Thursday, October 22, 2015

South Carolina through the Storm

When our new community was hit by a natural disaster, I couldn't help but watch the local response through the eyes of sociologist (and in particular, a sociologist of religion). How would a Bible-belt state weather this storm differently than the pagans back where I come frombless their hearts? TV was providing nearly 24-hour coverage of the storm during its height, the governor gave press conferences twice a day, and social media feeds were buzzing. All that gave me a chance to find out.

Saturday's rain was steady but the flooding of which we'd been warned had not hit by the time everyone went to bed that night. By morning, things were getting serious. Chris had barely made it home from a hospital call at 3am and knew, first hand, that the roads were no longer safe. Others had yet to reach that conclusion.

1. Going to church.

Churches seemed on the fence about what to do that first Sunday. The multi-site church we'd been attending closed some of their campuses and published statements that if you couldn't get out, it was fine to stay home. Other churches seemed to be taking the same line. But as the morning went on, more and more announced closures. Before long the news anchors were telling everyone "assume your church is closed!" (Not a question of public importance back in the Northwest.) In fact, they cited our local mayors who let it be known that they were asking ALL churches to cancel their services. "This is not a day for going to church. It's a day for Bedside Baptist and Pastor Pillow!" quipped one reporter.

Another new anchor shared how if she hadn't been called in to work, she had expected to be teaching Sunday school this morning down at her church, Shandon Baptist Church. Ironically the lesson was on Noah and the flood! That's not a story that would be told on broadcast TV back in Eugene, even though allusions to Noah or building an ark might be made.

Later we would learn that an older man from our part of town was drowned in his car that morning and had been believed to be on his way to church, First Baptist of Columbia.

Going to church. It's what you do here.

In comparison with some other parts of the country, church-going seems normative. Any time we've run Sunday errands we've noticed a lot of people in their "Sunday best," the existence of many "come as you are" congregations notwithstanding. (A note about "dressing up": What constitutes casual dress is a bit differently here. It might not be overstating the case to say that "dressing down" here is about like "dressing up" in the Northwest.)

Although people in Columbia seem pretty "churchy" to me, some of the older folks Chris is meeting at the hospital express concerns about the younger generation not going to church. They point out that churches that used to be big now are small. Chris has had a number of African Americans, in particular, speak of today's youth as lost or ruined. They blame the situation on people today getting too many government handouts and not having to work for things (as well as not being in church). Not sure how much the input he is getting is flavored by his religious identity (as a member of the "spiritual care" department). He's getting used to being referred to, at least occasionally, as a "pastor." He's had the opportunity to pray with many people.

2. Being the church.

Many, many of the churches are taking an active role in flood response, so much so that by the time our own isolation ended and Chris could get out, we weren't jumping up to volunteer. It didn't seem as if there was any lack of volunteers from among the Christians, from across the state, and beyond. Many churches took people in, collected supplies, distributed water, etc. and I'm sure that fundraisers and flood relief efforts will continue to characterize much of the local outreach for months go come. Well done, South Carolina.

I'm sure there's a lot more that could be said about what it looks like for local Christians to "be the church," but I'll wait and write more about that as I learn more.

Christian identity notwithstanding, the city of Columbia has all the usual "structures of sin" (and then some). There's an unusually high level of violent crime. Plenty of signs of drug and gang activity, too.

3. Using religious language.

In the Pacific Northwest, it's not uncommon for people to speak of prayer in times of crisis, but you're just as likely to hear references to "sending good thoughts your way." Many prefer to sound spiritual without being religious. I'm not hearing that in South Carolina. When people talk about praying for others or asking prayer, it sounds like they really mean prayer, as in interceding and talking to a Sovereign, Creator God. I like that. So, during the storm and in the follow up, there was a lot of talk about God and about prayer, and people said things you wouldn't necessarily say in other parts of the country. They talked about "being a people of faith."

I suppose they are probably just as likely to say "I'll pray for you" without actually doing it... orthodoxy is one thing; orthopraxy is another.

Another aspect of religious speech I struggle with a bit more. That's the expectation, in religious circles, that people are supposed to respond in ways they really wouldn't in any other context. In a classroom, workplace, or with family or friends, who shouts out agreement to someone who's talking? You don't do that! Well, not beyond nods and "uh huhs" and the like. But in all the churches we've visited and most of the chapel meetings I've been to on campus, people have been scolded if they don't offer  enough "amens."

I really don't like that. I'll agree with you if I agree with you, not just because you say so, and I'm probably not going to shout it out!  And if I were going to do that, why not use ordinary English?

We had a pastor back in Eugene who always asked us to flip back and forth between different passages, and often he'd say, "when you're there, say, 'I'm there.'" (Instead of "say amen!") That made a lot more sense to me. He was actually asking for feedback, not demanding a religious response.

So, I don't want to "amen." I see that it's expected, though. Oh well. It's not like I've never run into this before. I probably need to just let go of my reasons for finding it ridiculous or manipulative and accept it as part of the culture. Not wrong, just different.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Flooding in South Carolina

About a fortnight ago our whole town was preparing for rain. And not just a little rain, but the kind of rainstorm they say happens every 500 or 1000 years: 12 inches or more over one weekend. A few parts of the state got more than twice that.

The danger, of course, was flooding, and though the death toll was mercifully low, property damage was extensive. Hundreds of South Carolina dams, bridges, and roads were affected. The city's water system was compromised, some lost power as well, and hundreds of people were temporarily evacuated from their homes.

We live on the campus of a medium-sized Christian university on the edge of town. It's built on a hill and well designed for drainage. There was little to no damage here and we were quite safe and comfortable. Because of our location, however, we don't have many options when it comes to roads that connect with the rest of the world. When a local creek flooded badly, both of the closest currently approaches to the nearest highway were closed.

Getting to a gas station, grocery store, or Interstate means driving 13 miles further out into the country. So, although we're in the city limits, we find ourselves now about an hour's drive from town (and Chris's job) depending on the traffic.

It was unsafe to drive anywhere last Monday and Tuesday, and with Thursday and Friday already off for "fall break," the university decided to close down for the whole week, only opening again this Monday. Most of the staff and faculty, including many who were accustomed to getting here in only minutes, have to drive an hour or more each way just to get to work. The Christian school that shares a campus with us has set up extra school bus runs to collect kids whose parents used to just drop them off here but whose travel patterns are now severely disrupted.

People I've talked to seem surprised that we're so affected by these floods, so I just wanted to explain. Yes, all the water has subsided, and of course much of the city was never under water anyway. But you didn't have to go far to find places that were. Now we're all just dealing with the aftermath, which in some cases is going to take months.

What interests us and the campus community the most is when Monticello and Fairfield roads, the ones that could get us to the closest highway, are likely to open.

Rumors vary. Yesterday the school nurse told me another faculty member had reporting at a meeting hearing that Monticello would be closed not just for a month but for two months. Gulp...

Yet Chris came across a news story last night in which a reporter said, "We spoke to DOT, and it anticipates Monticello will be reopened by next Monday." (The DOT website still says November 6, though, and that's the official line from the school at this point, too.)

Pretty big variance, eh? If the road/bridge there was flooded but not damaged, they just need to do an assessment and reopen it. 30+ crews are out checking and working on roads and opening them as fast as they can safely do so. Reports about Monticello had said they believed the bridge supports were undermined. Maybe that's not true!

Chris is finding the long commute quite trying. When he has a day shift, he has to leave about 7:15am and won't get home until 6:15pm. Since a big part of his job is being an on-call night chaplain, though, he's also expected to be available every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night to respond to any crises when the day staff isn't in. Since he couldn't get there from home in a timely way this last weekend, that meant leaving the house at 3:30pm on those days, spending the night in his office at the hospital with an air mattress and sleeping bag, and not getting home until 9:30 or so the next morning... before leaving again at 3:30 to get back. He was only called to see one patient during those three nights, but he had to be there.

Looks like we'll have at least one more weekend like that. But maybe several. We hope at least one of the routes that would shorten his route will open up and let him spend the weekends at home.


So there's my flood update. I'll try to write here again soon to share some cultural observations about life in the South and what Chris is encountering as a hospital chaplain here. It is challenging to find time for blogging with both a manuscript and a thesis proposal in the works and due within a week or two of each other, and other writing projects too. But I seem to find time for Facebook, games on my iPad, and watching TV with my husband. So I guess I can't honestly complain that I "don't have time" for more fruitful practices like blogging, journaling, or reading.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Help! I Can't Communicate with My Mandarin-Speaking Grandpa

It's not only people who travel or move to other countries that have to be very intentional if they ever want to cross-cultural barriers enough to communicate. The same challenges face our ABC (American-born Chinese) friends and other children of immigrants. Language gaps are exacerbated by cultural ones and interpersonal discomfort... coming from the feeling that you OUGHT to be able to connect and already have lots of common ground.

I enjoyed a recent story on Global Voices, originally from PRI public radio, about one young woman who made a decision to find out what her grandfather had to say.
" all the years of spending time with my beloved grandpa, YeYe — him driving me to tennis lessons, teaching me how to make dumplings, and taking me to meals upon meals after school at McDonalds (his go-to spread is the Big Mac with Coke, mine the dollar menu chicken sandwich) — we’ve had never had a real conversation.

"YeYe is from Taiwan and only speaks Mandarin Chinese. My parents are from Taiwan too, but I was born and raised in the US. Though I understand a tiny bit of Chinese, I pretty much only speak English. To call our conversations simple would be a gross understatement. It’s basically: hello, how are you, are you hungry, on repeat.

"I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize all this, but I decided to finally try to have my first in-depth conversation with YeYe.."
Listen to the story about Yowei's attempts to change this. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

Is It OK to Pray This?

“When the question rises, ‘Is it okay to pray this prayer?’ let the answer be once and forever settled: Yes, it’s okay. How? Just ask!

“We worry about knowing exactly what to pray in some cases because we think we know what to pray in all others. We may, at times. But aren’t there many times that we have asked imperfectly? God was not befuddled. Our ignorance did not clog the wheels of the universe.

“When we are uncertain as to how boldly we may ask, we are saying, ‘I’m afraid to ask for this because I might confused the Almighty. I may just force His hand to violate His own eternal purposes, and suddenly bring our world to a screeching halt when my mightiness of faith has secured an answer on earth which God didn’t really want to give.’ It is as though we sometimes think that a cosmic accident might occur if we invade heaven with a request that would somehow slip through the machinery of providence without being checked out carefully. Somehow God would find himself awkwardly glancing toward earth wondering, ‘How did I ever let that happen? I must be more careful about my answers to prayer.’

“‘But,’ you will ask, what if my request isn’t appropriate to God’s will? What if I am asking for something that I shouldn’t?

“The discovery of God’s perfect will won’t happen by excursions of human reason, assertions of man-made theology or personal opinions about ‘how I think God does or ought to do things.’ To the contrary, the Bible tells us how to discover His will through praying, not how to find His will and then pray.

“‘I implore you, brothers and sisters: present yourselves before God in a posture of worship, the kind that God accepts. It’s the only truly intelligent thing you can do. Therein you will find a transforming of your mentality from the world-way of thinking of God’s new way for you, and therein you will discover the whole counsel of His perfect will’ (Romans 12: 1-2, paraphrase.)”   -- Jack Hayford