Monday, July 22, 2013

Some thoughts on Rosaria Butterfield's unusual book

After several requests that I do so, I finally read The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor's Journey into Faith by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, and I'm glad that I did. It's the story of the author's move into the close-knit fold that is the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the same denomination that I moved away from several years ago after growing up firmly rooted within it.

I think that whenever we take the time to record our stories, or hear someone else's with openness, it is time well spent. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion put it. And memoir is a way of making some sense of the experiences that shake our lives and also of making ourselves vulnerable. It's also riddled with inherent pitfalls and limits, as the impulse and intent to be honest and fair and all of those things competes with the desire to make our case, to preserve our take on situations, to win our reader's good opinion on some level.

The first third or so of Secret Thoughts really struck a chord for me, as the emotional fallout that accompanies Butterfield's conversion to a conservative Christian faith as she describes it is not so very different from the feelings of devastation, guilt, and disorientation experienced by many of those who depart from such a faith. As a reluctant stray myself, I recall feeling a great deal of this"comprehensive chaos," to borrow Butterfield's phrase, especially in the months after really owning up to the depth of my doubts and dwindling belief.

Butterfield emphasizes feeling like a traitor to the LGBT and academic communities that she'd poured so much energy and passion into at Syracuse University. While my un-conversion was far less dramatic or professionally debilitating, I continue to struggle with what is I think a somewhat similar sense of betrayal--damage wrought by me on my family and spiritual community as a result of my decision to leave the church and to be open about why I was leaving. Their sorrow was painful, palpable. I remember telling a family member that it seemed like they thought I'd committed spiritual suicide and that it would almost be better if I had died before losing my faith. I'll never forget my loved one's response, as he folded me in a hug since I was crying: "Oh, no, of course we're glad you're here. We want you here with us. But you're right that it is on that level of seriousness." Butterfield's story doesn't underestimate the intensity and the darkness of such a shift, and she's quick to acknowledge that her decisions, her choices have impacted other people's stories and lives, not always in happy ways. This is admirable and brave, and it kept me reading.

I also appreciate the way Butterfield testifies throughout the book to the value of things like diversity, failure, and the courage to be wrong, to embrace risk. In fact, it's that openness to difference on her part that makes a lot of her theological and philosophical conclusions by the end such an enigma to me. After rendering a number of her former LGBT friends in anonymous but nuanced detail--really giving a sense of several people as individuals--Butterfield's description of her former lesbian self as "a case of mistaken identity" feels surprisingly hollow. She doesn't address other potential interpretations of her lifestyle shift, such as the idea that she may be bisexual (she had straight partners prior to her many years in a committed lesbian relationship and is now a pastor's wife in the RPCNA). Nor does she discuss what her conclusion about "mistaken identity" might mean for LGBTs that have always been attracted to the same sex.

As the book moves along, its focus feels more obviously geared for like-minded souls--other conservative believers perhaps looking for counsel on how to respond to the cultural shift on LGBT issues, how to share their faith with outsiders in a winsome way, or why Butterfield found some of the RPCNA distinctives (like exclusive psalmody) especially convincing. Overall, it's an excellent argument against proselytizing, at least as it is traditionally practiced. Butterfield's story is an example of how for most people it's not primarily or solely a lack of information or knowledge that keeps them in or out of a given community but rather has a lot to do with belonging, love, personality, and circumstances. One more clever sales pitch is not going to change someone's mind or heart.

There are things I really disliked about the book, some of that simply due to the fact that we see the world really differently and some of it a result of how various characters are rendered, including a particular handful of Christian humanities faculty dear to my heart (and my education and emotional development) that are described in Butterfield's book as basically petty and grumpy in their more liberal-leaning concerns. But then there were also moments like the one where all of a sudden my deceased aunt, Mary Lou Hemphill, appears. And at first I'm ready to be really angry, as a non-believing reader and as a niece, because Butterfield seems to be using my early-widowed aunt's experience of finally being matched with a much-needed liver donor as evidence of God moving and working in this congregation (my aunt's) that she is visiting, when I know that the transplant failed and this lovely woman died soon after. But then I keep reading and soon enough, in a later section, Butterfield mentions the rest of the story, describing my aunt's congregation's sorrow over the conclusion of the transplant they'd hoped so long for, even saying it seemed a cruel trick on the part of the divine. And then I'm just crying, and we're all just people, and I'm glad to be reminded that here's one more person who knew and appreciated my aunt. So, there you have it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Lately I've been stunned by a few different documentaries, ranging from Ken Burns stuff to Gasland to The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. But perhaps most affecting was Jim Crow to Barack Obama, which premiered at the Tivoli last week as part of the annual St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The mainly local crew and subjects seemed to bring the film's topic closer to home, and many of those featured in it were among the large crowd viewing it for the first time Tuesday night.

Directed by Washington University art professor Denise Ward-Brown, Jim Crow to Barack Obama puts a handful of African-American young people in conversation with much older African Americans, including a 104-year-old, to discuss their experiences with regard to race in America. As the youth interview their elders and listen to these individuals' stories about growing up in the Jim Crow era, there's a quiet, even mundane, quality about it all that carries great weight.

One woman recalls her experience at about the age of 12 being taunted by a white peer and finally hitting back. When she told her mother what had happened, the response was that she must never fight back again or the family would have to move away. Another speaks of shopping in stores where salespeople would wait on her only after first serving white customers, even if she was there first. A St. Louis man recalls going to a Cards game as a boy. He befriended another little boy, who was white, on the bus ride there, but when they approached the gates, the two boys weren't allowed to enter together and became separated. The black boy was sent to an entrance on the other side of the ballpark. There are also several interviewees who recall traveling to Chicago to attend the open-casket services for Emmett Till in 1955.

While Ward-Brown's film includes stunning recollections from Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King in the hour prior to his murder in 1968 and whose five-year-old daughter was one of the Memphis 13 in 1961, mostly the voices in Jim Crow to Barack Obama are those of far more ordinary folk, their stories embodying the many simple and suffocating ways that racism manifests itself. And the stories don't end in the 1960s--the youth involved in making the film share their own more contemporary experiences. One local teenager, who it turns out was sitting just a few rows behind my husband and me at the Tivoli showing, recalls being barred from foursquare at recess for being "too black" according to several of her peers. Charles Churchwell, who was the dean of the Washington University Libraries (where I work) from 1978 to 1987, touches on a number of issues, including what it was like to be one of the only African-American administrators on campus.

Watching this documentary only a few days after the conclusion of the discouraging Trayvon Martin case, I think what really sticks with me about this film is how it points to a looming need for more such oral history to be preserved and shared. As Churchwell notes at one point, "You don't hear about the smaller things." And it's hearing about and beginning to understand and empathize with the ordinariness and insidious damage of those things that can help illumine the big stuff. 

Also striking are the closing credits, where a handful of "in memory of" tributes feature images of several of the people whose interviews are woven together into this vital documentary. That especially left me with a sense of urgency and renewed motivation as I consider what I might revisit and help record and share. A trip back to Selma, Alabama, where we lived until I was eight, is on my mind. The days and years go by so quickly, and Ward-Brown's film and aging subjects are a brutal, beautiful reminder that there is no time like the present.

Following Tuesday's screening, Ward-Brown received a standing ovation and took some questions and comments from the audience. Mostly everybody kept wanting to know when Jim Crow to Barack Obama would be available for purchase and urging Ward-Brown to show this in schools. In addition to sharing the stories and insights recorded in her film, Ward-Brown said she wants to help other young people think about doing similar work and see what they discover "if they just turn that video camera on their grandparent, a church member, their neighbor and just listen. Listen."