On the 18th day, I’m grateful I got the chance to move back to Mississippi.
I’m the one who left. That’s how I once overheard my parents describe me to someone – of their three kids, I’m the one who left. I graduated high school, joined the Marines, and then after that moved to Memphis, one hour and a million miles away from home. After a dozen years there, I moved 12 hours away to Raleigh, NC. And I lived there another 12 years.
My youngest brother lives next door to Mom. My middle brother lives perhaps 15 minutes away from her. See? I’m the one who left.
I blame the books. At an early age, I hunted a murderer in the alleys of Paris with Dupin, outwitted blackmailers in London with Sherlock Holmes, stole from pirates with Travis McGee in Florida, hunted whales with Ishmael in Nantucket, boxed with Spenser in Boston, sailed the Nile with Hercule Poirot, and cracked wise in LA with Phillip Marlowe. It was a big, bold world out there, and the 800-person town we lived 10 miles away from seemed isolated and provincial by comparison.
In those books, I was exposed to not just different geography, but different ideas and different kinds of people. People who knew what wine to drink with what food. People who liked art, and understood it. People who were shameless womanizers, and people who were feminists. People who hated the church, people who were witches, who were Muslim, who were Catholic.
I dreamed big, and yes, there were even more things in heaven and earth, it turns out, than were dreamt of on my philosophy. I left home in June, a few weeks after High School graduation. Over the next 28 years, I would be, at various times, a Marine, a college student, a warehouse worker, a salesperson, a husband, a financial advisor, an ex-husband, a bookstore owner, a resident of North Carolina, a husband again, a pastor, director of two different nonprofits, a homeowner, and, lastly, someone who came to miss his people.
It didn’t happen all at once. In my twenties and thirties, I built an identity of being “from” Mississippi, and even famously said Mississippi was the sort of place it was good to be from. I would say things like I was in exile from Mississippi, happy to portray myself as the enlightened one who left – implying, even if I did not outright state – my intellectual superiority.
I traveled to amazing places, and I met amazing people. I befriended bestselling authors, Hollywood directors, rappers, bluegrass musicians, chefs, jewelers, politicians, lobbyists, preachers, monks, surgeons, and collectors of everything from 15th century prayer books to classic Corvettes.
The first shift was in 2010. I came home for my 20th High School reunion, but it wasn’t the reunion that did it. It was the cemetery. The small church we attended when I was a child had a cemetery across the road from the church itself. The Saturday morning after the reunion I got up early and went to the cemetery. I walked up and down the rows of granite, seeing names I knew as well as my own, along with several generations of my name, too.
I had a thought, walking through that cemetery I had never before contemplated: If I had children, they would never know any place in the same way I knew that place. I had far more in common with every single person buried in that field than I did any person I had met in my travels.
The next step was in October of 2015. It was our anniversary, and just three months before, Renee had been the recipient of a heart transplant, which should, all things being equal, give her a normal life expectancy and a huge quality of life increase. Suddenly, our options for the future seemed wide open. And for the first time in more than two decades, I considered what it would be like to move back home.
In the winter of 2016/2017, the fractures in our nation came to a head following the Presidential election. After a decade of working to teach Christians how to love their homeless neighbor, I was feeling more and more that the hardest person for people to love was not the homeless man at the intersection, but the person from a different political party. Discourse seemed impossible, and white supremacy seemed unleashed. It all felt very familiar.
White supremacy was not some novel idea I learned about after my book club read Ta-Nehisi Coates. No, I was “borned to it”, as Huck Finn liked to say about his sinful nature. It was the water in which I was raised, and to all appearances, the natural order of things. And one of the reasons I left. Going back would mean confronting that, and fighting that.
In the spring of 2017, I was in my backyard, planting flowers under my Japanese maple when Mom called to tell me Dad had had a “cardiac event” earlier that week. He was fine, and more than a little pissed she called to tell me. After I got off the phone, I sat on the porch, looking out over our front yard and thinking how, if something bad happened, I was 12 hours away. I went inside to talk to Renee.
We had a couple of problems: I needed to do meaningful work; Renee needed quality transplant aftercare; neither of us had any desire to live a rural life and every bit of ministry experience I had was urban.
A few minutes with Google told us that Jackson had a world class transplant center with transplant aftercare for people like her. There was a small multi-racial Mennonite church that had been born in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement that wanted to make an impact beyond their building. Gentrification had driven the value of our house in North Carolina upward, and the cost of living was such in Jackson that we could buy a house there that was much nicer than we were used to.
In June we came to Jackson for a week to look around. I met with some people here to learn about what needed doing. And we began to make plans.
Three years ago, I moved home to Mississippi. Because, as James Baldwin told us, not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. And it was time for me to face up to the forces and people who shaped me.