From Illinois to Charleston and Home, Again


“Bunny” Rodrigues and her husband Andrew Rodrigues work together on a burlap sign that will hang in the new Gullah Museum. (Eileen Keithly/For South Strand News Vermelle )

By Amy Carr

Having just traveled to the Carolinas from Illinois, I’m thinking of Benedict’s expectation that members of the community tend to their business and return home, avoiding distractions.

That’s not how most of us travel today, of course. All the same, when any of us travels from a home where we have a sense of place, we often return more aware of where we live – more aware of our daily patterns, of the unique rhythms and gatherings that shape our own communities.

We can also return more aware that all places are somehow present to us, wherever we are.

My partner and I timed our visit to the Carolinas so that we could attend a family reunion and visit family members on both his mother’s and his father’s side. So we crisscrossed the border between North and South Carolina more than once, spending time in Nashville, Knoxville, Asheville, King’s Mountain (site of a mountain militia defeat of the British during the Revolutionary War), Charlotte, a farm near Bishopsville, Charleston, and various sea islands and coastal areas.

We happened to be in Charleston the day of the racist shootings in Emmanuel AME, and walked past the church and many camera crews the next day as we headed to and from a walking tour of historic Charleston. That event radiates out like a broken center of the dozen days of our journey.

I got enough of a sense of the racial history of Charleston, though, to not be surprised that family members of those murdered forgave the young man who took away their loved ones. Charleston has been predominantly African American, with many families – white and black – going back generations, knowing one another. There is a sense of belonging to one another, sharing life now and in the past 200-300 years, across and through slavery and its racist post-Civil War legacy. It’s not an easy co-existence, but it’s a long term one.

Unless we are Native American, we lack that sense of a longer shared history in Midwestern communities. Growing up amid an Ojibwe reservation on the shores of Lake Superior in Upper Michigan, I knew where the old Indian trails began that led from the Lake down to Wisconsin. I felt aware that the spirits of the place were tied much less to my family, with its mostly 20th century immigrant roots, and much more to the land and to the Ojibwe and their seasonal patterns: wintering in scattered improvised shelters in the woods, summering on Keweenaw Bay in what would later become my town of L’Anse.

Sitting on some of the most ancient surfaced rock in the world — over 1 billion years old — I would look out at the quite young Lake Superior , shaped by the last ice age that ended only 10,000 years ago, and feel like I myself  was just a skin cell, formed and sloughed in a short span. Growing up in the UP, I felt the presence of the land as the most ancient, enduring reality – as the psalmists sensed the mountains signified something of God.

The Carolina mountain roads, tree-lined and largely rural, reminded me more of Upper Michigan than of the cornfields and soybeans of western Illinois, where I live now. But the cities are not like Chicago, where I lived for eight years, where all corners of the world come to meet in a cacophony of neighborhoods, each flavored by its immigrants and settlers. Even the older parts of Chicago have a sense of the 20th century about them, and not much before that. This isn’t the case in places like Charleston and Georgetown.

A highlight of our travels was an hour conversation with the septuagenarian couple, Bunny and Andrew Rodrigues, who run the small Gullah Museum in Georgetown, 70 miles or so north of Charleston on the Atlantic coast. The couple is a national treasure. Indeed, Bunny was commissioned to make a quilt for Michelle Obama, tracing Michelle’s own Gullah ancestry and family events culminating in her journey to the White House. The quilt now hangs in the Smithsonian. Andrew had been a chemist, but in their later years they moved to Bunny’s hometown of Georgetown and educate all who come by about Gullah culture, rooted in rice and in a slow-paced rural life that perpetuated many African cultural practices.

I noticed that AME churches dot the landscape in the coastal Carolinas the way Lutheran churches do in the upper Midwest. Oddly, that made the place feel familiar to me  –  perhaps because both AME and Lutheran churches are regionally oriented and are historically tied to particular ethnic groups, for better or worse. Both convey a sense of place – a sense that Benedictines stress highly as well.

Traveling back by way of southern Illinois, I noticed the gradual transitions of landscape – the way that our categories of “Midwest” and “South” blur in so many places (certainly in Macomb, where I live  –  where accents are shaped by the Appalachian migrants who came here in the 19th century).

Sitting now on my screened in back porch on a warm day, I feel aware of the intimate unity among all places and peoples. It’s a unity too vast to comprehend. But what happens in Charleston is in our own backyard, too. There is a road that connects them. And what happens in our souls in prayer touches on all places where life has been, is now, or will be.

Traveling to a place new to us can deepen our sense of how all things, old and new, are always within the reach of touch – in prayer, in the mind and heart of God.

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