I moved to Sebring, FL 6 ½ years ago. Originally, I am from Long Island, NY, but I have also called MN, MO and MI home.
Moving here was not easy, as Sebring was a small, rural-like town, in which the nearest Target and Best Buy was an hour away, and I had to drive ninety minutes away to Tampa to get a decent pair of dress shoes.
It took me awhile to adjust to the people, the pace, and the culture. The turning point happened one Sunday when I came home from church. My neighbors were down by the lake, fishing, playing country music, and their kids were loudly playing and splashing about. I was tired and wanted quiet, but decided I was not going to be “that neighbor.”
More importantly, I was not going to be that privileged Yankee pastor (who happens to be gay), who expected everyone to abide by my momentary needs.
So taking a cue from Christ, and the spirit of Communion, I took out my bottle of tequila, all my shot glasses, and my serving tray, walked down to the dock, and invited everyone to join me in shots.
Here’s what happened- we had fun. We bonded. We joked. Before the afternoon ended, I was called “Bubba” and “Uncle”- signs of respect and friendlessness that I did not take for granted. From that night on I left my front door unlocked because I knew I was part of a community, that I was safe, and if anyone tried to mess with me, I had neighbors who had my back. Every Sunday afterwards we would hang out at the dock, doing what Floridians do.
This is the Sebring I know; this is the Sebring I have come to love.
Yes, Sebring is uber-Republican; yes- many people voted for Trump; yes- Sebring is conservative. But it is conservative in the way one would use the word “traditional.”
Not traditional in the negative sense we New Yorkers or so-called progressives view the word, but traditional as in:
-family comes first,
-your friends and their family are important,
-children are taught at an early age to say “sir” and “ma’am,”
-people are comfortable praying in public (be it at a restaurant, before a game, a performance at the local theatre, a County Commissioner Meeting, an art gallery opening),
-somehow everyone is connected, so when something tragic occurs, we all know someone who knows someone, so we are affected as well.
Traditional as in people are connected to their land. People work with their hands. People have guns but are not reckless with them. People have guns so they can hunt, so they can protect their farm/ friends/family from venomous snakes or unsavory animals, and yes- to protect themselves from criminals and not be a helpless victim.
Most people I know have a gun. None of them treat their firearm lightly; they are cautious. I have friends who I would trust 100% to come armed to my church, theatre or house (just as my Dad, a NYC cop, always had a gun).
Here’s what else I learned- here in Sebring, folk are folk. Most people I know let others do what they do, as long as they do not interfere with their rights, or act as if they are better/smarter/different. In other words- don’t have airs, don’t act high and mighty, and don’t condescend.
So I can be an openly gay Yankee pastor of a progressive, liberal-leaning church who’s seen out and about with friends who are black, Hispanic, or/and gay. And no one cares.
Which means you can go to Sonny’s BBQ during lunch time and see blue-collar workers in plaid shirts sit next to retirees with Vietnam veterans hats with business-folk in white shirts and ties, and me- working on a sermon with books spread out around me- all drinking sweet tea, eating pulled pork or ribs, and no one bothers nobody.
Sebring is the kind of town that when South Publix closed for a year to remodel, we all felt the affect, and when it reopened we all made a pilgrimage there.
Sebring is the kind of town in which thousands of people- young, old, black, white, Hispanic- will gather at the Downtown Circle to spend 2 hours cheering on the participants of the Christmas parade, even if the float is nothing more than a few people waving from a barely-decorated pick-up truck.
The kind of town in which if you need someone to do something at your house you know somebody who knows somebody who they can recommend and you can trust.
Is Sebring perfect? Is Sebring free of all hate, racism, sexism or homophobia? Heck no. But is any town? Those things have been around since time began, and they always will be (to some degree).
Why am I sharing all this? Because it’s been nearly 2 weeks in this post-election President-Elect world. And I know people are scared, worried, anxious, unsure.
Incidents of hate crime and speech have spiked around the nation. I wonder, however, if this is a natural form of pent-up release from some people who have felt ignored, judged, looked-down upon for the past few years. (Kind of like the anger/frustration 2nd or 3rd born children may feel about the 1st born child who acts as if he/she is better/smarter/more important than the rest.) And that eventually, this will fade back to how things were.
Not perfect, but not ramped up.
I worry that people are turning too much, too soon to social media, in which they put everything out there, immediately, without time to give critical thought to the power of their words.
I worry that those who express fear, anger, and assumption-based anxiety are not in fact creating they very thing they are fearful/anxious about. Spiritually speaking, we can create bad things or evil when we speak bad and evil; we can create monsters by expecting someone to be a monster.
I also worry that those who voted for Trump, those who are decent hard-working, family/friend/land/God based people, and those who have always been (and will always be) Republicans may also be unintentionally creating monsters or speaking bad/evil into being by some of their comments that can sound like attacks, or misogyny, or delight in half the nation feeling deep grief.
As a pastor, who loves my church, and loves my adopted Sebring home, I have not publicly (or from the pulpit) spoken out against or for any of our presidential candidates.
What I can say is that I’ve observed some behaviors of Trump that seems to be narcissistic in nature, and I am aware of what a narcissist can do to a person or group of people. I am paying attention to decisions being made and people being suggested/appointed to certain roles.
But I am willing to wait, to see, to trust. Who knows- with one party leading the country for the first time in a long time, things may change, get done and improve.
Or, maybe our leaders will be given a long enough rope that they will hang themselves and have no one else to blame.
Maybe the middle class will rise; maybe they will stay as-is maybe they will fall. If things go great we know who to thank. If they go bad we know who to blame.
Maybe we’ll become a police-state, or maybe we’ll become more Libertarian minded. Maybe we can trust that most republicans want what is best for all, and if there are any abuses of power or mistreatment to our “tired, poor…(and) huddled masses” or anything that desecrates our “Land of the Free” that they will speak up and act.
Maybe, post-election, more people will become involved in their local government, their state government, and continue to vote in all elections. Maybe it would be good for us, as individuals, to attend not just the meetings of our own political party, but to attend the Tea-Party, the Democratic, and Republican parties so as to hear the joys, the concerns, the issues, the differing view-points, and to understand one another’s wants.
Maybe- for those of us living in Sebring, we can trust that we will be OK. That our locally-elected leaders will do their best to ensure that all our citizens have a good way of life. That our newly elected Sherriff will work to keep us safe. That our local economy will continue to grow and improve.
Maybe, we can believe that if anyone, anywhere does tries to start some mess, be it with racist, or Islamaphobic, anti-Jewish or homophobic, that our leaders, our neighbors, our citizens will not allow it, and stand up for the right of Sebring’s folk to be folk.
And though I have not said or written much during this election period, I hope that I will be able to speak up or write if I do perceive there to be injustice or acts that go against my understanding of what a People’s President should and should not do.
And I hope that I can welcome other views, as long as they do not inflict or create great harm.
In closing, one story to share.
Since the election I noticed a guy across the street, a few doors down has put up three (3!) Trump/Pence signs and has been building something at night. I fearfully imagined that he was building a barricade or a shelter. Not wanting to give in to fear, I decided to walk to his house. I said hello and immediately I was warmly greeted.
Turns out the guy is making his own “Margaritaville” bar/deck. He works with concrete during the day. At night he is repurposing pieces of wood (some from an old door) into a bar that his wife has painted many different colors. His wife and daughter came out and instantly acknowledged that I am a pastor and asked about my church.
Then another neighbor, a teenage boy of Puerto Rican descent, came over to hang out with all of us. Not a big deal. Just folk being folk being folk being folk.
That’s the Sebring I have known and come to love. That’s the Sebring made up with a diversity of people all trying to make the best out of what they got.
That’s the Sebring I expect it to be when all the fuss slowly eases away after such a long, painful election process.
I trust that no matter what, we will see this through. I trust my friends, I trust my church family, and I trust our community. I trust God.