I love Maggie Valley. Maggie Valley is home to Joey’s Pancake House, Cataloochee Ski Area, Ghost Town in the Sky, Stompin’ Grounds, Aunt Teak and Uncle Junk’s place. Some are gone of course, but they are still fully alive in my memory. Back in my early years, any trip from Cherokee to Asheville went through Maggie Valley. I always sat in the back seat on the passenger’s side, right behind my mom. A trip to Asheville usually meant something important was happening—family night out for dinner and a movie, or dinner and a John Denver concert, or a trip to the dentist’s office. In those moments before we all loaded into the car, my mom would splash on some White Shoulders perfume. I would climb into the back seat behind my well-perfumed mother, and would brace myself for the ride. We turned left out of the driveway and began the curvy climb up Soco Mountain—my tendency for carsickness all but guaranteed by the fumes emanating from the front. Closed eyes and cracked windows usually prevented the need for Dad to pull over. Almost without fail, the perfume faded and my stomach settled as we descended into Maggie Valley. There was always beauty on the other side.
But the news coming out of Maggie Valley this week has left me feeling very unsettled. Kyle Perrotti’s article in The Mountaineer, along with the pictures and videos from the recent Black Lives Matter protest in this quiet mountain town, have sent me on a disturbing emotional ride. I feel angry that thirty peaceful BLM protesters were confronted by two hundred belligerent counter-protesters. They spat venom, flew confederate flags, and threatened violence. I feel disgust that some representing the church were aggressive and confrontational. One religious woman said, “You need Jesus. You need the Lord. You need to get saved. There’s no hope for you. You are going to hell.” I feel sad—like I’ve lost something beautiful. My memories of this place have been tainted. I also feel afraid. Another protest is scheduled for August 1.
At the beginning of this pandemic, FUMC youth made yard signs with hopeful messages and posted them all over town. Meredith Bradshaw planted a sign in our front yard that read, “Focus on the Good.” For two months, this sign was a constant reminder that no matter the circumstances, God’s goodness is always present in some way. But then the world started burning, and the sign’s meaning seemed to shift a bit. I called Meredith and she agreed. We changed the sign. Last week, an anonymous, hand-written letter came in the mail. “The Black Lives Matter sign needs to go away. It has been in your yard long enough. It is “offensive.” Get rid of it! I know you are a n_ _ _ _ _r loving, same sex lover—a disgrace as a minister. Shame on you! Get out.” I resisted the temptation to build a bigger, more permanent sign, and simply moved it closer to the mailbox.
I’m not the kind of person who likes to make signs and march in protests. I have never been that guy. But everything has changed. I’m not the same person I was five months ago. I know without question that these protests matter. They raise awareness to things that might otherwise remain unnoticed. There actually is a time to “focus on the bad.” We can’t keep sweeping things under the rug. The protests matter because people like me start asking questions about things that we should have learned about in fourth grade history class. What is Juneteenth? What are reparations? What is redlining? What happened at Tulsa and Stonewall? Because of these protests, all of the major booksellers and local bookstores can’t keep copies of the books white people should be reading. I guess because we’re actually reading them. So that’s good. The protests have effectively grabbed the country’s attention. But consciousness raising isn’t enough. My awareness of a problem doesn’t solve the problem. It’s simply a left turn out of the driveway.
Two images fill me with hope. The first image is a zoom screen. Last Friday, I attended a Haywood County Race Relations meeting. The fourteen little squares on my computer screen were filled with prominent leaders and clergy from the African American community, the mayor, the sheriff and chief of police, the superintendent of Haywood County Schools, and other interested people like me. This group engaged in serious conversation about school curriculum, confederate flags on school campuses, recruiting African American and Latino businesses to Waynesville, churches sharing resources, and the importance of electing a more diverse, representative school board. The protests matter.
The second image that gives me hope was posted by Perrotti in his article. Canton native Karley Simmons, a young African American woman and co-organizer of the event, is seen in Maggie Valley courageously addressing a group of counter-protesters. Her courage inspires me. She said in the interview, “I’m scared coming out of this. I don’t know what their intentions are after this. But either way, we are going to continue, we are going to force change, and this movement’s not going away until we achieve change.” These protests matter. Closed eyes and cracked windows will no longer prevent the nausea. It’s time to brace ourselves for the ride. It’s time to overcome this mountain with our eyes and our doors wide open. The beauty of God’s kingdom is on the other side.