“How’s your mama?” We were told that even folks you don’t know in New Orleans will ask this in the supermarket check-out line. It is part of their culture to be inquisitive, to invite sharing of responses beyong “just fine” with other community members, and certainly in pre-air conditioning New Orleans, everyone would sit on the porch or stoop, shooting the breeze… Singer John Boutte called it “door poppin”.
Andrea K. passed a book on to me recently called “South and West,” a collection of Joan Didion’s notes on a trip to New Orleans and Mississippi in the 1970s. Didion is an expert on listening to how people talk, and what they say, and what they are actually saying. She noted that some southerners preferred not to speak with visitors from California (as Joan and her husband were) while others engaged in conversation at great length. At one point she shares a hotel with a broadcaster’s convention and later gets a long and enthusiastic monologue from a radio station owner about what a good investment fast food restaurants would be in a particular town. Didion notes that in Mississippi the culture is reinforced by repeating truths, or what becomes truth. Plantation owners talk about how good they were to their sharecroppers for example, and the reasons why segregation failed, what the black really want, these all get a turn in conversation.
In her 2017 introduction Didion notices that even today our society’s understandings are shaped by these sort of casual conversations. Perhaps you have heard offhanded mention of how “Hilary, the criminal did this or that?” Repeated phrases can create a framework of truth that is distorted in a particular direction. Social norms keep you from interrupting the conversation and attempting to clear Secretary Clinton’s name, and besides, there are layers of accepted truths beneath the statement as well.
I experienced this recently at a breakfast conversation, where the argument that Robert E. Lee was a hero, and we should not take down statues of heroes, even if he fought for the Confederacy. Nobody suggested that an equally splendid statue of General Sherman be erected beside that of Lee, as he too was a hero… but that’s not part of the truth being constructed. We don’t live in a world of facts, we live in a world of myths.
So how might this relate to your spiritual growth? How might we use this insight help us nurture beloved community? Do we avoid those conversations? Do we yell “bull!”? Do we try to inject diversity in them? Do we ask curious questions to find out why certain things are said? I don’t have an answer, but want to hear your thoughts.
Speaking of conversation… I wonder, in our coffee hour (or iced tea hour,) what sort of things people at UCN/CVUU talk about and why. Some congregations have rules – no business during coffee hour – and others plan entire church programs while eating cookies and Cheetos. Do you think of coffee hour as a ministry? A time to meet someone new? Or the chance to have a face-to-face with someone you haven’t been able to get in touch with all week? I know that all the conversations I have then are of the “talking to the minister” type — I can’t help it, I’m the minister! So I’m asking curiously. I just don’t know.
I know that coffee hour is the wrong time for the sort of deep sharing that ministers need to remain connected. I rely on people stopping by during my office hours (usually Tuesday through Thursday, though these days it’s best to call or e-mail first) and sit and talk. Don’t feel you are imposing, you are much more important to me than that person in the supermarket checkout line! Also, feel free to tap on my door (closed because that’s how our air conditioning works) and wave ‘hi’ when you go by. Maybe even spend a few minutes just catching up. You can also arrange to have a phone call, or even a video conference, and I do make house calls – though I prefer to talk at a coffee shop.
That’s how we grow beloved community, through conversation and listening.
Enjoy Allen Perry this Sunday, I’ll be off for the next few Sundays. I will, at least, pick up messages every few days, though I may not have time for that deep conversation, and ask a Lay Pastoral Associate to contact you. Immediate pastoral care needs during the summer? Contact this month’s Caring Team contacts — we always print them here in the Yarmouuth Gazette.
I love you,