“I’ll be going to the poorhouse soon.” I used to hear people say this when some unexpected expense came up. A hardship. An appliance broke, the house needed a new roof, the cost of gas went up. Something they couldn’t readily afford. I even said it myself. When the kids needed braces. When Air Jordan basketball shoes came out. When the baby son wanted guitar lessons and drum lessons at the same time.
If you’re of a certain young age, you may not know about poorhouses. Or what that common expression meant. Counties ran poorhouses, back decades ago, and people down on their luck would have to go and live there and work on the county farm that surrounded the dismal building where they all slept in common quarters. The poor, the old, the young not born normal physically or mentally.
The poorhouse in my county was on Highway 8 going west out of Cleveland toward Rosedale and the Mississippi River. It was set back with cropland around it for the poorhouse folks to work on so they could eat.
The youth group from First Baptist visited the county farm and the poorhouse one Sunday afternoon back in the mid-1960s. We rode out there on our green church bus, in our crisp and clean and neatly ironed cotton dresses and Oxford-cloth shirts and shiny Weejuns and shiny hair. I don’t remember why we went. Maybe it was to see, for educational purposes, how America took care of her poor, as in it was a good thing. We put them away and kept them up on county-run land to live among other hard-pressed souls with nothing and no hope. Or maybe it was to take them an hour of our joy, a smile, and a good word that Jesus loves them, too, and God is good all the time.
I remember two things about that day. One, the common room where these poor folks lived together, families and singles mixed, and the frightful darkness, and all the little beds, and all the blankets turned brown with age or filth. Two, it was not just for old folks left behind, or for middle-aged folks who ran into debt and had no place else to go, but there was a young man not much older than I who lived there. A boy, a kid. Someone’s child. Someone had to put their child there. He didn’t fit in with society. He wasn’t born perfect to the standards of society, mentally or physically. He couldn’t go to school and learn like the other children. His family had to work and couldn’t take care of his needs. Sticking him there was their only choice, where he would live out his days lying in that bed in his own stench with his mouth open, no sunlight, no fresh air to breathe, no one to talk to or care, no future, no hope.
All the years that have gone by since, and I still remember the scene of my young self standing in that dark, dank, dirty, smelly room with low beds and filthy covers, and I can still see that boy lying in bed because he wasn’t like the rest of us and he didn’t fit in. I guess he was considered a burden to society and to his family.
I see commercials on TV now showing dogs neglected and abandoned. They bring tears to our eyes and prompt us to donate for the care of these poor little animals.
I see news on TV now that tells of the coming cuts for services to disabled children, to education and special education, to Special Olympics, Medicaid, and insurance that protects pre-existing conditions. Why does America go after the poor, the ill, the disabled? People, that is. We’ll jump in and take care of dogs. I think of that boy in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and the bleakness and nothingness of his existence back in the time before none of these services were provided in the name of mercy and compassion.
I see a new America now trying hard to be the land for the rich, the healthy, the ones born perfect mentally and physically.
We’re going back to the poorhouse days.
Stop. Close your eyes. Hold your breath. Take your fingernail and scrape around the edges of YOU until you find it—the thin silver sheet that represents your soul. Scratch at it, peel it away, remove it, hopefully in one piece, fold it carefully, put it away. And wait. Wait for better times. This is one way to make it through trying times like these. For without a soul, you won’t know. You won’t care. You won’t feel. Truth, lies, right, wrong, good, bad, hurt, pain, compassion, discernment…nothing will matter. You will just trail along, unaware.
I could go buy a little metal heart, engrave the word CHRISTIAN on it, and clip it to my cocker spaniel’s collar. She could run around and proclaim to the world she’s a Christian. But to my knowledge, she has never made a personal choice for her spiritual destiny.
It’s when you turn that noun into an adjective that it begins to mean something.
As little Baptists we were brainwashed with that adjective. We were loved with it, and we were beaten over the head with it.
“Out of James 1:22, comes a call for Juniors true, who will live for Christ the risen Lord. Listen to this trumpet call, ringing out to one and all, be ye doers of the Word. Be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word. And not hearers, not hearers only, be ye doers of the Word.
I sang that song at least 156 times in the Junior Department of my Sunday School class on the second floor at the First Baptist Church.
“Be ye doers of the Word.” It’s repeated in the chorus four times. That means I sang that command at least 624 times during my formative years between ages nine and eleven.
At that young age, did I know what it meant? You bet I did. It meant behavior. We weren’t just supposed to read Bible verses and listen to the Bible taught in a Sunday lesson or preached in a sermon.
We were supposed to walk out of those church doors on Sunday and live the principles of the Bible every day of the week. It was our guide, our code of behavior. It taught us how to act and how to treat others. It also made clear how not to act and not to treat others. We failed on occasion, and quite often. After all, nobody’s perfect. We got in trouble, got spanked, had to stay in at recess at school, got grounded, got detention, but by damn, we knew right from wrong.
What the hell has happened to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s because, now, collectively, we don’t know. We don’t know right from wrong. We have no moral code. We as a Christian people forgot about hearing and DOING. Or at least, that’s how we act.
In 2016 we lost our moral compass.
Nowadays, the end justifies the means. Situation ethics—without the love for fellow man—is the way we roll: each isolated situation gets its own moral decision based on what feels right in that moment. I mean, if the economy of our nation is good, we can support, defend, and adore immoral and unethical behavior. Where did this come from?
I think about us as little Baptists with our white gloves, white patent shoes, Tonette permanent curls, flowered hats, and white leather Bibles with a picture of Jesus inside.
What has happened to us in our religion?
Why was it so easy to throw away the doing of the Word, the believing of the behavior set forth in the Word? Why can we not discern right from wrong? Why are we floating in the wind and following any new wrong fork in the road?
We keep on wearing that little metal tag with CHRISTIAN on it, and maybe we are the noun. But what happened to the adjective?
Think about it. It bears some study and pondering. Are we in some type of new religious movement, and does it have a name? This is something that has bothered me for a long time, but in the last two years, it has become a great stumbling block. I’ve thought about it, read about it, prayed about it, talked with others about it, sought answers in deep conversations, poured my heart out, and looked in the right places for answers, but for the life of me, I cannot mesh the little Baptists we were with the old grownup Baptists we are today . . . or any denomination, for that matter. What has happened to make us turn to hearing and following a man rather than hearing and doing and following God?
I know, and get your panties out of a wad, I’m not talking about every single Christian. I know there are some with vision and mission and followship. But the whole, the collective Christian community, the Church, has given not only their votes, but their lives in support and defense and adoration of a behavior that is far, far against the Word we sang about as little Baptist Juniors.
I don’t want to be saying all this stuff. I’d rather be liked by old friends and even family. I’d rather be popular and not the target of Christian-labeled hate arrows. I’m too old to be hated and mocked. I could choose to pretend things are good and happy and right. But they’re not. And so I’m not going to sit on the fence, and I’m not going to sit silent. And at this point in my journey, I’m impervious to the arrows. I see, and I need to say. My goal is to try and be nice about it. I’m sure I will fail at times, and forgive me, as I’m desperately searching and trying to reach a greater understanding of exactly what being a Christian means today. It doesn’t mean what it did when I was a young Baptist.
I don’t think we’re quibbling about politics. I think we’re quibbling about religion.
I so hope we as a collective Christian community can find a way to turn those (NOUN) cold, flimsy, metal heart tags into (ADJECTIVE) Christ-likeness and looking to the behavior in his Word as our guide for belief and action and followship.
My son was five when, unbeknownst to me, he retrieved used Tampax applicators from the bathroom trash, put four or five together like a long, white telescope, and went on a back yard adventure. A giant yard of big, old trees, sand box with trucks and buckets, a two-story playhouse, and a swing set, but all he could see through his invention were a few oak leaves, the wheel of a Tonka in the sand, the yellow seat of a glider. Yet he was intent on his narrow scope of exploration.
I kept watching him out the back door—focused, looking for treasure, a mind full of pretend. I kept asking myself, “What in the world is he looking through?”
I think he was smart to invent an instrument for viewing his surrounds, but I don’t think those white cardboard applicators joined together gave him a complete view of the world around him. Looking through that long narrow tube, my little boy could only see what that little round hole at the end of the applicators showed. He had tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is extreme narrowness of viewpoint resulting from concentration on a single idea or opinion, to the exclusion of others.
I can’t help but notice that there are many adults in this world now walking around looking through Tampax applicators. They see one idea or one object at the end of the tube and pick on it, scratch it raw, and then beat on it until it bleeds. They have no peripheral vision, none whatsoever, and concentrate to a fault on one grain of sand out of all the world’s beaches—one tiny inanimate object over all of humanity. I keep shaking my head and saying, “What is wrong with them, and why can’t they see more?”
We live in a time of tunnel vision and tangibles. People like tangibles—real things, palpable, things you can see, touch, even hear, pick up and hold or easily wrap your mind around. Simple and familiar tangibles attached to one meaning and experience include: a football, a tuba, trumpet, drum, cymbal, banner or flag.
People just can’t see beyond the viewfinder of the Tampax applicators; they can’t see intangibles or abstract things. They attach to the material item single-mindedly and focus on its color, sound, texture, and what they personally think about it. They build anger and hostility as they look to hammer and hurt everyone else who doesn’t see the item like they do. There’s no understanding or empathy outside that one object, even though there’s an infinite world of possibilities. I keep shaking my head. “Why can’t they see the big picture?”
I remember the movie Patch Adams. My other son (the one who was given a real Fisher-Price Adventure Tool Set after it was discovered what his brother used for exploration) was in that movie. I think of the scene in which Arthur Mendelson, an elderly, eccentric, intellectual patient ran up wildly to Patch and held up four fingers. “How many do you see?” The staff thought the old man was crazy, but Patch pursued his question. Mendelson told Patch to look beyond the fingers, to look at him, and by gazing through, Patch saw the fingers double. By looking at the four fingers, Mendelson said, “You are focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution.” This was a charge to see more, to look at the whole, to see what no one else sees, to see an answer. “See what everyone chooses not to see … out of fear, conformity, or laziness.”
My friend, writer Chance Chambers says, “I will not hold flags and ceremony (tangible items) in higher regard than human lives. A song doesn’t mean more to me than freedom and the right to live without fear.”
I don’t have a lot of hope that a lot of people can embrace this. Most are very content with their Tampax applicators, and we’ve just got to let them play, pretend, and cry in their own little, narrow worlds.
Are you a Know Nothing? I’ve been called a Know-It-All, but this is different. It was a political party a hundred sixty years ago. Ever heard of it? Read on.
“Its origins lay in a succession of anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic secret societies, culminating in the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, and finally in the Know-Nothing, or American, Party.” (John D. Hicks, A Short History of American Democracy, 1946)
The effects of that party are still felt today.
The “Know Nothing” movement was a nativist political party that operated nationally in the mid-1850s. Nativism is a policy that favors native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants. It was a secret society, and there were rules about joining—initiation rites, hand signs, and passwords. Members had a pureblooded pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, and they vowed to reject all Catholics. They weren’t supposed to talk to outsiders about the secret society. If asked, they responded with, “I know nothing.”
This secret society rose to prominence in 1853 and included more than one hundred elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half a dozen state legislatures, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported:
- Deportation of foreign beggars and criminals
- A 21-year naturalization period for immigrants
- Elimination of all Catholics from public office
- Mandatory Bible reading in schools
Their aim was to restore their vision of what America should look like with Protestantism, temperance, self-reliance, and American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.
In the early 1800s, immigrants trickled into the country, but in the decade following 1845, 2.9 million immigrants poured into the United States, and many of them were of the Catholic faith. All of a sudden, more than half the residents of New York City were foreign-born, and Irish immigrants made up 70 percent of charity recipients.
The cultures clashed, fear spread like fallout riding a wind current, and conspiracies abounded. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are . . . vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.” One author claimed to have gone undercover in a convent and published a book spewing conspiracies, such as priests were raping nuns and strangling any resulting babies. She was proved to be a fraud, yet her book sold hundreds of thousands of copies. People want to believe conspiracies. As a result, churches were burned, and Know Nothing gangs spread to cities around the country, from New York to Cincinnati to Louisville to New Orleans to San Francisco.
“The Know Nothings came out of what seemed to be a vacuum,” according to Christopher Phillips, professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. “It’s the failing Whig party and the faltering Democratic party and their inability to articulate . . . answers to the problems that were associated with everyday life.” (Does this sound like today, or what?)
The Know Nothings, according to Phillips, displayed three patterns common to nativist movements:
- The embrace of nationalism (exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture: PUT AMERICA FIRST)
- Religious discrimination (Protestants against Catholics, instead of current-day Christians against Muslims or Jews)
- Working class identity exerting itself in conjunction with the rhetoric of upper-class political leaders (LOCK HER UP, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE, BUILD THAT WALL, BOMB THE SHIT OUT OF THEM, GET THAT SON OF A BITCH OFF THE FIELD, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN)
I’m not going to apologize for the use of bad language because these are words used by the President of the United States, and they should be good enough for all and appropriate for use at political rallies, in the media, and in our schools and churches.
“One can’t possibly make sense of [current events] unless you know something about nativism,” Christopher Phillips concludes. “That requires you to go back in time to the Know Nothings. You have to realize the context is different, but the themes are consistent.”
It’s interesting what you can find in your mama’s college history book from 1946 if you go looking.