Monday, December 27, 2010

With Eliza in Third-World America

A few years ago, en route to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, I drove past an inconspicuous dirt road indicating that atop the hill to my left lay a town called Abiquiu. Noting that I was several hours early, I indulged my adventurous side and drove my Subaru up through the reddened dust and gravel, past a one-room post office, upwards in the direction of the noon day sun. Cresting the slope, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a town square, surrounded on all sides by stucco buildings, a crumbling mission-style church, and a bar sporting a half-burned out neon sign. I remember feeling that God, sitting in the heavenly sandbox of capricious providence, scooped up a 19th-century Mexican pueblo and plopped it here in the midst of 21st century America. The sensation of having traveled back in time was romantic, exhilarating, and awe-inspiring - but it could not mask the profound sense of sadness that hung in the air like the suspended dust that did its best to fill the void left unoccupied by the absent townspeople. The tragic sadness that haunted the town assured me this was no dream, that the top was still spinning, that my curiosity had lured me into an unwanted awareness of the third-world reality that runs like the cracks in the floor of the Chihuahuan desert through the bedrock of the American dream.

That's why I'm so thankful for Eliza Griswold's latest contribution to the, "A Teen's Third-World America." Following 16-year-old E.J. Montoya, a member of the Santa Ana Pueblo, through a day at his cutting edge school, the Native American Community Academy (including his 2-3 hour commute), Griswold writes

We were parked outside his trailer in a rented white SUV. Around us in the darkness: a broken baby carriage, a rattletrap Volvo sedan, an anonymous pile of junk littered on the bare ground. I've seen this kind of chaos in refugee camps in Eastern Congo and gypsy settlements in Rome, but not in America.

I've just finished reading Griswold's stunning The Tenth Parallel, which details her travels through regions of encounter between Christianity and Islam in both African and Southeast Asia, which I hope to review, God-willing, sometime this week. Yet, while that work made me feel at once righteously indignant and also sheepishly ashamed of my ignorance and lack of engagement with the persecuted church across the world, her latest article reminds me that I need not ship off to Malaysia or Sudan to find myself in the midst of the world's injustices. Painful as it is to have to admit again and again, I've walked among them my whole life. They are all around me. Not just atop mystical hills that evoke Gabriel Garcia Marquez and whiskey priests and romanticized campesinos - but, undoubtedly, across the street from my seminary, and also in the midst of my own soul.

Admittedly, I have a bit of a literary crush on Ms. Griswold. Just as I am ensnared in an infatuation with Regina Spektor's singing (my wife is well aware of these, for the record!), I find Griswold's voice possessed of a strange power to move my imagination with evocations that lift me out of mundanity and into the mysterious wonder of the every day. I respect and deeply admire the way that Griswold (the daughter of Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church) uses her considerable journalistic prowess and beautiful prose to enter into the stories of people on the margins to bring to life the drama embedded in the fabric of the world that lives beyond the veils of the reductionism of the ideologically-constructed mass media narratives that permeate so much of our reading and hearing. She peers into the particularities of life, invites us to witness, and so reveals truths deeper than our illusions and hopes larger than our ignorance. Which is really what good journalism, and all good writing, ought to be about.

If you haven't heard of or read the Tenth Parallel yet, please do. In the meantime, read some of Ms. Griswold's other articles here, and find yourself more deeply immeshed in the stories of those upon whose back our world is constructed, and with whom our future lies. May we all be woken up from our American dreams, and discover the waking lives she makes present. Hers is a way of reporting that embodies the best of the possibilities of a journalistic discipleship.


  1. Yes, we do not have to travel to Malaysia and Sudan, or Palestine or Northern Iraq to witness the painful lives some people are forced to live. We see the brokenness of life here in Eau Clair. Yet, it helps to accompany people globally. Thank you for this very thought provoking piece.

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  3. The two burning towers of Christianity and Islam forms part of God's New Mew message on Earth which is this: of Love! My new word is here! as Farah and Claudia know! Of Egypt is pure in 2010 and 2011 of the travels of Michael-who-is-the-one full of Yahweh and complete of Love! O he is of Google's brain! O The Love of the Lord is Pure of Michael's correspondence with the church of Rome! O come forth Claudia as Confessor!