The City and the Writer: In Tulsa With Rilla Askew
interview in Words Without Borders
A conversation about the Tulsa Race Riot and America's unhealed racial wounds
personal essay in This Land
personal essay in Longreads
essay on place in This Land
The Fire This Time
article about the Tulsa Race Riot and Fire in Beulah
The Tornado That Hit Boggy
personal essay in TriQuarterly
Writing Out Loud: Kind of Kin
2013 TV Interview with Teresa Miller
Writing Out Loud
2012 TV Interview with Teresa Miller
Race and Redemption in the American Heartland
essay in Transatlantica with an introduction by Francoise Palleau-Papin
The Smokescreen of Race in America
personal essay in Oklahoma Humanities Magazine
Passing: The Writer's Skin and the Authentic Self
personal essay in World Literature Today
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It’s snowing on a beautiful Sunday morning in southeastern Oklahoma. Word came to me this week about a sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville on January 12 for Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord. He used parts of Kind of Kin for illustration, which is an honor both humbling and pleasing. But it’s what else he says in the sermon that I find so moving. Here’s a the text of the sermon from Rev. Grisham’s blog, where it is published. http://lowellsermons.blogspot.com/2014/01/being-christ.html
We just celebrated Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, when we say that God has come to us as a child. Fully human, vulnerable, humble. God.
And today we bring three children to the waters of baptism, asking God to fill them with Holy Spirit that they also may be Christ’s presence in the world.
We ask the parents and godparents to protect and nurture the divine presence dwelling in these children, just as they protect and nurture the vulnerable lives entrusted to their care.
In so many ways, growing the faith that is given to us in our baptism is very much like growing children. Having a young grandchild living with me now reminds me every day what is necessary – necessary to protect and nurture the child, but also necessary to protect and nurture the divine presence within me.
You have to pay attention. We always want eyes on a baby. Turn away for a moment, it seems, and crash. Then tears. Pay attention! But there’s also a delightful expectancy. Watch! What funny thing will she say or do today? What new thing will she discover? And there is the regular business of diaper changes and baths. And band-aids on bo-bos. Underneath everything is love, unqualified love. In that atmosphere, she will learn and grow.
The nurture of the faith given to us at baptism is a lot like that. You have to pay attention. Be awake. We always want our eyes to be expecting God’s presence in every little thing. Turn away for a moment from that discipline of seeing through the eyes of faith, and crash. Stuck again. Reactive and frustrated.
When we nurture a delightful expectancy, wondering what funny or interesting thing God will bring to us today, we tend to discover new things and find that doors open. Watch!
And there is the regular business of diaper changes and baths. “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” And there are band-aids on bo-bos. “Oh God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.”
Underneath, everything is love, unqualified love.
I’ve just finished reading a delightful novel John Duval gave me for Christmas, Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew. One thing I like about the book is how many of the characters bring their faith into their lives. Each seems to have a different way to pay attention, to hope, to ask for help and to repent.
The story starts with a respected, churchgoing granddad Bob Brown being arrested for hiding a barnful of migrant workers. In the jail cell, Bob clings to the scripture for comfort. During the fifth chorus of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” another inmate takes offense and knuckles Bob’s head bloody. But Bob has a sense of calling and of divine support. He is vulnerable and powerless, accused as a criminal, behind bars. But he is not alone.
Back home, Bob’s 10-year-old grandson Dustin decides to run away from the chaos and abuse he suffers there. Gathering supplies at his grandfather’s barn, Dustin finds Luis, the only Mexican undiscovered in the raid on the barn. Luis befriends the boy and helps him along a perilous journey.
On bicycle, on foot they travel by night to avoid the authorities. Luis keeps up a constant conversation with our Lady: repeating the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be over and over again. When the boy Luis is protecting gets terribly sick, Luis remembers the many small miracles of passage given to him all his life from Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Our lady will not withdraw her protection,” he affirms.
What is there to rely on, when a man must make choices? Protection and guidance from heaven. The blessings of the sacraments, if he is able to receive them. Prayers. Miracles and mercies. Faith. [i]
In our Baptismal Covenant we are asked: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?” These practices can uphold us. They give us, Protection and guidance from heaven. The blessings of the sacraments… Prayers. Miracles and mercies. Faith.
Just as we proclaimed at Christmas that God comes to us in the birth of the child Jesus, so we proclaim in baptism that God comes to us in every baptized child or adult. God did not stop entering human life with Jesus; God enters human life in each of us as well. We are to be Christ’s body in the world – Christ’s heart and hands and feet and voice. We are to be Jesus’ public presence in our generation.
There is another whole world of this church’s ministry represented by our advocacy and activity in the political and economic sphere, and in public policy, in our supporting non-profits and our educational work on behalf of these same values of Jesus – to uphold the poor and the vulnerable.
The dramatic confrontation that comes toward the end of the novel Kind of Kin involves Bob Brown’s pastor, Oren Dudley. How is he to deal with the crisis prompted by his parishioner’s arrest? In good Baptist tradition, he searches the scripture. When Bob Brown’s granddaughter and her undocumented husband take sanctuary inside Pastor Dudley’s church, Dudley stands at the church door, blocking the sheriff’s entrance, proclaiming:
’But the alien that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself,’ Leviticus nineteen, verse thirty four.
’What the –‘ The sheriff started around the other side, but Oren Dudley sidestepped again.
’Vex not a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ Exodus twenty-two, verse twenty-one.’
…[The sheriff ] pushed forward. ‘I’m warning you, man.’
Eyes closed, combing over a few damp strands of hair with his fingers, Oren Dudley quoted on: ‘And to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: they shall be unto you as born in the country,’ Ezekiel forty-seven, verse twenty-two.’
The sheriff was stymied; his hand twitched on his pistol grip. You couldn’t just shoot a blamed Bible spouting Baptist preacher for standing in your path. [ii]
Oren Dudley and Bob Brown, grounded in holy scripture, acted publicly as the body of Christ, the voice and hands and feet of Jesus, acting as Jesus did out of love for neighbor. Luis courageously befriended little Dustin, relying on the protection of Our Lady, grounded in the sacrament and prayer.
As I read the novel, I thought of our Baptismal Covenant: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I thought about the ways we try to incarnate Christ’s body in our congregation and community. We are doing the nurturing business of paying attention and watching expectantly. We are also doing the necessary business of repentance – of changing diapers and cleansing wounds. Like the characters in the novel, we are taking responsibility for the structural sin in our community, and responding in the Spirit of Christ.
First we had to pay attention; to see. When we saw that some are sick and ill, without access to medical care, we started the Community Clinic at St. Francis House, and we now bring Christ’s healing touch to 30,000 vulnerable neighbors. When we saw that some are homeless and poor, we created 7hills Homeless Center, and we now bring Christ’s hope and support to hundreds who are displaced. When we saw that some are hungry and insecure, we helped organize Community Meals to give nourishment to hungry bodies. And now we have visited those in prison – we see them and know them – and we seek to create a Magdalene House, a home of healing and resurrection for them as they leave incarceration.
As Christ’s baptized people, we are called to recognize not only our personal sin, but also our social sin and injustice, to identify as Christ did with the plight of the sick, the homeless, the hungry and the prisoner, and to take responsibility for their care: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Today we baptize three more children into this growing life of faith. We pledge to nourish Christ's presence within them and within ourselves, as we, by our prayers and witness, seek to grow into the full stature of Christ.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermons are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Visit our web partners at www.explorefaith.org
I loved "Kind of Kin." I so admire your skill as a writer in taking a politicized subject and showing it to us in highly personalized ways -- rendering it through the specifics of each individual character. And what great characters they are! Sweet is a completely sympathetic narrator who recognizes her own flaws even as she succeeds through her strengths. Her father is tough and independent... and right. Dustin is totally lovable and we want the best for him.
The way you handled the political side of things, through Monica Moorehouse's perceptions and striving, filtering everything through her desire for career advancement, was brilliant. I kept thinking, how can Rilla know all this? All the inner workings? You really presented that authentically.
Also loved the whole community you created -- felt I was there and could know many of the townspeople. Thank you once again for an absorbing read!
All best..........joe freda
Oh, my. I just finished KIND OF KIN and want you to know how much I admire both your ability and your compassion. You put a human face on an issue that too many people claim is purely financial, and you introduced the many shades of grey of an issue that too many people claim is black and white. And you speak Okie perfectly!
I'm so glad that your name caught my eye in the Dallas paper, and can't wait to read your other books. I might not be kin, but I am definitely a fan.
I took your writing workshop at Quartz Mountain a couple of years ago, and it was a great priviledge to spend time with you and glean all you shared as a writer. I have since read your books, and you have influenced the way I view the world, and specifically Oklahoma, for some time now.
As a Spanish teacher, and simply as a human being and a Christian, I have for some time questioned the hard-line conservative stance on immigration. I have never been able to allign with the views that "it's not fair", etc. I have read the Old Testament, but not until I was reading the scene today where Oren Dudley is quoting verses about the alien and the sojourner that a missing puzzle piece clicked into place. I had to share it with my students right away, I was so excited. Several of them are hispanic and we have had many talks about the hardships of immigrants. That scene was so powerful, with the pastor facing down the Law, while we are in the church nursery with Sweet talking about the details of finding some saltines in the kitchen.
I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. I didn't get to see you when you were in Norman, sadly.
Keep writing! I'm recommending this book to everyone.
From Francoise Palleau in Paris:
I have just finished your novel, which I loved. It is a page turner, and full of heart. You write so well, nothing is decorative, it is pared down and essential. I really love it. The plot is so well done, the action so vivid, I could see it in my mind's eye. it would make a great film. Make sure they get the right actors. I see Tommy Lee Jones in the role of the father in jail. Melissa Leo would be nice for Sweet, although a bit angular. For the Mexican man who goes away with Dustin, I have this image in mind of a Mexican William T. Vollmann photographed in Imperial (the book of his photography, not his text by the same title). I wish we could chat in real life. I miss you guys. Guess who I have in mind for the pastor? Husband of yours. He would be great. Unless he wants to be the evil sheriff????
Hope you meet some nice people in your reading tour. Tell me if you know Ben Fountain in person. I've just written an article about his works for Transatlantica, where I last published your text with an intro.
Yours KINDLY, KINLY,
From Tom & Joyce Beman in Victory, NY.
Received your book as a Christmas gift and a wonderful book it is! Really helps to put your thoughts on immigration in order. I can use the word "exciting" easily, it was a "page turner" and "couldn't put it down" type for both of us. Loved to see it pictured in a recent Reader's Digest magazine as a selection suggestion. Thank you for this book!
From Kathleen Reid in New York, NY:
Though it has been more than a month since I (regretfully) put down Rilla Askew's Kind of Kin, I find my mind returning to its characters and its themes. Once you've finished, you don't return to think of the humor or the "Oh, God, NOW what's going to happen?!" parts, but the wyas the book makes you think.
I belong to a Christian church -- I was going to say "very different" but it is only partly different from the one in Cedar, OK. Mine is an open, non-doctrinal, seekers community -- but all the members are also enrolled in "humanity," so some are warm and welcoming and would look to the needs of Lucha, the Mexican-American toddler whose name means "struggle."
You might say we pride ourselves on "welcoming the stranger" -- and that means different things to different ones of us. Having read this book, I'm thinking more about how I reflect that idea in my mind and in how I live. How honest I am about that.
Maybe not as wide-eyed, openly thoughtful and spiritual as Ms. Askew.
From Kathryn Ramsay in Norman, Oklahoma:
Rilla Askew’s new book, Kind of Kin, addresses an age-old paradox in human existence. The stranger among us is also a “kind of kin” to us because of the humanity we share.
The Old Testament, the Hebrew scripture, is very interested in the concept of the stranger. Abraham and then Jacob were strangers in the land of Canaan. Moses was a stranger in Midian, describing himself as “a stranger in a strange land.”
The Hebrew bible does not mince words about how the stranger should be treated. “Vex not the stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” “Do not oppress an alien for you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens.“
The people of Israel were so often strangers in strange lands that the treatment of the stranger is central to their faith. They believe that God rescued Israel when the people were slaves and fugitives and gave them a homeland. Torah, the law, commands welcoming the stranger, the alien, with generosity and hospitality. The people of Israel know about being strangers and, through that, they know that the stranger in their midst is also kin to them, because of the human suffering that they have shared.
Rilla Askew is one a long line of novelists who have been fascinated and deeply concerned intellectually and theologically with the concept of the stranger and the painful necessity of welcoming the stranger, and who have sought to illuminate the paradox of how we can be both kin and strangers at the same time. We walk the earth as human beings, as children of God. We are all part of the family of humankind. But we feel ourselves strangers so often, aliens, rejected. And we in turn encounter strangers and reject them as aliens. “Strangers in a strange land,” everyone of us.
Kind of Kin is a book about Oklahoma and Oklahomans, mostly about every day working class people just trying to get through the day. It is also a book about strangers, specifically, immigrants from Mexico.
Oklahoma is one of the 10 most religious states in the United States, with 80% of its citizens identifying themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus. Followers of the Jesus who was descended from Abraham and Jacob and Moses, whose Hebrew religion was centered on hospitality and on a God-given directive to welcome the stranger.
“Welcome the stranger!” some of Rilla’s characters declare, standing firm and locking arms to give meaning to their words. Others of her characters, however, refuse to heed this ancient rule, working instead to round up, imprison, and deport those strangers. Strangers who are, like those who seek to deport them, children of God, kindred in the family of humankind. The irony is that all of these people call themselves Christian. But Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”