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Knowing Who You Are

I had the honor this past week of seeing another pastor research part of his family history. I will leave most of the personal parts of his story out, because it’s not my story to tell. I’ll summarize, though, so that you know what happened. His father was also a pastor, and pastored several churches in the late 40s and 50s, before my pastor friend was born.

A few years back, he set a goal of visiting all the places his father had pastored before my friend was born. Sure enough, many years back, his father pastored in Immanuel, Arkansas. Immanuel is near Almyra, and is actually in Almyra’s ZIP code with the USPS. Poor decisions in history are why Almyra was granted the Post Office and Immanuel was not, but that’s a matter for another time.

It was remarkable to see how my friend took in every detail out at his father’s former ministry. Even though the building was gone, the church remains, because true churches are not about buildings. He was able to connect with a current church leader who had the history of the congregation, and who graciously allowed us into the facility to see where they are now.

This leads me to my question, both for me and for you:

Do you know who you are?

Most of us find the answer specifically in the present, with a few nods toward our future. For example, I am a husband, a pastor, a father, a son, an American, a hopeful writer, a hopeless student, and so on. All of these things are specifically related to where I am. Other parts of my identity: Christian, Baptist, White Guy; are all part of what I am made of, whether genetic or spiritual.

I think, though, that part of who I am is missing in all of these descriptions. I know who I think I am today, and who I think I will be tomorrow. I know my own history, but what of my heritage? I know snippets and stories, but I treat those so often as if they are no different than the historical lessons of Ancient Rome or Lexington and Concord. Stories worth the knowing, but detached from a passionate embrace in my heart. Head power without an emotional connection.

What I don’t know so badly eclipses what I do know about where I have come from. There have been good and bad people in my heritage, but I am reluctant to consider how these have shaped me, even though I have not known them.

We are not chained to our history, but neither are we independent of it. None of us sprung unaided from the foam of the sea. How does it affect who we are now?

I am not saying that we are bound to those moments in our heritage, but what do we know? How does our story fit in the flow? One example from the weekend was being reminded, by way of seeing an old receipt of the days of the poll taxes that were used to suppress votes in many areas of the country. (Not just the South, by the way, New York, so leave us alone.)

Did you know that in many areas, the poll taxes were not just about suppressing minority votes but about poor folks in general? The goal, overall, was to find a way to keep power consolidated in the hands of wealthy and powerful. I found in a book on the coal mining towns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the miners were often given the opportunity to pay the tax, but the mine company held on to the receipts “for safekeeping.”

Guess what happened when it came Election Day and the miners wanted to vote? If they weren’t suddenly needed to work overtime, past the polling hours, they had to find and obtain the receipt for taxes paid. If a man was known to not vote like the company wanted, his receipt might have been hard to find…

And guess what a few generations back of Hibbards did for a living?

They were coal miners. (Well, one was a horse thief, and many were preachers on the side. Including the horse thief, I think.)

Which means that our family benefited, and benefits, as much from the efforts to abolish poll taxes and other suppression efforts as anyone else did. It also shows that we are not heirs to fame and fortune, but rather heirs to something greater. Our heritage is of men and women who struggled at times to survive, and eventually overcame.

This should inform the efforts of myself and future generations, to stand for those who have no voice. To fight for the inalienable rights endowed by our Creator. Because one other thing I have learned about miners: they hate to leave anyone behind. Many of the safety rules about mine rescues originated because too many miners would die trying to rescue their fellow miners. Not by orders of management but out of loyalty to leave no one under that ground.

We do not leave anyone under that ground. We do not leave anyone oppressed and voiceless. We do not sit idly by and let others do the heavy lifting.

Even if the titles have changed, who we are, or at least who we ought to be, does not change.

Who are you? Why?

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