So often, it seems my heroes are Black women. When I think of Jesus, and Quakerism, I prefer to see my Truth claims lived out through the actions of real people, as opposed to relying simply upon the Beloved text. The salvation that I believe comes from Jesus is made known through those people who sacrifice themselves voluntarily and step out of their comfort zone in order to do justice. At this point, you might be asking now what this has to do with farming at Sandhill.
Family farming had a lot to do with Shirley Miller Sherrod’s life, even though I have read in statement’s attributed to her that she hated the work. Whether or not she hated the work, her experience of family farming in the Southeastern United States made an impact on her, as did the institutionalized racism of the South. Her father was shot to death for being “uppity.” She faced all sorts of obstacles to voting while living in the South. Basically, it is my understanding that she is a product of the South, and her life has become an example of what I call a commitment to narrative as the expression of the truth of salvation through the life of Jesus.
Sherrod went off to college to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees. In my opinion, she exemplifies the old school Antioch student, who was intent on changing the world by making herself available to others. With her education, she returned to the South, laboring against injustice. And, as her life went forth, she returned to the farms of the South, intent on helping African-American farmers hold on to their land. And, as we now know, she overcame her moments of personal prejudice to help a white family keep their farm. In her speech to the NAACP, which was delivered some time ago, she spoke about how she overcame this initial prejudice and experienced a kind of redemption while engaged in the process of helping this family overcome their problems.
Of course, we know the story of Sherrod’s speech and how one piece of her presentation was taken out of context and presented to the general public as an example of reverse racism. And, we now know that Sherrod has been vindicated. Yet, what I find salvific in this event, is not Sherrod’s vindication through the media, or apologies on behalf of the government officials who threw her under the bus while responding emotionally to charges of reverse-racism. What I find salvific in this media event is that I now know the story of Sherrod’s life, and how she has chosen to respond to institutionalized racism, injustices, and being suddenly thrust into the middle of a media race-baiting frenzy. It seems to me that Jesus is made known by Sherrod’s commitment to responding in a positive way to the murder of her father by maintaining her own dignity, refusing to publically lay blame upon anyone, and taking action against those enemies that would have kept her “in her place.”
She pursued education so that she might level the intellectual playing field, and returned to help her own. I define her own as farmers, as opposed to African-Americans, because she herself came to identify the plight of the poor and marginalized of all races and ethnicities as part of a greater failed system that often had its claws clutched more firmly around the necks of Blacks. And, in recognizing this, she overcame her moment of prejudice by realizing the greater Truth that humanity is broken, and all need redemption. Now, her family still owns the farm, and she is said to have purchased thirty additional acres by a CNN story. And, while CNN states that Shirley Sherrod is vindicated now that we all know the truth of the context of her “racist” statement, I believe she is vindicated by the life that she has lived, and it amazes me how evident the life of Jesus is in relation to this event, and especially in the life of Sherrod.
Still, what does this have to do with Sandhill. One night at a Quaker book study, I was tired from a long day at work, and graduate classes, and I was in a particularly angry state of being. I got to complaining about how nobody ever took action against brokenness, but simply complained about it and engaged in shouting matches. I was challenged by someone at the study. What are you doing Friend, and why don’t you take action. My response was to overcome my anxiety about failure, and my family started our own farm. As opposed to being negative and pointing out the flaws in a collective response to the brokenness of relationships between rural and urban residents, our family worked to bring two cultures together to experience the joy of farming and food, and how it is provided. As such, we have also been able to live out our faith in Jesus in a manner that makes us feel like we are doing our part in contributing to the ongoing narrative of Jesus.
I don’t believe that farming is the vindicating factor in the story of Sherrod. I do believe that her participation in the ongoing story of her life as an African-American from the rural South, and maintaining her identity through a continuity of place and history, has made, not only her working with a white family to obtain justice, but her whole life, a commitment to justice that is intelligible to all because of its continuity. Ultimately, it will be the story of Sherrod’s life that will be a vindicating factor, just as Jesus’ life is salvific. Shirley Sherrod’s life makes the story of Jesus’ salvific life understandable. That is the kind of story that Sandhill wants to draw folks into. We hope to be a story-formed community of folks that invest in a project that hopes to build relationships through a commitment to place and history. We hope that someday, with a little dedication, people will be drawn into community and live a life of justice and non-violence together, with Jesus and farming at the center.