Hands of the Strong: Southern Exposure – People

Southern Exposure – People

 A new novel by Harper Lee.  Stunning news.  There she is, pictured on the front page of sections in today’s New York Times and USA Today.  Unbelievably, a previously written novel now has been discovered.  Written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and rumored to have existed for many years, it has been found.  The new novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, will be out in July 2015Only recently discovered among other documents, the news story suggests that even Miss Lee did not know this novel still existed.  It was written prior to, and with source material for, To Kill a Mockingbird.

What does this have to do with the Amerson’s 2015 tour through the south?  Well — everything and nothing — I guess.  We were able to visit with many wonderful friends along the way.  I will only mention one by name, Thomas Lane Butts.  Tom lives in a town in southern Alabama, Monroeville.  We stopped for a delightful visit with Hilda and Tom on January 12, 2015.  Monroeville, you puzzle?  Yes, some of you are already making the connection with Miss Harper Lee, she too lives in Monroeville.


In fact, Dr. Butts and Harper Lee are longtime friends.  For years they would meet for breakfast every Thursday at the Hardees in town.  Harper Lee was known for her reclusive ways but among her most trusted friends are the Butts.  When you visit Monroeville you feel as if you have walked right into the fictional Maycomb County of the novel.

Thomas Lane Butts has been a remarkable friend to Elaine and me over the years.  He has been one of my mentors.  He is a great preacher — to my knowledge no other preacher’s sermons were more often featured on the national radio program The Protestant Hour.  His commitments to the civil rights struggles meant that he often took courageous stands during the early days of his ministry.  As a result was often overlooked, ridiculed and even punished by religious and denominational leaders.  Tom is, for me, a giant.  I chuckle when I say this.  He is great in spirit and in intellect although he is short in physical stature.  I write about him today because he represents so many exceptional southerners we have been privileged to know. 

I knew Tom long before I became president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and was pleased to discover after my appointment to that post that Tom was a graduate.  In fact, he finished a masters degree in pastoral counseling in Evanston before returning to the south and many years of courageous sacrifice in the service of racial justice.  If you want to hear more of Tom’s remarkable story you can find the sermon he preached at Garrett-Evangelical in the fall of 2013 on the school’s website: (http://www.garrett.edu/gmedia/pdf/communications/Thomas_Lane_Butts_Sermon_Nov_2013.pdf).

The movie Selma was playing as we traveled across the southern states.  We took time to see it one evening along the way.  I was reminded of the many great folks who sought racial justice in the past — and who still act with courage and vision.  On our southern tour we visited so many of them. 

We visited with friends who work at the Open Door community, a ministry modeled in the Catholic Worker tradition that offers shelter and clothing for the homeless and gives witness against the death penalty in Atlanta.  There were university deans providing remarkable leadership and preparing a new generation of community, religious and academic leaders.  There was a bishop who is doing amazing work that opens new vistas for the church in Texas.  We spent time with a medical doctor who is extending the availability of health care to the poor across the southeastern U.S. and a psychiatric social worker who provides creative new ways for mental healing.  There were teachers, preachers, engineers and preschool teachers along the way.  There was the board chair of a Fortune 500 company and a retired school teacher who drives elderly friends to the grocery each week.

“Red State/Blue State” divisions have become a part of our national vocabulary.   We think we can predict how people will behave or think based on where they live.  Of course, we know it isn’t true — but we so easily can divide folks into false dichotomies.  Stereotypes are dangerous things.  We found remarkable people everywhere we went, even in the most out of the way places.  Miss Harper Lee demonstrated this in her writing first published fifty-five years ago.  Do you recall?  I especially remember two quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird — the book we thought would be the only book Harper Lee would publish.  She wrote “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  And in another place she says, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”


I started writing this blog wondering if it was something I would want to continue.  Now, I find I am thinking of more posts than I dreamed might be tucked away in the corners of my consciousness.  If you would like to hear more about any items mentioned today, just ask.  Here are some of the other things I plan to write about soon:

  • What Contemporary Atheists Get Right,
  • What We Learn from Bees,
  • The Sermon that Pushed Me Over the Edge,
  • Encouragement Even Helps a Rat!
  • Whining Bishops and Other Oddities,
  • Why I Won’t Plant Rutabagas
  • Racism and Other Modern Mysteries

As you can tell, there will be whimsy and challenge, critique and compliment in the postings ahead.  Perhaps you would like to follow this post regularly?  There is now a “tag” along the right edge allowing you to do this.  Perhaps you will share this with friends.

Just Folks — Phil A