Morning in middle America

April 25, 2012


[Religion News Service] I came home from a weekend of consulting in Topeka, Kansas, feeling weary.

I felt drained by exciting work with several dozen church leaders who were eager to move forward. I felt exhausted by the rigors of modern air travel, in which things work OK but are relentlessly uncomfortable and demeaning.

But mainly I felt disoriented, like after a sleepless night. In Topeka I had seen the future of America, and it worried me.

I saw racial tensions still high 58 years after Brown v. (Topeka) Board of Education outlawed segregated public schools, but also launched “white flight” to the suburbs. In one of those suburbs, a watchful neighbor recently called police when he saw a black man walking out front. It turned out the black pedestrian was a neighbor living nearby.

I saw state government in the hands of right-wing ideologues being bankrolled by the Koch brothers of Wichita. These sanctimonious evangelicals are rushing to curb freedoms and opportunity for all but a few.

I saw end-of-empire circuses, like the Kansas Motor Speedway hosting a major NASCAR race, alongside unmistakable signs of economic decay, such as crumbling streets, rising unemployment, steadily declining home values, vacant storefronts, and empty parking lots. The speedway just added a $380 million casino and hotel.

I don’t speak against Topeka, for the city seemed charming in many respects. But what I experienced there crystallized perceptions I have had throughout recent travels across the U.S.

Except for pockets of energy and optimism, the prevailing atmosphere seems new and yet worn, busy and yet listless, like a house that was built quickly and doesn’t survive its first owners. I see worry, frustration, and a mounting sense of a dream stolen.

Things are especially bad for African-Americans — an unemployment rate that’s twice that of whites, a median family income that’s one-20th that of whites, plus underfunded and underperforming public schools.

I don’t want to overstate. I also see much that is good, encouraging, and fresh. I just sense a balance shifting, like a herd that is getting restless and might signal a storm coming.

As right-wing ideologues try to turn this very dissatisfaction and frustration into a power grab, progressive Christians find themselves both a target and a much-needed voice.

We need to stay awake as the darkness of gloom and repression looms. We need to feel the despair surging around us and understand it as a call to mission. We need to stay with our neighbors, even as they retreat to circuses. We need to speak truth to power, even as well-funded power strikes back.

Maybe the place for us to start is with race relations, the persistent agony of American life.

As I drove across Kansas, I listened on the car radio to a young historian’s detailed account of Brown v. Board of Education. As she moved forward to 2012, I realized this wasn’t just a history lecture, but an explanation of daily life for black residents of Topeka and elsewhere. As she described the strategies of leaders like Thurgood Marshall to change the law of the land, she also told of relentless efforts by whites to subvert that law.

The stain of racial inequalities just doesn’t go away. It exemplifies the corrosion of character and freedom that I have been seeing.

— Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.

Statements and opinions expressed in the commentaries herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

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