One of the most insightful blogs is written by Joel Rieves. Joel was raised in the North Carolina Piedmont, where he acquired a sense of humor, a healthy disrespect for authority and sense of duty toward others. During his 23 years as a fireman, Joel saw firsthand the large numbers of people living poverty in this country. In 2012, he quit the fire department to pursue his dream of being a writer. His views have been formed by his work with non-profit ministries such as Love Wins, years in the church and incessant reading. He writes a blog on religion and spirituality called “But Not Yet”.
Thank you Joel for doing this interview. What was it like growing up in North Carolina?
It was great. We lived out in the country and I roamed all the woods around my house. Our schools were excellent (even if I didn’t get to take some of the fancy courses the city kids got) and I received a very education. In some ways, it was totally different from today and in others, eerily the same. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I have vivid memories of the civil rights movement and, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen and heard things that are strangely reminiscent of those days. Amendment One (our marriage amendment) and the new voting laws would’ve fit right in back then.
In your first blog, you wrote that you were once a member of the United Methodist Church. What was your religious upbringing like? What made you decide to leave that particular denomination?
As you say, I grew up attending Rehobeth UMC and I loved it. It was as close to a neighborhood church as you could find outside of town and the people I attended with were neighbors, relatives and schoolmates. When I was around 11 years old, my family left Rehobeth and joined an independent charismatic group that turned out to be pretty much a cult. There was a lot of abuse, both spiritual (and for me) physical. We stayed there for about 5 or 6 years and it was rough. To be honest, it caused a major rift between my father and I because I felt he didn’t do his job in protecting me. Fortunately, that rift was healed almost 20 years ago and our relationship was great until the day he died. I came back to UMC in 2004 at the urging of my daughter, who wanted to go to church. At the time, I was living in Knightdale NC, a suburb of Raleigh, and I started attending Knightdale UMC. In those days, I really enjoyed it. My pastor was a wonderful woman who opened my eyes to the real Gospel of Jesus (love) and was a mentor to me. I have always felt that who a person loved was their own business (as long as it was consenting adults, of course) and found the negative emphasis that some churches put on LGBT issues off-putting, to say the least. In 2011, I moved back to Greensboro to close to my daughters and was attending a Methodist church here. It was during the height of the Occupy movement and I heard members of church founded on social justice issues bitterly criticizing the protesters and began to realize that I might be in the wrong place. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the 2012 General Conference vote on the language in the Discipline concerning LGBT folks. The conservative response, especially when they wouldn’t even allow a statement that this was not a consensus view in the UMC, seemed to me to be arrogant and mean-spirited and I knew I couldn’t stay any longer.
For 23 years, you were a fireman. What did you enjoy about being a fireman? How did that experience shape your personal views?
When I was younger, I enjoyed the excitement. As I got older, the service aspect became more important. It always felt good to know that what I did made a difference in people’s lives. How did it shape my views? I got a look into a world that I might never have seen otherwise. Middle-class Americans have no idea what poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, etc. is really like. At first, I didn’t really see these people as anything like me. But, then, I got to know a couple and their stories weren’t all that different from my own. When I began digging into my faith and the Bible, I realized they were some of the neighbors Jesus called me to love.
In your blog, you have a corner button that directs readers to your blogs on marriage equality. You’ve written several insightful blogs about how normal your gay friends are, about the struggles of Evangelicals over LGBT issues, about your joy over the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA. How did you become a strong supporter of LGBT rights? How you see Christians and the Church evolve on these issues?
As I said earlier, I was never a big critic of LGBT people. Throughout my life, I’ve known LGBT people (some out, some not) and realized that they were no different from anyone else. They had the same wants, needs and desires; the same fears, worries and problems (plus a few more) as the rest of us. My support stepped up a notch last year when my youngest daughter came out. As her father, there was no way I could stand by and say nothing while people attempted to marginalize her. How do I see the Christians and the church evolving on this? Slowly, but surely. The younger generations, having grown up around openly gay people don’t see this as the make-or-break issue their parents do. Eventually, this will be something that we look back on in shame, much the same as we do slavery.
One of the things that I enjoy about your blog is that you try to be kind and respectful towards those that you disagree with. When criticizing fundamentalist belief, you try to avoid being smug and condescending. A prime example of that is your recent post about the debate between Science Guy, Bill Nye and Young Earth guru, Ken Ham about the subject of Evolution and Creationism. How do you maintain this sort of equanimity when debating about often polarizing subjects?
I haven’t always been so magnanimous as a look back at some older posts will show. But, Hugh Hollowell once asked me if I wanted to be known as “that guy”, the one who’s always pissed off. And, I had to admit, I didn’t. So, whenever I write about polarizing subjects, I always try to remember that those “subjects” are people just like me, with all the same faults and foibles that I have. And, that they’re probably not as nearly as bad as I think they are. They may be misguided, but rarely are they evil. And, everyone, no matter how bad they might be, deserves the same grace that’s been shown to me.
On of the most interesting blogs that I’ve read of yours involves the controversy of Phil Robertson of the Duck Dynasty show. You make a distinction between bigotry and ignorance that I thought was very insightful. I know several people who think homosexuality is a sin, but also have close gay and lesbian friends and family members whom they care about. How did you get this insight about the difference between ignorance and bigotry? Do you think it is possible for these people to be educated out of this ignorance?
Through experience. As I said in the Robertson piece, I grew up with people like Phil Robertson and I know them to be good, caring decent people. Ignorant, yes; prejudiced, absolutely; but without a hateful bone in their body.
Is it possible for them to be educated out of this ignorance? Sure, it’s possible. I mean, it’s possible that I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize one day. The real question is, is it probable? The answer is yes, for some. But, a great many of them will cling to their ignorance and prejudice until they die. Which makes me very sad, because they’re really better people than that.
You have been a strong supporter of the Moral Monday rallies that have been going on in North Carolina for the past few months. Would you describe to our readers what is the purpose of the Moral Monday rallies? What have been your experiences been like when you’ve attended those rallies?
In 2010, Republicans won control of both houses of the NC General Assembly for the first time since 1870 and set about making changes. In 2012, Pat McCrory was elected governor, giving Republicans control of both the legislative and executive branches with a super-majority in both houses of the GA. Things really got interesting, then. The current government in NC is, in my opinion, more regressive than the Redeemer administrations of the late 19th century which enacted most of the Jim Crow laws. Moral Mondays began as a small group led by Rev. William Barber (Pres. of the NC chapter of NAACP) protesting at these regressive policies. The last rally, on Feb. 8th, drew somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people.
I’ve only made it to one rally (the last one), but it was amazing to be a part of history like that. I can definitely say it won’t be the last one I attend.
I’m curious to know what it’s like being a progressive Christian in South Carolina. I live in California, a fairly liberal state, and I still have gotten into a few exasperating conflicts with conservative Christians that really shook my confidence. Have you been able to maintain a respectful relationship with your conservative neighbors?
Well, I won’t say it’s ever been easy, but it’s certainly been harder since the rise of the Tea Party. That group hit a lot buttons with conservative white people who are beginning to see the end of their dominance in this country. And, as a firefighter, I worked with a lot of conservative white people who thought they were the bomb. The main way I maintain a respectful relationship with them is we don’t talk about politics or religion very much. And, by very much, I mean hardly at all. Once in a while, one of will strike a nerve with the other and things will get a little heated, but we usually end up laughing about it. The fact that most of my conservative friends are firefighters helps. There’s a brotherhood and camaraderie that keeps all that in perspective.
In your blog, you mention that you are pursuing a dream of being a writer. What have you done to pursue that dream? What writers do you admire?
Well, my blog is a big piece of that. And, I’m working on a couple of books; one fiction, one non-fiction. What writers do I admire? Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore, Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry (he was from Greensboro), Frederick Buechnner, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins and Stanley Hauerwas (even though the last two make my head hurt sometimes).
Recently the national debate has been focused on economic justice issues. Economic inequality is a widely discussed topic in recent political conversations. The Pope in December criticized unfettered free market economies for the harm it does to the poor. How do you think Christianity can contribute to this dialogue on economic justice issues?
By being our conscience on this issue and keeping the teachings of Jesus in everyone’s face all the time. And, I’m not talking about the actual Jesus, not Republic Jesus.
What places would you recommend a first time visitor of North Carolina to visit?
Well, the beach is a no-brainer. One of the things NC gets right is protecting our seashore, so there are no hard barriers and development is kept behind the barrier dunes in places where it’s allowed at all (undeveloped beach front is becoming extremely rare, however). The mountains are also a must-see are. I’ll always recommend a ride down the Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall. There’s plenty to see inn between those two areas, too. Greensboro has the International Civil Rights Museum, located in the former F. W. Woolworth building where the first sit-in took place. Raleigh is the state capital and has several museums and attractions, including the 1840 State Capital building. But, the best things are the stuff you stumble across on your own, so I’d say rent a car and take a drive. And, don’t forget to try some barbecue. As John Shelton Reed once said “Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.”
Here is a youtube video of the first Moral Monday in North Carolina in July 9, 2013
Here is a youtube of the Moral Monday march in February 8, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Brad Diller
An Interivew With Cartoonist Jimmy Margulies
An Interview With John Auchter
An Interview With Cartoonist Ted Rall
An Interview With Progressive Christian George Koukouris
An Interview With Cartoonist Gustavo Rodriguez
An Interview With Children’s Book Illustrator Lea Lyon
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me