a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Inauguration weekend, January 2017: People were flooding the streets of major cities across the country. Some of my friends drove up to DC from Georgia, knitting pussy hats all the way. I could have asked to hitch a ride with them, but I chose to stay with the rolling hills, red roads and pine trees of my adopted home state. While they drove Friday, I woke early and wrote a short blog post, “Lament for an Inaugural Poet,” remembering when I stood on a crowded sidewalk listening to Maya Angelou read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” in the cold and hopeful January air. Angelou’s words felt unifying, empowering, healing for our nation. Poetry was not invited to the 2017 inauguration. As I thought about the implications of this regime change, I wanted to do something more than write. I decided to organize a mini march from the very small Christian intentional community where I was living at the time, into the center of our tiny town of Comer: population 1,000.
My friend Jennifer and I had driven up to Washington, DC just a few months earlier in September 2016 for a White House celebration honoring refugees and refugee voices. President Obama had issued an executive decree raising the national quota to 110,000 refugees with special allowances for people from Syria. Little did we know, those numbers would soon be decimated. Jennifer and I lived and worked at Jubilee Partners, a community that has offered short-term housing and English classes to newly-arrived refugees for more than three decades. In a room in the Executive Office building, with about 75 other people representing faith-based and secular organizations, we joined a celebration of refugee resettlement. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright spoke about fleeing the former Czechoslovakia as a child. A young man from Congo told us that his mother would soon be joining him at his home in Colorado, where he helped young refugee men in Denver to stay out of gangs and heal from the cycle of trauma and violence. A Catholic nun and I mumbled a bit at the reception about how we wished that the administration was doing more to grant asylum to Central American immigrants who are rarely considered refugees by State Department standards. There we were, safely voicing our dissent, eating hummus and pita bread on White House napkins. We met a diverse group of artists, activists, organizers, entrepreneurs, educators and philanthropists who shared a common vision that America is and can be a beautiful, welcoming place. I felt uncommonly proud to be an American that day, and a little out of place to be part of something good happening inside of those heavy executive walls.
Having grown up in DC, I had been to the White House many times before, but always on the sidewalk, with a picket sign in my hand. In 1989, I was eleven years old, and the South African government was losing its grip on Apartheid. We stood on Pennsylvania Avenue as a leader with a megaphone shouted, “What do we want?”
“Sanctions!” I demanded along with my mom and siblings.
“When do we want them?”
“Now!” I wasn’t exactly sure what economic sanctions were, but I knew that the majority of the people of South Africa were suffering under minority white rule and that our government had something to do with it. I knew that it was a place where families like mine, with one black parent and one white parent, were illegal.
The following year I was in seventh grade and the first Gulf War broke out. After school, I took the Metro to McPherson square and walked to Lafayette park to meet up with my older siblings and their friends. I gave a street vendor $5 for a “No Blood for Oil” T-shirt. We hung out with the aging hippies and homeless Vietnam vets who camped in the park and joined their pleas that there not be another generation of traumatized soldiers and bombed-out villages.
Maybe since I had grown up doing it, I haven’t been inclined to return to DC for protests or marches in the same way that some people who grew up picking fruit as children don’t really see the appeal in taking their family to a “pick your own” day on a lovely Saturday. When my mom was a kid, she picked strawberries for her aunt and uncle’s fruit farm in Ohio and she was never allowed to just pop the sweet fruits in her mouth. It got boring and hard pretty fast. When she and my dad were raising us in the city and they took us on trips to the country, they were happy to just stop at a farm stand, buy the slightly more expensive pre-picked berries, and let us eat to our heart’s content. When I consider taking my kids to large protests downtown, I remember the comradery and confidence that I had felt, but I also think about the discomforts: being cold and hungry, waiting to use an overflowing port-a-john, worrying about parking or navigating crowded public transportation.
We live in the country now, and we are growing fruits and vegetables, because I wanted a taste of the rural life that my mom had left behind. We eat most of the strawberries before they ever make it in the basket. With each generation, we try to redeem and recreate the broken bits of our past, to get a taste of what the people who came before us longed for and missed.
I’m not finished with activism, but I don’t feel like the way we did it when I was young is the way I have to do it now, or even the way my children will do it when they get older. Still, I had a strong inkling to walk into the center of our little country town on the same day that my friends and family members were walking on our nation’s capital. I wanted to do what I could to cultivate homegrown public witness and solidarity in this red soil where we’ve taken root.
As we gathered for community dinner on Friday evening, I announced my idea to a room of about 30 people that we would have a march on Saturday afternoon, rain or shine. I made one post on social media for folks who lived in town. The agenda was simple. We would walk to the center of town, pray, and walk home. After lunch the next day, there were less than a dozen people standing under the awning of the community house where we shared meals and worship services. We took a photo beneath the sign that read, Que la Paz Prevalezca en la Tierra, May Peace Prevail on Earth. It was raining hard.
A young woman from Central America strapped her infant daughter to her chest and threw on pink rain boots and a bright yellow plastic poncho. She was determined to make this walk with a handful of other people. She had walked to this country through the desert; she could walk one mile in the rain. “Hay mucho racismo en este país,” she told me. She nearly drowned trying to get here, all for a chance to thrive in a country that she knew did not want her. She hoped to advance her education and use some of her skills as a small business owner. The only work she could find upon arrival had been picking berries. The farm owners could keep prices low and profits high by hiring people, like her, who were desperate for work and afraid to report their low wages and unfair working conditions. She had never picked fruit before coming to America. She wanted to walk unafraid, in a spirit of love, and pray for healing on our land. No one bothered making signs, which would have bled into a soggy mess in the downpour. We grabbed every umbrella we could find and started our trek.
My husband stayed at home with our three young daughters, who preferred to play inside that afternoon. Our thirteen-year-old son, Malachi, who often chides me for confining my activism to words on the screen, walked with us. As we reached the top of the half-mile gravel driveway he said, “We are just a bunch of hippies walking in the rain with umbrellas.” It had a nice rhythm to it. Jennifer and I started to sing it as a refrain:
Hippies walking in the rain with umbrellas/ Hippies walking in the rain with umbrellas
We made up verses in between, and then started singing old freedom songs. Malachi groaned that “Why am I with you?” teenage sigh, but he kept walking.
One of the many challenges to rural community building is the lack of sidewalks. We have sidewalks in front of the bank, the Dollar General, the post office, and the few shops that remain open in a struggling downtown. There are sidewalks in front of some churches and along parts of residential streets, but they seem to stop abruptly and without reason. A town that could be safely walkable has few paths for pedestrians. I asked a city planner why the sidewalks don’t run throughout the one-mile radius town. He explained that the way the land is parceled out, most unpaved properties extend to the street. Even if they had the money, the city would need each land owner’s consent and contribution to pay for part of the sidewalk. He told me how one woman threatened to kill herself if they put a sidewalk in front of her home. She saw a paved walkway as a violation.
Without sidewalks, we can’t see our neighbors as easily, and some people prefer it that way. Section 55 of the 1913 Comer Charter allowed for “the prevention of idleness and loitering.” Hidden in that language is the permission to convict anyone walking around without a clear purpose. As I adapt from urban to rural life, I realize that common spaces, or the lack thereof, carry the weight of history.
The City of Comer was established in 1893, near Athens, Georgia, the hub of the cotton trade that re-centered from the depleted Deep South to the healthier topsoil of North Georgia in the post-slavery years. Legal loopholes that accommodated wealthy plantation owners made a seamless transition from enslavement to sharecropping and convict leasing in order to continue business practices that depended on practically free labor. According to the Comer Historical Society, one could “walk the length of a city block …entirely on the tops of stacked cotton bales, without once touching the ground.” The railroad built by convict labor that cuts through the middle of town, the old scale beside the farmer’s market that weighed the bales, the traces of arsenic in the soil, and the terraces that remain in the wooded hillsides are all remnants of that era when cotton was king. Now that the kingdom has crumbled, it’s as if those big white bales are still there on the sidewalk, like solid ghosts, blocking the footsteps of new neighbors on the silent, empty streets.
What remains of the old brick buildings in town are likely made from “Smith’s Bricks,” built by incarcerated men who were forced to work on the nearby Smithonia Plantation. From the 1870s until his death in 1915, James Monroe Smith got fat and wealthy, amassing control of 30 miles of land in Oglethorpe County which he, like any good narcissist, named after himself. Through his sawmill, cotton farm, slaughterhouse, hotel, general store and fertilizer plant, and upon the backs of prisoners, he built his wealth and influence in the state. Politics was to be his last frontier. Though he served in the Georgia house and senate, he lost his unsuccessful 1906 bid for governor. He believed he was above reproach. According to a survivor of Smithonia, if a person being whipped begged, “Lord have mercy,” there was no relief. But if they cried, “Marse Jim, have Mercy,” the beating would stop. The reason: “The Lord rule heaven, but Jim Smith rule the earth.” Every old brick holds stories of red clay and blood.
Our caravan was soaked to the bone as we sang and trudged toward the center of Comer in the warm pouring rain. At the end of the driveway, we turned left onto highway 22, stepping into the grassy ditch when cars came spraying by at 55 miles per hour. We began to smile and wave at every car that passed us. To the pick-up truck with the NRA sticker that didn’t slow down as it passed, we waved hello. To the trucks hauling chickens and trees, scattering feathers and pine needles, we waved hello. Some cars blew their horns. I’m not sure if they were blasts of support, confusion or disgust. Hello SUVs and sedans, white-haired church ladies and groggy-eyed shift workers giving us puzzled looks. We just want you to know that we live here and that we will keep walking, even if there isn’t a path paved for us. We are here and we love you.
We walked until the highway became Main Street and stopped at a wooden gazebo just across the railroad tracks. The gazebo is a relatively new structure in town that compliments the crepe myrtles, oak trees and Victorian architecture. A few months earlier, a group of teenage boys, whose families came to the US as refugees from Burma, started meeting up at the gazebo. Some damage was discovered on the wood. I don’t know if that group had anything to do with the damage, but the local police questioned several immigrant teenagers living in our town. My son’s friends were hurt and surprised when police showed up at their house asking if they were part of that particular group. They were not among them. Through the process of being questioned, these young men got the implicit message that even though it stands on public land, they are not welcome to hang out at the gazebo, that they are being watched. Just like the wide porches that hold pristine white rocking chairs, the gazebo sits largely empty and unused most of the year. These places, designed for sitting and welcome, serve more as silent memorials to the firm caste rules of American Apartheid, in which gathering in public was a privilege for some and a cause for suspicion if you were poor and brown.
I’ve made it a habit to use my wide front porch as much as I can, and to come to the gazebo when I take my young daughters out for a cheap date. First, we stop at the gas station for soft-serve, if the machine is working, then we go to the gazebo, eat our dripping cake cones and play an old summer camp game called Captain’s Coming. We pretend the wooden platform is a boat and I’m the captain shouting commands. “Port!” they run to the left. “Starboard!” they run to the right. “Swab the deck!” they pretend to mop. “Captain’s coming!” they stand at attention. “Man overboard!” They run to the side and throw out an imaginary rope.
The January rain poured on the roof of the gazebo. We shook our umbrellas and stomped our feet. This shelter became a small ship in the middle of our political rainstorm, our prayers a gossamer rope.
Three folks drove to join us: an older couple and their adult daughter, Robyn. They had been among the first families to found Jubilee Partners. They always speak favorably of the hospitality of this southern town that welcomed their small intentional community. They moved to Comer in 1979, just one year after the Jim Jones massacre in Guyana in which nearly 1,000 people died after being forced at gunpoint to drink poisoned fruit punch. This tragedy led many people to look with deep suspicion at anyone who considered “communal living.” As an intergenerational community that crossed racial and economic barriers and ended in mass murder, the Jonestown tragedy may have severely stunted the growth and promise of future intentional communities. Given that historical context, the community founder always beams when he describes feeling welcomed into Comer.
I wonder what it would have been like if any of Jubilee’s founding residents had been African-American or biracial, like me, or immigrants settling into this town. Jubilee’s founders were coming from Koinonia Farm, another Christian community with a long history of commitment to racial equality. Led by Reverend Clarence Jordan, Koinonia endured attacks from the Klan and economic boycotts for their commitment to work and worship across racial lines. Despite their ideals, most of Koinonia’s residents and leaders, as well as Jubilee staff, have been white.
In the early 1980s, the people of Comer asked the founder of Jubilee to make a wooden welcome sign along the highways leading into town. The sign says, “Welcome to Comer, Make Our Town Your Town.” My family and I, along with several dozen refugee families and a growing number of former Jubilee staff and residents, took them up on the offer. Haunted though it may be, we’ve experienced enough generosity, kindness and love to make this place feel like home. We’re taking that sign at face value and making the town our own.
Robyn and her parents drove to the gazebo so that they could bring her wheelchair. Robyn has lived with cerebral palsy all of her life. She lived at Jubilee when they were all living in tents on cow pasture and building the structures that would become their homes. Robyn had been working all of her life to train her legs to walk. She is a licensed professional counselor and had recently moved into her own apartment in Athens, within walking distance from her practice. Just days after the presidential election, she was crossing the street with the aid of a walker when she was struck by a turning car. Her foot was crushed. Robyn works primarily with women who are struggling with abuse and suicidal thoughts, encouraging them to take another step, even when they do not see a way. She would spend the next year going through surgery, physical therapy and excruciating pain to regain the ability to walk. Just two months after the accident, she wanted to be in solidarity with the women and men gathering across the country speaking up for equal access for all. We widened our circle to make room for her chair.
From the gazebo, one can see three flags waving high from the roof of a low brick house: an American flag, a Confederate battle flag, and a yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag. From those flags, one might get the message that “Welcome to Comer, Make Our Town Your Town” is a message that only applies to some. After the Charleston Massacre, when Confederate flags were coming down, I wondered if that neighbor might lower his flag too. I asked some long-time residents at Jubilee if they knew the owner of the house and might be willing to talk with him. One response knocked the wind out of me. “Oh, I know that person. Don’t worry, he’s not racist.” Comments like these trickled down over the years and built a calcified layer over my heart. If I was to keep living here, anywhere in America, and remain tender, I would need to find ways to not let any person’s ignorance surprise or harden me.
Sheltered from the pouring rain, gazing upon those three flags in the presence of cottony ghosts, a dozen people joined hands and began to pray. We were the descendants of immigrants who came here by choice and people who were kidnapped, bought and sold as cargo. We were the descendants of enslavers. We came from people born into wealth and into crippling poverty. We were from families with gender-neutral and gay people. We were living with disabilities, depression and mental illness. We were survivors of domestic violence. We were single, married, divorced, parents, grandparents, teenagers and a baby. We prayed in English and in Spanish. We prayed in silence. We prayed for courage, for hope, for healing and for love to saturate our land. This gathering was undocumented except for a few quick cell phone photos. Robyn and her parents got back into the car. The rest of us walked home soggy and glad. We kept our umbrellas closed and felt a few fingers of winter sunlight on our faces. Compared to the throngs on the National Mall that day, our group was rather paltry, yet we were enough. Jesus only had twelve.
Just after the 2018 midterm elections, I found myself standing again in the rain, trying to move a steel fence post. At the end of 2017, my husband and I had moved, with our children, to a 100-year-old farm house on four acres of land just one mile from where we used to live. We had left our work at Jubilee Partners but we felt like our work in the country and this little town was not over. My “Stacy Abrams for Governor” front yard sign leaned over in defeat. Though she would not concede, I begrudgingly accepted that I lived in a state that had elected her opponent, a man who worked to curtail voting rights. I pulled on my mud boots and red raincoat and went out back to work out my frustration. I’m sure I looked and felt like the picture of futility: standing in the drizzly November rain, trying unsuccessfully to pull up a well-set fence post.
Moving fence is a basic part of land stewardship. As trees grow and turn a sunny spot into a shady spot, as animals forage and need fresh ground, as the chemical composition of the soil changes, fences and garden plots move too. Of course, some farmers don’t practice this. In large agribusiness, plots are used over and over again for a single use, without rest. The soil gets depleted and chemicals do the work that rest and rotation could have done. Industrial warehouses with concrete floors eliminate the need for cultivating pasture for livestock to graze. The gaping canyons of western Georgia are examples of overworked land, robbed of its topsoil, that finally cried out and split to demand rest. When agribusinesses have permanent boundaries, profits may be maximized, but the losses to the soil and the relationship between earth and people are immeasurable, the damage deep.
As I kept scooping up shovel loads of soggy, rocky earth, I could see how hard it is to reset deeply entrenched boundary lines. With each unsuccessful tug, I felt the origin of the phrase “stick in the mud” to describe someone who stays where they are just because it’s where they have always been. And sticks in the mud, especially ones that have had decades of grit and silt to help settle them in, are incredibly hard to move. I just kept digging and rocking and wiggling that stubborn steel post and found myself singing the goofy refrain from our impromptu inauguration weekend march, Hippies walking in the rain with umbrellas.
I needed help to get this post to move, so I hollered for my husband and son to join me. People are more likely to get unstuck when they have a community surrounding them, rocking and pulling with them. I could almost hear the earth heave a sigh of relief when the post finally came out.
We may not have done much to transform our political landscape that rainy day in January, but we stood together and tugged. We planted a claim for healing on this tired, sodden ground. We’ll keep pulling.
 Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice The Free Press 1996. Page 67.
 Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor Books 2008. Page 91.
Josina Guess is a writer who explores intersections of faith, race, family and home rooted in the rural and urban landscapes of her life and memory. Her work is published in Fourth Genre (Fall 2019), Sojourners, The Christian Century, Crop Stories, Geez and several websites. She is a contributor to Rally: Litanies for the Lovers of God and Neighbor (Upper Room Press 2020), the anthology Fight Evil with Poetry Volume 1, and The Wisdom of Communities Volume 4: Sustainability in Community. She was a recipient of a 2018 Louisville Institute Grant which helped to fund her recent writing and research. She was born in a trailer in Alabama, grew up in Washington DC, studied art at Earlham College in Indiana and lived in Philadelphia. Now she lives in an old farmhouse on four acres in Comer, Georgia with her husband Michael, their four children, a dog, three cats and several chickens.