Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Since July 2004, Ross Olivier has been pastor of the Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson, bringing with him experience forged in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. As we spoke last Monday, his enthusiastic responses were well-considered, yet accessible. He leaned into me as he spoke. Rarely have I been in such a magnanimous presence. I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for myself: Why hadn't I met this man before? Olivier is returning to South Africa on Jan. 13.
Olivier and his wife, Shayne, made Mississippi their home. They traveled to each of its 82 counties during their stay, logging more than 50,000 miles, getting to know the land and its people. With the undisguised glee of a small child showing me a special treasure, Olivier showed me his map of Mississippi—one of the big folding car maps—criss-crossed with green highlighter.
When is your last day here?
Next Sunday, the thirteenth.
Are you going to miss Mississippi?
Yes, I am—and no.
What's the yes, and what's the no?
This is our home—we've made it our home and we've fallen in love with so many people and so many aspects. Shayne and I made Mississippi our life and our hobby. Every Monday for more than three and a half years, we've gone exploring. Very often what happens is that Sunday after service, late afternoon, we'll head out somewhere, overnight, so we can explore the area the next day. And when I say explore, we've researched the areas and bought papers and books. I've discovered some remarkable early histories of Mississippi—prior to the Civil War, during, after—but specifically, it was a researched project that then translated into a book. During the post-depression (era) the federal workers program—the WPA—one of the facets was a writer's program. They dispatched people and literally, their task was to survey the whole of Mississippi, every square inch of it, and write it up. They wrote from an ecological as well as historical (viewpoint). It tells the stories of how towns came into being. We have a compendium now. I'm the driver, Shayne's the navigator—she's the photographer and the chronicler. She sent it home (to South Africa) in the form of a newsletter every quarter and people have just loved it. We have over 5,000 photographs. When we finish visiting an area, we take a photograph of the courthouse. That's our closing ceremony. We've visited all 82 counties, so we have photographs of more than 82 courthouses because some counties have dual county seats.
I did not know that.
Oh yes, there are about 10 counties in Mississippi that have two seats. Often because they are amalgamations. I guess there was a fight over what's the county seat, and they said "Oh heck, you both can be." We've marked our journeys (Olivier unfolds and holds up a map). The green lines are all the roads we've traveled in Mississippi.
You haven't missed much, have you?
We've done over 50,000 miles, just in Mississippi. It's not just about going and seeing, it's about getting to meet the people and experience the local cultures. Mississippi is made up of many cultures—not just the big breakdowns between the Delta and non-delta, agrarian and urban—but subcultures within.
Give me an example.
For instance, if you go and visit an area such as the area between Grenada and Starkville, there is a difference between people who live in Grenada, which is kind of the edge of the Delta, and those on the other side of the dam. It's like being in New Orleans and you meet the Cajuns as opposed to the Creole, as opposed to the folk who live in the 9th Ward, it's the same kind of thing. Sometimes just by being there, you experience slight differences in language. That's what we were trying to do.
Is this the book you mentioned to me in your e-mail?
No, no. The book I'm writing (now) is a more serious work. (The book about our explorations) is our next project. Also in a reflective way to tell the story of just some of the things we've encountered where we've just said "Wow!" or "Oh my God!" or "Can that really be?"
What were some of the things that really surprised you in all of your travels in Mississippi?
I think many things. We've really been surprised by how much of Mississippi—not just Mississippi, should I say, but of the parts of the South where we've traveled—but because of where we are socio-economically—struggling in 49 or 50 places in 15 of the national socio-economic indices. Naturally, one can see the signs of the lack of resources and development and poverty. Traveling so extensively, particularly. Number one, we did not realize how much of America is made up of small, rural communities, and how few cities there are. There are a few cities that have high-density populations, but they are a small percentage—a fifth—of the total makeup of the United States, which is vested in little communities—just hundreds and hundreds of thousands of them. That really surprised us. … I guess because of the pictures of the states are formed in news and television. In South Africa the balance is greater. The equivalent of what is called the county seat would be a substantial town, where over here it's sometimes a courthouse under a magnolia tree with some dilapidated buildings.
Do you think that's peculiar to the South or to Mississippi?
I think America has a large, small-town makeup. Because it's such a vast land. Only so much of it is developed. It's really a very small percent. You take a state the size of Texas, and you've got Houston and Dallas and one or two other (big cities), but you travel the rest of Texas and all along the roadside are these little communities. I often wonder—many of them don't have names, but you can see the community. Some of them have a water tower with a name; that helps you. Other times the water tower will be the name of the water company. They kind of exist around the water tank, or the flow of water. That has really struck us.
I think a sad part—no, surprise(ing part)—how much of Mississippi, in those small towns as you travel through the little places, you see what used to be centers of local commerce and community are worn down and worn out and run down. You see a sense of implosion, of how little towns are struggling to survive, not able to invest. They no longer have brightness about them. They're jaded. I sometimes said to Shayne, "There's a real third world that exists in this first world." It feels just like traveling in Africa—in some places in dilapidated Africa. I've been surprised at how so much of Mississippi feels much more second/third world than much of South Africa at times. Obviously we have vast rural areas and undeveloped (areas), but just huge chunks of South Africa are much more first world. I think "surprise" because I wasn't expecting it. I had the idea of America as a highly developed society throughout.
The amount of water—this is a water-blessed continent. Everywhere you go there are creeks and rivers and lakes and people have ponds. You have the sense of water, water—even when people speak about dry years and drought, I look at it as we fly over places like Georgia and Alabama, and you just see water. It may not always be getting to the place it needs to. But folks say "Lord, the Mississippi's running low," and I get out there and it looks like an ocean of a river to me. I come from a continent that is a dry continent, where water is a precious commodity and you don't waste a drop of it. You just don't waste it.
The amount of waste in the United States just astounds me. When we got here, people started inviting us to functions, to welcome us and whatever. The first one we went to my wife and I came away shocked about a simple thing. We both had finished eating, and all the plastic plates and forks and things that we'd eaten on were just thrown away. Back home, I could have kept and washed them, and reused them.
…the disposable stuff…
The disposable stuff. It's a disposable society. I guess there's just greater struggle, and (because) we don't have the resources, we better take care of our resources (in Africa). For instance, diapers, which we call nappies, by the way, disposable diapers for us were a luxury. We used them when we traveled with the children, on vacation when we didn't have washing machines. Other than that we used cloth, linen diapers, and washed them. I remember when we were poor, struggling church mice, we grew up in churches where sometimes for months we couldn't be paid a salary. We lived off people's good will, literally, people bringing us meat and vegetables. There were times when our children's diapers were so threadbare from being washed; they were hardly absorbent any more. I guess a part of us, we'd get in the car and say, "Can you believe they threw that away?" And some of it's still there.
What do you think that does to people to have so much abundance and have such a relatively easy time of it?
I think it makes it much harder to appreciate the worth and the value of what they've got. I think it also makes people believe that everything is their due. For many people, it takes the quality of having to struggle, there's something in the quality of struggle that is character-forming, and it has to do with our morality. I think that's why it's easy for folk to exist in a bubble, unconcerned about what damage is being done to the environment in order to make possible this life of ease and sufficiency and abundance. More than sufficiency—abundance. There's no connection to the idea that as a nation we (in the U.S.) use 30 percent of the world's natural resources even though we're only 3 percent of the population. There must be some cost, there must be some price. No… "This is my natural right."
There's such a dichotomy where you've seen, as you've travel Mississippi, where people live in almost third-world poverty. It seems that what you're pointing to is that there's a huge gap.
Even that interested me. Even the poor have had their mindset reshaped. You see, if I were going to a church event, let's say a church lunch, in the equivalent of some of the small, poor churches where I've been invited to come to a revival out in the countryside—and I've loved them and they've been fun events and I go preach on a Sunday or Monday night. Some of them have been really poor, both white and African American, and we'll have the traditional potluck supper, and even among the poor there will be this throwaway, this disposable culture. Whereas in the equivalent church in southern Africa, that plastic plate and that plastic knife or fork would be valued. So, yes, there is very real poverty in Mississippi, but it's comparative poverty, some of it, compared to conditions where Shayne and I have worked and people who have been part of our ministry over the years. I call poverty in the United States "middle-class" poverty. I haven't encountered the same basic struggle to survive, to live, of children's ribs pushed against distended bellies—life-threatening malnutrition.
It occurs to me that that's maybe one of the reasons why it's so difficult to get people to care about the poor in our country.
Right. You take a drive into the Delta and you will see conditions that are really very third world. People living in trailers, in homes that are, I mean, really, you can see they are low income and all around the home you see the signs of what poverty does to the spirit of taking care of yourself and the erosion of dignity. You see those signs, and you just know it. But there will be two cars parked there. They may be old, and one may be a beat up truck, but they're cars. Among the poor in Africa, owning a car would be like having reached the fulfillment of the dream out of poverty. Having a plate of food is where it's at; owning a book, going to school. Those are the things we've had to push back against. That's what we've addressed. So as we speak about eradicating poverty and the symptoms of poverty and the causes of poverty, it's about that. But that doesn't mean, just because poverty is relative to poverty in Africa, that it is not real poverty here. At the end of the day, one of the natures of poverty is the disparity between the rich and the poor. Not only in terms of possession of wealth, but access to wealth and to economic improvement. The question I ask is, "To what extent does 25 percent of the population in Mississippi have access to what are historical, traditional means of accumulating wealth?" When so much of income is inherited and so many of the industries here were formed during the time when black folk were in servitude and weren't allowed, weren't given. And then to say, "Well, we've changed the laws and therefore the playing field is now equal," is simply to perpetuate the injustice, in that you have systemically shut people out of the dream.
What specifically do you see as systemic racism? That's really what you're pointing to, right?
Let me just also say that there's a difference between systemic racism and systemic racialism.
Make the distinction for me.
Everything in Mississippi is racialized. People move, think, talk, live in racial categories. Everything is racialized. That shocked me: the extent to which race is a defining quality in the social discourse, the philosophy of life. Let me give you an example… Jackson Free Press, I love the JFP, the liberal voice…
Progressive; we prefer to think of ourselves as progressive…
Progressive… that's wise. Go and read your dating page, the "lonely-hearts" page (picks up a copy and leafs through)… it always strikes me as interesting. Listen to this: these are lonely people; they're looking for a partner. "PJM, 50-years-old, white, Catholic," "white," "white Christian," "black Christian," white, unaffiliated," "black Christian." There are two issues: this is the progressive paper, and even lonely people when they're reaching out, define themselves in terms of their race. Now in South Africa we no longer do that, and in fact, to do so, would be regarded as: "My Lord! That's what it was like under the apartheid era," minus the violence, this fact of human identity being defined by the accident of pigmentation. … Listen to the news: "There was an accident, and two black men were…" Everything's race.
Now, does that mean everybody's a racist? No! A lot of people are working very hard to build relationships and to not have prejudice, but the entire society is racialized, everything. So therefore, every discussion inevitably leads to it. That has been the hardest thing for me to try to connect with, number one, to get people to see that. To them, this is just natural. What does this stand for, if you're a white Catholic? First if all, I did not know that Christianity took note of any of these labels. You can't be a "white, Catholic Christian," because the Bible says there is no male or female, or white or black. So even our understanding of Christianity gets reshaped, and I think—becomes emaciated. That's why we have to constantly push back against this notion (of) what our humanity is defined by, particularly. As soon as we do that, we give in to humankind's greatest disease: our addiction to division. And there it is, played out. It may not always be malicious, but inevitably, especially in times of fear or deprivation, we will resort to our worst type. If we type ourselves as, "I am a white Methodist," I can therefore only reach out to white Protestants.
In all of the studies I've done of the world's religions, every single one of them basically say the same thing. It's the separation, the illusion that we're separate from one other that brings us misery.
We've used every form of human differentiation to inflict damage on each other. We've used everything from language to culture, to religion, to sexual orientation, to you name it, we've used it. It's part of our addiction. Fundamentally, the one that seems most difficult to dislodge from our psyche is race. Racialism is just a sociological phenomenon, but when it kicks over into racism, which is where prejudice gets married to power, that concoction, of racism and power, or prejudice and power in a marriage with each other, that then leads to the kind of systemic abuses of power like we've seen.
One of the things you talked about in 2004, that you afflicted…
Comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
Do you make a point of afflicting the comfortable from the pulpit?
Every Sunday. Every week. Of always doing both. Because if you ever separate those two from each other, you either end up being a presumptuous, arrogant, know-it-all prophet, or else you end up being a sticky, sentimental, what I call, "splungy" pastor (it's a word we use from home). It's all sweet, and treacly. I think we have a duty to at the same time, hold people's hands, but also to capture their minds. I think one of the sadnesses that happened post-9/11, is that while the church was running around holding people's hands, other people were capturing people's minds, and their thinking was being framed by ideologues.
(Professor John) Marsh compares the church in America today with the church in Germany during the rise of National Socialism.
More than silence—actually being advocates for the kind of racism that occurred in Nazi Germany at that time, and the kind of warmongering that's happening today in this country.
I'm not so sure about advocates, I think it's more a conspiracy of silence. I just don't hear the voice of the church. I've been to the annual conference of Methodism in Mississippi, and during four days, the annual gathering of all the churches, there might be four or five motions being discussed the whole time and probably three of them would have to do with clergy benefits. I've never participated in the formal institutional part of the church in a vigorous debate on, "What is God saying about this war? What is God saying about poverty?" And vigorous, where we sit down and we struggle with our different perspectives, and to say, "And how do we hear God? How do we interpret? How do we authenticate?"
I come from a much more robust (church), maybe because the church was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. It led the way. It was the nexus that galvanized others and brought them in. Why is the (U.S.) church not trying to figure out an alternative to the political options regarding Iraq? It's whether you cut and run, or stay and fight, or divide and depart—why isn't the church saying, "You know, there's another option. How do we help to bring about peace?" Not just end the war or continue the war. In South Africa, the basis for the political settlement that came is that the church pushed back and said, "We're going to create a national peace accord." And that pre-dated anything. We mobilized 24,000 ordinary people—citizens like you—and trained them to become peace monitors, and to go wearing this little vest, blue and white, with a white dove and a blue dove, to go there and just be there as promoters of non-violence in some of the most violent-stricken parts of the country. Many of them little old ladies from the church, and came and said, "This Jesus we follow—the real one—says to us, 'Blessed are the peacemakers.'"
Why did you make that distinction: the real one?
Because there are many false ones that are promoted. He himself asked one day, "Who do you say I am?" And the answer was "some say that," and "some say this," and "some say that." And I say, "There are false portraits—false Jesuses." You can follow this "Jesus" who doesn't ask you to do anything, who doesn't ask you to deal with injustice or poverty. But the real one says, "In as much as you do it to them, you do it to me." If you don't engage with the poor, if your Jesus says, "All you need to do is go to church and take care of your soul and prepare it for heaven one day and pie-in-the-sky when you die," then that's not the real Jesus. I did a whole series on this. We could make this world a wonderful place if we could just teach all the Christians to become Christ followers. Seriously. If that's all we do. In my pulpit in Galloway, I don't use the term "Christian," I use the terms "Christ-following" and "Christ-followship." When he says the best way to have peace and security is to learn what it means to forgive your enemies and teach them the quality of forgiveness. When he says, "Turn the other cheek," and I say to them, "No matter what your political masters say, or your ideological convictions or the popular convention of society," we've got to say, 'No.'" We believe that Jesus is a window into God's heart. We call him the revelation: he reveals. He says, "If you do this, heaven comes on earth. Here and now." Everything we do at Galloway is called revealing heaven on earth. This is our mission statement: "To reveal heaven on earth, through the witness of our personal spirituality"—that's in us, what's in us—"our congregational ethos"—How are we? How do we live? How are we different from society?—"and our works of ministry"—that's through us. So in us, among us, and through us. This is a mission statement that we shaped over the last three-and-a-half years. We've tried to say, "How do we make the whole church, everything we do here?"
We have some amazing ministries. We have the state capital on the one side—magnificent—and on the other side we have Smith Park with night-time indigents. We're caught between the two, and for me, that's almost a parable of who we are. How do we stretch out to both power and also poverty and represent God to both? So we created a ministry here called "Grace Place" inviting the indigent community into our church every day, whereas previously they were kept out—creating a place for them where they can come and get clean and just relax and have some coffee and have friends with them. But also extending to them an opportunity and say, "If you want to get off alcohol and drugs and learn another way of life, we'll sponsor you through rehabilitation, we'll give you a job here, in the church. We'll train you in skills and help you up the ladder." Now, we've got a group of them—we've got two of the guys who are still with us now—they're helping us in the program—who have been clean for over a year. They're two of the most recognizable panhandlers/drug addicts in the City of Jackson, Michael Brown and Jessie. Everybody knows them. If you've in the city, you'll recognize them. They were the epitome of the homeless, the indigent. They've transformed.
Nothing like that was happening as a church prior to that?
I think as a general policy, unspoken policy, that you don't actually let the indigent community into the church. When you do, you give them charity. What we're saying is that if this God we speak about—this Christ—is really a savior, what does he really save people from? If we can't say, "He can take the worst of the worst, and before our eyes,"—and he doesn't do that in the abstract, he does that through us—he's placed us here and that's what the church is. The scary thing about Jesus is that some people came to him and says "Lord, Lord," And he says: "Excuse me, who are you?" And they said, "How can you not know us?" And they say, "We did this in your name, we did that in your name, we went to church, we cast out demons." There's this whole description in Matthew, and he says: "I did not know you." Now these were church-going, religious people. How come he didn't know them, when they'd been following him? Must be that they were following the wrong one, because the real one would have known them.
To follow the real Christ is not easy, because we are called to make choices that are counter-cultural. Truly, we are. The church has to make choices. Are we going to be the community of God or are we going to be the spiritual country-club? Is the church a nice place to go to, or is it a place where, yes, I'm comforted in my afflictions, but I'm greatly afflicted in my prejudices, and my cathology and my neuroses?
I would say he welcomes the afflicted, doesn't he?
Trying to live a god-like life doesn't begin with being perfect.
People forget that sometimes.
Yeah! My sense is that many people try to earn a salvation that's already been granted. They just haven't taken hold of it, and therefore, it hasn't become operant in their lives.
You said that when you first arrived here that you were confused about the discourse, how that worked in the U.S., especially in terms of the separation of church and state.
Yeah. I think Americans are confused, and they've confused me.
What's the confusion for you, still?
I've never understood how, unless God is God of all, how God can be God at all.
God is God of all. There's no such thing as this categorization of life into its social component and its family component and its political (component). Everything is infused with my spirituality. Now, I can understand historically the desire to ensure that no one church was favored at the expense of others.
In fact, the separation of church and state was not put into the constitution to guarantee the safety of the church; it was to guarantee the integrity of the state.
Absolutely. If you think those who framed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—what they were rebelling against was the dictatorship of the British Empire. They were pushing back against tyranny. Part of the tyranny of colonization was the imposition of an established church and an established religion that legitimized what the colonial power did. And so, the only experience they had of the church was what I call "bad" religion, where instead of being the voice of God, the church enters into an unholy covenant with ideological—it could be political, not always, but sometimes—powers. They then act as cohorts of each other. That's what they experienced. Their experience was not of a church that prophetically spoke against the injustice of treating people unequally and not allowing people to participate in their own governance. Those are ungodly things. And so yes, they had a negative view of the church and that comes through in their writings. People don't like to admit this here, but many of those who framed the Declaration and wrote the Constitution had a negative view of religion.
Very much so.
Very much so. And understandably, because their experience of religion was of the Anglican Episcopalian and establishment church that was imposed on them. We had a similar thing in South Africa. The first Methodist church to be built in South Africa, had to be built secretly because of the British colonial power not allowing other(s). Ultimately, it was located on the slopes of Table Mountain, built in a forest. It was burned to the ground, ordered so by the colonel of the regiment. So again, to define everything by the worst… it's what happened. I think it's gone to the extreme. It's almost impossible to have a sensible discussion by how the faith community is an agent for change and as a depository of human, basic human aspirations and hopes and morality, can be in conversation with political framework as also a depository of human aspirations and hopes and dreams. We're located in different places, and there's almost the thing where "this" depository can't be in conversation with "that" depository. It turns them into competing agencies. Rather than, "How do we all work together for the common good?" Where the church becomes another alongside—part of the social fabric, the interweaving, the adhering, the co-hearing—the one that brings all the others into conversation with each other.
I have a glimmer of what you're talking about, but my experience, especially in the last ten years or so, is that the church has made itself political.
A small spot of the church, a very small part of the church. But the church is made to be political. How can we not be political, in the sense that we must be involved in the political discourse? The political discourse affects the quality of people's lives, and that matters to God. Now, what we must not do is become party-political, or wedded to a single ideology. You know what the church ought to be? The "white" in the red, white and blue. That's what we ought to be. The red and the blue is where people have differences of ideas and ideology, and that's wonderful. You don't want a state where there is only a unitary (ideology), where people don't have creative thoughts and differ. But what is it that allows them to come into transcendent discourse with each other out of which comes, or is created, something even greater? It's through the white. That's what the church is meant to be. That's when it's at its best. And that's how it is in many parts of the world—Africa, Asia, Latin America. People don't look to the state to change their lives. They look to the church. And the church, then, addresses the state on behalf of the people and says, "You know what? You know what kind of country we believe God wants?" But you first have to have the discourse, and allow for that to happen. It needs to be without owning turf, without wanting to win. What has happened here is that there are parts of the church who have sold their souls to particular ideologies. So you can't tell the difference anymore between the theology and the ideology; they sound the same, so there's no longer any theology. And what is theology? It's about "theos logos;" the language of God. The word, it's about conversation, it's about where the discourse takes place. Theology is the discourse about God. So when the church chooses to become either red or blue, it ceases to be part of the white. Then, the red and the blue become separated from each other and you have people choosing one or the other, and it's absurd. I say to people, "You are so convinced by your own experiences that your experiences are universal experiences." This term, the use of red and blue or liberal and conservative is quaintly your own. I mean, it doesn't exist; we don't have it (in South Africa). You come here and folk think that because we experience this, the whole world believes this, or lives this; uses the same language. I mean, this whole thing of church and state, it's not a universal phenomenon, it's not a discussion that's happening in the rest of the world. It's been resolved there. So these things that here people think of as the defining issues of history and humanity…
Like gay marriage…
… some of them are just part of your own local (issues). Sometimes I say, "You have no idea how in some areas you are so advanced and some areas so backward." It's about being able to say "And I love you in both," for me, and, "I respect both." I will call it. When it comes to how to resolve differences of opinion without fighting, Americans are uncivilized. The first resort is to punitive action or retributive action. The notion of restorative justice is unknown here. Everything is retributive justice. So in some profound and spiritual aspects, I regard Americans as profoundly, spiritually immature. And could learn if they wanted to.
So how do we start dealing with some of these issues? How do we become more of a world citizen and a world spiritual citizen for that matter?
I hope that happened for folk at Galloway, because we've been able to engage from across the waters. I try to be profoundly respectful of the fact that people are a product of their story, their history. Nobody chooses to be who they are out of isolation from their genetic and historic makeup. And I've understood that. I've lived that in South Africa. My parents were utter racists. Because that was in their social DNA. They were brainwashed in their culture. So when I broke with it and my wife and I went into the anti-apartheid struggle, we broke our family. It was a transforming thing for us. We had to break out. And it was painful. Nobody wants to lose; nobody wants to be declared an enemy of the community or of the state. You don't want to be rejected by your family, but sometimes there needs to be these things that need to happen that help us transcend. I think if there could be this kind of engagement with people who will love others … So I came here to truly love my community, and I have. They're all wonderful, and they've allowed me to be my eclectic self. They've allowed me to tell my story and live it, and not have to look over my shoulder. They've allowed me, and that's been wonderful, and they've come on the journey and they've taught me things as well.
What have you learned?
I've learned about an incredible loyalty to the church in people here; a deep, earnest prioritization of their faith quest in their lives. Alongside the pull of materialism and consumerism and all—I don't like using the word secularism—but there is something that wants to pull them away. The value of family; these connections in the South of keeping the family trees, and family reunions. Just the valuing of heritage, and how much that is also a faith. I've summarized what it means to be Southern; I speak about my five or six "F's." (Like the) four "H's," a club or group, what it takes to be an authentic Southerner. One is your love for food; you must have a love for food. Family. Faith. The Football culture—especially during playoffs, and just the whole college thing. A sense of Fun; just a wonderful enjoyment of things. The first time my wife got invited to a ladies' pajama, sleep-over party, just a sense of fun, which I think is just a quality that sometimes we in South Africa lost because for so long we were fighting a struggle. I think along the way we forgot the joy of the Lord is our strength and, I guess, sometimes take ourselves too seriously. I tend to do that. I have a real passion for what I believe in, and for my convictions, but often I think I become boringly kind of constrained within that. I always kind of ask myself, "What is happening here, in terms of the social, political, economic dynamics? What are the justice issues?" So even in general conversations, my ears will prick up to certain code words. Everywhere I go I look for and try to understand the dimensions of the racialized society and prove my theory that it's pervasive and endemic to this culture. Oh, and Friends and Friendship. Those are my six "F's." Just how friendship runs so deep. People keep friends through not just college but from primary school days.
Cradle to grave.
Literally. I buried somebody the other day, and literally, one of the pall-bearers had been his friend since the age of 2. So I say, "Do you meet those tests?" Passion for food—I love it. Often when we go places and I listen, the first thing folk will be speaking about recipes or where they ate. Food, faith, family, friends, a sense of fun and football. Often at funerals I say, "Well, this person has met those tests." There's something quaint and beautiful in the Southern culture, but it also has its fractures. And I try to speak about both. Where some people only speak about the good things, and other people only focus on the bad things. I try to say that it needs a balance of both where you can then comfort and afflict in a way that becomes transformational. Yeah.
Is there something that you want to leave having said, that you haven't said yet?
No. I'll tell you why. I always complete my sentences and my messages. I try not to not say at the beginning what I would say at the end, and not say at the end anything I was not prepared to say at the beginning. I've tried to be consistent. I hope and trust that everything that I've said to you, that folk here will read, that they will say, "Yes, that's what he's been speaking about and been open about for three and a half years."
If there's one thing that I want to say it is to express my immense gratitude to the people of Mississippi. You see how far we've traveled, over 50,000 miles in Mississippi. We've stopped in many places and we've been to hundreds of little communities and little community stores—places selling everything from chitterlings and pig's ear sandwiches. I've tried it, we've gone, we've done it. (I've eaten) fried frog's legs. You name it. And nobody has ever been unkind to us. Anywhere. Wherever we've been, we've been received with immense hospitality and sometimes with great curiosity. People have let us tell our story. So in the midst of everything else, there's just the sense of basic, innate goodness in most people. They are all good people, I just wish they would figure out that there is a deeper way of being able to live together.
The difference between South Africa and Mississippi fundamentally, is that Mississippi and indeed the South—in fact I think most of the United States, to be true—the majority following the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act and the stuff that happened round '64 through '66, '67—settled for desegregation as its goal. In South Africa we said desegregation is not our goal, but just a step along the way to the goal. So from the outset, we set our goal to be an integrating society, rather than a desegragating society. Because our goal was different, we've gone a different path. Because our goal was different, we've implemented things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and we changed our flag, we introduced the new amendments to our constitution. We transformed. Therefore, we've gone a different way. We said we're going to make our public schools work. Ninety percent of our children are in public schools, and all those public schools are non-racial. Churches have become non-racial. We have a non-racial society, not a racialized society. We're both products on the way.
One of the messages I'll take back to South Africa is that I hope we never change it, the course we're on. It's much more complex and it's much more difficult, but I never want us to reach a place 40 years on and still have race as a defining quality and nature. The sadness for me is that everywhere I look in Mississippi I see signs of a community—particularly in Jackson you can see it—it's resegregating. My South African visitors are often shocked; South Africans, shocked. As we drive around Jackson and I say, "That's where white people live and that's where black people live; that's where white people shop, that's where black people shop; that's where white people go to school; that's where black people go; that's where white people go to college; that's where black people go to college; that's where white people eat, that's where black people eat; that's where white people go to church, that's where black people go." And they are shocked. They say to me, "Ross, you're kidding. This is America. It can't be that way." And then when I take them to a little place not far from here where there is a white united Methodist church and a black united Methodist church side by side, sharing the same garden. Now we would simply not allow that. It would be scandalous. And then people say it's got to do with culture and different tastes in music. Do you think we don't have those? We have 11 official languages, four cultural groups and 15 tribal groups. What we've said is that in the church, we have to make space to accommodate all of that. So that everybody has something and everybody gives up something for the sake of a greater whole. And then, we all win. Now, that would be my major difference: the difference between living in a society that is desegragating—and one that is resegragating therefore—and one that is on a different course, which is integrating. Much more painful, much harder, but much more transformational.
And the book that you're writing is about that?
It's about that. It's a hopeful book and it's not a book that disses Mississippi. It's a book that understands it, but also makes a plea to say, "Can somehow, a discourse be put in place, a forum be found?" Part of it is where I call the church to account, to be the "white" in the red, white and blue, because that's missing. I don't know where it exists. If the church in South Africa had not been that, we would still be under the oppression of apartheid. Because that's what draws people in, and gives them a sense that this is where my faith connects to justice, connects to truth. The old Afrikaner people in my congregation used to say, "Ross, politically I hate everything you preach. But when I hear you bring it to me through the mouth of Jesus, I want to come on this journey. I want to be changed."
Did you reconcile with your father?
In later years, absolutely. In fact, both my Mom and Dad had a great moral transformation. Neither of them had been part of the church, ever. My Dad died soon after he retired, but in his last few years of his life—he was a worker, he was a miner—my Dad died with calluses on his hands. He was a blue collar, hard working and a product of his society, where men were men and the only good black was a dead one. That's where he came from. But something happened in his spirit and he came to recognize what pain that inflicted on people and he came to learn—this was a big thing—he came to learn that white and black were equal children of God. It's not that whites were the children and black folk were God's stepchildren. He always said it was kind of his atonement, but not quite that. My dad spent much of his retirement building a church in an area where transition was happening; a church where white and black worshipped together. He couldn't do anything else—he wasn't good with words; he was a miner. But he did what he could. He gave his perspiration; his hands. And he was frequently a solitary figure, putting in bricks and laying foundation and working on the roof.
What was it that created that shift in him?
I think initially, his bewilderment about me. I had to cross over, not only from a non-Christian or non-church environment, to one where faith and church were suddenly part of (my environment), but from Afrikaans to English. I grew up Afrikaner. My wife is the English-speaking person; she's the one who taught me. I often say that if I didn't have to court her I wouldn't be speaking English today. So it's not my first language and it's not my first culture. Initially, there was a kind of betrayal in what I was doing. He could remember (that) Afrikaners and those of English descendant had fought a bitter war in my great-grandfather's era. It ended in 1901. It had been a bitter war. You think the North and South divided here, you don't know the Boer/Brit one. The British defeated the Afrikaners. They rounded up the women and children who were left on the farms—much like the South—and put them in concentration camps. More than 26,000 women died in a two year period. Those feelings carried over very strongly. There were all these things happening. And my Dad, kind of watching this, and then seeing the changes in my own life and being drawn in. Then I guess also a sense of parental pride: I was the only one going to college. Ever. I was one of four, but I'm talking about the entire family thing—my grandfather, great-grandfather, everybody worked with their hands—all my cousins, nephews. I can think of one female cousin I know who went to college. It just wasn't economically possible. It wasn't part of our family culture. People think I joke when I say that I come from the archetypal family of rednecks. To get from there to here, I just look back and say, "What a mighty God we serve."
This is an AWESOME interview. I never knew Rev. Olivier was so open-minded, understanding and enlightened. I hate that I never met him. I wish him and his wife the best.