A Southerner with Chuck Reece
The culture of the South is a gumbo and there’s this– You know, the thing that marries a gumbo, that marries the ingredients, is the okra. But not everybody knows that that vegetable is not native to North America. We have it because the seeds came here in the pockets of enslaved people. It was an undeserved gift that still to this day helps bring us together.
Easton: This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright.
Rob: Hello everyone, Bishop Rob right here and this is For People, a podcast of the Episcopal Diocese of the of Atlanta. We are on today with Chuck Reece, formerly of the Bitter Southerner and now an editor of a publication called Salvation South. Chuck, good morning!
Chuck: Good morning, Bishop Wright. How are you today?
Rob: I’m doing fantastic. Thanks for taking the time to be with us.
Chuck: Glad to be here.
Rob: Chuck we bumped into each other, I came out to visit a church, out in Decatur, Holy Trinity. And you and I got to talking and you got to talk with a member of our team, Easton Davis. And immediately we knew we wanted to talk more to you. So, thanks for being here today.
Chuck: Like I said, I’m really glad to be here. And it was a pleasure getting to meet and talk to you guys that day.
Rob: So, let’s just dive in. You were formerly of a publication called the Bitter Southerner. Tell me about that?
Chuck: Well, I co-founded that publication and was its founding Editor in Chief starting in 2013. And the intention behind the site was to debunk stereotypes about the South and Southerners. You know, which is something that I felt like we did a really good job at. But by the time we got into 2020, I kind of came to the conclusion that if you look at the South as a region, stereotypes were– Stereotypes were the least of our problems by 2020. And you know, I began to figure out how to do a publication that might be a way to help people bridge the divisions or to think differently about their fellow man. So, that’s what I’ve been up to the last couple of years. I have been planning that and launched it late in 2021.
Rob: Yeah. And for those who are listening, the website is SalvationSouth.com. And I love the picture. When I go to about there, I see you there, in the Editor’s Corner. I see you with a t-shirt that says, I am as Southerner as they come. I love it.
Chuck: That’s the truth. That’s the truth.
Rob: So, you are a born Southerner. And you care a lot about the South. And so, you care a lot about the people of the South. Have I got that right?
Chuck: You’re absolutely, you’re absolutely right. You know, I grew up in a little town up in the mountains of North Georgia called Ellijay.
Chuck: And, you know, I then went to college at UGA. And my whole adult life, I have lived in one of two places. I’ve lived in the Atlanta area and in New York City, I lived in New York City on two different occasions from–
Rob: The great Southern town up there.
Chuck: Well, I learned how to operate. I learned, you know– I learned that I would be considered a rube or a dummy. Like, every time the word y’all came out of my mouth. And, you know, I had to learn how to defend that word. And you know, it is in fact, the missing and much needed second person plural pronoun that the English doesn’t have, you know. The proper pronouns for singular are you and the plural pronoun is also you. So, we need a work like y’all.
Rob: We definitely need a word like y’all. And though I’m not a born Southerner, that’s one of the terms I’ve come to love an awful lot. It’s breadth and its depth, you know?
Chuck: That’s right.
Rob: Y’all. And so, you as a Southerner, you know, in both of your enterprises, want to say something to the South, the land that you love.
Rob: And what do you want to say to the South?
Chuck: Well, with Salvation South, we really want to do two things. We want to take a positive look at at the issues that divide us, you know. When we talk about race, when we talk about reconciliation, you know. We want to do positive stories about that. And I can talk about some examples of that if you want me too. But the other thing that we try to do to create a welcoming, to make the site feel like a welcoming place to people, we’re always celebrating the culture of the South. Like our lead story this week is called, Pot Licker, a monologue. And it’s about that delicious stuff that is left in the bottom of the pot after you cook your turnip greens, collard greens, or whatever greens that you choice. And it is basically all you ever need to know about pot licker in 800-words. It is really funny and brilliantly written by a woman in North Carolina called Bonnie Shell.
You know, so we try to have the celebrations of the culture of the South. And we have, you know, we run a fair amount of poetry that comes from all over the South. And a lot of it is people pondering their Southern-ness. And you can hear in their words, these poets trying to figure out what it means to live in the South and be a Southerner, right now.
Rob: Yeah. When people hear the word Southerner, you know, they sort of wonder which South and which kind of Southerner, you sort of mean? We’ve had Sheffield Hale on from the Atlanta History Center. And he talks about Southern Heritage. And he had a great quote, said that, for some people, Southern Heritage means all of the good things. And none of the things, none of the bad things, none of the things where we missed the mark. So, when you talk about southern heritage, what are you talking about specifically?
Chuck: Well, Sheffield is a good friend of mine. And I listened to that episode. And was, was pleased to hear him say the things that he said. But I think that to be a Southerner requires a person both to celebrate the things that we love about the culture of the South, but to also be aware of an unafraid to address the problematic parts of our history, and the problematic parts of our present, for that matter. You know, and I think we all know what those are.
Rob: So, I think what you’re saying, therefore, is that to be a Southerner, and in all of the glory of that, is to have some courage. Because if you’re going to look at and celebrate all of the good, and there’s lots to celebrate, and you’re going to look at the bad, and there’s lots unfortunately there to lament. Then you’re going to have to find your spine. Because I think there’s an invitation in the culture nowadays to look away from anything that is difficult or unflattering. And so, you’re trying to help us with this website?
Chuck: Well, you know, courage is absolutely key. I mean, I don’t think you can be a Southerner without having the backbone to do that. I may offend some people by saying that, but kind of, I don’t care.
Chuck: And, you know, you have to be willing to look at what came before. And then, you have to look into your own heart and to see, you know, how you were a part of things that divide us. I mean, I grew up in a little town where, you know– I mean, growing up there in the late 60s and early 70s, we didn’t experience a lot of direct racism. But that was because we had no black people in our town, right? But the words were said. You could tell where people stood. I have tried my whole life to rise above those things about race that I heard when I was a kid. To have the kind of conversations that we need to have with each other now as the process of reconciliation goes on. It absolutely requires courage.
Rob: And, you know, we met in church as they say.
Chuck: That’s right.
Rob: We met in church. I was immediately charmed by you and just sort of your work. I love when people step out and do some amazing work. Just because of their inner fire and Salvation South feels like that to me as part of your ministry, if I can be so bold and use that term. Your ministry to the South and beyond, to the people of the South. And so, you know, since we met in church, I mean, is there a story about Jesus’s work or a Bible story, anything that you particularly connect to as you think about your work?
Chuck: Wow, I didn’t really anticipate that question. I probably should.
Rob: Well, that’s what you get for being on a Podcast with a Bishop, man.
Chuck: I understand, I understand. You know, really– It is kind of just a thread that runs through all of his parables in the Bible. Which is, you know, this unrelenting impulse to tell nothing but the truth to all the people that he saw and spoke to. And you know, if I’m trying to follow Jesus’s example, in my life today, I see Salvation South is me trying to do in my small way, that kind of truth telling.
Rob: You know, you talk about on your website, you talk about the beloved community.
Chuck: That’s right.
Rob: And you know, I’m so glad that you are talking about the need for courage as part and parcel of becoming the beloved community. I think what we are tempted to do is jump over truth telling and jump over justice, and get into a warm hug that we call reconciliation. And you and I know, as much as we want the warm hugs, there are other parts to do.
And the first part to do is to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem. I want to also make sure we give credit to your wife, Stacy, who was also sort of co-chief, editor, in charge as well. I want to make sure that we shout out to Stacy and thank her for her ministry and her support in bringing Salvation South.
Chuck: None of this would happen without her.
Rob: There you go. There you go. Well, we’ll take a break and we’ll be right back.
Easton: Hi listeners, thank you for listening to For People. Keep up with us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. We would like to invite you to Imagine Church to the Center of Racial Healing on August 27th. Join the center, the youth of our diocese, and friends for worship centered around brave spaces and tough questions. Register in episode description. And now back to For People.
Rob: This is For People with Bishop Rob Wright. And we are back with Chuck Reece, editor in chief of Salvation South. And you can find Salvation South online at SalvationSouth.com.
Chuck, just before we started recording you were telling us, and I hope it’s okay to talk a little bit about this. You were telling us of a lead piece which is coming up about a 50-year high school reunion in Dothan, Alabama. Can you say a little bit about that?
Chuck: Sure. Absolutely. The story is written by a guy who’s writing I have had the privilege of editing several times. His name is is Charles McNair, and he’s a native of Dothan. But the class of 1972 at Dothan High, was the first class that had been fully integrated throughout their high school years. And they graduated together. But when they graduated, you know, everyone was still very much aware that the gaps between the black students and the white students had only been dealt with in very cursory ways, right? And as these people got older, and began to think back on their high school years as they approach their 50th anniversary, they decided to try to throw a reunion that would go past all that. To do a reunion that would give them a place to be unafraid about having difficult conversations. And you know, could help build love in that community of people.
And the good news is that– Let me back up a second. They pulled together a committee of more than a dozen alumni from the class of 1972. They spent a long time planning this reunion. And it happened a few weeks ago. And it was a roaring success. You know, everybody came away from it with different feelings about the people they had known for 50 years. And, you know, that’s the kind of story that we’d love to run in Salvation South because, you know, we try not to run stuff that’s highly negative. You know, because I think people get so many stories in the media every second of every day that are negative. And this is a story that was absolutely a positive example of what happens when people actually approach– And when they approach with open minds and open hearts, the possibility of reconciliation.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah. Is there a story in your own journey? Because when people take up work like this, I mean, you know, out in the public sphere, you are about good food, making friends, telling the truth, and beloved community, all that sort of stuff. Usually, they personally have a story to tell or several stories to tell when some bolt of lightning happened to them and the scales fell from their eyes and they said, “Hey, I want to be about this.” Is there any story that you can tell us or something that happened to your or someone close to you that really galvanized for you as to what you needed to be working on?
Chuck: Well, you know, I think it was something that was seeded in me when I was a child. And then gradually over the years, I had lots of different things happen in my life. You talk about the scales falling from one’s eyes, I don’t feel like all my scales fell off at the same time because of some giant epiphany. They kind of fell off a few at a time as I learned different things over the years.
But you see, I had the good fortune of having a father, you know, who was born in 1919, veteran of World War II, and he planted in me the seed, the notion that we are all God’s children. And in God’s eyes, we are all equal. My dad’s unit in the war was among the units that liberated Buchenwald. And he told me stories about the day they entered the camp. And you know, there were these two story barrack buildings where the prisoners were held. They began to let prisoners out and into the yard and they go upstairs and find, you know, big stockpiles of canned food up there. And all these people, one floor below, were starving. And talked about how they began throwing the cans of food out and saw the people in the yard open them and eat them. That really stuck with him in a big way. And it was a story that he told to me frequently about, you know, an example of how people can mistreat each other. He made it clear that part of my job in life was to rise above any kind of impulse like that.
Rob: Yeah. Yeah. Thank God, for Dad. Thank God, what a quiet example. What a wonderful story to give to you to sort of work on that.
Chuck: Yeah, absolutely. My Dad was something else. He was, you know, a loyal member of the Baptist Church that we grew up in. Even though I am Episcopalian now, I grew up in a little bitty, you know, wood frame, one room Baptist Church. And he was the Choir Director, which really meant he was just the guy that picked the first song we were going to sing and then called on others to get up one at a time to lead a song of their own choice, you know. He used to teach singing schools all over the mountains. He was helping people learn the shape note system so they could sing, even if they didn’t know any music theory.
Rob: We had an occasion to learn shape note singing with the clergy of the diocese too. That was quite an adventure.
Chuck: Oh, I bet it was. I bet it was.
Rob: But you know, in some ways that’s connected to what we’re talking about, because you’re singing your song through this work here. And that and that song is again, a song of connectedness, of friendship, of food. You know, I wrote an article some time back. Well, it ended up being a chapter in Dr. Catherine Meeks book, where I call the South America’s holy land. And I said it was America’s Holy Land because tragedy and triumph live right beside each other here. I mean, we’ve done heinous things to each other here. And at the same time, right next door, we fed each other, we’ve cared for each other, we’ve risen above petty bigotry, and done amazing things. That’s probably one of the best parts of my job, going around 75 and a half counties in Georgia, is getting down into the cracks and crevices and hearing some of the stories of the ways in which we betrayed the gospel, frankly speaking. And the ways in which we’ve sort of been faithful to the gospel. And realizing that, you know, as St. Paul says, we’re sort of both saint and sinner all at the same time. And that we actually need each other number one, and we need God to try to sort of work our way forward and bring real progress to raising, I guess we would call it, raising the floor height of caring for one another’s dignity.
So, you know, it’s an amazing journey. It’s a difficult road. I like to tell people, when people hear people talking like you and I are talking today, they can just say, “Yeah, that’s all sweet and nice and kumbaya, and all of that.” But what I like to help people think about is that we’ve got this wonderful movement in Jesus, the end of Jesus’s life and the beginning of Jesus’s resurrected life, right? So, the reason why we say we have hope through the resurrection, is because we confronted the worst, Good Friday. They lynched him in front of his mother. And I imagine that has happened a lot of times here in the South as well. And they nailed him to a tree. And the story doesn’t end there. And then there’s that toxic silence that we call a Holy Saturday, when nobody’s talking, everybody’s afraid, the disciples have run away, they’re locked behind doors, they’re afraid. And then, Jesus comes resurrected on Sunday, he breaks through the door of the toxic silence and says, “Hey, y’all, you can actually hope. And your hope is not naive hope. Because take a look, I still have the nail holes.”
And so, we’re talking about hope here. A real hope that takes into account our worst days as a region in this country.
Chuck: Right. I agree with that. And you know, the thing that gives me a lot of hope for this culture, and it’s, you know, it is hard. We have to admit, that we live in, in a time when hope can be really hard to come by.
Rob: There is no doubt about it.
Chuck: But one of the sources of hope for Southerners in particular, is wound up in our culture, right? Because you look at the way of the cultural achievements of the South, whether you are talking about food or music or other arts, you know. So much of the landmark things we’ve done, from everything from early soul music recorded to all the kinds of cooking that make our region distinctive, you know. All of those things have happened because people had the courage to step over the lines, right?
I mean, think about jumbo.
Rob: I think a lot about jumbo.
Chuck: Think about that dish. We had a story about jumbo on Salvation South not long ago. The fellow that wrote it, Richard Murph, he lives in Memphis, wrote, its father was a West Africa meat stew. And it’s mother was a French bouilli based.
Rob: I mean, only in America, huh.
Chuck: Right. And those two things came together, you know, in the early days of New Orleans. When the French culture was there in the same city as all these enslaved African Americas. And this dish came together because of equal influences from both. And of the years, as different groups of immigrants have come into the South and settled in the South, they’ve added their own flavors to the gumbo pot. And that is true literally as well as figuratively, right? And it’s, you know, the culture of the South is a gumbo. The thing that marries the gumbo, that marries the ingredients is the okra.
Rob: West African food, right.
Chuck: That is right. That is right. Not that you know it, but not everybody knows that vegetable was not native to North America. We have it because the seeds came here in the pockets of enslaved people. And it was an undeserved gift. But still to this day, helps bring us together.
Rob: And we don’t mind when we fry it either. We like it that way too.
Chuck: I like it crunchy. As long as it is, you know, the slimy part in gumbo is fine. I’m not much for stewed okra and tomatoes, which is another dish that’s kind of common.
Rob: So, you know, looking back at the way in which this jumbo has been made, some benevolence, some brutality. Nevertheless, the gumbo got made. Now we’re here, you and I, you know, just a quick look at the news today, sort of just takes people’s hope away, right? So, it’s helpful to look back and realize, we have been able to make something out of really imperfect ingredients. So, one wonders, what do you think we can make out of right now? That has been our past. And when we look at the melees in the country, look at the political division, the gridlock, we look at just the spirit of meanness that seems to be pervasive, to say nothing of gun violence, you know. Where is your hope in all of that?
Chuck: My hope is in our people. You know, I simply hope that there are more good people in our region than there are bad people. You know, and I see signs of hope in all these smaller interactions between people. You know, when we are looking for stories to run in Salvation South, that’s what I’m always looking for. Even the smallest example of people coming together and reaching a new understanding. And you know, the more examples I see of that, the more hope I get. Would I say that I’m triumphantly hopeful at this point, probably not. But my hope gets a little bit stronger every day.
Rob: Yeah. Right.
Chuck: Because, you know, I see the small examples. I have writers from all over the South we bring them to us. And you know, I try to build on what I’m learning every day to find hope.
Rob: You know, listening to you makes me think of a Bible verse. God has made of one blood, all the peoples of the Earth. And I think if you and I were going to suggest a friendly amendment to that Bible verse we might say, that’s all true Bible writer, but maybe God did something a little special here in the South.
Chuck: I don’t want to be arrogant, but you said it first, Bishop.
Rob: That’s right.
Chuck: I will absolutely agree with you, you know. There’s no place like this region that we live in, you know. I think it’s unique in our nation. And it’s probably unique in the whole world. It’s a place where, you know, we get to experiment with everything that begins with the original sin of slavery in this region. And we get to walk the whole path toward reconciliation. What a great opportunity that is.
Rob: Yeah. I hope people really hear that. That it’s an invitation to an opportunity. A long walk, but an opportunity. I’d like to say these days, what we need now, is blue collar hope. Which is hope from small stories and small steps on the way to something much larger.
Friends we have been on with Chuck Reece. He is the founding editor of chief of Salvation South. And you can find Chuck and you can find Salvation South at SalvationSouth.com. Chuck, thanks for being on.
Chuck: I’m so happy to be here, Bishop. I will hang out with you anytime you want.
Rob: Thank you.