There are questions I’m not always in a hurry to answer because of what I do. When you’ve been asked to remain as politically neutral as humanly possible so you can minister to a wide variety of people, the littlest things can become complex.
In our particular day and age, in this culture, people can become polarized so quickly. Sadly, so much has become politicized such that electoral politics are not the only topics fraught with danger.
What radio station you listen to, what television news is your favorite source or even which former print newspaper you still follow online can be twisted into something. There is a food seasoning brand that is in favor with one political party and on the outs with another. There is a brand of beer some feel it’s OK to drink that is on the no-no list with those of an opposing political persuasion.
Even what pillow you sleep on might start up a conversation you wouldn’t want to have. There are athletes you aren’t supposed to cheer for, actors whose shows are “anti-American” to watch.
People jump to all manner of political conclusions and will brand each other so quickly these days.
All of which made me cringe one recent day as I walked into my favorite hangout, Bubba-Doo’s. That’s because I was greeted from the restaurant and bar area with the ominous sentence, “Hey there, Pastor. You’re here just in time. We want to know what you think!”
“Hey there, Pastor. You’re here just in time. We want to know what you think!”
Ralph was practically jubilant as he invited me in the door and right into the deep end.
There’s a saying. It goes like this. “You don’t have to show up for every fight you’re invited to.”
So when I asked what they were talking about, and they told me, I had to think that one over for a minute. “We want to know what you think about that big country music song. The one everybody’s talk’n about these days.”
To buy myself a little time, I asked, “Oh yeah? Which one is that?”
What ensued almost let me off the hook.
“You know. That one called “Do That in a Small Town,” Mickey offered.
Immediately, Fred piped up and said, “Nope. That’s not it.” Mickey countered and asked what the name of the song was, then.
Shirley was nearby and said, “Everybody knows it’s called ‘Pull That in a Country Town.’” Angel was walking by with a pitcher of tea and giggled.
“What?! Was that wrong, too?” Shirley followed up. “No ma’am. That was close but that wasn’t it, either,” Angel confirmed.
“Oh yeah. That’s right. It’s, ‘Try That Stuff on Us,’ or something like that,” Aaron attempted.
Wishing all this would go away, I sure wasn’t volunteering the correct song title. But I knew by now which one they were talking about. Fact is, I don’t think I was going to be terribly surprised at who among this bunch liked Jason Aldean’s controversial hit and who didn’t like it.
“Aaron, that ain’t it either,” I heard Hector call out from his usual perch up at the bar. This thing had an open audience at the country store.
“Try That in a Small Town,” I heard Marleen call out. That was the elusive correct name of the song.
“Never one to miss a chance to stir things up a little, there was Marleen at her best.”
Never one to miss a chance to stir things up a little, there was Marleen at her best. She cleared up the title misfires once and for all. Because she wanted the real fun of overhearing customers as they discussed the song to keep going.
“So, Pastor. Go ahead. What do you think of the song?” Of all people to throw shade at me, there was Stephanie grinning from ear to ear.
She cut her sharp eyes at me, knowing full well I wanted nothing to do with this. Marleen isn’t the only one who is a little devilish with her fun. Stephanie has a mischievous sense of humor, too, if you catch her on the right day.
“Well, it sure has turned into something big,” I began. “Love it or not, that song is making him a lot of money.”
Landrum was doing his usual quiet thing, sipping coffee well past its prime from a small Styrofoam cup. “I really would like to see someone try some of that foolishness around here.”
“How can you be so sure, Landrum?” Shelley asked as she paused to see what I might want to order. “Besides, we’re not even big enough to be a small town.”
Fred, probably the oldest person standing around with us, surprised us all when he said correctly “We got all kinds of people around here. There’s way more diversity tucked here and there than you all may realize.”
A pair of economic downturns, spread out over the years, had affected the ethnic mix in the region more than some longtimers had noticed. That much was sure. Many who had either left the area, or the estates of some who had died, held onto the houses and properties. Relatively affordable rents and sale prices had drawn a surprising number of new dwellers out from the reachable cities.
Ralph attempted to diagnose the climate that perhaps led to the song when he chimed in, “Everybody’s just so sensitive these days. Everybody gets offended so easily. Then, they want to go to protest’n and tearing stuff up.”
Shirley said, “Well, I think we all have our blind spots. We haven’t all lived the same lives and haven’t all come from the same circumstances. Maybe some among us are about fed up with being kept down.”
“I think that feller’s a man’s-man in that song. I don’t get what everyone’s so uptight about these days.”
“What are you saying, Shirley?” Aaron followed up. “I think that feller’s a man’s-man in that song. I don’t get what everyone’s so uptight about these days.”
I glanced at Shirley, to measure how she was taking all this. I also appreciated the interference she was running for me. Some would say I was staying quiet and taking a coward’s way out. I might suggest that I was keeping my powder dry until this thing took a turn where I could make a true contribution.
About that time, Shirley came back strong. “Well, I think if we haven’t lived in someone else’s shoes we’re not always the best to suggest what each other ought to care about or be offended by.”
“What hardship have you lived, Shirley?” Hector asked. “I mean, how do you know about all this?”
Shirley was so gentle. Her usual, thoughtful self.
“I’ve been a woman in a man’s world for my whole life. That’s how,” she said. “I just think a man shouldn’t tell a woman what should be offensive to her and what shouldn’t be. I think as a white person, I wouldn’t be in the best position to tell a person of color what they ought to be frustrated with and what they shouldn’t be.”
The place fell silent. One of the most beloved, central figures in the whole area had just spoken truth. Now, how would it go over? For a time, everyone seemed lost in thought.
Ralph finally broke the silence. “I remember when that Floyd fellow was killed by the police officer. All those marches and protests. Lots of unrest, fires and looting in big cities.”
“I’ve been a woman in a man’s world for my whole life. That’s how.”
“Did anything like that happen around here? I don’t recall nothing,” Mickey reflected.
“Pastor, why do you think that was?” Ralph queried.
“I can tell you why nothing like that happened around here.” I answered. “Well, maybe, I’m not completely sure. But I can tell you some of what happened because I was right here in the middle of it,” I added.
“Really?!” Billy responded. As always, Billy had spirited himself into the conversation and I didn’t ever notice him coming into the joint. “How were you in the middle of it?”
I began. “Well first, the sheriff issued a statement that he was appalled at what happened up there in Minnesota. It wasn’t good policing, he said. There was abuse of power and poor technique in that incident.”
Now, I wondered if any of that would land. “He said he was gathering all of his deputies and officers for immediate retraining,” Aaron recalled.
“But how come nothing bad happened around here?” Hector wondered.
I went on. “Well, that was the Sheriff again, at least initially. But it was we ministers, too. A good number of us gathered for lunch one day to talk over the whole thing. Black ministers and white ministers. We listened to each other. We asked questions.”
“What came of that? Anything good?” Shirley asked.
“We deepened a lot of friendships and trust, it turns out. It went well. Then, we invited the sheriff to meet with us. We asked him if there was anything proactive we could do to help him.”
“So, did he have something?” someone over in the group asked aloud.
“He knew of a group organizing to march here locally. He asked us to come with him and some of the local leaders to meet with them,” I told them.
“That sounds like it was putting you all in danger.”
“Did y’all do that?!” Aaron came right out and asked me. “That sounds like it was putting you all in danger,” Landrum observed.
“A good number of us did. And it was more dangerous than I told my wife,” I confessed. “Sheriff had intel that some of the organizers weren’t from around here. They were known to be armed at previous rallies.”
“You mean you still went?!” Stephanie was back and had leaned into the conversation for a minute.
“Yes, a good number of us clergy went. Two nights right here at Bubba-Doo’s. Ministers, some of the leading African American citizens. The sheriff and the county executive. We were all there with them both nights.”
“Wait a minute. They had guns and they met here at Bubba-Doo’s and we didn’t see a scratch on the place after two nights of this? Y’all weren’t harmed? How so?” another asked.
“Well, again I have to give the sheriff and the county executive a lot of credit.” I began. “Sheriff instructed us on where we should be at first and how to know if for our safety we ought to evacuate.”
“That doesn’t sound like it was completely safe for you all,” an astute Mickey observed.
“We all had to choose whether to risk it or not.”
“That’s because it wasn’t. We all had to choose whether to risk it or not. We gathered with some of the Black leaders and talked the whole thing over. They met, in turn, with some of the outsiders and persuaded them to move on. So they did.” I explained.
“No one left from around here seemed to be armed, then?” Shirley asked with genuine concern.
“If they were, I didn’t see the weapons. I mean, they could’ve been there.” I answered honestly.
“Alright. You’ve still got a lot more you’d better tell us about this. How did they not bust the windows and burn the place down? How did they not attack innocent people who were just stopping by?” Billy pressed.
“OK. The gatherings were held both times way out in the empty lot next to the parking area out there. Right? And also both times they were after the busy evening rush here at the store. Most of you were already gone when this happened.”
“Gotcha,” Aaron grunted. “Go on, then.”
“So, then we got in a big circle with the protesters from this area. Black folks and white folks mostly. Some of the Black leaders spoke about life here in the community. They appealed for peace. Some of us took turns stepping to the middle of the circle and offering prayers.”
“Wait a minute. You all talked with each other and prayed together? Blacks and whites? Protesters and clergy?!” Landrum asked.
“Us and the sheriff, the deputies and the county leaders. All out in one big circle.” I said.
“Then what?” Shirley wanted to know.
“I remember now,” Marleen chimed in. “Those people marched. They had signs and they chanted. Both nights.”
“That’s the dangdest part of the whole thing.” I went on. “Both nights, that same beginning would happen for the better part of an hour. Then, anyone who wanted to go walk for a while — to march — went up and down the street and marched. The group would just go take a walk. Lots of chanting was done.”
“So, the sheriff just watched all this happen and hoped for the best?” Mickey asked.
“The sheriff told the group both nights he was going to walk with them.”
“No, that’s the best thing of all,” I continued. “The sheriff told the group both nights he was going to walk with them. The county executive, too. The leader of the county council was out there at least one night, if not both.”
“Wait, now. I think I’m confused.” Fred spoke up.
“Well, Fred, remember earlier I told you the sheriff was candid with these folks? He thought a lot of this trouble was caused by bad policing and abuse of power. That he was retraining his force to do better.”
“Yeah. So?” Billy grunted.
“So, the sheriff told them he was frustrated, too. He said he held his deputies to the standard of seeing everyone they encounter as people of worth. And that it all made for a bad image for law enforcement, and these violent acts inflamed citizens for understandable reasons,” I reminded them.
Now, heads were nodding.
“OK. So, if I’ve got this straight some of you ministers left your homes and walked right into the middle of this. You knew there were guns and knives here. You stood with the sheriff and dialogued with the protesters for two nights. Prayed with them. Some even walked with them. And that’s how nothing bad happened here in our area?”
“I know, it’s a lot to take in. But that’s about it. I can’t altogether explain why things stayed peaceful. That’s just the story I’ve got to tell you,” I demurred. “I can’t speak for other cities and towns in the U.S. That’s just what happened out here in the country.
Maybe nowhere else might this have worked. Maybe we weren’t unique at all. I genuinely don’t pretend to know how any of the other towns or areas that fared well in such an unstable time did so peacefully.
But maybe the greater Bubba-Doo’s area was onto something on the nights in question. Maybe no one has tried any of the things the hit country song talks about in this area because humans came together and took each other’s issues seriously. At the very least, it left me with quite the story to tell.
Something tells me this won’t be the last time the area will have to rally and appeal to its better angels to get through a moment of difference. I just hope we’ll have the bravery and willingness we had this time to preserve a way of life we cherish, even in our relative diversity.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: