I live in small town USA, so I’m told. Here in rural Virginia, we’re surrounded by farmland. Crops that are dedicated entirely to peanuts, corn, soybeans—and my county is one of the largest suppliers of cotton. With a population of no more than five hundred, a few family-owned businesses, four churches, one stop light, and the nearest shopping mall a thirty mile drive, it’s safe to say we’re smaller than most. I’ve spent most of my childhood here and, with neighbors knowing neighbors, I grew to love the security it provided. When you were in need, you were helped. It didn’t matter for what, someone always would step up.
Growing up in the South, there are advantages to being surrounded by profound history. Heritage is something that is nothing short of identity for many I have known over the years, even if I never shared that feeling. With both of my parents originally from Upstate New York, there was always a disconnect to how strongly rooted those around me were. But I was raised in a fundamentalist church and it was common to see signs of that southern identity everywhere.
“Dixie” was sung for special occasions, and shouting and cheers about how “the South will rise again” regularly occured during Sunday evening services. The Rebel Flag was worn on lapels and Stonewall Jackson’s prayers were recited. Sermons dedicated to America returning to the God that She had turned Her back on were constant. Old Glory, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and General Robert E. Lee were all regularly referred to.
God, Guns, Guts, Glory—they were synonymous. In Christian Fundamentalism and in my hometown, if you were a Bible believer, you were a gun owner and you were a Second Amendment advocate.
When the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred, I was still deeply embedded within fundamentalism, but I was left shaken. I went to services that following Sunday and was in disbelief when the tragedy was overlooked. While other churches offered up prayers for the precious lives that were lost, mine was going about its normal routine of preaching, shouting, and singing.
I now realize that not all Christians responded this way, but, after so many mass shootings and so many families that have been broken by these tragedies, I can’t help but feel that the religious community has been complicit in some way.
Yes, complicit. We have always leaned toward choosing loyalty to a pro-faith, pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-“family values” mindset instead of love. Instead of common sense, we look for a check and balance system of criteria that suggests we are more concerned about our own well-being than that of our neighbor. We’ve felt more comfortable avoiding the issues, instead of facing them head on. It’s easier to offer thoughts and prayers than to acknowledge you voted blue for the first time when your entire county is draped in red.
Sure, we watch and sympathize over fatalities due to gun violence at home, but then we cower and refuse to access empathy when we’re in the midst of those who are only privy to our righteous side. It’s choosing appearances over action and we’re guilty of it.
When hate visited a church in Charleston, South Carolina, I was on the outside of fundamentalism. Nine welcoming worshipers were murdered and the country grieved. The local African American Christian community in my own town put new security measures in place for their congregation of twenty in order to prevent another tragedy while they held their own services. Christians were saddened, but far too many remained idle, choosing to hold on to hidden racist leanings.
The Pulse Nightclub Massacre happened on a Sunday and some found themselves coming to terms with their own inward bigotry and quietly started to leave it behind. But still, mostly we did nothing.
With Las Vegas, the biggest mass shooting in modern American history, came a renewed call for gun control and the simplest of common sense preventive measures to be implemented, but yet we remained deaf and failed to take action.
Then, last Wednesday. Another school, but this time instead of Newtown it was in Parkland. Seventeen lives were stolen, with fourteen of them barely having the chance to experience the best things life has to offer. Our nation has become calloused and numb to the reality we all truly face. But this time I’m starting to see a different response.
Let me explain. While, as usual, the Far Right has dug its heels in deeper, others are discovering—and listening to—an overwhelming sense of duty. I’m watching people who resemble those that I grew up with stepping up and saying, “one less.” I’m seeing gun owners and Second Amendment champions choosing to be part of a possible solution to an ongoing crisis.
I know it’s easy to judge and show our frustration toward those who contributed to the problem in the first place—I understand that. As a Progressive, I’ve been there, too. But I wasn’t always. Out of ignorance and loyalty to a heritage I never had roots in, I misguidedly and shamefully bought into a lot of hurtful things while I was growing up. After leaving fundamentalism and, in my case, jumping boat with my past political party, I can empathize with this group and know that, as hard as it is to see their point of view, we do need them—now more than ever.
If we want change, we need diversity. And diversity, I’m learning, sometimes looks an awful lot like currently reforming individuals and unfundamentalists.
I’m thinking of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their calls to end violence and start gun control, along with their response to Second Amendment supporter Scott Pappalardo, who destroyed his gun to prevent it from getting into the hands of another potential mass shooter. They called him a hero. These teenagers that survived something so horrific and unfathomable responded in such a graceful and positive way. They are using their voices and they are being heard.
One of the reasons why I believe that this movement could actually spark change is that it is reaching not just the predictable audience of the Left, it’s hitting a nerve on the Right. We’re starting to see a few individuals publicly and vocally respond with acts of positive change. They may just be experiencing empathy—but let’s not be guilty of making the biased mistake of overlooking the humanity within them right now.
As a former fundamentalist, it’s second nature to judge, but I also can spot true grieving when a tragedy takes place. I’ve done it and it got me out. It’s called loving our neighbor—and more and more people are beginning to do exactly that.
It’s easy for us to get distracted by those that aren’t following the issue at hand, the same people that profess to possess love, but consistently withhold it. And yet, we can’t afford to do that. My fear is that if we choose to unknowingly segregate ourselves and remain divided, we will miss our true objective: to keep our kids safe. We’re tired of being told to fall into line and accept that change won’t happen, that it can’t happen. But enough is enough.
So, if our leaders won’t change gun safety laws, we’ll change our leaders. Protest and rally with and support these courageous kids and, while you’re at it, be willing to make that change happen with the most unexpected allies.
America, diversity is our heritage. We’re rooted in it and when we use it as a force for good that’s when we do our best work. And when I think of some of the greatest work we have accomplished, I’m reminded of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it:
“And we’ve got to say to the nation, we know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
The late Dr. King is my newfound hero. I recently learned about him after years of believing he wasn’t the great leader he actually was (compliments of my fundamentalist upbringing). Even after all these years, he still continues to inspire millions, including our youngest generations right now. They are demanding a chance at living freely, healthy and alive in a safe place as simple as their school. So, just as the Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, this new movement, where we finally protect our kids, also has the potential to rewrite history. We need this. We can’t back down. There can’t be a stopping point short of victory.
Photo via Pixabay.
About Lydia Joy
Lydia Joy is a childhood sexual abuse survivor and former member of the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB) where she was born and raised, until leaving in her early twenties. She hopes to help others by sharing her story. There’s freedom in questions.