One Year

A year ago today, I bought the domain name for this website, Humidity And Hope.

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of that time I was threatened with arrest for feeding hungry people.

Those are not entirely unrelated facts.

In the aftermath of that day 9 years ago, my visibility skyrocketed. A fair portion of the people who read my stuff now came to know who I was in the aftermath of that day. I now had a “platform.” I was, at the time, responsible for fundraising for the small nonprofit that I had founded that would eventually serve more than 300 meals a day, and that would start what was at the time the only faith-based LGBT-affirming day shelter for people without homes in the state. A lot of people depended on me. I felt a lot of pressure to write about my work.

For the next five years, I wrote almost exclusively about faith and justice issues, especially as they related to poverty and homelessness. A lot of people still wish I would write about those things. Recently, I asked my Facebook timeline what I should write about on this blog, and more than ⅔ of the suggestions were faith/justice related.

But here’s the thing: I’m not really interested in writing about those things. But I’m very interested in doing those things. Not to say, “Hey, look at me – see this good thing I’m doing,” but because I believe that doing those things is how I want to live.

I don’t know that we need more people, especially guys, even more especially white guys – writing about what people should believe. But more than that – I am not convinced it matters at all what you believe.

I will go even further: I think that there is nothing more useless to the world than what you believe, and there’s nothing more important to the world than what you do.

I wanted a place to write about doing. Not about why you should feed the hungry, or a place to share my sermons, write about how evil the religious right is, or whatever other God-talk people would read. I don’t think in those terms anymore. I actually think it’s all God-talk.

The work I have done feeding the hungry and building the wildlife pond in my backyard comes from the desire – the mandate – to assist creation in flourishing. My time spent preaching sermons and my time walking along the creek by my house are both done in service to God. Whatever God may need from me, none of it is for me to come to God’s defense. However, the turtles and frogs are not as resilient and need my help much more.

In short, I wanted to write about my attempt to live a complete life. What does it mean to live a good life? What is required? What would that look like? I wanted to write about that.

I didn’t think it would be simple. It would be wide-ranging but centered around trying to be a certain type of person in a certain context. And for me, that context is the Deep South, which is my deepest identity.

So, over the last year, I have written about cornbread and gravy and depression and hope and birds and frogs and nature and travel and death and attempts at suicide and also about trying to live. I have published 216 posts containing over 175,000 words. I’m proud of all of them. Not because it’s the best writing I’ve ever done, but because it was all real. There was no agenda behind any of it other than to say, “Here I am. This is what I do and how I want to live. You might be interested.“ The last 12 months of publishing here have been the source of the most genuine writing I have ever done.

I’m not sure what this place really wants to be yet. But I think it’s beginning to come together. I know I’m glad I’m doing it. I’m glad I get to do it. And I’m glad you’re here.

It means more than you know.

The Giddiness of God

Tony is a Black man who lives on the edge of homelessness, with occasional bouts of sheltered living. Tony is also a gay man, but not completely out, largely due to concerns about his safety in the world he lives in. And Tony is also Christian in a very intense and Evangelical way, mostly, I suspect, as a way of dealing with his shame around his sexuality.

So when Tony came into my office and asked if he could talk to me, I knew this was going to be interesting.

I want to say upfront that while I know that there is no single Black Church Experience and that there are many positive manifestations of the Black male-led church, Tony is involved in none of those. Instead, he regularly attends a storefront Pentecostal church led by a power-hungry man who preaches prosperity theology with a side dish of shaming, who demands that people refer to him as “Pastor”. Like it’s his name.

One of Tony’s friends is Jimmy, and Jimmy is very gay and very out. Jimmy had been going to Tony’s church, and was recently “convicted” about his sexuality, and had recently been, at the encouragement of the pastor over there, committed to praying that God will take away his “homosexual desires”.

Earlier in the week, Jimmy had confessed to the pastor that it wasn’t working. Despite all his praying, Jimmy was still just a big old gay man, and this made Jimmy feel ashamed and made the pastor angry.

So at the Wednesday night prayer meeting, and at the leadership meeting afterward (that Tony was a part of), Pastor doubled down. They had a ‘Come to Jesus” meeting, Tony told me, where Pastor let it be known in no uncertain terms that being gay was a sin, against the law of God, and to prove it, they had a verse by verse reading of Romans chapter one.

Everybody in the room was supposed to read two verses out loud, and when it got to Tony, he was supposed to read verses 26 and 27 out loud.

For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

There was a long pause while they waited for Tony to read.

“I can’t do it. I won’t do it.” Tony said. And then he left.

Pastor was upset, obviously. He isn’t used to being defied. He sent Tony several texts, basically threatening his eternal salvation if he didn’t repent and come back to church.

So Tony thought about it and came to see me. Because that’s sort of what I do. I’m the pastor you come to when you don’t have anyone else to talk to. The conversation went like this:

Tony: Pastor told me last night that my being gay was a sin, and that God was angry at me.

Me: Well, what do you think?

Tony: I really don’t think it is a sin. I think God made me this way. What do you think, Hugh?

Me: I think you’re right Tony. I don’t think it is, either, and I think God made you this way.

Tony: You do? (This two-word phrase was so filled with hope, tears, and pain that it almost broke my heart.)

Me: I really do. God made you, and God doesn’t make mistakes. You are exactly the way God meant for you to be, and God loves you, and God loves that you are gay. You being gay is exactly what God wanted, and it makes God happy.

Tony, thru tears: No pastor has ever told me that before. I wish they had.

Me: I really wish they had, too.

We talked a bit after that about what Romans chapter one was actually talking about, and I lent him a couple of books that would be helpful to someone from an Evangelical background. But mainly, I let him know he was loved, by both me and by God.

As he was getting ready to leave, I asked him if he would let me read another Bible verse to him. He agreed.

So I read Romans 8:38 and 39 to him.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Him: That sounds like it’s saying that nothing can come between me and God.

Me: That’s exactly what it’s saying.

He hugged me, and then, heading to the door, stopped and turned to look back at me.

“No pastor has ever told me that before, either.”

And he walked out the door.

# # #

If you are gay, and like Tony, you have never had a minister tell you that God is happy you are gay, then please, allow me to be the one to say it.

You are made, the book of Genesis tells us, in the very image of God. You are not an afterthought or a mistake. You are not defective. Your being gay was part of the plan, and has been all along.

And because every creator delights in seeing their creation being fully utilized, God is delighted that you are gay. Not just delighted that you are attracted to other people, but your expressing your sexuality makes God happy. In exactly the same way that it makes God happy that you like to paint, or that you like to run, or that you enjoy singing songs or making music.

Your being gay, realizing you are gay, seeking to express your gayness – all of that makes God giddy with joy.

And as to what can separate you from the love of God?

Not a damned thing. Not a single damned thing.

Rituals Hold Us Together

In the Before Times, I used to travel to New York City a great deal, and a thing I love to do when alone in a different place is to explore its churches. I’m weird like that. And Manhattan has some amazing churches.

In the church world, churches that have a lot of order and structure to their service (imagine robes, chanting, and incense) are called “High” churches, and churches that do not (imagine a preacher in jeans behind a lectern) are “Low” churches, and most churches find themselves on a spectrum between those two poles. I grew up in a “Low” church environment – my people tended to distrust things like written prayers and creeds and robes.

So anyway, most of the churches I would explore in Manhattan were High churches, which always felt like a different world to me. And sometimes, there would be a service going on when I was exploring, and so I would watch. And on the particular day I want to tell you about, I was in a large Episcopal church that was mostly empty of people when I walked in, but people slowly began to trickle in and sit down in front of the altar, and so I sat in the back of the room to watch.

It turns out they were there to baptize a baby. And the couple and the godparents went up to the front, and the priest came out in his robes, and on the front row was what were obviously the grandparents, or maybe even great grandparents, as they were very frail. And on the end of the row against the wall was an elderly lady who was obviously in some sort of cognitive decline so severe as to be nonverbal.

I tried not to stare, but I found her fascinating. Because while she was obviously confused by her surroundings, she did not miss a cue in the service. When the priest began the Lord’s Prayer, she mouthed along to it in perfect timing, despite the fact that 30 seconds before she appeared to not know where she was. It was as if the ritual of the decades of recitation had worn a groove in her brain that the dementia could not erase.

Yesterday, my mom and brothers came to my house for our Christmas celebration, which we did a week later than normal because of some scheduling problems. It was the first Christmas we celebrated together as a family since Dad died (we couldn’t gather in 2020 because it was before the vaccines were available). His absence was constantly noticed, of course, and his name came up perhaps 50 times in the four hours or so we were together.

I have been dreading it for weeks – not seeing my family, who I love – but the shadow that would be over the gathering with Dad’s absence. But yesterday I realized a thing I had known, but not formulated before: Rituals hold us together.

We ate the foods we had eaten when Dad was alive. My nephew, the family pray-er, said Grace before the meal, like he did when Dad was alive. We sat in the living room after the meal and passed out presents, the way we did when Dad was alive. We told stories to the younger generations of our childhood, the way we did when Dad was alive. In other words, it was a lot like every single Christmas we had when Dad was alive – but Dad wasn’t alive.

It’s not that he wasn’t missed – he was tremendously missed. But the rituals we have developed over time gave us structure and routine that was independent of Dad being there. The rituals gave us things to hold onto, so when we didn’t know what to do, we just did the thing we normally do.

The rituals held us together.

I think about the rituals that we have in our cultures: Easter and Christmas and Passover and Ramadan. Harvest festivals. Graduations. Baptisms. Bris.  Bar Mitzvah. The recitations that give us structure: The Apostles Creed, The Shema, The Lord’s Prayer, The Pledge to the Flag.

The times may be good or bad, the fortunes around us rise or fall, but the rituals persist, and adapt, and sometimes shift around the edges, but remain fixed points in a changing, fluctuating universe.

The rituals hold us together.

A Bowl Full of Luck

Saturday is New Years Day, which means it is time for my people to eat black eyed peas and collards. For luck, you know. And growing up in and shaped by the hills of North Mississippi, and loved and fed by people who were children of the Depression and grandchildren of Reconstruction, we ate simple food, and the food of our celebrations was also simple, although given a bit more time and intention.

Now, all food is regional and cultural. And I know up North it’s corned beef and cabbage, and in the Low Country of the East Coast they eat Hopping John, but this is what my people eat for luck. That we live in a historically and persistently economically depressed area that has been perennially unlucky is not lost on me, but what are you going to do?

SoI don’t know that eating black eyed peas is actually lucky. But I do know that I love them, and will make any excuse to eat them. And besides – if we engage in pleasure when times are hard, isn’t that a sort of making your own luck? While my parents were not big eaters of greens, the old people who cared for me were, and so eating greens reminds me of happy times and the purest love I have ever known, so I make a spot for them, too.

If we want to keep traditions alive, we have to make room for them. And any tradition that involves sitting down to a meal, made with care and love, that marks the entry point into a new time of with hope and intention is a thing worth preserving.

So on New Years, we eat Black Eyed Peas and Collards.

Black eyed peas aren’t peas. They’re beans, and they have to be cooked like beans. In fact, you can cook them just like pintos and have a fully acceptable dish. But you can elevate it a bit, too. And since this is New Years after all, I tend to fancy it up. The collards are an accommodation because I’m the only person in my house that likes them, and so cooking up a large pot doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Now, doing it this way makes enough for 12 polite folks or eight hungry ones. But it halves perfectly if don’t have a lot of people to feed.

What you need:

To do this traditionally, you need the ham bone leftover from your Christmas ham with about two pounds of meat. If you didn’t save leftovers and the bones from your Christmas ham, you can (and should) buy in two pounds of smoked ham hock, or if you find yourself in a part of the world where you can’t easily buy ham hock, dice up a couple of pounds of bacon.

Two pounds of dried black eyed peas. The thing about black eyed peas is, they’re beans. So you should soak them, but you don’t have to. They don’t need a lot of soaking, and some folk don’t soak black eyed peas at all. But I generally soak mine for a couple of hours. Just spread them out on a cookie sheet, sort through them for dirt and debris, then put them in a stockpot with enough cold water to cover them by about two inches.

Salt. People get fancy with their salt these days, but I use kosher salt to cook with and iodized salt for the table. You do you – salt is salt, and best done to taste anyway.

A large onion, as big as your fist.

Cloves. You only need a couple, so see if you can borrow some from a neighbor, but if not, buy the smallest container you can. You want whole cloves here, and you might have bought some for the Christmas ham.

A bay leaf. I feel like this can be left out, but I love this dish so much I’m afraid to try subtracting things.

Ground black pepper. Just like you have in the pepper shaker.

Allspice. This is something I picked up a few years ago and I love the depth it adds to the dish. I doubt my ancestors would have tried this, but I recommend it.

Vegetable oil

Four nice sized garlic cloves. Honestly, the four is a guesstimate. I mean, I would use at least four, but sometimes the spirit catches me and I might go as high as six or seven. I do love some garlic.

Crushed red pepper

Two bunches of collard greens. My people would just say “a mess of collards”, but I’m assuming you are going to the store, and they will look at you funny if you ask for that. The stores tend to sell them in 1 pound bunches, and you need about two pounds of greens. Also, if you are two good to eat collard greens, get over yourself. Kale and Collards are practically siblings and are both just unheaded cabbage. If you can’t get collards, you can use kale for this, because they are so similar. But collards is traditional, and if you are too snooty to eat them and end up unlucky this year because you did it wrong, don’t come crying to me.

What you do

Drain your peas and put them back in the stockpot. Dice up your meat (including the skin and fat) into pieces about an inch or two in size, and add them and the bone to the pot. If you are using the bone (and you should) don’t worry about cleaning it off – the meat will fall off it as it cooks. Some folk are panicking over the mention of ham skin here, but trust me on this – it will melt and meld into something approaching heaven before we are done.  Put in enough cold water to cover the beans about two inches and set the heat as high as it will go.

While you are waiting for it to boil, peel your onion and stick 2 cloves in it. Cloves are pointy, and you can just push them into the onion like thumbtacks. You will remove the onion later, and this makes it easier, but I have also just tossed the cloves in the pot and sliced the onion fine and left it in and that works too. It’s largely a matter of opinion, and this way involves less chopping and tears. Add the onion, ½ a teaspoon of allspice, ½ a teaspoon of the black pepper, the bayleaf, and a teaspoon of salt to the water and bring it to a boil. We will probably be adding more salt later, but depending on what meat you used, it may already be salty, and too much salt will ruin a dish.

After it comes to a boil, turn your heat down and let it simmer. Stir them every 10 or 15 minutes, just as you pass through the kitchen, and check your water levels at the same time. The water will cook away, so keep adding water to always keep at least an inch of water over the peas.

Cooking times will vary depending on how fresh the peas are, and how your stove cooks, but after about an hour and a half, start checking to see if the peas are tender. They generally take me about two hours to be right. They are done when a pea will mash evenly between your fingers. If nobody’s looking, you can taste it –  they shouldn’t be crunchy, but firm. Nobody wants mushy peas. The broth will be rich and dark, and should be tasted at this point for salt – I often put about another two teaspoons in here, but go by taste, adding a bit and stirring a bit and tasting as you go.

Remove the bone and the onion, if you left it whole, and discard after picking the bone clean.

About an hour and a half into the beans cooking, it’s time to make the collards. Rinse them off, and cut out the big pieces of stem and discard. Take the leaves and roll them like cigars and then slice into one-inch-wide strips. Shake the water off them, but don’t dry them in a salad spinner or anything – they need some moisture to cook.  Peel and mince your garlic now as well.

In a big (at least 10 inch, but 12 is better) skillet, add your vegetable oil and coat the bottom of the skillet with it, turning the skillet one way and another. Then put it over high heat and watch the oil – when it turns wavy it’s time to cook.

Add your garlic and a ½ teaspoon of crushed red pepper to the oil and sauté it around, letting it sizzle – but don’t let it brown. After 30 seconds or so, when it smells amazing, add in the collard greens and stir them around in the oil, so they get coated. I sprinkle about a ¼ teaspoon of salt on them now, and then add a cup of water, stirring the greens around in it. This will begin to wilt the greens, which is what we are going for. Turn the heat down to medium and then put a lid on the skillet, leaving it slightly cracked so steam can escape. Let it cook for about 20 minutes, softening the greens, but not disintegrating them.

To plate it up, I put the black eyed peas and meat in a bowl with lots of broth, and then scatter the greens over the top, but this is controversial. Some folks prefer them served on a plate, drained, with the collards to the side. Either way, I would serve some cornbread, usually made in muffins because we are celebrating, alongside this, with some pepper sauce on the table.

I’m wishing you lots of luck and joy and wonderful meals this coming year, friends.

Happy New Year!








The First Tree

It was a cold day, as I remember it.  We had more of those then, and they came earlier in the year, too. You could see your breath that day, and I pretended I was smoking a cigarette, holding a stick between my fingers the way my Aunt Louise did. Well, I did that up until momma caught me doing it, and then I had to hurry up and get in the truck after hearing a sermon about the evils of smoking.

We lived on 30 something acres in the hills of North Mississippi, and had carved a few acres out for the house and yard, and the rest was fenced off scrub oaks and pines and cedar that we let a cousin lease and he ran a few cows on it. When Daddy put the chainsaw in the back of the truck, I knew we were up to something good. Then he put the old single barrel shotgun that had been his daddy’s behind the seat and we set off.

The truck was an old Ford dad had bought from work when they finally decided it was too ragged out to make sense to keep fixing it. It was red, like all their service trucks were, and had a vinyl bench seat with cracks in the vinyl that hurt your legs if you were wearing shorts, and if you were wearing jeans, like I was on this particular day, then bits of the yellow foam that was beginning to deteriorate would stick to your pants.

We drove up the path, along the massive ravine that ran down the middle of our property that had more than one junked car pushed off into it, past thickets filled with elm seedlings and blackberry canes and sedge grass. Our property was on the southern side of a massive hill, and our house was about midways up it. This day we were headed uphill, to the area at the edge of our property, next to the old cemetery where generations of Black folks were buried, and whose origin story nobody ever told me.

Because that is where the cedar trees were.

Later, when I was studying such things, I would be fascinated to learn that they weren’t cedars at all, but Juniperus virginiana, also known as the Eastern Redcedar. Several years ago, after having learned this, I told Dad they were Junipers and not cedars, and he said, “Not here they aren’t. Here, we call them cedar trees.”

I guess that settles it then.

We were out on this cold Saturday afternoon hunting for our Christmas tree. We understood that there were people that lived in cities that bought trees out of a parking lot, and we also knew some rich people that had artificial trees. But being neither of those, and having 30-odd acres full of cedar trees, this is what people like us did.

Up by the cemetery was a huge field, perhaps 5 acres wide, of nothing but sedge and cedars. And daddy stopped the truck, told momma to look for a tree she liked, and he took the shotgun and my hand and we headed into the woods.

“What are we doing, Daddy?” I asked.

“Hunting”, he said.

This excited me to no end. All the old men I knew hunted, even though Dad did not.

“Are we hunting quail”, I asked?

“No, son. We’re hunting mistletoe.”

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitical plant that grows in deciduous hardwoods, like pecans, hickories, and oaks. And in the wintertime, after the leaves have fallen, you can see it in the treetops. You can, if you are a bit crazy, climb up in the tree and cut it down, to hang in your Christmas decorations.

Or you can be like Dad and just shoot it out of the tree with birdshot.

When we got back, me holding the mistletoe (after a warning to not eat the berries) and Dad holding the shotgun, Mom was standing beside a tree about six feet tall.

“Is that our tree?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Mom said.

As we rode back down the hill to the house, Mom was holding the mistletoe in her lap and me, I was on my knees looking through the rear glass at the tree I had “helped” cut down, holding on to the back of the seat and swaying as the old truck jostled.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive.

I still can’t.