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Friday, August 16, 2013

The UK Conversations, Part IV: Religious Relations

[This final conversation comes with a caveat.  On our way back to Montana to bury my Grandpa Wolf, my mother and I drove through the small coal-mining town where I lived from kindergarten to seventh grade.  On Main Street, I saw the old church where I went to VBS for most of my entire childhood: it's an American Baptist church.  This also means that the sweet old grandmother  down the street who taught me Old Testament stories on a Flannelgraph when I was in second grade was also an American Baptist.  

Therefore, the conservative, evangelical presence in my memory is far more prominent than I previously gave it credit for.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions.     ~~Jackrabbit] 

St. Matthew's Episcopal, Laramie
"Andrew," a cast member from a UK production of The Laramie Project last spring, had one more question for me as his cast prepped their roles:
I'm also playing the Unitarian Minister. I've gone to my local church the past couple of weeks and its been great! Did you know of the Unitarians? Do you have any thoughts on the dominant far right traditions of religion of the state? Baptist, Mormon etc….
It makes me laugh to look back and realize how little I knew about the far left and far right religious traditions when I was growing up.  Neither of my parents are particularly religious, although my mother made some attempt to raise me as a mainline Lutheran when I was very young.  (Since going to church also meant wearing dresses, I fought her tooth and nail.)  I didn't know a lot of religious people when I was a kid, but the ones I knew where I grew up in Montana where usually mainline: Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian.  And if they weren't mainline, they were Mormon.  The exception to this rule was an uncle of mine, an itinerant vaudeville-style preacher out of the Assembly of God tradition.  It never occurred to me that he was an "evangelical" or something different from the others; I just figured he was crazy. 

I can still remember my first introduction to Baptists when I was thirteen, on the bus back from swim practice at my new home in Wyoming: 
"Hey, you!" This girl yelled at me from across the aisle. I knew her as the daughter of one of my dad's co-workers. "Do you believe in Jesus?"
"Um… sure…" I quavered. 
"And do you believe you're gonna live forever?" she continued. 
"I guess so."  Her friends were all laughing. 
"All right!" she crowed and slapped me with a high five, and I spent the rest of the drive back to school wondering what the hell just happened. 
Of course, the irony to this is that I myself became a Baptist for several years, but only after I was in college.  In case you didn't know, the church I attended in Laramie was "The Baptist Minister's" church, but I didn't go there until after "The Baptist Minister" left back to Texas.  It's also the same church that Jed Schulz attended. 

I guess this goes to tell you that Baptists were an exception to the "rules," or so I saw it, to Rocky Mountain culture.  They just don't seem to fit the rest of the society.  Most people in the Rocky Mountain region are pretty, well, hands-offish when it comes to deeply personal matters, so evangelicals and their need to insert themselves in one's spiritual lives and moral health feels very out-of-place.  So, to refer to the "dominant far right traditions" means realizing that some are more common than others, but none are "dominant" in the culture as a whole. 

As a denomination, there have been some kind of Baptists in Wyoming for a very long time, but the Southern Baptist churches only arrived in the state back in the late 1950s, all planted by the same missionary.  Therefore, while these evangelical groups are an established part of Wyoming culture, they have always been a small section of the culture, and not predominantly Baptist.  Evangelical Lutherans, Nazarenes, and Assembly of God always seemed to be more prevalent to me, but that was just my childhood impression.  

St. Lawrence O'Toole Catholic, on Grand Avenue
Actually, if you have a look at the ARDA report for Albany County in 2000, it's pretty fascinating: you discover that about 75% of the town doesn't affiliate with a home church, and that there were more estimated adherents to Islam back then than there were people holding a Southern Baptist membership.  You also discover that Catholics are the largest stated religious majority out of that remaining 25%, followed next by mainline Protestants and Mormons, in that order.  You have to take the numbers with a grain of salt, however: Catholics and Mormons [as well as Muslims] are highly encouraged to formally join local memberships while the Baptist congregations always seem to have a lot of Sunday visitors who never officially get on the membership roll.  Nevertheless, one should never mistake "non-practicing" or "areligious" with "progressive."  As a whole, the culture has very tightly held moral and social codes whether the people who espouse them are religious or not. 

So, when Stephen Mead Johnson says that both Baptists and Mormons are like "jam on toast," he's only really half right.  Mormonism is a major influence on Wyoming life (especially southwest Wyoming), and Laramie is home to a large, lavish temple building on the expensive side of town that was nicknamed "the Bellagio."   If you want to talk about the conservative traditions which have largely shaped the moral codes of Wyoming citizens, regardless of their individual religious leanings, I wouldn't pick Baptists.   With an exception for the majority's religious neutrality, we're really a mix of Father Rogers and Doug Lawses. 

As for the Unitarians: I had no idea what they were until I was well into college, and it wasn't until I went to the 2009 production of "10 Years Later" at a Unitarian church in Appalachia that I really learned to appreciate them.  It's a very tiny church in Wyoming, maybe three or four churches at the most, and I never grew up in a town that had an active Unitarian congregation until I moved to Laramie.  The Laramie UU church was my first, and I learned about it when one of my out-of-state residents when I was an RA was a practicing Unitarian.  In general, most people think of it as the "liberal church" and that it's where all the secular college professors go.  My fundamentalist roommate once referred to them as "that church that doesn't believe in God" (an unfair characterization, to be sure.) Pretty much anybody not intimately familiar with the church or their mission, I'm afraid, thinks of them more as "outsiders." 

On the flip side, the congregation has a great reputation around town for being socially active and caring people, particularly because some members of the church are professors who then also involve themselves actively in the rest of the community.  That level of cross-community involvement can be hard to find sometimes.  But just like the Baptists always seemed just a little out-of-step with the rest of the Great Plains society around them, you can say that the Unitarians are as well, but for different reasons.  The Baptists have rigid social codes that line up with Plains society, but their evangelistic roots set them apart from a private, hands-offish culture.  The Unitarians stand out because, although they embrace the "live and let live" tolerance philosophy of the Plains, they also see the social injustice in the dominant culture and constantly strive to change it.

The LDS church on 15th street, Laramie.
Both faiths are "guilty," so to speak, of a level of social interference out of pace with the culture at large: while the Baptists involve themselves with the individual, the Unitarians try to engage and change the larger social order.  As for which one had the easier time fitting in to the culture, the answer is clear: it's the conservative, highly individualistic faith that doesn't muck around with social mores.  Baptists can blend in quite well; the Unitarians, however, are always to the outside, because while their love of tolerance and non-confrontation would seem to fit the Plains character well, their interference with the established order of things is deemed more offensive to the culture at large.  

And so, while it might seem strange to put Stephen Mead Johnson and The Baptist Minister in the same boat, this is where I will leave you. 

Until next time,


I'd like to extend one last thank-you out to "Andrew" and the rest of his cast/crew for allowing me to publish these conversations.  I hope your production turned out to be wonderful. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The UK Conversations, Part III: Minority relations

"Andrew," a member of a  UK-based production of The Laramie Project,  had some questions about Laramie life that would help him and his colleagues prepare for their roles.  The third question had to do with out patchy race relations in Wyoming: 
I was wondering if you might have a few words on the prison. I'm playing, as well as Dennis Shepard, Andrew Gomez the convict who met Aaron inside Jail. What was the Latino community in Laramie- very small? Thought of as outsiders, criminals? What jobs did they work?
In order to answer your questions on the jail a little better, I need to clarify: do you mean the county lockup, or the state prison where McKinney and Harrison sent after their conviction?  The one is in Laramie and basically a little side building next to the courthouse, but the other is in Rawlins. 

As for the Latino community, this is a question that I've been asked before, and don't feel super confident in answering, but I'll do my best.  The truth is that Laramie's Latino community was rarely thought about at all, almost an invisible population of sorts.  In fact, when I asked my husband Badger about their position in Laramie, he smirked and said, "you mean, they existed?"  That's a telling comment: even though the Latino population is the state's largest minority, they don't really "stand out," so to speak.   When I was in Laramie, I had almost no interaction with the Latino community per se on the campus, and this is where my isolation from the rest of the town makes it harder to speak with confidence.

If their treatment is anything like some of the other ethnic minorities in Wyoming, however, a lot of their status depends on whether they were born native to the region or not.  If you grew up in the region and understand its mores, you are largely accepted as part of the community, at least to a certain extent.  There's also a class difference, too: many of Laramie's minorities come in as highly educated professionals at the university and therefore have a privileged status in the community.  But those Latinos moving from other parts of the country without those credentials, and especially the 2% who emigrate from Mexico, are very much on the margins.   And, since Laramie's economy is not based on Wyoming's more prosperous mining, farming, and oil industries, that limits the number of good-paying jobs available to a population already pushed to the edges.

My sister Sparrowhawk was a foreman for a road construction subcontractor, and for a while my brother Coyote worked in the same company.  Sparrowhawk often had Latino crew members working as flagmen and maintainers. The rest of her road crew usually comprised of high school dropouts and recent parolees, if that gives you some idea of their relative social standing.  I think that many of them, like Aaron and Russ, also worked in roofing and construction.  As you can imagine, this leaves those families working these jobs in a precarious spot, especially if they have a language barrier working against them.  Construction is heavily seasonal work and often leaves people unemployed for months over the winter.  This marginalization seems all the more stark to me when you realize that the Mexican vaqueros (or "buckaroos" in my lingo) were the first and finest cowboys in North America, but to my very limited knowledge I never saw that many break into ranching around there.  

I have been told that some Native American and Latino families left Laramie after the Shepard murder because they felt physically threatened.  I can't vouch for that, but it makes a lot of sense to me.  As you may know, McKinney and Henderson were arrested initially for getting into a fight with two young men the day after they kidnapped Shepard; the cops found Shepard's identification and shoes in the truck, and that connected them to Matthew's beating.  What you may not know is that the two men McKinney attacked were Latinos.  Tiffany Edwards wrote an article on the confrontation in the Laramie Daily Boomerang after Matthew died: less than a day after attacking Shepard, McKinney pistol-whipped one of the young men, Emiliano Morales, after he slashed McKinney's truck tire.  The victim's father said that "[McKinney] would have done the same thing" to Emiliano that he had done to Shepard if he, like Matt, had been alone at the time.  Laramie Latinos, therefore, might very well have interpreted Matthew Shepard's murder as a warning against them just as much as the gay community did.  I can't confirm that this was the case.  But I could see why it might be true. 

The second reason is that our cultural landscape has never granted much of a place for displaced minorities.  Although Native Americans are also a minority in Laramie, they have a very clear place in the Western mythos; we need them to play a specific role in the stories we like tell about ourselves as a culture.  That doesn't translate to better social treatment, but they are at least recognized.  The Hispanic migrants don't have a historical role to play in our cultural memory, and that causes its own problems.   We overlook their contributions.  We take them for granted.  Sometimes we view them as dangerous.  Southern Wyoming has a very long history of bringing ethnic minorities in to work construction on our transportation lines and then brutalizing them.  If you have some spare time, just look up the phrase "Rock Springs Massacre" and you'll see what I mean. 

That's about all I have time for tonight...  I'll write again soon.   Until then,