The stories we know

“I don’t know how you live in such a shithole state”, they said.

I was sitting at a sidewalk table in a college town in New England a few years ago. I had been invited up because this church thought I knew something about building relationships between their congregation and the unhoused folks who slept on their porch at night, and were willing to pay me to talk to them about it.

Typically when I go and consult somewhere, the host organization furnishes a liaison person, who picks me up at the airport, answers my questions, and can help if something goes wrong. This time, the liaison person wanted to buy me lunch before they took me back to the airport.

It was then that they told me I lived in a shithole state. I’m sure they meant it in the nicest possible way.

I must have looked some kind of way because they quickly began to backtrack. But they were sincere, if rude – in light of the history of civil rights atrocities, the history of slavery, the Christian nationalism, the economic devastation, and so on, why on earth do I, an educated, articulate, white cis-gendered male with every kind of opportunity insist on living somewhere like Mississippi.

I was feeling particularly generous that day, and I explained that I knew those stories about Mississippi better than they did and that the reality of those stories is far more horrible than they could know from such a distance.

“But the thing is,” I said, “I know other stories, too.”

I know stories about Fannie Lou Hammer, who rose from sharecropping and eventually took on the Democratic Party and insisted she be seen. I know stories about Will Campbell, a white Baptist Minister who insisted that God loves everybody, even when we wish God didn’t. I know stories about snuff-dipping old white ladies who baked cakes to sell to buy poor black kids some school clothes. I know that the first lung transplant in the whole world was done in 1963 in Jackson, MS, and then in 1972, they mapped the human cardiovascular system for the first time in that same building.

I know stories of resistance, and hope, and resilience, and perseverance. I know stories of people who risked it all on a dream and rose to great heights and then came back to lift others up, too. I know of our storytellers and writers and poets. I know the sounds the gurgling creek that runs near my house makes, the song of the barred rock owl, the rudeness of the bluejay, and the cry of the mockingbird.

And mostly, I know the stories of our people, because I listen for them as I move around this state. On a recent day, I had lunch with farmhands in the Mississippi Delta and then ate supper in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The week before I was on the Gulf Coast where I saw dolphins at play. I live in the middle of it all on top of an extinct volcano, next to a river where alligators swim.

I know of our diversity – not a corporate buzzword for us but our lived reality. I know of the Chinese folks who live in the Delta and brought us their gifts and taught us new ways to cook the foods we have eaten forever, and the brown-skinned folks who took our foods and made them their own. (A Delta tamale doesn’t taste like any tamale you ever had in any Tex-Mex restaurant – it’s far better than that.) I live among and am known by descendants of the indigenous people who cared for this land in civilized societies when my ancestors were naked and living in caves.

And I know that the people here – Black, white, Brown, Queer, straight, rich, poor – all of us – have been played, and made afraid by powerful people who profit from their fear, and who will do anything to keep us apart, lest we recognize our common cause. And because the people here are afraid, they don’t make wise decisions all the time. None of us are our best selves when we are afraid.

I know all those stories. And those stories are also Mississippi.

My host that day, while rude, wasn’t wrong. They knew a story about Mississippi. But they only knew one story. I know hundreds. Which is why I stay.

It’s also why I tell the stories I do. The job of the storyteller is curation – to decide which stories are told. That is as it should be. But we never want to only tell a story because it just happens to be the only story we know.

Are you OK?

Hey dude. Are you OK?

That was one of the dozens of text messages I have gotten over the last few days as the water crisis in Jackson, MS, has made the headlines. Our already fragile water system was overwhelmed by the recent flooding, and now vast portions of the city have little to no water pressure.

But even before the flooding, we were under a month-long boil-water notice.

So, the short answer is that we are personally unharmed. We were not damaged in the flooding, and we have plenty of access to safe water.

But there is a longer answer.

I intentionally live in Jackson, MS.

That, in and of itself, is a political act. Jackson is an overwhelmingly majority Black city, surrounded by overwhelmingly majority white suburbs. The white people who live here have mostly decided to be the type of person who wants to live here.

The suburbs have good schools, good roads, and a nice tax base. We do not have any of those things. Nor is our water currently safe to drink.

When we moved here four years ago, we had a bevy of folks try to convince us to live in the majority white suburbs. But here is the thing: Deciding to live in a majority white space is also a political act.

So we live in Jackson. And we don’t have safe drinking water. We have the resources, personally, to manage this. We can afford drinking water. We have the flexibility, schedule-wise, to boil the water we need to boil. I just dropped a not small amount of money on a reverse osmosis water system to ensure that our drinking water, at least, will be safe to drink. That I can do all of that means only that I am privileged enough to have the resources to manage the catastrophe better than folks who don’t have those resources.

But 25% of Jackson residents live under the poverty line, so many folks here don’t have those resources. Parts of Jackson look and feel like the aftermath of a war. But the war – Mississippi against Jackson – is ongoing.

When a crisis hits, it is always the most vulnerable that feel it first. The hungry feel food shortages first. The elderly feel a healthcare crisis first. And Jackson is catching the infrastructure crisis before larger, better-funded cities do. But it’s coming.

In 1979, 65% of all new water and sewer treatment development was funded by the Federal Government. In 2020, that number was 7%. So it’s coming. It just caught us first.

As I write this, The White House, the Governor, and other places are all involved in trying to get us safe drinking water. And I really, really hope they do, because my city needs it. But it is not lost on me that this is not a new situation – the week we arrived here 4 years ago, the city was under a boil-water notice because of problems at the water plant.

And neither is it lost on me that churches all over Mississippi spend serious dollars to get safe drinking water for Black kids in other countries yet are content to let Jackson flounder.

So, we are unharmed, we Hollowells. But we are not OK. None of this is OK. The persistent racism and fear driving so many of Mississippi’s policies is not OK. The state legislature having countless opportunities to help, and refusing, is not OK. The infighting our own political leaders do is not OK. And the poverty pimps bilking the vulnerable is not OK.

None of it is OK.

Moving back to Mississippi.

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.