Category Archives: Culture

Healthy soil

by 

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms. Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon. Garrett Duyck,NRCS/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

Soil building practices, like no-till and composting, can build soil organic matter and improve soil fertility (click to zoom). David Montgomery, Author provided

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of foodfor the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are. §

 is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. This article is published by permission of The Conversation, where it first appeared.

Exxon’s Rex Tillerson

And the rise of Big Oil in American politics

By Brian C. Black, Distinguished Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Pennsylvania State University. In 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, part of a behind-the-scenes policy to ensure access to oil for the U.S. and its allies. National Archives and Records Administration “How Big Oil Bought the White House… Continue reading

CLASS WARFARE

Living with more (or less) in Trump’s America

by Dell Franklin

This kid was my best friend when we were both 12, and he told me his goal in life was to be a millionaire. We will call him Carl C. Today, if you drive along a certain freeway in Southern California in an industrial area you will be hard-pressed not to spot a huge square-block-size building with his name on it. He is a billionaire.

Back when we were 12 in our blue-collar town, Carl was already working in his father’s business, a small manufacturer of construction accessories. Carl took my two prized agates I got for my birthday in marbles and sold them. He had the best rare coin collection in town. He was already better than me at cards and repeatedly took money I earned shining shoes at a local amusement park. In junior high, when we walked around town, he never carried money, only a dime in the change purse of his bill fold in case he needed to make an emergency telephone call.

In high school, he bought a car. When he drove us neighborhood kids around town, cruised the drive-in, went to The Pike in Long Beach, or to the beach on summer days, he made sure we paid for gas. If he loaned you money he charged 20 percent interest. I never borrowed money from him because I didn’t need to, but hanging out with him forced me to be almost as cheap as he was, so I wouldn’t get swindled, but I often did get swindled. He was smart, daring, always one step ahead of everybody, including me. The only thing I was superior to him at was athletics. I started and excelled in all three major sports and ran track. Though he was slightly stronger than me, he stunk and got cut from every team sport.

All through high school and college he worked for his dad, whose business grew and boomed, and he wore a coat and tie to learn finances and sales. He majored in business and languages. I went into the Army for three years, and when I got out he had a master’s degree and enough money to start his own business by living at home and saving. It was 1968, and he was about to be drafted. I advised him to go to Canada to avoid Vietnam, but he felt with his education and his ability to “talk himself into good situations” he would get a cushy job, while those less qualified for language school would fight. He ended up in the infantry and deserted a troop movement to ‘Nam and showed up at my apartment with his passport. He was fleeing to Europe. His dad, already hounded by the FBI, showed up looking ten years older, a decorated WWII infantry soldier who fought in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.

We watched Carl fly away to Paris from LAX and when Mr. C put his arm around me, and I put my arm around him, he was shuddering. His wife was in hysterics.

Five years later, as the war died down, Carl was back home running his dad’s business after Mr. C had a heart attack. Neither Carl or his dad would discuss how he’d managed to get back in the country without going to jail. I had visited Mr. C off and on during Carl’s absence and he was slowly deteriorating before my very eyes, twitching and shaking, black rings beneath his eyes, his once-powerful body withered. He was a person I adored.

When he died a year after Carl’s return, Carl took over the business and expanded. He lived in a plush two-story home on the beach with his beautiful blonde wife and occasionally came into the saloon where I worked as a bartender in Manhattan beach and carried only the dime in his change purse and a crisp new hundred-dollar bill he never broke. He also refused to pay for his drinks, stating if he was tending bar he’d give me free drinks as his good friend, while I explained I worked for a house and didn’t give away their money. He allowed others to buy his drinks. He was always trying to coerce me and bar denizens to bet on football and basketball games where he was at a huge advantage, realizing he was studious of odds and cold-blooded about who won or loss, having no loyalty to any team, while others were guided by emotions. He won a lot of money. When he lost, instead of paying off, he managed to talk winners into letting what was owed them ride on another bet.

I began to despise him. Just the look on his face and in his eyes as he sized up those with less money, less intelligence, less heart, and manipulated them with his uncanny ability to subtly browbeat, began to eat away at me, especially when he never bought anybody a drink after he took their money on bets. The way he so gloatingly fit those bills into his wallet reminded me of his stashing away my agates years back. Like he owned you.

I finally refused to serve him. We had an argument. He called me a loser, working in a bar for tips and coolie wages at 30 years old. I was a failed athlete and had no chance as a writer. He had everything. I countered by telling him I loved my job, played in two basketball leagues, surfed just about every day, had a wonderful girlfriend and a great cat. He scoffed at me, sneered, said not only was I failed athlete, but that he, a non-athlete, could beat me in tennis and wanted to play for a hundred bucks.

He took lessons from a famous pro in Beverly Hills and owned state-of-the-art rackets, a ball machine and 50 cans of balls in the trunk of his Mercedes. I upped the stakes to two-hundred. So we met on the local courts, and as we warmed up, his face changed. The cockiness disappeared. He began to look craven. He came to the net and stated he wanted to play that afternoon for nothing, until he “felt ready”—this after we had shook hands. I called him a slew of names, cussed him in front of various players on other courts, accused him of being a coward and stormed off, told him to never come around me again. He never did.

So I forgot about him, until I heard he was now a billionaire.

***

Carl was not a creep like President Trump. He was a gentleman around girls. As a kid, he was funny and observant and well-read and curious and good company. But as the years passed, his drive to accumulate money began to change him and control his life, until greed began to win out over humanity, just as today, in  this age, capitalism has won out over democracy, turning us into an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy.

As a millionaire and finally a billionaire, I’m sure, as a person who never liked paying for anything, and coaxed others to pay his way, Carl C has the finest tax lawyers to write off everything. I’m sure he became admired in his own sphere of business and society and eventually worshiped, for in America attaining millionaire and billionaire status is the culmination of the American Dream, so that when one of these people speaks, others stop and listen, as well as catering to and often becoming obsequious to such financial titans, almost as if, as billionaires, whatever they touch turns to gold, whatever they say is the truth, and that because they can make millions and billions they can do anything, even run the most powerful, important country in the world, even, as a young millionaire deserter, beat a trained athlete (who in our society is a poor slacker and loser) in a tennis match for two-hundred dollars because his hubris and ego has no bounds. §

Dell Franklin lives in quiet simplicity, never got rich, and doesn’t lack for anything. He writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif. Visit his website: dellfranklin.com.

Trump’s undiplomatic Twitter diplomacy

It isn’t a joke – it’s a catastrophic risk

Brian Klaas, London School of Economics and Political Science and Jennifer Cassidy, University of Oxford

Throughout the US presidential election campaign, many Republicans assured the electorate that once inaugurated, Donald Trump would “pivot” and begin to act like a more conventional candidate. This never happened. Some find that refreshing, others alarming. But the new world of a classically unpresidential president is most dangerous when it comes to Trump’s shoot-from-the hip Twitter diplomacy.

Diplomacy is the art of foreign policy signalling, a delicate craft of nuance, protocol, subtlety. Trump is the antithesis of those attributes. In salvos of 140 characters or less, he has already come close to upending decades of American foreign policy, torpedoing compromises carefully carved out through years of negotiation with a single click. From Taiwan to North Korea, he has recklessly trampled into some of the world’s diciest diplomatic minefields, Tweeting first and thinking about the consequences later.

This is obviously deeply disturbing on a moment-by-moment basis, but the longer-term damage that Trump is inflicting on American diplomatic power is far subtler and far more worrying.

Whichever way you look at it, the destabilising effect of his cavalier tweeting is profound. If foreign leaders take his tweets seriously, with all the obvious risks that entails, conflicts could suddenly escalate whenever Trump wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and turns to his phone to vent. If foreign leaders learn to ignore the mercurial volatility of his day-to-day tweets, then that may be a boon for short-term global stability – but in the long run, that approach will ensure that the US is no longer able to send clear and credible diplomatic signals.

Diplomatic signals can prevent wars or start them, and mixed signals are particularly risky. In the early 1990s, on the same day that the State Department stressed the US’s strong commitment to “supporting the individual and collective self-defence of our friends in the Gulf,” another State Department spokesperson stated that “we do not have any defence treaties with Kuwait, and there are no special defence or security commitments to Kuwait”. Saddam Hussein believed the latter and invaded Kuwait, sparking the First Gulf War.

The lesson is that diplomatic signalling is already fraught with risk even when communicated through the most careful channels – and Twitter is just about the least careful channel imaginable.

The high road

There are already signs that foreign powers plan to ignore Trump’s 140 character rants and instead focus on concrete policy changes. During a recent press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang made a thinly veiled reference to Trump’s tweets: “We don’t pay attention to the features of foreign leaders’ behaviour. We focus more on their policies.” Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency added that “an obsession with ‘Twitter foreign policy’ is undesirable”.

These sentiments might sound reassuring, but they don’t mean the risk isn’t there. So long as foreign powers are unable to distinguish Twitter bluster from official US government policy, the world will over time become a more dangerous place.

The line between a boastful tweets and an official warning about trade policy or military manoeuvres is one that should never be blurred. Diplomatic protocols exist for a reason: they are the fruit of years of effort to find common ground among countries with varied interests, some of which converge and many which do not. These protocols have for centuries functioned as a guiding compass for diplomatic agents worldwide, dictating how they should act, around whom, and in what setting. They also help mitigate the gravest risks of cultural misinterpretation and linguistic misrepresentation.

When these lines are crossed, the consequences are immediate. George W. Bush famously failed to take off his gloves to shake hands with Slovakia’s president in 2005; the incident overshadowed the entire state visit and noticeably chilled the two countries’ relations.

The same sensitivities are there with communication through text. It may sound pedantic, but colloquialisms, idioms, and even spelling mistakes can and do spark real and serious conflicts, and these risks are in fact magnified when they occur in a few dozen publicly disseminated words rather than a carefully thought-through diplomatic communiqué.

It’s even more terrifying to consider what might happen if Trump’s account were hacked. At the end of 2016, the Pakistani defence minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, issued a provocative warning to Israel after he saw a fake news story on social media that appeared to contain a nuclear threat from Israel’s government. Imagine if a similar threat came directly from Trump’s account.

Yet, in spite of these obvious risks, Trump shows a monumental contempt for the convention and protocol on which diplomacy depends. His failure to grasp those rules and norms will have profound consequences for international relations. The more he flouts the basic norms of diplomatic signalling, the more unsafe the world will become. §

The ConversationBrian Klaas, LSE Fellow in Comparative Politics, London School of Economics and Political Science and Jennifer Cassidy, DPhil Candidate in International Development, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mutually Assured Destruction: Trump Wishes Us All A Happy Thermonuclear New Year

Now that the presidential election is over, will it ever really end? Not if Donald J. Trump and the cable news networks get their way. Having made the election into a pro-wrestling spectacle, the Twitter-addicted president-elect and his ratings-hungry enablers at CNN, Fox News, etc. appear determined to turn the United States government into an endless… Continue reading

On the run after Trump win

It’s not easy being Muslim in a country that thinks you’re Mexican

Poet and author Ibrahim Ahmed, a Muslim who has been mistaken for a Mexican, went into hiding soon after Donald Trump declared he would banish Muslims from the US. He was last seen heading for Mexico.

by Ibrahim Ahmed

Now that fiction counts as news it’s getting harder to know the difference, or why it even matters.

I doubt anyone knows when I’m reporting news or creating fiction that traffics as “news,” and it doesn’t seem to matter, not when you can create your own story, your own version of the “facts,” and make money and increase your followers on Twitter. I do it all the time.

I’ve been telling my wife, for example, all kinds of stories, some factual, some not, and she, in turn, has been making up stories about me. I’ve been cherry-picking bits and pieces of these stories and posting them as “news,” some of which have gone viral.

My wife’s not impressed, however, and she’s started sending me turd and foot fetish emojis in response.

Recently, she got pissed about my drinking and bar-hopping, and turned me over to the feds by telling them I’ve run off to Syria to meet with ISIS recruiters. She thinks I’m hiding out in Fresno. She thinks I’m a no-good bum, drinking, carousing and running from the law.

She threatened to vote for Trump if I didn’t come home immediately. I told her she’d regret it, and she’d get deported, and she’d just have to wait until I take care of some personal business before I come home.

“Personal business?” she mocked. “You call masturbation ‘personal business’.”

My wife’s not impressed, however, and she’s started sending me turd and foot fetish emojis.

Contrary to rumors, I’m not working the streets of Las Vegas, posing as a high-rent hooker and robbing people once I get them into their motel rooms, nor have I given up my manhood, nor do I plan to come out as the world’s first Muslim transvestite who’s about to have the “procedure.”

In fact, I’ve been hiding out in Orange County, Calif., living briefly with a Mormon couple that took pity on me after the election. I’d been haunting Laguna Beach bars, sleeping in my car, when I decided to try a bar in Irvine.

I met them at the bar down the street from their home. I could tell right away they were good people. Nice shoes, nice clothes, prim and proper, hair in all of the right places, although they’d come, they told me, to let their “hair down a little,” even though Mormons don’t ordinarily drink.

“Are you from Mexico?” they wanted to know.

“Ah, no, I’m recently from Fresno, where I lived in a ramshackle trailer for a few weeks and worked with a crew of Mexicans as a farmhand because the rancher thought I was…”

“Oh, you poor fella!” the wife interjected. “You’re a migrant worker!”

They told me about their love of canning and building a family, and the husband winked, after his second beer, when he hinted at the possibilities of a heaven populated with many wives. He seemed to know I’d like that idea. We downed a few more beers and pretty soon they were inviting me to come stay with them “until the heat dies down, maybe after they build that wall.”

I moved into an extra room, which they had turned into a pantry, its walls lined with canned goods and basic staples. I quickly scored a job with Uber. The couple thought I was a Mexican immigrant until, after a week of living with them, they saw my “morning prayers.”

I’d left the door cracked a little and was on the floor, kneeling down, looking under the cot for my car keys, and blurted out in a panic:  “Please, Allah, just let me find my keys and get back home to Grover Beach before my wife, or some alt-right kook, kills me first.”

The wife was standing there and she was horrified. “Would you mind handing me that bag of flour above your head, please?” she asked, pretending she hadn’t seen me kneeling on the floor or heard my pitiful supplication. Then, “Are you Mexican and Muslim?”

“Well, sort of….” I didn’t know what to tell her. I’d made up so many stories, I didn’t know where to begin. If Facebook can destroy the world of thought and conversation by doling out unfettered lies and fake news, I mused, then I will start by telling the truth. “…I’m on the run, actually.…”

“OH.MY.GOD!” She dropped the bag of flour on the floor and it burst into a white Jackson Pollock mess all over the tiles. “You’re a Mexican terrorist?!”

“No, ma’am, I’m not a Mexican and I’m not a terrorist, I’m a Muslim, a not-so-good Muslim, on the run from my wife, who’s turned me into the feds, and now she wants me back…”

“Get out!” the husband shouted. He stood behind me, shotgun cradled in his arm. “GET OUT!” With his free hand, he waved me out of the house. “Get your things and get out!”

“But…”

“Leave! You’re not welcome here anymore.”

I grabbed my belongings and I as walked out the door, I heard the wife on her phone, “Yes, homeland security?”

I drove straight to the nearest used car lot and made a quick transaction, trading in my Honda for a VW bus and headed south to Laguna Beach to have a few drinks at the Marine Room Tavern where a live band was playing the blues.

I found a place at the bar and ordered a whisky.The place was jumping and between songs an old man playing the trombone slammed down his vodka tonic, grabbed the mic and shouted: “Let’s all get drunk and be somebody!” §

Ibrahim Ahmed is a poet and essayist who has been hiding from the feds, sending dispatches from the road about what it’s like to be a Muslim in America.

THANKSGIVING AT THE A.M.E. CHURCH

An agnostic Jew finds sanctuary among black worshipers

Photo from gallery of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

The ladies seemed aglow with the proposition of their attendance, as if this was a highlight in their lives, or perhaps the highlight of their lives. Photo from gallery of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

by Dell Franklin

Maybe it was time I showed up at a “house of worship”—church, synagogue, mosque, etc.—after a more than 50-year absence (except weddings and funerals) as a fully committed agnostic. So when my brother-in-law, who along with my sister is white and a volunteer sponsor of minority foster children for an organization associated with the black A.M.E. Church, invited me to join him for morning services at that church in Los Angeles, I said yes.

I was curious and also looking forward to entering the unknown as the 1 percent minority, if that. Also, having lived on the mostly white conservative Central Coast of California for the last 30 years, I was excited, as a kid reared in mixed-race Compton, to again rub elbows with black folks.

The church was a huge, stately structure. We arrived early and people were milling around, dressed in their best for a festive Thanksgiving. At the entrance we were greeted by a man in an immaculate black suit and white gloves who welcomed us, while another man similarly clad handed us programs titled, “God’s blessings inspire an attitude of gratitude.” A few ladies stood talking, nodded at us, smiled, and I was immersed instantly in a cocoon of warmth and graciousness of a different kind.

We found our seats up front, in the second row, along the middle aisle. Already, the choir was in place behind and beyond the pulpit as dignitaries of the church sat in a row behind the lecterns. My brother-in-law, Bruce, was eager to hear a visiting pastor from the Dallas, Terry White, and the church’s own pastor, “J” Edgar Boyd, in the face of Trump’s recent election as president.

But to me, this occasion posed a brilliant cornucopia of unrivaled people-watching, my favorite pastime. The ladies seemed aglow with the proposition of their attendance, as if this was a highlight in their lives, or perhaps the highlight of their lives. How could an agnostic, a cynical bastard like myself feel cynical about this as these ladies caught my eye and smiled and welcomed me to their church?

As the massive cavern filled with black people only, a different emotion filled me—I was getting with it. I was among the congregation and did not suffer the usual guilt of being a nonbeliever facing a man preaching the Bible, nor the self-betrayal of just being in their midst, nor the boredom and manipulation I had resented and endured in the synagogue growing up, or any of the other churches I had been forced to attend for weddings and funerals. I felt utterly at ease here—and safe.

The service began and hymns and litanies led to prayers by a lady reverend, another lady, and  a teenager. Scripture was read—Samuel—a commentary having to do subtly with Trump, followed by the choir, which was just warming up, and then came Pastor Boyd, his constant refrain, over and over and over again, with more and more emotion, what these people, his people, felt after the election, after years and years of struggle: “WE MADE IT!”

“YES, WE MADE IT!” People began to stand, mostly women. They nodded and raised a hand and announced their agreement. “Yes, we made it!”

“AND WE WILL MAKE IT AGAIN!” Over and over again, and Trump’s name was never mentioned, but everybody got the pastor’s message. Black people had overcome slavery, lynchings, beatings, the unleashing upon them of vicious dogs and powerful water hoses and teargas, incarceration for whatever the white man deemed guilty, centuries of civil rights abuse and bludgeoning of spirit, but always, always, they “made it.”

The reverend was a resonant showman, the ebullient spirit pouring forth from his every pore, preaching that two-fisted old fashioned religion, and Bruce and I found ourselves rising with the throng, clapping our hands, and when the pastor finished in a rousing finale, a tall man in a light brown suit led the choir, and now the place was really rocking, the blend of powerful, magnificently blended voices leading a chorus among the congregation, and I found myself not singing, because I know no words and I was not really a person who talked about the lord or Jesus or even God, but instead watched the people, and especially the ladies, so carefully attired, jewelry gleaming, and I was reminded of the hardship most black women endure, reminded of my days of working on the riverboat Delta Queen on the Mississippi River back in 1969, and being the only white employee below the officers, and of being taken as a guest to a blues club in Memphis by a crew of waiters and maids, and getting with that music, and watching my friends react to this music, such sad, woebegone music, and, while dancing with one of these ladies, who was sending her pay home to her children and family in New Orleans, I asked how people could be so joyous over such brokenhearted music, and she told me, “Honey, we got to celebrate our sufferin’, or we ain’t gonna make it.” And, “We got our blues, and our church, and they can’t take that away.”  And she smiled, knowing I had no clue to either and probably never would, but that was okay, too.

It made me think about my own life, and how easy things were for me, how I, a white person, could hitchhike from LA to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and land the best job on the Delta Queen as the ship’s storekeeper. No black person could hitch through the south without fearing disaster, and none of the uneducated blacks on the Queen had the training to be a storekeeper, as I had, starting out as a 15-year-old stock boy in Compton.

Those maids on the Delta Queen reminded me of the ladies in this congregation, who, as mothers and providers, and believers, beamed with pride and hope and faith cutting through hardship and hurt. The faces and  bodies of these women depicted heroic resilience beyond my comprehension, and the more I watched them, as the choir moved into a higher gear, and the people began swaying and repeating, a spirit entered me. I saw what religion meant to these people, and joining them made me feel good, and grateful, and strangely whole. I didn’t have to believe in Jesus, or the lord, or God, or any god, but just needed to be among people who genuinely believed, and shared, and found this day, and perhaps every Sunday of their lives, a salvation and a salve for the week’s wounds and life’s unfairness, a refuge from what occurred daily outside the walls of this massive church.

The Gospel ended and now Reverend Terry White Sr. from Dallas took over, and his oration, like Pastor Boyd’s, came from an echoing chamber deep within, and his showmanship and passion soon had everybody rising and repeating his words, and he wound himself into a fury, moving this way and that, his voice powerful, and the whole place rocked and rocked, and I thought to myself that if I lived around here I might show up at this church more than a few Sundays a year, to again drop some cash into their coffers and experience what was proving to be to me an almost Zen-like occasion.

In the end, we all held hands, swaying back and forth, and afterwards I was myself shaking hands with men and hugging women as we headed toward the exit in a cloud of jubilation. Outside, a few more hands were shook, and then I ran into the man in the brown suit who led the choir, and I told him how great I thought they were, and he shook my hand and said, “Thank you, we give it our all.”

I ran into a lady who must have been well past 80, struck up a conversation, and she urged me to come back, and hugged me. Driving back, Bruce said, “You think we feel entitled, going in there, because we’re white?”

“Probably.”

“You think two black men would be as welcome in a Southern Baptist white church, or any white church?”

“I don’t know. Churches are supposed to be welcoming places. Maybe, but I doubt it.”

We talked about the white man who went into the black church in South Carolina and shot and killed innocent people. And they forgave him, prayed for him. To those people I don’t think it was just about Jesus, or the lord, or God, but a spirit of humanity and magnanimity, just as they would accept me in that very same spirit as a nonbeliever, a person who walked out feeling that humanity and magnanimity and carrying it with him for that day and to this day too, and perhaps for some time to come. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he maintains his love for humanity, and the hope of people who struggle against ignorance and hate. His other works can be viewed at dellfranklin.com