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Why I Love Durham: 10 Signs of Hope

October 6, 2009

Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis

I love Durham.  The treasure of Duke Gardens.  Best restaurants in the region (named “America’s foodiest small town“).  Vibrant downtown development — turning former brick tobacco warehouses into apartments, restaurants, and retail — including the signature American Tobacco Project.  Even US News & World Report couldn’t resist naming Durham one of the 10 Best places to live in the nation.  And you can get anywhere in this city of 260,000 in 20 minutes.  And Coach K lives and works here (okay, I just lost some folks there).

It feels more real here than our neighbor Chapel Hill.  Durham has a rich ethnic mix with one of the U.S.’s fastest-growing Latino populations.  On Sundays, Duke Gardens swarms with people of all nations and colors.

But there is another story beneath the success story.  Durham’s growth easily leaves many behind, and would like to imagine a new “post-racial” reality which forgets underlying tensions.  These are the stories that don’t make the “top ten” lists.

Which gets to why I really love Durham:  the extraordinary bridgebuilders given to this city who lay down their lives to see that “the least” are not forgotten, that gentrification is matched with justice, that the messiness of racial realities are engaged on the way to a new beloved community, and who live with patience in turbulent places from the ‘hood to the academy.

Here are a few of Durham’s great gifts.  There are others, but I’ve seen these bridgebuilders up close and personal.  They’re the real deal and their DNA gives Durham the potential to be a great city:

Jonathan and Leah Wilson-Hartgrove and their “new monasticism” friends at the Rutba House and Walltown neighbors who show the power of “being with” versus “doing for”…

Robert Daniels and Sylvia Hayes at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in the Walltown neighborhood who are convinced their African-American church should be a good home for white folks too…

John Blake of Child Evangelism Fellowship, who is rallying churches around neglected communities in the name of Christ…

Jeff and Susan McSwain of Reality Ministries who provide a place of hospitality and friendship for the disabled (my teenage daughter can’t wait to go to the weekly “Tuesday Night Live”)…

Pastor Bill Turner at Mt Levell Baptist Church — the best preacher I know — who was a leader in integrating Duke’s campus and football team, and crosses divides  every week to teach preaching at the Divinity School to mostly white students …

Former “soccer mom” Marcia Owen of the Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham who organizes vigils every time there is a murder at the site of the killing, and leads our city not only in learning to lament, but in reconciliation between perpetrators and their communities…

In our highly polarized politics, he is an unlikely choice perhaps:  Duke political science professor Peter Feaver is one of the few avowed Republican professors on campus, worked for the Bush administration, and has brought Karl Rove to campus.  Why I admire Peter is his deep friendships with those “across the aisle” and his love of a good give-and-take.  And his guts for being right where he is.

Rev. Kevin Baker of Reconciliation United Methodist Church has labored over ten years with others planting one of the few truly interracial congregations in the city.  Not only have they embraced the black-white divide but their services are translated into Spanish, and last year the church moved into a lower-income neighborhood…

Rev.  Julio and Marty Ramirez-Eve at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church who I have watched provide food and a listening ear to  Latino neighbors from their surrounding community, and who bear witness to their pain (see “Illegals Living in ‘State of Terror‘”)…

But Durham’s greatest treasure of all is long-time advocate of the poor and apostle of reconciliation Ann Atwater.  The story of her unlikely road to friendship with Klan activist C.P. Ellis in the 1970’s and their common work for the poor of our city (told in the  Studs Terkel book Race and The Best of Enemies) is a foretaste of a new reality, a glimpse of a pathway toward what our best selves can become across divides, an icon that reveals “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”  What gifts on this ground of Durham, North Carolina.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Karl Umble permalink
    October 7, 2009 9:19 am

    Thanks Chris. These are great. It is a good discipline to name these kinds of blessings. It helps others appreciate all that we have. Its good to live life with an eye to all of the blessings present rather than always or only focusing on the many needs around us, as many of us are accustomed to doing.

  2. Gann permalink
    October 11, 2009 6:42 am

    I miss Durham like crazy–we have a few overlaps, like Marcia Owens and Ann Atwater, but I also love Durham because of Durham CAN and People’s Alliance, hard-working city council members like Diane Catotti, city parks like Central and Northgate Parks, Durham Farmers Market, The old DAP, the KNOW and Regulator bookstores, and so many hard-working folks who care about the city and its people, especially those who struggle to feed their families and keep them healthy. In southern Africa during the apartheid decade of the 80’s, I learned from fellow Christians how important it was to fight for the right to be involved in one’s government. In Durham I began to exercise those rights for myself, and learned the joy of working alongside others to bring justice and equity to our schools, parks and city government. I raised my children to be voters, to campaign for integrated schools, to care about the streams and parks in the city, to love our neighbors. And i found companionship in gritty, in your face Durham folks. Go Durham!

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