By Gary Gunderson
Thanksgiving is dense with ambiguity on the Mississippi Delta. Hard not to be thankful walking around The Delta Health Center and its ground made sacred by the work of John Hatch and Jack Geiger in Mound Bayou. And of the generations of freed slaves who plowed that impossible way before them, still visible at Dockery Farms nearby. Or a few miles away where Fannie Lou Hamer is buried. Thanks, thanks, thanks.
Mrs. Hamer was 42 before she registered to vote, which got herself and her husband fired from the plantation—and launched her unmatchable voice underneath the movement. She was so electric that Lyndon Johnson once called a Presidential press conference just to get off the TV. “I’m never sure when I leave home whether I’ll make it back. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet and four inches forward for freedom ….” She’s probably spinning in that grave this year. Long before anyone know of her, she knew all about bitter power and it’s violent ways. But even she might be surprised how the ancient patterns of privilege and disdain for the poor are so resilient. It takes more than one uprising to keep rising, even to stay afloat.
The Delta is part of the three thousand miles of witness we’ve heard in different accents from East San Diego’s shades of brown and black, to the San Manuel tribe further north and Cesar Chavez’s still disruptive hope in Phoenix, or the impossibly permeable complexity of El Paso on the border of Mexico. But this particular land is close. Mrs. Hamer lies only only six hundred feet from where TC and her twin sister Lisa were born. My years in nearby Memphis shaped me deeply.
Even if you drive 3,000 miles looking for human communities most of what you see is fields of cotton, soy and corn. Fields offer up some lessons about humans, mostly about what notto do. We came into Lubbock, Texas, at dusk, into countless thousands of acres of industrial cotton and 140,000 wells pumping carbon from the Permian Basin into your and my gas tank. At night their glow runs to the horizon, even as massive harvesters work by headlights in between the wells. It’s not a town that thinks in long terms. Lubbock plowed the public health department down to two people. They rethought that quickly enough but not before they had bulldozed the public health building itself to make way for a bigger fire station to hold their new behemoth fire engine! A Lubbock suburb is named “New Deal.” That suggests this is a place that could remember how to do large-scale cooperation if it had to. If someone reminded it of what it knows.
Lessons in what not to do cover the Delta as well. Rev. Dr. Chris Bounds once told me that you just have to have a theory of evil to function on the Delta. You might not need Satan to explain it, but chaos fights back. You can see it in the brazen resurgence of racism. And you can see it in the banal ways that institutions simply push aside and plow under inconvenient congregational infrastructure like that which emerged in Memphis.
You’d think hospitals would know better. Hospitals grew out of the richly diverse permaculture of faith and compassion. Until about a century ago people of means received their healthcare in their homes, but the poor might hope for a hospital with its meager promisesbut appropriate compassion. During the 20thcentury medical science advanced quickly. So did financing such as Blue Cross and government innovations such as Medicare and Medicaid. Then, in the ‘60’s, a new career arose—professional hospital management with its analytic tools allowing every event to be priced accurately. Rather like the Lubbock cotton farmers who can steer their machines with lasers and drop chemicals by drone.
Thus, today hospitals think in quicker cycles than cotton farmers and sometimes just as narrowly focused: one event involving one diseased organ system at a time. Farmers and hospital executives aren’t stupid; they know it can’t continue, but they want to make it one more season, just one more payday, to bank against the unknown.
I was thinking about this as we drove from Lubbock to Dallas to Little Rock, across the Arkansas fields and over the great river to Memphis. I don’t live on Memphis ground anymore and speak now with as little knowledge as I might of the soil of Lubbock. But I do know that the life that tenaciously holds up this city of extreme wealth and poverty rests on the couple of thousand congregations in the neighborhoods. They aren’t any more impressive than Texas dirt. But also no less. They endure, offering a thin tough filament of trust to those who have no other, where every day is a risk. When a young man in the projects shot a cop and, afraid for his own life, needed to turn himself in, he knew to call the pastor, in this case Dr. Eric Winston. He was the only one he might trust. Eric called the Chief who trusted him, too. If Eric falls—about a foot and half more than Fanny Lou Hamer—he’ll fall forward too, extending his full frame for mercy and maybe even some justice. People know that.
That’s what it’s about. If you think you can grow health without that kind of trust you’re as dumb as a cotton farmer ignoring the soil. Across the street from Eric’s church is the greatest concentration of charity care in the county. People here live too close to the bone and knife to care much about prevention or health education, which healthcare professionals fantasize about as the key to controlling late stage emergency room treatment. They want something fast, sort of like spraying for weeds, I suppose.
Eric’s zip—38109—is a deeply damaged social ecology, soaked in the poison of racism over many decades. You can’t just spray on a little health education. You have to begin to rebuild the social soil out of which health grows. Only the most resilient agents of life have a clue as to how it might be whole again. This patient humility is almost impossible for institutions so used to having their way and doing things fast. Inject something that has worked somewhere else, say Baltimore, rather than listen to the life tough enough to stay alive here on these streets. What works is not flashy and it doesn’t work every time. It only works the way that trust works, for health is a relational art, not something you squirt into a neighborhood.
Institutions soaked in less human logic struggle with real human communities. It is understandable that they lose patience and then blame the soil for not fitting their skills. If they weren’t losing so much money in these neighborhoods, they might even choose walk away.
But here’s the point. If they can’t walk away and don’t actually know what to do, they can at least focus on what not to do: Don’t pour more poison on the bitter ground. Don’t disrespect the few forms of social life tough enough to live there. Don’t send strangers to teach them things you want them to know instead of what they ask for.
Once you cut the flow of poison, you can imagine how you (we) might nurture the ground for sustained health. Ask what they already know, and come alongside in humility and respect. There was something along those lines in Memphis. It probably will be there again in another season once the right farmer sees the rich soil lying in plain sight. Farm the soil you have. If cotton farmers were fully accountable for all the costs of their current methods, they’d stop before the next planting. If hospitals were fully accountable for all of the costs of all the outcomes of the neighborhoods they claim to serve, they would, too.
Living systems expect radical shocks, drought, fire and abuse. It is the unnatural schemes with expensive control mechanisms that need to be propped up and protected. Nature works. Anyone who wants to live can work with it. Ask Mrs. Hamer and Dr. Winston.