Tuesday, January 6, 2015

1/52 :: picking cotton.

I wrote this essay last fall, after our town hosted its second annual One Book program. For some reason, I never hit publish. I re-read it last week, and all of the truths I've written here still apply; they're still relevant to where I am right now. It felt right to kick off my 52 essays project with this, an essay about faith and forgiveness and life in a small, Southern town.


My entire life, I've watched my parents use their gifts and talents to serve their church. I've watched them teach classes, start ministries, conduct coat drives, rebuild classrooms, host banquets and barbecues. They do these things because they are gifted and called, and I'm grateful for their example. It's been an honor to watch their talents at work in the lives of others; I am proud to call them my parents. 

Jordan's parents, too, spend much of their lives giving back to their church. Again, I'm grateful for their example. They've shown me and Jordan how to serve, and I know their examples will ultimately prove invaluable to us as we grow up and offer our gifts, too. 

This legacy of service -- specifically to a church, to a body of believers, to a faith -- runs deep in both of our families, and for a long time, I think I've been a little confused about how to carry that legacy out in my own life. When you watch your parents devote so much of themselves to church, you assume that's what you might be called to do, too. I associated gifts and talents with the work of a church, and that became especially problematic when I discovered my gifts (spiritual or otherwise) happened to include teaching and leadership, two things fairly inaccessible to me in a conservative church setting.

I could write here about how much that hurt, about the loss I felt when it became apparent I'd need to adjust my talents to fit the setting I found myself in. I could write about how we've moved on from that church dynamic, for these reasons and more, at least for a season. I could write about women's roles and feminism and faith, but I don't want to. Not now. 

Instead, I want to tell you about how moving to a small town has given me freedom in a way I didn't realize it would. I want to tell you about making a difference, about blooming where you're planted, about coming into your own, about how sometimes that might include a body of believers, but maybe it won't. And maybe that's not just okay, maybe it's good. Maybe -- for me -- it's better. 

Last week, our small Southern town celebrated the New York Times bestselling memoir Picking Cotton. The book came out a few years ago, but it's still powerful, still timely. Together, authors Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton share their story of injustice, redemption, and forgiveness. Thirty years ago, Jennifer -- a white woman -- was raped in her home. She memorized her attacker's features, and when it came time to identify him, she knew without a doubt: It was Ronald Cotton, a tall, black man. Ronald spent 11 years in a North Carolina prison before DNA exonerated him. He was found innocent. Jennifer had made a mistake.

Can you imagine? 

Their story is incredibly moving, and after pouring over it one night, I knew: This was the one. Our town had to read this book. Each year, we host a One Book festival, and I wanted desperately for this one to be the one. And I fought for it, and it was hard, because I'm young and new to town and the book includes a rape scene and racial tensions permeate Ron's guilty verdict and this, after all, is the South. And I have lived in the South my entire life, but the South I was raised in is different from the one I'm living in now. And some of the stereotypes you hear are based in truth, and that's hard and it hurts. 

But I believe in the power of books. I do, or I wouldn't have quit my job to own a bookstore, because that's crazy, and the money isn't great, and nine months here and my dining room table is set for a dinner party I'm not having because this is hard, hard work. But I believe in it. I believe in it like my parents believe in church. 

And I haven't given up church. I have no intention of giving up church or church work or faith community. It's a huge part of my make-up, and I believe in it. But I also believe in books, and this week, I watched my community come together and celebrate this hard, good book. 

All week long, we gathered like Southerners at an old-fashioned gospel meeting. Monday, I cried listening to stories of forgiveness in my town: women who have been abused, who have watched family members die at the hands of abuse. Men with alcoholic fathers and brothers in prison. And one man who has lived in this town his entire life, whose daddy bought him a shotgun to take with him to his predominately white college, not because he wanted him to hurt anybody, but because he knew he might need it for his protection. It was 1969 after all. 

I watched as that old man wept over the hurt he's experienced for the color of skin. He wept, and I wept, but then I listened. "For me, forgiveness hasn't been a gulp. It's been a bunch of little swallows along the way." And that feels and sounds a lot like church, doesn't it? If it doesn't, it should. 

And Tuesday I heard about the criminal justice system and eyewitness identification and racial profiling, and I listened to thoughtful comments from members of my community, some people I'd never seen before, and I thought: okay. If my town is full of people like this, it's okay that my dinner table is still empty. Because this is good. 

Then Wednesday, I took my mom, and I led a book discussion with 30 people with brown bag lunches. And I prayed and I wiped the sweat from my palms, and I did what I was born to do, but what I could never do in church. I taught and led a discussion of my peers, male and female, old and young, and they were so kind and appreciative and enthusiastic and receptive, and it was so, so good.

Saturday night, after all the events were over, some dear friends of ours met us in town, and we sat down to dinner, and I talked about facilitating that discussion. And my friend (who I love, and who I'd be willing to bet is reading this right now) told me -- half-jokingly, I'm sure -- how proud he was of me for doing that, how hard leading a discussion like that must have been because I'm quiet and introverted. But the truth is? It wasn't hard. Scary? Sure, just like anything good can be scary at first. And yes, I was nervous. But the nerves left once the discussion began. And I think maybe my friend -- who attended the same church we did for many years -- maybe assumed something like that would be difficult because he'd never seen me do something like it before. And I could write about why that, right there, is reason enough to argue for a change in women's roles in church, but I won't. Instead, I'll tell you that I love him, and I love that church, and that I believe God's gifts have been given boundaries for far too long. 

This week was huge for me. It showed me what my town can do and what I can do for it and with it and I realize now more than ever how that is spiritual, God-giving, God-honoring work. 

We moved here to see what we could do. We chose small so maybe -- just maybe -- we could do something big.

And look: I don't really know how big this week was. One hundred and fifty people out of the nearly 18,000 that live here came to hear Jennifer and Ronald on Saturday. I'm not really much for facts and figures, but even I know that percentage is low. We sold 250 copies of the book, which feels unbelievable to me, but I still see we're missing some populations, that despite my best marketing efforts there were people in town who still have no idea what Picking Cotton is or what it's about. 

That's okay, because I like a challenge, and I already can't wait to see what we do next. 

But I also see the good this book has done for the 150 who came out Saturday, for the 200+ who chose to read the book. This is the South, and there's a history here I'm only beginning to see. Books have the power to provide safe spaces for conversations, and last week, that's just what Picking Cotton did. When is the last time you sat down with your neighbors and friends to talk about segregation or racial profiling or sexual assault? These are the conversations we had last week, and I'm incredibly proud of that. I'm incredibly grateful for that. 

My parents handed down to me a legacy of service. I'm still learning what that means, how that will look in my life and in the life of my family. I believe in spiritual gifts and faith communities and conversations and books, and there is a part of me that still hurts deeply over the loss of not being able to lead and teach in a church setting. 

But I'm realizing maybe some gifts aren't meant to stay inside a church, inside a building or wrapped up in one community. Maybe I've been thinking too small. Maybe this is why we're here, now. 

Last week was exhausting, emotionally and physically. It was a commitment of time and energy, and there were times I thought I might pull my (or someone else's) hair out. But it was worth it, really, truly. And my service, in this season, isn't wrapped up in church work. It's not, and that's okay. Perhaps better than okay. Because I believe in a God who calls us outside our comfort zones, who requires dirty, hands-and-knees kind of work, and in this community, I believe that's possible, even encouraged, even wanted. 

So the questions of faith and church? I'm still asking those. But the ones about legacy and service and what that looks like? I think I'm starting to know the answers.

Photo by Sidney Webb


Leslie Lee said...

Yes, yes, yes. God gives us good gifts and wants us to use them. So encouraged by this, friend. You're doing good work!

Leslie said...


Laura said...

This was so, so good, Annie. I am 100% confident that God placed you in your little town for a reason. I'm so glad that you're figuring out how He wants to use you there and that you're being bold enough to test out your strengths in your community. It is so easy to be complacent, but you are reaching for big things, wanting to change people in your town, and I think that is awesome. Excited to see where God takes you!