Morning in middle America

By Tom Ehrich
Posted Apr 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 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.

Comments (9)

  1. As a resident just a few miles from the race way you describe and as recent and now former Vicar of St. Paul’s Kansas City, KS, I can affirm your description of what you observed. While, as you suggest, the total, local picture is complex (spend time in Johnson, Co., and you will see a large area that is still very successful and in the top ten counties nationally of about any demographic you can find), the overall is a tense combination of hope and discomfort to out-and-out fear. The deep pathology of nostalgia, of an idyllic past Kansas, propels reactionary elements. However, the real past in Kansas was unmistakably a healthy combination of economic conservatism, moderate social and great educational progressiveness. As well, though, I know how the deep racism of the nation is reflected in our local circumstances, especially as it relates to younger to middle aged black males. The Episcopal Church here finds itself in the deep center of all the negative and positive forces, the problem of which that, like being in the eye of a storm, any slight direction one moves there is some form of turmoil and perturbation. Our mission may be, as you suggest, to accept our modest position of Anglican consciousness, gracefully empowering us to name all the conflicting elements, to be steady and available with compassion toward one another as the forces far greater than we play out. As a result some days here, and probably where you live, are better than others. . . in prayer, worship and mission.

  2. Dale Price says:

    A rather busy weekend if you saw the theocrats in Wichita (which is over 100 miles southwest of Topeka), the Kansas Speedway (nearly fifty miles east of Topeka), networked with dozens of fellow religious leaders and took the time to monitor local police scanners.

    Perhaps your mood can be chalked up to drive-related exhaustion and just trying to do too much?

  3. James McLemore says:

    I ate lunch today at a cafe next door to my old elementary school in Alabama. I gazed at the sycamore tree out front, where in 1966 I watched as three black girls waited anxiously in the shade for a ride after school. They were the first to integrate our school, and neither of us knew quite what to make of each other. I never saw an ugly incident and very few occured. As children, we adapted well. But now the sycamore is delimbing prematurely. At the same time, my lunch companion is extolling the efforts of our Legislature to reinforce our anti-immigration law, to divert tax revenue from education to industry recruitment, to tighten restrictions on who can vote, etc. I wonder – How is this happening? What is causing the stench that is so strong as to stain our character? As the sycamore which provided shelter for those nervous school girls dies before my eyes, so seems the advance of humanity. We are all in Kansas now.

    1. Your words are chilling and beautiful. I feel your words in my heart, in this heartland where no map pin point is needed.

      1. Ann Burr says:

        It was refreshing to see your name and comments after reading the above.

        To Ron Reed from
        Ann Burr…..remember?

        1. Yes, yes, how lovely to see your note and conjure up many rewarding memories of stewardship events and good conversation. You can check out the blog where you may find my email address. Love to catch up some more. Or if you are on Facebook, there we can also communicate. To you my fondest regards.

  4. Phillip Ayers says:

    The article by Tom Ehrich and the reply from old friend Ron Reed moved me considerably to reply and comment. As a native Kansan, and a “son of the diocese of Kansas” and having lived and worked there, both as a teacher in public school and as a priest, I resonate with most everything in this post. I do not make many sojourns back to my home state as my family members, save a few cousins, have either died or moved away. Some have come to Oregon, where I now live, finding the progressive (really at times libertarian) ways of Portland and environs much more to their liking and preferences.

    I grew up in the old “segregated” days where public schools in Wichita were not integrated until high school, but do remember well 1954 and Brown vs. Topeka. Moving briefly to Newton, some 20 miles north, when in 3rd grade, I found for the first time that blacks and Hispanics who were in my class, were potential friends. In high school, back in Wichita, the African Americans of my acquaintance were fun to be with and to study with. No problems there, but we were separated by the parts of town we lived in, the churches we worshipped in and the social demographics.

    The Episcopal Church had a very tepid presence in Wichita and the Bishop, in the 60s, closed St. Augustine’s Mission, located in a strategic part of the “ghetto” which could have, potentially speaking, been a beacon of hope. People tried to make it work, but the bishop’s plan to “integrate” the other parishes barely worked. At my mother’s funeral in 2009 at the largest parish in town, St. James, I was proud to be led into our family’s pew by a black man and to see some of my mom’s black friends there from the parish. But, sadly, there aren’t very many people of color there.

    So, what’s to become of Kansas, as well as other places like it? I don’t know, but I pray hard and I work for justice and peace as best I can with what feebleness I can offer. BTW, there is no all-African American church in Kansas any more. In Ron’s former parish, St. Paul’s, Kansas City, KS, the old Ascension Church (African American) merged; when I visited there in 2007, it was good to see some of their furnishings in Ascension Chapel at St. Paul’s and to worship with a very integrated congregation in that city that reminded me so much of a mini-Detroit as I drove around.

    We need, all of us, to pray and work hard to assure that our Church is open and welcoming to all, and to see to it that the eradication of racism within our boundaries is a high priority.

    Peace and love to all.

    1. Phil, what a treat this article has become for me! And to read your, as always well written, words. You are “spot on” re. Wichita and so on. I am glad to state that St. Paul’s continues to be a force for good among the poor and very racially mixed neighborhoods in KCK. While there, we by the grace of God expanded and renewed the food pantry, empowered local leadership and were able to meet an increase of some 300% during all the economic turmoil. Please catch up with me/us on the blog. You will recognize Bob Terrill’s presence there also in his essays. And Peace and Love to you and all!

  5. Charles Smith says:

    A few points you may wish to consider.

    Racial tensions. There are certainly at least two sides to every coin; so far, I’ve read at least half a dozen media reports of attacks on whites where the perpetrators have indicated their actions had been taken as “justice” over Trayon Martin. This is particularly interesting, as Zimmerman is a Latino with, again, according to news reports, some black roots. As one of the Neo-Nazis who went to Florida to patrol the streets put it, this is not our fight, other than to protect our people. Let the [blacks] and [Latinos] fight it out. Yet, it is “revenge” violence that is being directed at an ethnic group that wasn’t even involved. Racial tensions should hardly be a surprise .

    The state government of Kansas was put there by the voters. Regardless if whatever you think of the folks who are willing to put their money where their mouths are in supporting their beliefs, you might recognize that folk like George Soros do the same thing on the other side of the coin. What I find objectionable is the premise that one set of beliefs is automatically the right one. You might give consideration to the fact that ECUSA as a national force is slowly dying on the vine and that parishes are becoming increasingly congregational, in part due to how the national church engages in the political process.

    Another fallacy is your expectation that if people did not spend their dollars on events like a NASCAR race, those funds would automagically go to whatever cause you wished. That’s not how the society works. People will spend funds in excess of meeting their basic needs as they see fit, and some of that will go to recreational activities. You might also consider that such activity creates a number of jobs. Many venues are located in inner city areas, where many of those jobs – admittedly, service jobs, not career positions – go to lower income people.

    In short, you do not present much of a path to move forward. There is a need for give and take on both sides of the coin, but all I see in your blog entry extremely one – and short – sighted.

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