Sacred ground

Many people don’t know that Jesus was born in Gainesville, Ga.

When I spoke about “The Class of ’65” earlier this week at the Cresswind community in Gainesville, I began my talk with this unusual bit of latter-day biblical scholarship. It comes, of course, from the Cotton Patch gospels, Clarence Jordan’s retelling of the New Testament in the Southern vernacular. Jordan co-founded Koinonia, where my story is set, so it seemed fitting that I tell my listeners we were on sacred ground.

In the Cotton Patch version, Mary and Joseph are headed to Gainesville to see about a tax matter when Mary goes into labor pains. The couple pull over at the Dixie Delite Motor Lodge, but there aren’t any rooms, so they take shelter in an abandoned trailer out back. The baby is born, swaddled in a comforter, and laid in an apple crate.

This was my first talk since November. I’ve been very busy the past few months finishing my next book, a history of barbecue for the University of Georgia Press. As I took the podium, I was afraid that I’d start blathering about wet ribs vs. dry ribs, but I needn’t have worried: I fell back into Koinonia and Americus High and Greg Wittkamper and his classmates like I’d never left them. 

It was a great audience: about 70 people representing the dozen or so book clubs that meet regularly at Cresswind. One of them, a group of men, call themselves the Curmudgeons. If I were writing a Cotton Patch translation of the New Testament, I would definitely include Paul’s Epistle to the Curmudgeons.

Many thanks to Wilson and Kris Golden (seen in the photo with Pam and me) for inviting us to Cresswind for a lovely evening.


Was that profiling?

I’d like to talk about something that happened on the way home from a book talk last night -- something related to our discussion that troubled me.

I was invited to speak about “The Class of ’65” at North Springs United Methodist Church in Sandy Springs, north of Atlanta. After a fine barbecue dinner in the fellowship hall, the pastor, Sara Webb Phillips (seen here), introduced me and we talked about the book and its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Near the end of the session, one of the members said that her children were much less race-conscious than older generations and expressed hope that the passage of time will help heal our divisions. I nodded in agreement. Then, on the way home, my wife and I encountered something that reminded me that some attitudes are so deep-seated that it takes more than time to unravel them.

Pam and I stopped by a Kroger store to pick up some milk and were approached in the parking lot by two African-American boys, maybe 12 years old, who said they were selling peanut brittle for a school fund-raiser. We found it odd that they were doing that at 8:45 p.m., but they were polite and had a clipboard to write down orders, so we came away thinking that maybe it was all legit. 

As we approached the store, two white women who looked to be college-age motioned us over and asked what those boys were doing. 

"They said they were selling peanut brittle for a school project," I said. 

"Well," one of them replied, "I had my car window broken the other night, and I just didn't want to deal with that again.

Pam and I glanced at each other knowingly and walked on.

I don’t blame the young women for being suspicious of someone selling candy in a parking lot after dark. I mean, we were. But to see two black kids like that and immediately think about your car having been vandalized -- some people would call that racial profiling. It’s a good example of the tribal assumptions we all make in our day-to-day lives. This is the hard part, people: facing our attitudes honestly and dealing with them.

Maybe we can discuss it at my next book talk. 


Finding forgiveness in God's country

When I was working on “The Class of ’65,” I learned about Al and Carol Henry, an outcast minister and his wife who moved to Koinonia with their family in 1965, the year Greg Wittkamper graduated from Americus High. I later heard that their youngest daughter, Cindy Henry McMahon, had completed a memoir about her family’s colorful and painful journey, “Fresh Water from Old Wells.” I had the pleasure of meeting Cindy last weekend at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, near Asheville, where we both made presentations and then did a program together. I’d like to tell you a little about her story.

Cindy was born in 1966 at Koinonia, a year after her father lost his pastorate in Birmingham because he had participated in the Selma voting rights march and other civil rights activism. The family came to Koinonia to lick its wounds and restore its spirit. Things didn’t quite work out that way. While they were living at the farm, Cindy’s father began to show signs of bipolar disorder. He became violent toward their mother and eventually abandoned the family to become something of a hobo. Carol and her daughters scraped by in Atlanta and then settled in Celo, a Quaker community in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, N.C., where they finally found peace and acceptance.

In our joint session, Cindy and I talked about the themes of forgiveness in our books: how she had to come to terms with her father, how Greg reconciled with the classmates who had shunned and harassed him in high school. Forgiveness, we agreed, does not mean forgetting or pretending that some wrong never happened. It’s something you do for you. Anger, Cindy said, paraphrasing a Buddhist proverb, is like a hot coal you clutch in your hand. It burns no one but yourself. Forgiveness is the act of putting down that stone and moving on.

I’ve done numerous talks and book festivals since “The Class of ’65” came out; this was one of the most meaningful. Thanks to Lucy Doll, Kathy Weisfeld and everyone with the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival for including me in your lovely event. Thanks to Cindy for sharing the stage and for writing such a fine memoir (available from Mercer University Press). And special thanks to her big sister Nancy Raskin (shown in the photo behind Cindy and me) for facilitating the whole thing and for taking such good care of Pam and me at the Celo Inn, which she runs with her husband, Randy. The scenery was wonderful, the conversation was lively, the coffee was good and strong -- who could ask for anything more?


A special letter

I mentioned recently that my friend Jane Lamkin had sent a copy of “The Class of ’65” to the novelist Anne Tyler. Guess what? She actually read it, in one gulp.

Jane has corresponded with Tyler since the 1980s, when she first became well-known for “The Accidental Tourist” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Breathing Lessons.” Jane thought she would be interested because Tyler spent part of her childhood at Celo, a Quaker commune in the mountains of western North Carolina, and would probably know something about Koinonia and the persecution it experienced in Georgia.

A few days after sending the book, Jane received a thank-you letter from Baltimore. “I sat down with the book yesterday afternoon intending just to read the first chapter,” Tyler wrote, “and lo and behold, I finished it by evening; it was that riveting! Gosh, adolescence is hard enough without going through Greg Wittkamper’s ordeal. He was remarkable.”

 I couldn’t agree more about Greg. Thank you, Jane, and thank you for reading, Anne Tyler.

Baptists, barbecue ... and a famous writer

I learned about Koinonia when I was working for Presbyterian Survey, the denominational magazine in Atlanta. The editor, Bill Lamkin, was skeptical when one of our free-lancers, Lynn Donham, suggested doing a story on the religious community in southwest Georgia. Bill thought Koinonia sounded a little too Baptist for a Presbyterian publication. But Presbies are pretty ecumenical, and he relented and let us do the story, which started me on the path to writing “The Class of ’65.”

I mention all this because Bill’s widow, Jane Lamkin (shown here), is a dear friend and has been very supportive of the book. Not only did she suggest that I speak about “Class” at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta last fall (where the pastor, James Lamkin, is Bill’s nephew), but she also invited me to her house recently to talk with her book club. Knowing me well, she catered the event with barbecue from Heirloom Market, one of Atlanta’s best barbecue places.

The book club is called the Pi Phi Reading Angels (!!!), and it’s comprised of members of the sorority Jane joined in college. What an interesting group of women; Pam and I enjoyed meeting them very much.

Before we left, Jane asked me to sign a couple of books. One of them, she said, was for Anne Tyler.

Anne Tyler? I said. The novelist who wrote “The Accidental Tourist” and many other good books?

It turns out that Bill, who worked for Friendship Force after leaving the Presbyterian magazine, was returning from a trip to Russia many years ago when he met a couple over lunch during a refueling stop in Greenland: a Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. They mentioned that they had a daughter who was a writer. “Would that be Anne Tyler?” Bill asked. 

The Lamkins met the Tylers again during a reunion of that Friendship Force exchange with Russia, and Jane asked for their daughter’s address. The two of them have been corresponding since 1983, Anne answering Jane’s letters in a diminutive hand on stationery with embossed initials.

I was honored to sign a book for such a distinguished writer, honored that Jane would ask. Thanks for your friendship, for your support -- and for the excellent barbecue. I think Bill, my first boss and a good and gentle soul, would be pleased.