held back. It reached a place in me where few other art forms are able to go. I think that maybe its power comes from the universality of the feelings expressed. No matter what station in life we hold, all human beings long and all human beings lose. Maybe it’s just that the hard lives of these people in this hardscrabble place enables them to express in a truer form what we all experience.

The other interesting thing is that these clubs and juke joints we visited are the most racially integrated places I have ever been. And we’re talking here about Mississippi, a state in a part of the country so widely reviled for its racism. I experienced black and white musicians playing together, and black and white patrons gathered together listening to the music. Perhaps it is the music and its acknowledgment of the common human experience that has drawn the races together here in Mississippi.

I know I have been changed in some subtle way by my trip to the Delta. The music touched some deep place in me that wants to be authentic, is tired of the superficiality of most of American culture. Why is it that we must go to the margins of our society to find what is real? Perhaps it is only at the margins where people have so little to lose that they are free of pretense, unwilling to play the games which draw the rest of us in too much of the time. My trip reminded me that when I hold myself away from those who struggle just to get through the day, I am the one who loses the most.

The Church and Occupy Wall Street

I’m waiting to see what the religious response will be to Occupy Wall Street, which is a true revolution of the people. It is a cry from people who have been abused far too long by those who hold economic and political power. It is a cry for justice and compassion. It is a demand for responsibility from our elected leaders. What will the established churches say in response?

Most likely, not very much, if history tells us anything.

During the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, most churches were “gradualists,” saying that, yes, slavery was wrong, but social change takes time, and we should just let slavery die out naturally. Religious leaders didn’t want to disrupt the economic system that supported their churches, and they certainly didn’t want to introduce conflict into their institutions, which might result in a loss of both membership and financial contributions.

During the civil rights movement, black churches were heavily involved, of course, but mainline Protestant churches remained firmly ensconced in the status quo. The same thing held true during the Vietnam War. Most clergy who spoke out against the war were not leaders of congregations : they were chaplains (William Sloane Coffin) or Catholic priests (the Berrigan brothers) or administrators (Bishop John Shelby Spong). While young people flooded into the streets in protest, getting beaten up and jailed by the establishment, churches were mostly silent.

The OccupyWallStreet phenomenon is a true prophetic moment, and it should be the subject of sermons all over this country. But I suspect it will not be. Sermons will continue to be preached about saving souls, giving generously to the church itself, and avoiding the usual temptations of the flesh. The systemic sins of the culture will not be addressed, except by a few bold and isolated preachers. Why? Because the churches of this country, like all middle-class institutions, are more interested in the protection of the institution than in the prophetic message of Jesus.

Who are the people marching in the streets, with colorful signs, in such great numbers? These protesters simply feel that they have no alternative. Business and government have acted in lockstep and have refused to listen to those whom they should be serving. OccupyWallStreet is a coalition of people who have lost their jobs, people who have lost their homes to the bank, young adults for whom there are no jobs, people of all ages without health care, environmentalists who see short-term economic gains trumping care for the planet, veterans who doubt that our current wars are worth it, and concerned citizens of all stripes who have looked askance at our dysfunctional Congress, and have finally said “enough is enough.”

Some of these people go to church, I expect. But they cannot take their grievances to the church. They would not feel it appropriate, most likely. They may say to their church, “I can’t find a job,” or “I am depressed,” or perhaps they can go to the church food pantry and get a basket of groceries. But they cannot ask the church to stand with them against the powers that be–the banks and their political lackeys–who sold out ordinary citizens.

It is no wonder that more and more people in this country identify as “unchurched” in national polls. When churches and ministers refuse to be involved with the real pain of real people, and have as their main mission maintaining their institutions, they lose their relevance. They have no prophetic voice. And without a prophetic voice, what is their purpose for existence? They become just another social organization to provide a gathering place for their members.

Churches are not allowed to participate in partisan politics, lest they lost their non-profit status. But they can and should be involved with political issues, because politics determines how the economic pie is divided–and that becomes very much a moral issue. When ministers speak out against systemic sin, they risk losing financial support, it is true. Congregants who benefit most from the economic status quo may leave and seek safer ground. But the integrity of the message will draw many others, in greater numbers.

The church’s proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say,” I have come that you might be comfortable.” He said, “I have come that you might have life.” OccupyWallStreet has given the church an opening, a decisive moment in history. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of safety and stability. When will the church find its prophetic voice?

Announcement of My Radio Show

I want to announce that I’m now doing an on-line radio show: “Raw Faith Radio,” concerning matters of the spirit. The broadcast is Fridays at 9:00 AM and again at noon, but all the past shows on there and available for your computer, or to download for your I-pod. I have done shows on forgiveness, on anger, on sports and spirituality, and several others, so far. I generally start with a short program about the subject of the day, and then do a Q&A, and sometimes I do interviews.

“Higher Ground”: a Film Portraying Fundamentalism

Vera Farmiga, in her directorial debut “Higher Ground” about a woman who has fallen in with a group of Christian fundamentalists, gets all of it right: the language, the baptismal rites, the Christian “marriage counselor,” the attractive patriarchal pastor. I should know – I grew up Southern Baptist in North Louisiana, and so I’ve experienced this movie. In fact, I found the film creepy in its authenticity. It took me back to a place I didn’t want to go.

Farmiga plays the lead role of Corinne, who becomes pregnant as an 18-year-old, marries, and after nearly losing her child in an accident, gives herself to Jesus and a group of Protestant evangelicals. The strength of this film is that we really like most of these individuals – they are warm and caring, and within the structures they have chosen, absolutely morally consistent. We never feel that the film takes an easy swipe at any of the characters – with the possible exception of the marriage counselor – and we see people, like ourselves, who are struggling to find their way through personal conflicts and the moral thickets of contemporary life. Because they are fully rounded human beings, they are believable, not caricatures, as one might expect in a film of this kind. Farmiga plays her role with no hint of irony, and with great feminine beauty and sensitivity.

Corinne’s problem is that she is highly intelligent, a reader of literature, and a woman who is deeply intuitive. She wants to be a believer, and she calls on God to speak to her and lead her, but her God is not a God of easy answers. When she prays, silence is the only response. And she can make no theological sense at all of the tragedy which visits her best friend. When the grieving congregation sings “All is well with my soul,” she tries to join them, but the words stick in her throat. All is not well with her soul. She is sensual and sexual in a social context of repression. She is a woman of subtle intellect thrown in with people who know all the answers all the time. She is with a husband who fails to be her equal spiritually, intellectually, and sexually.

As we watch Corinne struggle, we wonder whether or not she will escape. After all, these are her chosen people, and she is loyal to the core. She would rather deny herself than to deny them. We understand this impulse, for all of us want community, want home. But she finds she must try to save her own soul.

I left the theater very troubled. I remembered the priest who told me I was going to hell when I left the Catholic Church at the tender age of twelve. I thought of the gay pastor I knew who died of AIDS, but was never able to reveal his plight, or his sexual orientation, to his congregation. I thought of the evangelical seminary professor who assured me that Jesus was the only way to salvation, and that Gandhi is in hell. I recalled a conversation with my fundamentalist brother, who told me that women should not lead at church.

There was no intentional ill will or meanness of spirit in these people: the priest cared about me and the family; the congregation was devoted to their minister; the professor was warm and friendly; my brother loves me dearly. So what is the problem?

The problem has to do with the human consequences of fundamentalist values: these groups value rigid belief over human good. But any religious group that would deny others the opportunity to grow and contribute because of their gender or sexual orientation, which are God-given, is not a life-giving religion. Fundamentalists seem to be oblivious of the harm they do, and lay it all to the individuals who are “disobeying God,” thereby bringing the harm upon themselves.

Contrary to a liberal relativism, I do not believe that all religious beliefs are equal and worthy of respect. Faith healers in Oregon are now on trial for the death of a child, one of several children who have succumbed to the beliefs of a sect ironically called the Followers of Christ. Faith healing, of course, is an extreme religious position, but I would suggest that every belief system should be judged by its effect on the individual and on society. Does it help the individual break barriers and flourish, or does it create barriers to growth, spiritual and otherwise?

There are still children having nightmares because they have been told they are going to hell. There are adolescents becoming suicidal after being rejected by their fundamentalist families because of their sexual orientation. There are far too many Corrines out there, still struggling to make sense of a faith that denies both body and spirit.

Every religious group and every religious leader must ask one simple question of our faith and practice: does it harm or does it heal? With subtlety and excellence, the film “Higher Ground” asks us to think on these things.

Hear Marilyn Sewell on Raw Faith Radio.

“Raw Faith” Screening at the Hollywood Theatre Sept. 18!

Just a reminder that Raw Faith will be screening at the Hollywood Theatre Sunday, Sept. 18, at 2:00 PM. This is a benefit for Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Tickets are $10, students $8. Peter Wiedensmith, the director, and I will be there to do a Q&A following the film. Please pass the word on to anyone who may be interested. This will probably be the last time the film will show on the big screen in Portland.