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Across the Great Divide


Kiesa Kay

My Baptist church has about fifty members show up each week, although we mostly pray from home now that the coronavirus has stricken a tenth of our membership. On the day that the Rev. Ben Cole and Deacon Michael Silvers dipped me backward into the cold waters of the South Toe River, I came rising out of that river calling, “Hallelujah.” (The baptism got more than a thousand views, and not just because of the wet t-shirt, either.)

Thirteen souls got saved that day, washed clean in the crystal pure waters. My friend Jim Campbell, age 93, played a hymn on his mandolin, while his wife, my friend Mabel, sang, accompanied by Kathy on the flute. The whole congregation sang “Amazing Grace.” My friend Patsy Harrison took a photo of me dripping wet, and had the good common sense to bring a towel. It wasn’t her first trip to the river by a long shot.

Growing up in a family of Catholics, Southern Baptists, and one vehement atheist, I never doubted the existence of God. As a student, I read widely in the world’s religious traditions, finding God in nature, Buddhism, Hinduism, Conservative Judaism, Quakerism, Mennonite faith, radical feminism, Taoism, and Wiccan. I was searching for a community with the certainty and succor I had found as an abused child, floating in the lake outside my childhood home.

A half century of spiritual explorations led me right back to a baptism by water and this Appalachian church family. They didn’t reject me because I was different. They opened up their arms and welcomed me home.

North Carolina’s South Toe River Valley is, like so much of America, divided between deeply conservative rural folks and refugees from cities. As a writer with a post-graduate education and a deeply religious bent, I belong to both communities.

I love my church community. We care for and celebrate each other. Not long ago, Jim Campbell and I joined Aleshia Silvers, the deacon's wife, to play “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad” for the congregation, because she’d wanted to sing it for years and finally worked up her courage. The day that Burl Ballew sang his favorite hymn, everyone in the congregation stood and applauded him. Nothing in the world lifts my heart like hearing my friend, the towel-bearing Patsy, sing, “I Have Been Blessed.”

On Christmas, we drive to houses, caroling to people who can’t get out of their houses, and on Valentine’s Day, we deliver bud vases to two dozen people, even though most of them weren’t members of the church. This Christmas, the carolers stood outside folks' houses to keep a safe distance, but they still sang. 

One year, a tree fell on a local woman’s house, and one of the senior leaders took me aside to let me know we’d be helping her.

“She’s a lesbian lady,” the church lady said quietly. “She is of our community and a child of God. We are all God’s children and she is a good woman. If you have any trouble with that, you don’t go along, because I don’t want anyone making her uncomfortable.”

I smiled, thinking of my radical feminist past. No, I have no trouble with that. What surprised me, though, was that once I actually got to know individual members of my country church, my own assumptions and prejudices about their side of the Great Divide simply melted away. Maybe it was in my DNA.

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Song of Solomon, William Russell Flint, 1909

My great-grandparents on the Henderson side were Southern Baptists, and I remember Great-Grandma Stella reading the Book of Ruth to show that we could find anything in the Bible, even love stories. She wouldn’t share “Song of Solomon,” though, as it contained some adult content. But as I grew up and went to college, I learned that Southern Baptists get all kinds of mean words thrown by people who never sat down to dinner with even one of them.

And then along came Donald J. Trump. Now when I hear my liberal friends leap up and down muttering about the evils of Trump Christians, I want to leap alongside them shouting, “No! No! It’s not like that! You don’t get it! Most of them are really kind people!”

On the way to lunch after services, before coronavirus closed so many things, I talked with my church friends about why they supported Donald J. Trump. One said he’d rather die than be a Democrat because those people didn’t care about people, they only cared about themselves.

Another one said she hated Donald Trump’s mean mouth and petty ways, but she had to support him because she couldn’t back a baby killer. In her heart, she believes abortion kills an innocent baby, and she can’t see it any other way.

A third one said even though he talked crudely and unkindly, he still had his heart in the right place.

“He’d invite me to dinner,” she said. “Those Democrats, they only look down on me.”

When I looked up the Mar-a-Lago website, it sure seemed unlikely that we could afford a dinner with The Donald, but he did appear in the living room quite a bit for anyone who had a television, and he kept the cell phones a-twitter, too. From what I read in The Guardian, he seemed uncouth and unkind – but none of my neighbors read that newspaper. Like millions of voters, they followed the Fox and harkened to that hope.

One Trump supporter I loved had lost his business when his products could be created more cheaply in China, and his twenty-five employees lost their jobs. He ended up losing his house, his wife, and everything in a big rush of good-bye. He ended up delivering pizza in the town where he once had been a prominent businessman. Trump, he thought, held the key to bringing jobs back to America, and not outsourcing products like the ones he knew how to make.

The Trump supporters I know just want their lives back. The county has a past, and race was part of it. It wasn't pretty. When I was new in town, someone showed me a tree that was called The Hanging Tree back a hundred years ago. But today the baseball field is named after a member of the Negro League. This is Appalachia, not plantation country, and there aren't many African-Americans but quite a number play important roles in the community. In this country, nobody is allowed to forget for a minute that they're Black, and I have family members who are active in Black Lives Matter. But I have not heard racism expressed among the people I know.

What I hear is that they want to be able to go to a Mom-and-Pop restaurant instead of a chain store. They want a grocery store run by their friends, not by some far away conglomerate that could care less about them. That's not what Trump, or anyone, can deliver, probably. Not entirely. But maybe our new president can help with this sad story about our local hospital.

It wasn't that long ago that a whole group of families got together, doing bake sales and every kind of fundraiser so their pregnant family members could have their babies up here instead of having to drive more than an hour to the nearest hospital while in labor. They got it done -- and then a big corporate hospital ate up the little hospital, and closed down that obstetrics unit because it wasn’t a money maker.

Too often, the things people have worked for multiple generations to create—not just businesses and homes, but closeness to friends and family, a bedrock sense of rootedness and security—get taken away from them.

One man explained it to me this way. “We’re the buffalo,” he said. “First, they killed the buffalo. Then, they made the Indians get off the land. Now, we’re the buffalo. They make fun of us and drive up our taxes so they can take our land.”

Sometimes, it doesn’t take driving up taxes. Through the twentieth century, thousands of Appalachian Americans lost their homes for government projects like parks, reservoirs, and hydroelectric plants. Homes, farms, and community churches and graveyards went under water. The families couldn’t move to another place and recreate multiple generations of history there. No amount of money can replace what was lost.

It’s a matter of different values. The people who get labeled Trump Christians often tend to be people who value family over money, and who prefer to stay put in one place to be near family rather than travel across the country or to other countries. They take care of the people who come into their paths, and they expect others to work hard and do the same. They believe in lived experience, and responding kindly and efficiently to needs as they arise among the people they can reach. Community matters on a deeply personal level, not as a social concept or construct.

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Even though few people in this country church make a great deal of money, they volunteer at neighboring food banks. That church has raised more than $12,000 over the years for one couple with physical disabilities. They raised the money so another couple could fix their furnace. And those names never go public to anyone.

Baby showers and wedding showers help folks get off to a good start, and what’s given is given in a spirit of friendship. People are allowed to keep their pride and their dignity. There’s a wood ministry, so people who heat by woodstove can get free wood from the church through the winter, with no embarrassment. The youth group does chores for free all around town.

Everyone counts. When my mother’s cancer put me back in Kansas for a while, my church family showered me with kindness and cards, and the whole choir surprised me with a Zoom call and a song of support.

Yes, they’ve lost jobs, homes, and dignity, but they keep taking care of each other. Donald Trump came along and promised that these people could get their jobs back, get their homes back, get their lives back. Making America Great Again did not mean making America white again, or making America racist again. It meant giving working-class Americans who want to work for a living and raise their families a chance to continue to exist.

In my church community, motherhood and fatherhood remain strong values, and being able to stay home to raise a family is a luxury now afforded mostly to the very rich. Making America Great Again meant valuing parenthood, and creating a world where parents could stay home and raise their own children. When feminism came around, it didn't mean the same thing for everyone. Unless their husbands made good money, those women who wanted to stay home and raise their children realized they no longer had the choice.

Then again, some women never had that choice. I remember my Southern Baptist great-grandmother howling with laughter when I asked what she thought of women in the work force.

“Women have always worked,” said this union organizer and midwife. “Why should I care because some rich women now get to choose their jobs?”

That's the Great Divide. Not everyone can go thousands of dollars into debt so a child can go away to college. A whole group of people out there who care more about family and community than they care about education and career.

One man told me that education threatened to take his son away from him. He didn’t want his son to leave the family, leave his brothers and sisters, to go to some place like California and make a good living for a technology company. He wanted his children to stay in the community to run the store that had been in his family, and stay together so they could help and protect each other. His store has closed now.


Yancey County, population 20,000, has 103 church buildings. My friend Burl and his wife, Ruth, have traveled to take photos of every one of those churches. They represent a place and a culture in danger of being lost.

I took a walk with a church friend yesterday. She told me who had built the houses in the neighborhood, and what families had taken root there, and how everyone was related there. Every house had belonged to someone she knew, and had been built for family members.

Trump has divided families, though; I know that. My family’s strewn across 16 states, and one of my sisters refused to invite an aunt and uncle to her house for the holidays because she couldn’t stand to hear their bombastic political views. One of my children refuses to participate in Zoom meetings with one of my sisters because their views diverge so much, and it’s painful for them to be exposed to one another.

We all hope that a great healing will happen. Yancey County, where I live, is a mirror to the Great Divide in our country. The county is a refuge for artists and activists, home to the an intentional community started in the 1970s by well-off kids who wanted to live by social and environmental principles. They mostly vote Democrat. People with family scattered across the country gathered together to create this community, and they found land smack dab in the middle of an area populated by people whose families have lived here for seven generations.

The long-timers, who mostly vote Republican, descend from immigrants who crossed an ocean to get here, but once here, their ancestors decided to stay put. Nearby, there’s a shelven rock with petroglyphs, believed to have been a birthing stone for the Cherokee people who were here many hundreds of years, but few indigenous people remain. Those deepest roots have been torn asunder. The new ones may break someday, too. That's America.

What’s labeled as progress causes real pain. There used to be a time when a man with no college education could own and operate his own business with 25 employees, and make Halloween spiderwebs and Santa Claus beards that got shipped across the country. Then globalization ate it up. There used to be a time when a young woman, with no college education, could start her own business, designing and making something useful. Then globalization ate it up. The new businesses? They're mostly for people who are native to computers, not rural North Carolina.

Now college educations belong to the elite, and to people willing to go deeply into debt, and to people who are able to learn in straight lines while sitting at desks in school houses – people who get academic scholarships because they can follow the rules, or sports scholarships because they understand teamwork – people who excel in societally defined ways. The iconoclasts, the rebels, the creative artistic geniuses have scant support in this brave new world of resume-sorting by algorithm, Zoom interviews, and "teamwork."

The people in my country church don’t want better phones or bigger screens or more degrees. The hope rises for jobs, and the chance to sing to each other, and to worship with hearts and souls flooded with light. Trump brought the hope that those voices could be heard on the national level. Now, that hope is dashed again. Perhaps the new administration can restore it with deeds.

One Christmas, a homeless family appeared in the parking lot of the church. The family spoke very little English. The church came together, and within a week, that family had a place to live, food to eat, and people who cared about them. They did not stay long, but while they were here, they got clothed, sheltered, and fed. They didn’t have to fill out pages and pages of forms to get their needs met, either.

Trump promised jobs. He didn’t talk or act like an educated elite. He promised to get government’s hands out of people’s pockets. He gained the trust of voters who wanted a man who appeared to be fiercely independent and an entrepreneur to lead the country. He convinced them that he would work for them. They were hungry for a hero, and for all his flaws, he knew how to craft a satiating message.

Seventy million voters chose Donald J. Trump. These were people whose sense of themselves had been erased by globalization. The real risk we run now is allowing those seventy million people to be represented by caricatures.

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Mount Mitchell, one of 122 named mountains in Yancey County

Kiesa Kay conducts writing workshops on the Healing Art of Writing. Her books include a memoir, Tornado Alley; two educational anthologies, Uniquely Gifted: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of the Twice Exceptional Student, and High IQ Kids; and a booklet born from her work as a forensic interviewer, What Every Grandparent Needs to Know About Childhood Sexual Abuse.

Across The Great Divide ::: The Band

Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad ::: Jerry Lee Lewis

Dignity ::: Bob Dylan

Why Am I Treated So Bad? ::: The Staple Singers

The Baptism of Jesus ::: The Skylarks

Deep In Debt Blues ::: J. B. Lenoir

Take Me To The River ::: Al Green

The Christian Life ::: The Byrds

And The Healing Has Begun ::: Van Morrison