Category Archives: culture

“Don’t Try to be Like Me, I didn’t Always Get it Right” Rest In Peace Billy Graham

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

No matter how one viewed him Billy Graham was both a legend, a remarkable man, and a truly historic figure in terms of the Evangelical Christianity that he popularized more than any other preacher before or after him. His legacy will be debated for years and I think that it is very possible that in death he will become larger than he was in life; mostly because those who attempted to follow him were poor imitations or politically motivated hucksters that Graham himself would later have nothing to do with.

Though many knew him as “America’s Pastor” he only briefly served as the pastor of a small church before he became an evangelist, a role for which he was particularly suited, he was the entire package. Graham was young, good looking, and could communicate a simple evangelical message with conviction, passion, and grace in a way that few evangelists before or since have been able to do. He was also incredibly adept in understanding the potential of television and the broadcasting of his message world wide.

When I was a kid his crusades were a staple of television. I had an aunt in Stockon California who when she wasn’t watching Lawrence Welk she was watching Billy Graham crusades. Whenever we visited her viewing habits didn’t change, no wonder my uncle Ted spent so much time in at his favorite local bar, but I digress…

That being said, even when I was eleven or twelve years old Reverend Graham’s crusades were amazing to watch. First was the fact that despite the simplicity of his message he was exceptionally talented in delivering it. To see thousands of people responding to his call for conversion or rededication to Christ as George Beverly Shea led choirs singing the invitational hymn Just as I Am was a thing of rare beauty when it comes to evangelical crusades and altar calls. Billy Graham was a master of manipulating emotions to bring people down the aisle, and I do not mean anything malicious by that.

Graham’s message was simple in its traditional evangelical message. All have sinned, and that means all of us; Christ died to save sinners; repent, believe, and confess Jesus as your savior. The message was not new, it had been preached by Christians in a variety of forms and in many cultural variations for about 1900 years before Graham ever began his first crusade, but Graham’s were much more of the simplistic fundamentalist evangelicalism that has been part of the American landscape since the Second Great Awakening. It had been a staple of Fundamentalist revival preachers for decades before Graham but unlike the hellfire and brimstone message of previous preachers like Billy Sunday Graham focused on the love of God, and unlike so many his sincerity in preaching that message came through whether in person or on television.

His message was grounded in the theology of Pre-millennial Dispensationalism of Irish Anglican Priest John Darby which found its way to North America where it was popularized by American C.I. Schofield. The message was simple and based on the belief the the return of Christ to judge the world was imminent: accept Christ and avoid the wrath to come.

His message was no different than thousands of other preachers like him, but he was better at it and understood the role of media, particularly television in spreading the message. Likewise while he encouraged Christians to become more politically active in the 1950s and 1960s though when Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist preachers formed a political movement that became the current Christian Right he warned against it. In 1981 he said:

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

He had learned the hard way, while he was a gifted evangelist, he was not a prophet and in the first two decades of his career, Graham, the North Carolina Democrat allowed himself to become captive to Republican Presidents. He compared Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and said that Richard Nixon was “the most able and best trained man for the job in American history.”

To his credit Graham did not seek the friendship or companionship of Presidents, except for Nixon, but every President after John F. Kennedy regardless of Party sought Graham’s counsel, advice and spiritual support. That being said the low mark of his career and ministry was when tapes of him and Richard Nixon emerged in 2002 in which while they agreed with their support of Israel, disparaged American Jews and their supposed control of the media, to which Graham added the Jews support for pornography. When that came to light Graham apologized and tried to put his remarks in context of those of President Nixon but his retractions for that was well as his remarked in a letter to Nixon to “bomb the dikes” in order to flood North Vietnam irregardless of civilian casualties demonstrated a ruthlessness in support of American military power being used against civilians damaged his credibility for many people.

In terms of civil rights and race relations Graham desegregated his crusades, even personally taking down the ropes that separated whites and blacks at one location. He told one audience in Mississippi that “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the Cross.” He supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a degree but when Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham Alabama and wrote his classic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that King should “put the brakes on a little bit.” His unwillingness to take risks in supporting civil rights later in life was something that would also damage his reputation among Christians and non-Christians alike.

In the 1980s he said that AIDS was the judgement of God, a comment that he quickly walked back. Later he realized his mistakes in being too close to Presidents and avoided Washington and the White House. That did not keep him from befriending or caring for Presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama.

To his credit Graham could admit his mistakes with a display of humility that is lacking in most big time preachers and evangelists. When Jonathan Merritt asked Graham how people could be more like him Graham responded: “First, I’d say, don’t try to be like me, because I didn’t always get it right.”

Likewise, in 2007 when he was asked why he never supported or was affiliated with the Moral Majority or other Right Wing Christian Evangelical political groups he said:

“I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or the superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

I only wish that those who pretend to be the leaders of the Christian Right today, including Graham’s son Franklin and daughter Annie would be wise enough to heed his advice.

I could go on and try to evaluate the other parts of his life and ministry both positive and negative, and those debates could could go in for decades.

As for me, I always found Reverend Graham to be a genuine, yet flawed man. Whether one agreed with his theology, style of ministry, or positions on different issues he wasn’t a fake. He was exactly who he was, he believed the message that he preached. He was neither a prophet or theologian, and he approached the political world with a certain naivety that unscrupulous politicians like Richard Nixon exploited.

Charles Templeton who traveled with Graham and frequently roomed with him in various crusades eventually parted ways with Graham and became an agnostic. Templeton, who died in 2001 was asked about Graham and said something that resonates with how I feel about him and his influence:

“I disagree with him profoundly on his view of Christianity and think that much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense. But there is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust. And I miss him.”

Honestly, I don’t think there will be another like him, certainly among those who have tried to emulate him or take up his mantle in the now hyper-political world of American Evangelicalism. Graham learned lessons in dealing in the political world that those who have followed him, including his son Franklin have ignored, and when American Evangelicalism crumbles under the weight of political, social, and financial malfeasance and painfully shallow theology it will be their fault.

Later in life Graham moderated some of his views on salvation. When asked by John Meacham in 2006 whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, Graham said:

“Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

As I reflect on his passing I think that he will understand the implications of eternity more than any of us will and whether I agreed with him or not I will miss him and wish that his son and other Evangelicals would take heed and learn from his experiences rather than to keep digging the Church into the abyss.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Americans are Not the Übermenschen: We Are the Wretched Refuse

billmurraystripes

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the wake of President Trump’s remarks about “shithole” countries I have top put in my two cents. The fact is that most Americans, even the whiter than white, are descended from people who were the “wretched refuse” of their countries of origin. As Bill Murray said in the movie Stripes:

“The hell’s the matter with you?! Stupid! We’re all very different people. We’re not Watusi. We’re not Spartans. We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A’, huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse.” 

I’m sorry Mr. President, your family and mine our no different, our ancestors escaped countries that they felt that they had no future. In my family that included members of the Scottish nobility who weren’t high enough on the nobility scale to inherit much and as such went to the colonies to use their name and money to their advantage; or others who fled poverty, famine, and religious persecution: Irish Catholics, French Huguenots, Welsh coal miners, indentured servant English farmers and herdsmen, just to name a few. At least to my knowledge none of my ancestors were dodging the draft or conscription to get here, not that there is anything wrong with that, but I digress…

I hate to be so blunt but anyone that thinks that the United States is some kind of white nationalist homeland is sadly mistaken. The most kind word to describe people who believe that bullshit is ignorant; the worst, deliberately deceitful and evil.

So when the American President makes comments about Haitians, Hispanics, and African immigrants as coming from “shithole countries” one has to remember how the Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Jews, and Eastern European immigrants were viewed and treated when they came to this country. While were at it let’s not even talk about the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians, Arabs, various Latin Americans, or Mexicans; the latter who lost 40% of their country to an expanding and imperialistic United States after the War with Mexico.

The United States of America is not an ethnicity, it is not a race, it is an idea; a proposition that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Abraham Lincoln certainly understood this to the extent that he was willing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and push through the 13th Amendment and in his last public remarks voiced support for Negro Suffrage, something that infuriated John Wilkes Booth that it moved him to assassinate Lincoln.

That being said if we are really Americans. If we are truly part of that “wretched refuse” then we should never forget the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address where he said:

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The remarks of the President which he denied, but have not been denied by the White House and testified to by Democrat and Republican Senators who heard them are despicable, racist, and conduct unbecoming for an American President. In the military I have served alongside men and women from every country that the President has called shitholes, every single one of them has more integrity, honor, and courage than the President, some have given their lives in defense of this country while many of them still serve this country in harms way. Many came as immigrants or were the sons or daughters of immigrants: all of them volunteered to serve and none dodged the draft like the current occupant of the White House.

The fact is if you are an American, unless perhaps you are a direct descendent of one of the great American Indian Chiefs or Shamans, you, like me are part of the wretched refuse.

So with that I wish you a good day.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Preparing a Christmas Sermon for Members of the German Military and Their Families

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I could write a lot tonight but I won’t because I am busy preparing to preach at the German NATO contingent Christmas service at my chapel. For me it is an honor as I have been serving alongside and friends of the men and women of the German Bundeswehr since I was a young Army lieutenant in 1984. After the service tomorrow, Judy and I will attend their Christmas party at one of the hotels on our beachfront. It is an honor to get the chance to do this.

As such I have been going back to my German liturgy as well as the writings of men like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Martin Niemoller, and Jurgen Moltmann. I do find that reading the Biblical, liturgical, and theological texts in German, or for that matter singing the Mass or prayers in German seems to bring more of a sense of mystery and meaning than what I do in english.

Honestly, I can’t say why that is, as I have no German DNA in me, and I am for all purposes an American with mostly Irish DNA, despite my Scottish last name. Maybe it is because when I was a non-denominational Christian going to a Southern Baptist seminary I discovered Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross in his own writings, as well as those of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jurgen Moltmann, and Hans Kung. Those writing brought me to the Catholic, but not Roman side of Christianity. I now serve as a Priest in an Old Catholic denomination. When I was a relatively new priest serving as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain in German I learned and memorized the Mass, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary in German better than I ever could in English. I have no idea why, for English is my first language and I didn’t begin learning German until my sophomore year in college; but for some reason that I don’t know, God seems to speak to me in German far more than English.

My German friends say that I am fluent, though I know that I am not, but when I travel in Germany I have to tell people that I am American. My German is good enough, and my accent, a blend of Bavarian and Hessian German confuses people for I don’t speak German like even a well spoken American fluent in school book German. I speak like Germans with different German dialects.

So anyway, I am going to get back to work on my sermon, which I may post in English here tomorrow night.

So until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Black Friday, the Golden Ticket, and Christmas Preparation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past two days have been different from my typical Thanksgiving weekend. The first thing that was different that for the first time I went out on Black Friday with the intention of buying something. Now for those who have read my articles of the years know that I have pretty much been a critic of the culture of Black Friday, but something came along this year that allowed me to get a good deal and stand outside in the cold with friends, mostly my age or older, having great conversations and fun while waiting for our local bar, The Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant in Virginia Beach to open.

Most of us had been there Wednesday afternoon and evening, otherwise known as Thanksgiving Eve, for the tapping of this years Winter Bock, a wonderful beer that is very nice. But what drew us out was a chance to purchase a book of coupons for $50 which gives the purchaser a coupon for 52 growler (a 64 to 72 ounce jug) fills of locally brewed craft beer. Since the normally with tax come in at just under $14 dollars each the cost of those 52 growlers is about $725. So for the approximately 150 who were able to get a coupon book it was a great deal. Not only that they were selling 16 ounce beers for a dollar, with a limit of two. The atmosphere outside and inside the restaurant was like a gathering of friends and a party, so unlike the rush to grab one of a limited number of HDTVs at a big box store.

For me it was like getting the Golden Ticket.

Today we began preparing the house for Christmas, lots of work but we’re managing to enjoy it because we are both in a much better place emotionally than we have been in years.

So anyway, until tomorrow when I will be substitute preaching at my chapel, have a great night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Miscellaneous Thoughts on Returning Home from Germany


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was our last full,day in Germany. We spent the morning with our friends Gottfried and Hannelore before we set of for Munich so we could be ready for our flight home in today.
The past two weeks have been some of the best times we have had in a long time. We were able to see people we have gotten to know over the past couple of years in Munich, including or friends Linda and Holgar, and we were able to see old, long time friends like Gottfried and Hannelore who we have known now for about 32 years, as well as Hannelore’s brother Gerhardt, Gottfried’s fellow veteran Franz, and a number of others.

For us that is one of the most special things about traveling here, it is the relationships. We are at home with them and leaving is really kind of hard. Judy and I both love the area where Gottfried and Hannelore live in Hessen. I guess if we ever decided to live outside of the United States that we would find a way to live there. The quality of life is good, housing is comparable in price to where we live now, we know the language, culture, and as for me I love the history and being able just to walk through the forest, across the countryside, and even in the city without having to deal with neighborhoods that are designed more for cars than people. We like the mass transportation, the ability to travel by train, and the freedom not to have to drive everywhere. Likewise, it is more dog friendly, we could take Minnie, Izzy, and Pierre almost anywhere except a grocery store.

So every time we leave it is hard.

When we got to the hotel near Munich’s airport last night we took a short drive to the town of Erding for dinner. It was relaxing to sit in the town square and eat dinner without a lot of tumult and to drive back to the hotel as the sun set.

The last couple of weeks has helped me put some things in perspective. My distance from the seemingly endless political conflicts in the United States has been good. Even though I have kept up with the news I have not been as bombarded with the continuous drone of angry social media posts by people who I disagree with, as well as those with whom I agree. I have found over the past two weeks that it is possible to keep up with events without getting completely sucked in to the morass of hate and division that so characterizes life in the United States today.

I found it interesting to be in Loehnberg where Gottfried and Hannelore live during the German election on Sunday. Though there are political disagreements, I found that the people in the area are still friends regardless of their political affiliation. Most are willing to cross political party lines to vote for people from a different party who they know are good people. I think that part of this is because their political districts conform to city or county lines, and are not subject to the whims of politicians who want to make sure that they have a secure district.

In Germany the districts are smaller, the population is less, and there are more representatives in the German Bundestag than there are in the American Senate and House combined and those who run actually have to live in the districts that they are running for office in. Thus, even in a national election there is a distinctly local feel because voters tend to know a lot about the people they are voting for.

Another thing is that when it comes to campaign advertising there are no 24/7 campaign ads on television or radio. There are posters, speeches, rallies, interviews, and debated, but there is not the deluge of endless propaganda that we in the United States refer to as political advertisements funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of campaign donations that cannot be traced.

As far as politics goes it was one of the most embarrassing times that I have been overseas since 1979 and President Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” speech. The President’s words and actions on so many issues are impossible to defend when people ask me about them, not that I even try because I agree with them. There was a time that regardless of their party or my differences with them that I would try to defend past presidents from the first time I travelled overseas to Europe in 1979 until last year, simply because I am an American and the President is still the President. However, I cannot do that with President Trump. Yes, he is the President, but his words and actions are so immoral, outrageous, and dangerous that I cannot as a Christian or officer defend them.

The President reminds me of a bit of James K. Polk in temperament, but Polk was a much harder worker, diligent, and well read than Trump, as well as well as disciplined, but I digress…

We got home this evening, had a bite of dinner and then went to pick up Minnie, Izzy, and Pierre and it is good to be back with our Papillon kids. I have Pierre snuggled next to me as I finish this article. Since I have been up since 5:30 AM Munich time it is time for me to crash for the night. I’ll try to continue some of these thoughts tomorrow.

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

So anyway.

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Statues With Limitations: Part Two


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Alexander Pope wrote “Monuments, like men, submit to fate.” 

Two days ago I began a series regarding the Confederate Monument Controversy. I was going to begin today’s article by going directly into what I think should be done with these monuments but think that a little bit more background and context is necessary. That context is best put in the difference between history and memory. History, is made by people because it has real world effects cannot be erased because for good or bad its effects always are with us. Memory on the other hand is often selective and tends toward sentimentally. Because of that, memory often leads to the preservation of things that provide us with a certain sense of comfort, things that buttress our innate sense of superiority. 

Statues and monuments themselves have to be taken in their historical context: especially what they meant to the people that erected them and the era in which they were constructed. From time immemorial people and nations have erected statues and monuments to dieties, empowers, kings, generals, and yes, even philosophers and historians. They have also sought to commemorate the lives of soldiers who died in various wars, in part to honor their dead as did the ancient Athenians at Kerameikos, but more often to build upon a sense of national myth and purpose, to link the sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders, or soldiers to their current generation’s political, social, and even spiritual urges.

Some religions like Judaism and Islam have traditionally frowned upon the erection of statues and images that represented their dieties, their saints, or their leaders, fearing that such images could lead to idolatry. There was even a constroversy in the Christian Church, the Iconoclast Controversy, which dealt with this matter which took more than a hundred years to resolve. 

In Western society, especially since the Romans there has been a conscious attempt by nations to built statues and monuments to their leaders and other men, as women seldom rated such honor, whether they actually deserved honor or not. As such there are monuments in prominent places to men with political, social, hereditary, or economic connections who when compared to their contemporaries, or others, before or after them, have done little to be heirs to such honor. This does not mean that they were necessarily bad people, or even unworthy of the honor of their time, but rather that they are undeserving of perpetual honor in the most public of locations, or in places unconnected with where they made their name. 

Cemeteries and museums are the best places for statues which have past their effective life in the public square. Removing them does nothing to harm history, nor does it write them out of history. I like how the Old Testament writers of the books of the Kings and Chronicles end their discussions of the kings of Israel and Judah. They note that these men’s lives and deeds, good and evil, are written about and where they were buried to be with their ancestors. An example of the is Jesus, one of the kings of Israel in the book of Second Kings: “Now the rest of the acts of Jehu, all that he did, and all his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?”

Since the Jews of the Old Testament did not build statues to their leaders for fear of idolatry the ensured through the oral, and later the written tradition that these leaders, the good and the bad, were remembered for their work and contributions. The Islamic tradition is quite similar. 

The ancient Greeks, particularly those of Athens chose to use the cemetery as a place to remember their dead. In dedicating the Mount Auburn Cemetery during the Greek revival, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted: 

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.”

Cemeteries are always places where the dead can be honored or remembered, where their descendants can find comfort and even sense the presence of their departed ancestors. 

But the public square is another matter. Times change, governments and governmental types change. The statues that the early colonists of the British American colonies erected to King George III had no place in the new republic and were removed. Monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin where removed from their places of prominence in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania once those countries escaped Soviet domination. 

Statues in public places dedicated to specific individuals or events tend to have a shelf life which means that they regardless of who they are dedicated to need to be periodically re-examined to see if they should remain in their current place of honor or be moved to a different location. But the United States is a comparatively young country, our oldest monuments are likewise comparatively new, and many pale in comparison to those of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In those areas multiple civilizations and empire have risen and fallen, massive monuments have been erected, toppled, or faded away. Many surviving monuments now are in museums, collections of antiquity representing fallen civilizations, or have been moved from places of honor and replaced by ones that more appropriately represent the national culture and experience. 

As we approach the first quarter millenium of our experiment as a republic it is a good time to look at what we have commemorated with monuments and make considered decisions about each of them, and not just Confederate monuments. Obviously many, especially those that deal with our founding as a nation and our founders need to stay, but others should be replaced, or removed to more appropriate venues, or in cases of monuments that memorialize the more shameful parts of our history, maybe leave them and place other monuments and markers to explain the historical context and promote history versus myth. Likewise if we decide to remove them, what replaces them should be well thought out. This actually goes beyond the monuments themselves but has all to do with history, historical preservation, and the narrative that a community wants to communicate about its history, its values, and yes, even its future, for those monuments for good or bad are part of what bind generations together. 

As no point do I think they should be destroyed, even those to men who were evil, or represented evil causes. It think in the cases of truly evil men that their statues should be placed in parks, at eye level with other statues like them. The process then allows people to view them not as exalted figures, but people with feet of clay. A number of Eastern European countries have done this with statues of Stalin, Lenin, and others from the Soviet era. 

The placement or monuments is of more importance than their existence, and their contexts matter. Honore De Balzac noted: “With monuments as with men, position means everything. 

So anyway, tomorrow I will wrap this up by dealing with the Confederate Monument Controversy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A River Runs Through It: A Lament for Huntington, West Virginia, the Heart of Trump’s America, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Ohio River is one of America’s majestic rivers and for nearly two centuries has been one of the nation’s vital waterways. Over those years cities developed along it, cities that were at one time the center of much American industry and transportation. However, over the years many of those cities have lost their manufacturing centers and cities like Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, fell, but have begun to rise again. 

Yesterday we traveled to one of the cities That hasn’t rose again, Huntington, West Virginia, to spend a week with a dear friend. However, unlike those other cities, Huntington has not only not recovered, but continues to slide into the abyss. For years I held onto hope that Huntington and the Tri-State area of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio would come back, but today I realized that it won’t come back for the foreseeable future. No amount of fanatical belief in a political Messiah who promises to Make America Great Again is going to change that, the facts don’t support it and neither do the social, political, and economic culture that has developed over the past fifty years. 

For those that don’t know, Huntington, Cabell County, and adjoining Wayne County are my ancestral home in the United States. My family on both sides were early settlers in the area. In fact I was the first person in my immediate family born somewhere else, thanks to my parents I was a Navy brat and was born in California and raised on the West Coast. My family for the most part has either died off or moved away. I have a few cousins still in the area but haven’t seen any of them in years. 

In spite of that I have always considered Huntington a home away from home. We used to visit my grandparents and other relatives, all of who are now long gone. Some of my earliest and happiest memories were in Huntington. After I finished seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education residency in 1995 I got my first post-residency hospital job there while serving in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Even then it was a place that I felt safe and wanted to live. Though I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 still considered it a place that I might actually want to retire. It is a beautiful area. 

Twenty something years later I no longer feel that way. We arrived in town early in the afternoon and after we unpacked the car I had to pick up a few things at a local grocery store. I know Huntington like the back of my hand, every area, every street, and while the street names and the geography of the city have not changed, the city has fundamentally changed and though I had seen it coming I never wanted to believe it. 

Huntington used to be the largest and wealthiest city in the state, but back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, things began to change. The heavy industry began moving out, especially in the 1980s when those industries imploded. Likewise in the 1960s the city council and business people decided that they didn’t want Interstate 64 to go through the city because they were afraid that it would negatively effect the downtown businesses. The interstate went around town and the businesses including the state’s largest mall moved to Barboursville in Cabell County. Downtown died and despite efforts to revive it, it has not recovered. 

Bad economic decision after decision, including the rejection of a Toyota engine plant with thousands of really good paying jobs not far from town in the late 1990s have doomed the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the population was close to 90,000, now it is under 50,000. Many people moved into the surrounding areas, but those too are beginning to suffer from many of the issues effecting Huntington which remains the heart of the Tri-State metropolitan area. 

The city infrastructure is crumbling, the ancient storm drain system is failing leading to flooding in areas previously immune from it, and causing flood insurance premiums to skyrocket. Its schools are underfunded, the educational outcomes are poor, its economy is failing, and society beginning to collapse, the opiod crisis is just a symptom of a larger decay. 

The city is still home to Marshall University but without it things would be much worse, as the University partners with business and the major medical centers. In fact if it wasn’t for the University, the medical school, and the hospitals there would be nothing here. Most of the industry including steel and chemical plants which used to supply auto manufacturers, make railroad cars, and other manufacturing goods are gone, and most of the derive industry jobs outside of medical care pay little more than subsistence wages and offer few or no benefits. The coal industry has downsized because the coal here is harder to get and thus more expensive than going elsewhere. Despite promises of bringing coal jobs back that is not going to happen. What is left of the coal industry in West Virginia, much of it owned by the state’s only billionaire and governor, Jim Justice,who by the way was a Republican and became a Democrat to run for governor in 2015, who just switched back to being a Trump Republican, is going high tech and not replacing miners. This is not because of environmental regulations but simply because the coal industry has already raped the state of the easily accessible coal, at a tremendous human and environmental cost. 


The city has some beautiful residential areas near Ritter Park which is a wonderful park that stretches for miles along Four Pole Creek. The homes through that area and in the hills that rise sharply above it are where the well off people live, the doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, corporate executives, and tenured university professors. But just a few blocks away people live in squalor. Boarded up homes and businesses, vacant lots, and barely habitable homes predominant what were once affluent middle class neighborhoods that I remember all too well. 

The once thriving downtown area is a shell of its former self. There have been a number of attempts to revive it, the latest being the very nice Pullman Square, but many businesses can’t make it there because people don’t have the money to spend. Even a Five Guys burger joint went out of business there, and I have never seen one of those places go belly up. 


The city is the poster city and epicenter for the opiod epidemic in this country. You cannot drive or walk down the streets without seeing someone with the wild-eyed or blank stare of an addict. Homeless people, often drug addicts, walk down the streets with their belongings, and sometimes their children in tow. It is quite sad to see. 

West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country it is the seventh most poverty stricken state in the country. Most education ratings place the state in the bottom ten percent of the United States with one of the lowest success rates measured in educational attainment and earnings. It ranks 50th in life expectancy, it is second in obesity, and has the highest rate of opiod addiction and death in the country. I could go on but the drumbeat of negative statistics and outcomes gets too depressing after a while to go on about them. 

Until the past two decades the state was a reliable “blue state.” That didn’t mean the state was liberal in any sense, it was actually a lot like much of the American South which was reliably Democratic until Democrats began to support the civil rights movement, and other more progressive causes in the 1960s and afterwards. It stayed longer in the “Blue” column because most of its Democratic leaders such as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller did not defect to the GOP like many leaders in the South who followed Storm Thurman and the Dixiecrats to the GOP. In fact many of the Democratic state office holders were solidly on the side of business and would be considered conservatives in any other state. But it was only after Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency that the state shifted to be almost solidly Republican, with all statewide offices with the exception of now endangered Democrat moderate Senator Joe Manchin being controlled by the GOP. 

In 2016 the state voted for Donald Trump with over 68% of the vote. Interestingly enough, West Virginia is one of the states that has benefited the most from the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act, and since that legislation was enacted more people have access to healthcare, which if you look at the state’s health rankings is badly needed yet opposed by many Trump supporters. Last week a cheering crowd greeted the President at a campaign rally in downtown Huntington cheering “lock her up!” while jeering former FBI Director and now Special Prosecutor Robert Muller over the Russia investigation. In desparation many people here have pinned their hopes on a false savior, one who promises to Make America Great Again, but cannot deliver for their city. 

Socially it West Virginia is a fascinating state. There are strip clubs and pornography super centers littering the interstate highways and around the outskirts of town, yet the state is full of churches and socially one of the most conservative states when it comes to people’s religious views, especially when it comes to abortion or LGBTQ issues. Of course this is not unusual as the Bible Belt is also the the porn belt. But I digress, I got more into statistics than I intended but they provide a mosaic of what is going on in the state. 

Today I came home in a sense to a place that is no longer home. Since we have been military nomads for some 36 years, West Virginia is still my home of record for the military. When I went back on active duty in the Navy in 1999 it was our intention to return. I can’t do that now. Today, for the first time in my life I did not feel safe on the streets of Huntington. The poverty is the least of my concerns, and it’s certainly not a racial issue because Cabell County is 91% white. I’ve been poor and lived in crime ridden ghettos that were heavily black and Hispanic, but I hate to say I felt safer in those places than I did today. 


Please don’t take this essay wrong. It is not a polemic by any means, it is a way to process my grief for a city and state that is not going to be great again anytime soon. People can shout Make America Great Again all they want, but fervor and fanaticism do not change facts. I do wish that it was different, but people here are doing what they have been doing since the Robber Barons, Coal Kings, and Lumber Lords raped the state of its natural resources, destroyed the encronment, and for all practical purposes enslaved the people in “company towns.” 

Huntington’s crisis didn’t happen overnight, it is the product of decades of poor leadership by politicians of both parties, business leaders, and yes, even citizens and now many are putting their trust in a false savior who despite his words and their fervor will not change the course of their city or state. 

I think that today after I do my run and walk through Ritter Park, that I will be out taking pictures, not just of the nice areas like I usually do here, the riverfront and Ritter Park, but the blighted areas. I will post them as a photo essay as part two of this either tomorrow or Thursday. 

Until then,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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