“Why the hell are you moving here?” This is the first question I received upon arriving in the small Louisiana Delta town of Lake Providence in the fall of 2016. I was checking into one of the town’s two motels, and the clerk behind the counter was confounded when I told her I was moving to the town for a new job.
Having grown up in a very small, blue-collar, conservative Southern town, I knew enough not to respond to her question with: “I’m a liberation theologian and ordained minister who’s moving here to direct an anti-racist and anti-poverty non-profit.” Likewise, there was no easy way to say what my predecessors and sponsoring congregations knew, that this parish (a Louisiana word for “county”) was one of the most impoverished in the country, with divides in family wealth that were among the widest disparities in the nation.
I also couldn’t say that I was there to try to subvert the white supremacist legacies of slavery, Jim/Jane Crow, and the conservative Christian attitudes that both perpetuated Black poverty and devalued the empowerment of marginalized communities. I could have said these things, I suppose, but this would have been naming realities which she already knew, and folks in most communities don’t care for outsiders naming their problems upon their first meeting. So, instead, I stammered something about a ministry position, grabbed my key, and retired to my room.
The reason I moved to Lake Providence, indeed, was due to a ministry position with a rural poverty non-profit that was resourced by a handful of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations spread throughout the state of Louisiana. The non-profit is one of several in a coalition called Together for Hope, a national network of ministries that works with the marginalized in the most impoverished counties in the country. Most of these communities are (surprisingly to some) in rural areas, much like Lake Providence and other nearby Delta parishes. Other communities include Native American reservations in the Southwest and the Dakotas, the borderlands along the Rio Grande Valley, additional Delta towns in Mississippi and Arkansas, and communities in the opioid-riddled Appalachia region.
This essay, then, seeks to explore the nature of practicing a liberation-oriented ministry and theology in a marginalized space with people who have been greatly oppressed due to the color of their skin. It also looks at the nature of doing so in a place where conservative evangelicalism (of both the black and white communities) only further marginalizes the practice of liberation theology. In the Delta, in other words, it is neither chic nor popular to practice liberation, which throws this type of ministry into its own marginal space.
Thus, I’m playing off the ideas of marginality and liminality, using the term margin to depict both social dispossession and the idea of existing “in-between” or in a liminal space. My three years in the Delta, in other words, have been a time of living in multiple, poignant liminal spaces. There’s liminality in our geographic location, in my own white racial embodiment, and in my relationship to the Church and the theological academy. It’s from these four loci that I wish to briefly engage the margins along which I’ve moved and worked and learned a new way forward in my own calling to a liberative, practical ministry.
Liberation on the Geographical Margins
Nestled within the shock of the hotel worker’s question, asking why I’d move to Lake Providence, was her awareness that the town exists in the rural hinterlands of Northeast Louisiana. The town has a reputation from being one of the poorest towns in the country, with very limited access to jobs or middle-class accoutrements. The nearest Starbucks and Target, for instance, are over 1.5 hours away.
The town is bound to the east by the muddy Mississippi River, which is about a half mile from town. Fifteen miles to the north, the parish butts up against the Arkansas state line. To the west is a white flight parish, whose only other distinguishing factor is the presence of its Wal-Mart and McDonalds. To the south, thirty miles down a meandering highway, stretching through cotton and soybean fields, is the next Delta town of Tallulah. With Tallulah comes the nearest interstate, leaving developers little reason to drive the distance to Lake Providence to start a business. So goes the absence of jobs in Lake Providence – bounded and written off by an interstate, a river, and white flight.
Lake Providence, then, literally exists on the geographical margins of the Louisiana Delta. It is the only town in the entire parish. While the Mississippi (and access to the larger towns of Greenville and Vicksburg) is only a mile away as the crow flies, one has to travel nearly an hour to reach a bridge that will allow one to cross the river and access those Mississippi cities. To the north, in Arkansas, is only more of the same: small, predominantly African American communities that have also been displaced economically by modern agricultural technology and racist symbolism. That is to say, to be a Delta parish is to be symbolized as “poor and Black,” and, thus, not worthy of investment by the state, with the exception of aid to white farmers. Being rural, likewise, only further masks the plight of the suffering. Out of sight, out of mind.
Also due to the geographical isolation of the area, young and mid-career professionals hardly ever opt to move to the town to begin or further their career. To be fair, there are hardly any jobs as it is, so the absence of young professionals is not simply due to their unwillingness to come. If they did come and were able to find work, there’s little access to decent housing, entertainment, shopping, or access to the aforementioned middle-class amenities. Additionally, if one person found a job, which is unlikely, it would be even more unlikely that a person’s partner, should they so have one, might also find a middle-class job.
With the absence of a middle-class comes very few property taxes and low amounts of sales tax. Community systems struggle to keep up with the strain on public works, water systems, drainage, sewage, and funding for health clinics, police departments, and public schools. Home ownership dwindles, absentee landlords increase, and it becomes challenging to force compliance with zoning laws. Buildings dilapidate, properties fall into disrepair, raw sewage pumps into people’s backyards, and everyone hopes against hope that lead levels and agrochemicals aren’t poisoning our food and water as quickly as we suspect they probably are.
“To be a Delta parish is to be symbolized as ‘poor and Black,’ and, thus, not worthy of investment by the state, with the exception of aid to white farmers. Being rural, likewise, only further masks the plight of the suffering. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Meanwhile, our very active, very committed local leaders only find more issues piling on their plates. More fires to put out. Less resources to utilize. More hungry bellies. More people trying to escape than stay – leaving the margins, if at all possible, only to join their poor or lower-middle-class families and friends currently living on the margins of urban, metro areas. This is a snapshot of what it’s like to live a marginalized social life on the geographic margins of a neglected community. If liberation is to occur, it is from within these difficult parameters.
Liberation on the Racial Margins
Within these geographical dimensions of marginalization lie racial components, some of which were alluded to above. Suffice it to say in this short space that it is not by mere geographical coincidence that these predominantly black parishes (counties) receive little attention from the state’s political institutions down in Baton Rouge. The Delta region is regarded as something of a “failed state,” where poverty, blackness, and rurality are linked together in a way that makes the suffering people here discard-able and ignored, at best, or intentionally neglected and maligned, at worst.
I could recount white supremacy’s structural appearances and contradictions in the Delta, but, instead, I want to address a more personal aspect of marginality as it relates to activism and liberation in such a racially bifurcated region. As honest theology is usually autobiographical, the same is true for this essay. Thus, I want to reflect on my attempts to live out the principles of liberation theology from a vantage point that focuses on interrogating white privilege and my own whiteness – something white theologians are still just beginning to more honestly comprehend and assess in their 21st century writings.
I entered this space three years ago on the heels of completing a Ph.D. that incorporated critical race theory, generally speaking, and critical whiteness studies, in particular. I had the privilege of studying under a black liberation theologian and with many colleagues of color from a variety of racial backgrounds. I did a great bit of work deconstructing and contesting whiteness and its influence both in theological production and also in social and political spaces in American culture. Prior to moving to the Delta, I chose to live and work in predominantly black neighborhoods for much of the previous eight years of my life. More so, I point back to an African American congregation and their pastor, my dear friend, the Reverend Douglas Atkinson, as being formative influences on my faith journey from the ages of sixteen to twenty-two.
All this to say, I moved to the Delta fully believing my intentionality and sincerity in undermining white racist mindsets and systemic forms of oppression. I had been attempting to do the personal work of examining my consciousness and habits for the whiteness that certainly still permeated my way of seeing and being in the world. It was, thus, a disconcerting feeling to move into a community in which I was virtually unknown, and all of this work was neither presupposed nor taken for granted. I was a straight, cisgender white man new to a community that was 80% African American and historically very accustomed to the multi-generational, white racist habits of their neighbors. No one had any reason to suspect any different from me.
While I came in aware that this would understandably be the mindset, and while I’m not suggesting that I somehow suffered for this dynamic, it still thrust me into a liminal space that I’ve had to work out of for all of my time here. After three years, I can comfortably say that I’ve made little inroads with the white community. My white skin, while it affords me certain privileges, to be sure, does not grant me an easy pass into many white spaces because, one, I’m an outsider in a small Southern town, and, two, I spend most of my time, efforts, and energy working in and with the black community. This second point, particularly, makes me a race traitor and a “lib’ral” to many white folks in town – to the extent that I even register on their radars.
Still, I’m also not of the black community. I spend 95% of my time working with black community members, and while I’ve been received with more generosity and grace than I deserve, I’m aware and respectful of the cultural and historical differences that prevent any easy overidentification on my end with the black community. In the Delta, everything is seen through the prism of race, and my presence and work cannot escape that social construction.
Shortly after I arrived in the Delta, I attended an African American church’s Sunday worship service, just as I had done literally hundreds of times throughout my life. This happened to also be the Sunday after Baton Rouge police officers shot and killed an unarmed Black motorist, Alton Sterling. As a deacon led the congregation in prayer, he stopped, looked at me, and said with a bit of anger, “Out of respect for our white guest, I won’t say all that I wanted to say about this incident.”
I wasn’t angry at the deacon for the tinge of disdain in his voice. To the extent that I could, I understood a fragment of his frustration and felt angry in my own white way about these strings of murders that launched the Black Lives Matter movement. I had laid down in the streets of Richmond, Virginia the previous summer in protest of the lack of indictments for the officers who killed Eric Garner. Likewise, I marched multiple times in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder and the trial result for his killer, George Zimmerman.
Nevertheless, I realized that my white presence in the congregation that day altered something. It had made at least one person uncomfortable with voicing his grief and despair about the racism the country was seeing yet again – a racism which he likely had experienced his entire life in the Deep South. As Donald Trump was elected just a few months after this experience, I made up my mind that I would, in most instances, respect the sacred space of a black Southern congregation and not centralize my whiteness just by showing up to fulfill my desire to build community. There were other meaningful ways that I could show up and be present with the black community that didn’t unintentionally put the focus on me.
Most days, then, I walk through a town that has never integrated in any meaningful way. I share so little in common with the cultural and social values of the white community. I’m not Republican, I’m not a conservative evangelical, and I don’t hunt or farm or listen to country music or even dress the same as other white men in the area. And though I spend so much time intentionally in the black community, I’m obviously not black and do not share in many of the aforementioned cultural aspects of their community.
That’s all just fine, but it does create one hell of a liminal, marginal space to occupy while doing the work I felt called here to do. It’s a space that I’m not sure many white colleagues or friends fully understand—to the extent that their activism happens with more like-minded white people or in more genuinely diverse groups. But given the racial dynamics that constitute this area and much of America, there is little other space but this one of liminality to occupy. My attempts to live out of this “double-bind” are not perfect, but I hope sharing about it as honestly as I can helps some other person who may be on a similar journey.[i]
Liberation on the Margins of the Academy
Over these three years, it has also become increasingly clear that liberation movements in the hinterlands of America – and they do exist – tend to also be marginalized by the American academy, including theological academics. As one who is sympathetic to this very academy, and as one who primarily engages it through networks of progressive, activist theologians, I want to grant them the benefit of the doubt about this oversight or neglect. Nevertheless, this reality is present, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016 has most likely only further intensified it.
To be more specific, it seems that most facets of the academy, along with the rest of America, associate “rural” with “whiteness,” and, correspondingly, “urban” with “blackness” or people of color. Take, for instance, the increasing awareness over the past few years of the opioid addiction rates in America. Researchers, writers, politicians, and the media directed the national spotlight onto the Appalachian region of the eastern United States. Appalachia, of course, registers as rural, and with the largely (but not exclusively) white demographics of the region, the easy conflation of rural and white is made stronger.[ii]
Furthermore, with the election of Trump, a flurry of literature and hand wringing emerged that bemoaned a wider neglect of rural, working class whites who had supposedly grown so disaffected by the economy (a reality which is true) that they suddenly found themselves in political bed with an avowed racist and misogynist—a questionable telling of the story given that these things didn’t suddenly blossom out of nowhere in 2016.
“To be black or Native or Latinx or progressive and to work in the hinterlands of America, therefore, is to necessarily exist in marginal, liminal space—a space which is viewed with suspicion or simply forgotten about by even the liberal corners of the theological academy.”
The issue, of course, isn’t that the suffering of rural whites should not be taken seriously. Having grown up and lived in rural areas for twenty six of my thirty-five years, I can attest that resources, job opportunities, and living conditions aren’t necessarily great for low-income whites in these regions. The economic benefits of white privilege may be reduced, but white privilege accrues in other ways, of course. Nevertheless, what I presume is obvious at this point, is that the association of rurality and whiteness papers over the suffering and multiple oppressions encountered by people of color in rural areas, much as has been the case for centuries. This includes the communities alluded to in the opening section of this essay and Lake Providence.
As theological production has primarily been situated in urban areas, and given this white racialization of the rural, it’s not uncommon for me to receive strange looks or a subtle rolling of the eyes when theological academics learn that I direct a rural poverty initiative. The assumption, when it’s not a direct question, which I’ve received several times, is that I traded in my work on racism, sold out the progressive cause, and now work mostly with white people.
The allure of the urban remains strong, signaling as it does progressivism, diversity of culture, and open-mindedness. The rural, of course, signals the opposite: close-mindedness, conservatism, and oppressive, white homogeneity. In some respects, I can’t argue with how easy it is for these associations to persist. At the same time, I have the good fortune of working every day across lines of difference with people suffering (and nevertheless thriving) under multiple oppressions, not the least of which is their erasure from the American social imaginary due to the assumption that “rural equals white.” To be black or Native or Latinx or progressive and to work in the hinterlands of America, therefore, is to necessarily exist in marginal, liminal space—a space which is viewed with suspicion or simply forgotten about by even the liberal corners of the theological academy.
If I’m being honest, I share these thoughts because it’s helpful to process the oddness of doing the work I do in a land that’s known by its own people for being just a little . . . different. While other regions may frame their lived reality as its own type of liminal experience, it’s undeniably true for the Delta. The marginality that frames its existence today has been present for centuries before us, and it will most likely not end soon given the far-reaching consequential nature of the racist and economic sins that one generation passes on to the next.
I can say with certainty that the liberation that I have witnessed in the Delta is, as a professor once said, “slow and messy.” People in highly isolated rural communities with unequal access to wealth and jobs are all too accustomed to the daily reality that better jobs and better housing and better transportation aren’t coming any time soon. If they come anywhere, of course, it’s to the metropole. So, we search for liberation in the ways we know best and in correspondence to our own energy and to the mercies of those who hold the power of the purse in the state capitol or in D.C. Nothing is guaranteed, and liberation efforts aren’t always headline grabbing or flashy.
Likewise, I, along with many other activists of varying degrees of privilege, have found liberation yet again by working in proximity with people who contend daily against oppression. Their job was not to save me any more than my job was to save them. Still, in the dynamic of our counter-cultural, cross-racial working relationships, I have reason to believe that my own proclivities to whiteness were chipped away at just a bit. The Delta, that is to say, has offered me an opportunity to confront the contradictions of my own white privilege and also to think deeply about America’s social imaginary regarding race, region, and modes of production – including theological production. This, for me, has been a liberation from whiteness that has been good for my soul, and it’s one that I’m not sure I could have found if not for living in such a liminal/marginal space.
[i] I owe the term “double-bind” to theologian and activist, James Perkinson. See his White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity.
[ii] This focus has been rightly critiqued by many, of course, claiming that the nation suddenly cares about this crisis because the face of it has been portrayed as white.