Driving helped. Nothing can really compare to flashing down a deserted Tennessee highway with the glow and promise of spring reflecting off the Smoky Mountains. The concentration required to navigate the shadowy and winding roads toward Cherokee Valley was a welcome break. It was quiet. We didn’t know what to expect.
Our goal was to immerse ourselves in Native American culture and the intentional community we had built for ourselves. We walked around the Qualla boundary, along the creek, through a pop-up bamboo forest with the initials of not-so-eternal couples etched rather eternally into the stalks. When we spent some time with the Lumbee tribe in Robeson County later in the week, we canoed down the Lumber River, tipped one another over, and helped friends swim to shore.
What we did, more than anything else, was talk to people. Actually, talk isn't the right word. We listened. We listened, with the most open hearts and minds, to the stories of anyone who would spare their time. And, oh, the people we met.
My trip to Robeson County, North Carolina, was my first excursion into the Deep South. Perhaps due to my upbringing in a suburb of New York City, or perhaps due to personal exploration (a little less likely), God makes me uneasy. But in Robeson County, God was common language.
On one of our last days in North Carolina, we met Ms. Loretta and Mr. Henry. We stood in their backyard in a 20,000 person town—which was one of the biggest in the county—and listened to stories. Mr. Henry used a 40 year old kiln made of scrap metal fashioned by a local high school’s woodshop class to fire his pottery, and Ms. Loretta collected long pine needles for her baskets. Every once in a while, we would hear a bird overhead and Ms. Loretta would stop. Hawks were messengers from God, she said. They told her things.
So we stood, and we listened. Ms. Loretta asked us to pray and ended each goodbye with a hug and a "God bless you." But what I started hearing was something different than what I usually hear. Where I normally heard confrontation, indoctrination, and conversion, I heard acceptance.
What I heard was someone wanting me to join her community, to be safe, to be a part of something bigger with her. It was a welcoming into a new environment with open arms, an invitation into some of her more personal decisions. What I heard was hope and faith that we would come back each year—a thank you. I could hear the thoughts and emotions implicit in her words. It was something bigger than a personal preference. It didn’t startle me anymore.