As I wind through the Texas desert past chipping silos across the tracks from boarded-up storefronts, a vintage Pepsi machine lays where gas pumps once stood. I turn right onto a dirt road, navigating crater-like potholes and park in front of a faded pink steepled church. In this ranching town I’ve come to hear Matt Miles, a presbyterian minister, preach for the third time.
Four years ago, the only thing I knew about rural life was when we’d stop for gas on the way to go hiking or skiing. When my own city of Portland, Oregon erupted into a war zone and the media frothed with news of ‘them’ (rural) versus ‘us’ (city), I created a project called Looking For America in the hopes of understanding the social issues that brought us to this breaking point.
One wintry night in the Mississippi Delta, I met Senator Simmons, a man of faith who came of age during the civil rights movement. During an hours-long conversation he challenged me: “Now that you’ve witnessed the plight of those in the Delta, wracked by injustice for centuries, can you go up into the hill country where the white preachers preach?”
Later, with sleet swirling around my car, I called a friend whose father attends one of those churches. “Be ready, there’ll be armed guards,” she’d warned.
After winding up into the hills toward Tupelo, past confederate flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” banners, I was greeted by two friendly men in golfing jackets, sitting on folding chairs. In some weird way, I was disappointed. I’d expected some military-esque brigade protecting the gates of God.
As the preacher stepped to the pulpit, I felt like Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird sitting in the courthouse, leaning forward as the sermon began. Once the preacher welcomed the half-empty church to the Thanksgiving service, he transitioned from giving thanks to imploring the members to support one another rather than tear each other apart. At some point gesturing to his girth, he reflected how his weight echoed his burden of pastoring a church of division. When he recited preachers’ suicide rates, I was dumbfounded and concerned. I’d never heard a pastor, preacher, or priest beg not to be bullied.
Leaving this broken, white church, I pondered, “Does our nation’s bitterness and rage start within these halls?”
I needed to know more. As I traveled through rural regions, I reached out to local preachers. Privately they’d say, “I’m very open-minded, but I have to be careful what I say at the pulpit.” In regions where the pulpit comes with a house and homeland, many dare not take the risk.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did when he decried the walls of hypocrisy, instead speaking truths of a divinely loving world?
The day I met Carrie Manning, her gentle love filled the room. On a reservation riddled with meth addiction and teen suicide, she’d recently started a youth leadership program. With a star quilt draped behind her and a cross hanging above her desk, she shared her journey from lost childhood to meth addiction and drug dealing. When they spiraled into despair, her husband proclaimed, “If we follow the Lord, we’ll get clean.”
Carrie wants indigenous youth to know they matter, at least to Jesus, by teaching them how to pray and honor their ancestors’ traditions. Nuns and priests might have broken their grandparents, but that was not God’s love, she tells me. “When Revelation talks about ‘a great multitude from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne,’ that’s what I want for my children and my youth. I want them to know that if they follow Jesus’s way, and give honor to him, he will honor them.”
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Leaving the reservation, I found myself longing for others like Carrie. I needed to know that in these forgotten lands, people are offered a path beyond poverty and injustice that melds prayer with action.
There were fewer Carries than I want to acknowledge.
Multiple ministers told me, “I’d love my son if he were gay, but he’d never preach in my church.” When “God Warriors” armed with megaphones screamed at pride marchers to repent, I lost it. I screamed at the man, “Can’t you just let people live their life, you a-hole?”
Last month, I returned to Mississippi to let the senator know where his challenge led me. While there, I met Reverend Chris Diggs, who goes by Chris, a Black preacher who preaches in the Delta and in Tupelo. He reflected, “It’s so easy for hate to generate hate. It creates a sense of superiority and power. We have to know God is here. Right here. And in the midst of being here, the only way we can know each other and find our way through hate is through dialogue and communication.”
On the last day I saw him, after his sermon, he put his arm around me and asked a woman to take a picture of us. He whispered, “Sixty years ago I could have been lynched for this.” When I feel the rage rise as I witness the hypocrisy and mean-minded, unjust ways of those deemed Godly, I try to hold Chris’s kindness and his approach to hate in my heart.
In my continued quest for preachers who walk the faith-action of Jesus, I reached out to LGBTQ+ rural faith leaders. In the era of awakening, or oppression depending on your life, faith and family, I wanted to find out the challenges these preachers face. Reverend Sara Gavit, like Carrie and Chris, leads with an unapologetic, congenial yet candid grace.
It felt both arcane and rude to ask her about being a gay priest. How can something so simple and natural, seem so transgressive and sin-filled?
An Episcopalian priest, Sara leads a small, highly-conservative church in Maine. A few years back, when the church posted an opening, she sought council from a colleague. He advised her, “If you’re willing to challenge boundaries, it could be a good exercise for the church to consider what it would actually be like to have gay clergy.”
Sara went for the interview. The panel wanted to know if she’d keep traditional liturgy. Sara wanted to make sure they accepted she was gay. She chuckles when she tells me, “We kept circling. Finally, an 84-year-old man said, almost exasperated, “Don’t worry Sara, my daughter is gay. It’s no big deal.”
I thought of all those preachers staying silent, feeling isolated and fearful. By living her true self out loud, while honoring their need for traditional liturgy, Sara created an unbreakable faith-driven communion.
Now, four years later, I’d rerouted my latest trip to hear Matt’s Sunday worship following Christmas. I needed his words to boost my tired soul. I needed his faith to boost my weary spirit. Like Sara, he is traditional in the liturgy. Unlike most of the white, male preachers I’d met from these conservative towns, he doesn’t curb his beliefs when he steps to the pulpit. He says, “Churches everywhere are dying because of the hypocrisy. The world is evolving and so must we. Yeah, I lose people, but young people take their place. How can I not talk about what’s going on in the world? If I don’t talk about what’s true in the world, what right do I have to be at the pulpit?”
As our world continues to fracture, I am ever thankful for the faith leaders and faith keepers. They’ve lifted me up more times than I can say. Just as I seem to hit a breaking point of rage against injustice or despair, when God is used as a weapon, someone emerges to rekindle my faith in the divinity of humanity and of humanity in the divine.