Yet you Lord, are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8
My imagination has frequently run wild as I’ve imagined God’s hand shaping all of us, like a potter perfecting their craft.
I say “all” because without a doubt in my mind, we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The pads of His fingers shape us, smooth us, even as muddy clay gets underneath His fingernails. We are formed, created, unlike anyone that has ever come before or will come after us.
For years, I think, this has given me a hidden joy as I have met and made friends with all kinds of people.
I think to myself, “what can this person teach me?” or more directly, “how did God make this person unique?” These questions have made me a bit gentler, a bit softer even, when a person annoys the hell out of me. Let’s be real, we’re human.
With the same, intense curiosity though, I’ve often also thought about the formation we experience through the lives we live. This references the old “nature vs. nurture” debate in some ways; to what extent are we formed by biology and also by the experiences we have as we age? We are born with a set of circumstances, and our lives ebb and flow differently, based on the culture we are surrounded by.
Culture is a large word – and there is a big chunk of it that is invisible to the human eye. About a year ago, I stumbled upon this chart that outlines the construction of our culture through the lense and degree of visibility.
Genuinely, I think this could be a transformative tool in entering conversations this year – particularly in light of political strife, tension, and emotion.I happened to review this chart a couple of weeks ago as I was creating curriculum to use with refugee and immigrant populations in Denver. It also so happens, a week later, that I traveled to middle rural America – seemingly another country, far from my safe haven in Colorado.
For the first time this year, I saw “Trump” and “Make America Great Again” signs and I got a bit nervous. On the back of my car, I have a couple key bumper stickers, namely one from the Human Rights Campaign and the US Peace Corps. As I sped through vast grasslands and corn fields, I held the steering wheel tightly and thought, “oh gosh, they’re gonna think I’m some hippie.”
I was traveling to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents and honestly, it was a nice, lovely escape from the city. It also, metaphorically speaking, woke me up.
As I settled into this small pan-handle community for a week, I took lots of walks thinking about what it would be like to live life here (or in any other rural community in the United States).
I began to consider the urban-rural divide. Lately, we’ve hyper-focused on the racial, economic, or political divide in the United States, but I would also argue that the urban-rural split is the root of these other fractured conversations and movements in our country. Frankly, living in an urban or rural area can be like living in another country altogether.
The American Communities Project has put together a map that illustrates the divisions of our country and alludes to the potential impact this has on education, age, and opportunities available to different populations.
I took a screenshot so you can get a sense of what they have tried to capture – communities ranging from “Aging Farmlands” to “Graying America” to “Evangelical Hubs.”
Let’s consider the urban and rural divisions.
In the marked urban areas there are 153 counties with 140 million people.
In the designated rural areas there are 936 counties with 30 million people.
Y’all, that’s a difference of 110 million people!
And that’s not all.
Completion of higher-level education (say, a Bachelor’s degree) is at 35% in the suburbs; 32% in big cities; 20% in rural America; and finally, less than 15% in “working class country.” (citation was found via a story by “Meet the Press”)
This results in a proverbial ceiling for higher-paying jobs, resulting in less investment by both the public and private sectors. Essentially, what happens, is that because of a lack in education completion and job creation, economic growth is stunted. Communities are slowly, but surely, dying. And, because they might be underrepresented and also less exposed to other parts of the country (and world), these populations are relatively isolated. This happens in Rwanda too – this definitely, is not just an American problem.
To be sure, this is not my world. It’s the opposite, actually. I live in Denver – perhaps the fastest growing city in the U.S.A. right now. I also went to one of Colorado’s best school districts as I grew up, could attend any college I wanted, and because of the high-attention to critical thinking emphasized by my small, liberal-arts college, I was able to explore and consider issues in the world that others may not have the opportunity to do.
I’m not better, I’m privileged. And there is a difference. Sometimes, it might take some time away from your own boundaries to understand this a bit more fully.
I have really struggled to understand the anger that some Americans feel right now, namely in their preference for Trump in this circus of a 2016 election. It seems many individuals and communities feel slighted in some way; namely in the relation to the economic circumstances of their lives – and honestly, I don’t blame them. So, in turn, this anger is funneled into the hope that a political giant (read: Trump) can “save” them. As I walked, drove, and spent time away from the confines of my American country (ahem, Denver), I can see how people might think differently than me. Look at the cultural chart again: the deepest parts of our formation come from where we live, what we do, and the development of our perspective of the world. And so, perhaps my push for civil rights and human dignity doesn’t strike a chord with other populations because they have been busy trying to figure out how to make ends meet.
It’s not an issue of being more “enlightened” than other people either– it’s just recognizing the opportunity (and yes, privilege you’ve had in your life). Perhaps, we should all step back, and take time to consider the kinds of privilege we carry around with us. We don’t have to always feel guilty, but we do have to be aware.
Because awareness, at its best, should propel us to action. Action means trying to understand each other and developing initiatives, policy, and movements that benefit Americans. All of us. Each and everyone. Not that top 1%. Not the middle class. Not the poor. Everybody, y’all.
I’m privileged in my skin color, in my education levels, in my economic status, in my job, in the family system I have always had, and in my place of birth.
However, because of other areas, like gender, or orientation, I have been slighted or under-represented.
We all have these dichotomies; areas of both privilege and lack thereof.
I’m not saying I agree with the rhetoric of a particular political candidate. What I’m saying, is that our political ties run deeper than just what appears on the surface.
Our country has big problems, y’all. They extend to the tensions we have in race, in money, and certainly, in the places that we live. Until we begin to re-work a system that does not work for all of us, I’m not sure how our country can keep moving forward.
I didn’t leave Oklahoma without hope, however. At the United Methodist church in town, I had the opportunity to talk with church leaders who cared deeply about their communities and how to represent them and serve them – in and out of their church. One woman, an immigrant from Mexico, talked through tears about her journey as an immigrant woman in this country. She alluded to being treated terribly, horrifically, and yet, still believing in what this country has to offer. This, my friends, is what makes America great. When people, different from us, can still hold optimism close to the pursuit of American ideals of equality and freedom. We can do it. My, my, I hope we can do it.