A number of years ago a “children’s” animated movie came out called “An American Tail,” with “tail” being the spelling of that last word because it starred a Russian-Jewish mouse named Fievel Mousekewitz. During a period of increasing persecution of mice by the Russian cats, the Mousekewitz family decides to emigrate to America because they have heard there are no cats there. They leave Russia with a picture in their heads of an idealized America where there will be no cats and mice will live in perfect freedom.
Of course, calamities begin happening even before landing in America. Fievel is washed overboard, the family is separated, there are indeed cats, and there are cats pretending to be something else, and there are dangers around every turn. In spite of the difficulties and disappointments, Fievel perseveres and is reunited with his family and their new life in America begins, with freedom but also with open eyes knowing that nothing is perfect.
As with most children’s stories, this one has much food for thoughts for adults. Christians sometimes like to fantasize that if they could just go back to the time of the early church, where Acts says everyone loved each other and shared to make sure no one had any needs, everything would be hunky dory. If you really read Acts and the letters of Paul, though, you know there was plenty of rivalry and backstabbing and competition going on even back then.
And a lot of Americans like to fantasize that if we could just go back to the time of the founding fathers and the way they set things up, everything would be fine in this country. Even if those days were as ideal as some like to make them out it would be impossible to recreate such a setting. It was a day when saying “all men are created equal,” meant “all white men who own property are created equal.” Many founding fathers were slave owners. Women were not allowed to vote, nor were people who did not own property. Your nearest neighbors were likely to be five miles away. When an army was needed, a call went out to all citizens to show up. When an election was held, I imagine most voters knew the candidates personally and could judge based on years of experience and personal interactions rather than on sound bites and advertisements. When you needed a doctor you hoped you could find one, and people died from very basic problems every day.
In the intervening 240 years, lots of American Tales (tales) have been lived and written and lots of changes have taken place. My particular American tale began 395 years ago when one of my mother’s ancestors, James Chilton, arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 along with his wife and one of their daughters, named Mary. James was the oldest passenger on board, at the age of 60, and after surviving the difficult voyage died while the Mayflower was anchored at Cape Cod. His wife died a month later, so Mary was orphaned at the age of 13 and lived with either the Standish or Alden families in Plymouth Colony. Chilton was a native of Canterbury in England, was a tailor, and was a member of the Separatist movement which wanted to separate from the Church of England and form independent local churches. They are the roots of the Congregational Church which would become very strong in New England. So a desire for religious freedom definitely played a role in his family to immigrate to America for a fresh start.
As far back as I know, which is not too far, my mother’s side of the family remained in the northeast. My great grandparents lived in Massachussetts, my grandfather worked for Woolworth’s in the Northeast, my mother was born in Pougkeepsie, New York. But there came a fateful day when Woolworth’s transferred my grandfather to Atlanta, Georgia. He was able to get my mother to go back to MountHolyoke for College, but then she returned to Atlanta where she met and fell in love with my father, a South Carolinian who was a Presbyterian minister at the Emory Presbyterian Church.
My father’s side of the family immigrated to America in 1832 from County Antrim, Ireland. The Irish potato crops failed repeatedly in the 1820s and 1830s; there were frequent outbreaks of smallpox and typhoid; and rapid population growth meant little available land. Many yearned for a fresh start and left Ireland. Robert Thomas Bayley arrived in South Carolina and settled in EdgefieldCounty. He married Margaret Thompson Crooks and they had a son, my great grandfather, John Crooks Bailey. When he was two years old they moved to Greenville. The father drowned swimming in the ReedyRiver in 1858. My great grandfather stayed in Greenville the rest of his life, serving as a newspaper editor and publisher, a school commissioner, and probate judge for GreenvilleCounty. Two of his sons, one of his grandsons, and one of his great grandsons became Presbyterian ministers, serving churches in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.
So my South Carolina father met my New England mother and somehow or another fell in love. Northerner and Southerner. English and Scots-Irish. Presbyterian and Congregationalist. A mere 80 years earlier their families had been on opposite sides of the civil war. Mom had an opera singer, a YMCA executive, and a Woolworth’s executive in her family. Dad had preachers, farmers, and a newspaper editor. The crisis point came when Dad decided to move his wife and two year old son from Atlanta to Kingstree, South Carolina, which had to seem like the end of the world to my mother. But she had two more sons while there and found wonderful people and lifelong friends in that town that was a long way literally and figuratively from where she grew up. She learned to adapt and to accept people as they are and to see the good in them. She learned that very well and taught her sons by her words and by her actions.
So my first six years were spent in the small town of Kingstree among salt of the earth people in a decidedly Old South atmosphere. The live oak tree reigned in Kingstree and we even lived on Live Oak Dr. Spanish moss hung everywhere and to this day it feels like home when I ride through a place that has Spanish moss.
In 1961 we moved to Huntsville, Alabama, which was in the process of becoming Space City, USA. Wehrner von Braun and his team of German scientists who had been brought over from Germany after World War II used Huntsville as their base to test and build the rockets that would take people to outer space and eventually the moon. We learned that if the ground shook and the sun was shining it meant they were testing a Saturn booster. If the ground shook and it was dark it could either be that or a tornado. Huntsville was nestled among mountains, the Tennessee River ran outside it, and nearby was beautiful LakeGuntersville. I was an American by birth before this, but I fell in love with America in this place.
But while Huntsville was a heady place to grow up with all the good things it had going for it, there were many challenges in those days. Desegregation was at the top of the list. Our governor, George Wallace, was determined that no pointy headed bureaucrats in Washington were going to force that on us, so he wielded all available law enforcement to prevent it from happening. Fortunately guns were not as prevalent then, but I remember a day in high school when students brought knives and chains and brass knuckles in anticipation of a war between the races breaking out.
Vietnam of course was another major issue. There was a lot of military-industrial complex in Huntsville so I don’t remember much debate about it there. But the news was filled with riots, sit-ins, marches, and debates.
The list goes on: Watergate, Whitewater, Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton, weapons of mass destruction, Haliburton, Guantanamo, Benghazi, Obamacare, Supreme Court rulings. There are always a lot of reasons to despair and give up on this American Tale, this American dream. But then you look around and see all the good – the good, hard working people, the beautiful places, the abundance of resources, the blessings upon blessings upon blessings – and we realize that we have let a few negative things poison our attitude and turn us into nothing but complainers.
Is America a perfect place where a mouse can go and live in freedom and not worry about cats? No. But in the midst of the struggles that surely come maybe we can grow, maybe we can find a better way, maybe we can find that it is just us here, not us and them.
“America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea! America! America! God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law! America! America! May God thy gold refine till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 5, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church