In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

God creeps up

Washington, D.C. -- As this all-too-brief tour winds down, I find myself thinking about God. God has crept up on me on this trip, in a rather strange and stealthy way. (Because I was raised Roman Catholic, God to me is, by default, the Yahweh of the Old Testament who sent his son Jesus Christ to redeem humanity.) Although I am aware of the deeply religious roots of the United States, I hadn't expected it to factor so prominently in my impressions.

In Morgan City, Louisiana, I move with a tour group through Mr. Charlie, the first submersible, moving oil rig, wandering through the spaces once inhabited by tough men who lived here for up to forty-five days at a time, doing dangerous and difficult work. The oil rig is now a museum designed to give visitors an idea of how it worked, though its former life as an actual workplace lends it an eeriness, as though its men had merely gone on furlough at the same time. Signs still remind people of rules and regulations, staterooms stand clean and ready for occupants, cooking utensils hang waiting for mess hall preparations. This is a micro-community devoted to seeking out and extracting one of the most precious commodities on earth, its existence defined, controlled, and informed by oil.

Morgan CityIn a dimly lit, long abandoned recreation room, amid a foosball table, TV and VCR, packs of cards and boxes of dominoes, God makes his first appearance on this tour. Comfortable couches range around a coffee table, on which lie two Bibles -- one a generic hardbound volume of the Gideon variety, the other something that looks more like a technical manual. God's Word for the Oil Patch: Fuel for the Soul, it says. It's produced by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship, and inside appears to be a standard Bible in a modern American translation, prefaced by some inspirational material targeted at the men who work the rigs. God is here, I said to myself.

A rather strange place for God to be, this behemoth that moves and acts with sublime power, conquering bayou, river, gulf, and ocean floor. God here is an enabler, granting human beings dominion over the earth and its lesser creatures, entitling them to seek out the fulfillment of a promise -- a reward for faith, loyalty, and service.

God's promise was also the theme of the sermon at the Trinity Bible Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. It's a boxy structure that feels more like a concert hall than a church, reinforced by the band onstage. Members of the congregation are handed a questionnaire upon entrance, the answers to which play into the sermon.

The theme is "Life in Transition: Where is my Focus?" The pastor, a virile, energetic man, walks his people through the questionnaire, tying an episode from the Old Testament to the contemporary challenges facing his flock which, by his own admission, depends on "the oil" for its survival. This is shepherd as motivational speaker, gospel as self-help, and I am reminded yet again of the absolute necessity of charisma in keeping a congregation congregated. Bullet points projected on the cyclorama summarize his affable patter, and he manages to bring his discourse back to the enabling power of Christian rhetoric. We end with exhortations to focus not on people, tasks, or oneself, but on "God's promises," and "God's presence." God is here, as well, the fierce, awesome, vengeful Yahweh who led armies into battle, who would brook no doubt or disagreement.

Days later, we would find ourselves in another church -- the famous 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the bombing that killed four little girls fanned the flames of the civil rights movement in America. The centerpiece of the church is the Wales Window, which depicts a dark-skinned Christ-like figure in a slightly modified crucifixion pose: one hand outstretched to block oppression, the other to ask for forgiveness or mercy. Running along the lower edge of the window are the words "You do it to me," a paraphrased extract from Matthew 25:40. God is here too.

BirminghamOur guide, the charming T.R. German, doesn't miss an opportunity to extol the goodness of God, and to urge us to honor the mystery of God's intentions and trust in God's wisdom. This seems to be his way of dealing with the problem of evil in the world. Because he is a black man who lived through the days of segregation and the civil rights movement, we press him for stories, personal perspectives on the historical narrative. Race is clearly still a sensitive topic here -- "We ain't going to get into that," he says, though allowing that "The devil is busy" -- but he surrenders everything to Jesus Christ, believing that wrong will be righted in the end. It's a faith that emphasizes endurance and patience, even in the face of persecution. It's a faith that could slide easily into passivity if allowed.

"It's a taught thing," he says, referring to racism as well as respect. The face of God is a taught thing as well, and people learn to see it in many different things. God is everywhere.

As we leave, Mr. German says, "Y'all be blessed." It's a gesture of kindness and generosity that is aware that many people move in unblessed ways in an unblessed world.

-- Vicente Garcia Groyon

Extracts from Adisa Basic’s coverage of the ‘Writers in Motion’ tour
for the weekly magazine “Slobodna Bosna”  (Sarajevo, Bosna-Herzegovina),
dated  04/07/2011



The first stop is the surreal town of Gettysburg, the place where the biggest battle of the Civil War took place a century and a half ago, and which today lives comfortably off its past. A million visitors annually visit its National War Monument, the former battlefields teeming with tourists having themselves be photographed in historical uniforms, as well as communicating with the spirits of the dead warriors.


In the stream of visitors coming through Gettysburg there are virtually no black faces. The reason is, apparently, that the majority of the visitors here come to gaze with nostalgia at the suffering of the heroic Southern troops, ignoring the fact that it was the Southerners who put in place the slavery upon which their economy was based. Peter Carmichael, professor of history at the local university tells me: “This place has always provoked lively controversies; people interpret history according to their own ideas, they romanticize the past, and they tell stories the way it suits them. Mostly people imagine gentlemanly battles of volunteers giving lives for their ideals.  The fratricidal slaughter, in which men gauged out each other’s eyes fighting face to face, or how they starved —that does not get talked about. Precious sources of facts from that period are the letters the soldiers wrote, and which show not the heroic but the tragic side of war. “

According to the Civil War specialist Carmichael, many people appear to still accept the Southern ideology: “I really have heard much here about how this is really a celebration of the Southern troops... take the monument to General Lee, the commander of the enemy Southern army—it's ten times more visited, not to mention grander, than the monuments for the fallen Northern soldiers. I often hear people commenting Lee's greatest defeat by saying:  “If only he would have done this or that, gotten here earlier, played the situation differently or estimated things differently.... “  And I ask myself whether they are conscious of what it is they are saying, whether they truly realize this means wishing that the South would have won and that we would today be living in two different American countries.  I'm not sure they understand the consequences of what they are saying....” says Prof. Carmichael with slow resignation.

He and his colleagues are indeed involved in ongoing debates about the war even today, hundred and fifty years later. For them this dialogue is an indispensible part of the American identity, even if the participants’ opinions about these fundamental questions can never reach a point of agreement.  At the same time there is the problem of the diverging interpretations of recent history—a problem that daily provokes bitter arguments in Bosna-Herzegovina.  Comments professor Kent Gramm, the author of a recent book the about major traumata of US history: “We live in a post-modern era but a whole generation of students is now raised within this postmodern perspective, in which history is simply a narrative shaped by whoever is (re)telling it.  The final consequence of such an approach is a complete relativization of everything from the past-- yet there were actual people who made a heroic effort so that our life today is what it is.  People fought here, as president Lincoln says in the Gettysburg address, for a government of the people, by the people, for the people.  When it’s necessary to confirm an undeniable historical fact, all we are left with are facts and historical data, nothing more.”


The town of Gettysburg together with its National War Memorial complex may seem as a precarious place of militaristic pilgrimages, where assorted militant  inclinations come to the fore.  Yet it is interesting to see how, in being overtaken by consumerist kitsch, its martial air has gradually lightened.  There is barely a house which is not in one way or another tied to the Civil war. T-shirts with pictures of generals, uniforms of both warring sides, dress-up photo-stands, wax museums, the model of the most decisive battle of American history enacted by 120.000 miniature figurines….   In answer to my question whether it doesn’t seem tasteless to be merchandising trauma in this way and whether such war tourism (sometimes known as black tourism)  oughtn’t be avoided so as to retain a sense of piety,  the American writer Hugh Ferrer says:  “I  understand that this may seem strange to an outsider, but the economic aspect of war's heritage is in fact fundamentally American. The fate of the entire town rests on it, it lets people make a decent living-- and such entrepreneurial spirit is fundamentally in keeping  with the American culture and way of life.“

Indeed, Americans trade on trauma in this way even when it comes to much more recent events.  9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, too, are occasions for souvenirs, themes for movies and TV series;  both New York and NO offer special programs on the spots where catastrophes occurred:  “Soon after Katrina a bus tour operator started offering  visits through the hardest hit places.  There certainly were people who were upset and raised objections, but in the last analysis, and taking into account the economic aspect, perhaps a tour of such places can be both informative and sobering,  one of those life-altering experiences that mark us forever,“ says an American commentator.

From the Bosnian perspective such questions and perspectives may seem unusual, to say the least.  Though there now are groups of tourists who visit out country in search of Sniper Alley, “Sarajevo Rose,” the debris of The Tunnel or similar  places, the idea still strikes us as dark, morbid and somewhat offensive.  Yet it's interesting to see not only the different manner in which other cultures tackle their painful experiences but also how disagreement around large-scale historical questions is a more universal phenomenon than we may have thought.

Translated from the Croatian (nd)