Dinner at Matty’s
Again too long a gap between blogs. Now on top of intense production schedule some health problems at home and my pre-occupation with them. My only consolation is that when we come back to New York on Feb. 6 there will be plenty of time until the election to tell the story of our journey in details and share with you the many insights I gained on the road. The more I travel I realize how privileged I have been. There is virtually no chance that on my own, and without the “assignment” of the film, I could have had such a unique opportunity to travel to so many small and diverse communities, which are well off the media’s radar, and engage in such intimate dialog with ordinary folks.
I have spent the last 4 days in Anderson County in South Carolina’s “up country”. In the short video we will upload tomorrow you will be able to glimpse a community meeting that was held in connection with the project to discuss faith & politics. We also spent a day with supporters of Christian Exodus – a small political initiative that aims at installing conservative Christians in key positions in County and Community boards, as a means to transform them politically and demand further freedom from the federal government. The last 2 days before the South Carolina primaries were spent following both Obama and Clinton supporters. All of that deserves many more detailed blogs, pictures and footage. I’ll just share with you my impressions of last night’s “watch party” in Matty’s restaurant—a down town eatery in Anderson.
It was such an amazing night for me precisely because I did not want to attend it. Our original plans were to follow Carlvin Jones (the young Obama volunteer from Spartanburg whom we followed as he visits barber shops and beauty salons to energize the Obama votes) to what was billed as Obama’s victory party in Columbia. Plans did not work out and we were invited to Matty’s for a small gathering of members of the Democratic Party to watch the results instead. The prospect of spending dinner in a small local restaurant while on television the crowds were building up to listen to Obama’s speech frankly depressed me. “The night was lost,” I said to myself. How wrong was I ! To begin with, many of the people whom we followed in the past few days showed up at Matty’s. Obama’s supporters and few supporters of John Edward supplemented them. There were a few dozens of us perched on high chairs around the giant TV screen. The debates and discussions began almost immediately since CNN projected Obama’s victory the minute the polls closed at 7pm ”with 0 of the precincts reporting”. “How is it possible?” exclaimed Gracie Floyd, a feisty African American member of the Anderson county local council. Rev. Dr. George L. West, director of pastoral services for AnMed Health, was posing with several of the participants for a “unity picture”, recruiting people from adjacent tables to “stand in for Senator Biden and Governor Richardson”, who had already dropped from the race. But all of this is not worth telling if not for the crowd’s reaction to Obama’s victory speech. Once again as in Iowa I saw first hand not only the power of Obama’s speech but the deep yearning it taps. We were there together, middle aged African American and white supporters of Obama and Hillary as well as young volunteers of Obama’s campaign after a long day at the polls. They too were racially mixed. There was our crew from New York and California. There were devout Christians and some “cultural Jews” like myself. One could see instantly the electrifying power of Obama’s words on the crowd. “Have you heard such a speech in the past 40 years?” Asked me Dr. John Walker who had voted for Edwards (“to keep the discussion going”, as he put it). We followed John’s wife Brena, a Hillary supporter, for the past day. “It is like the 60’s again,” told me an ordained Baptist Minister and a retired professor of philosophy of religion in a local theological college. One could close one’s eyes and imagine such a scene in a New York joint. But this was not New York but Anderson, South Carolina, a former member of the Confederacy whose flag proudly stands at the foot of the State House.
For the past days the wonderful councilwoman Grace Floyd tried her best to convince our camera that though she admires Barak Obama she supports Hillary because of Obama’s lack of experience. Grace looked solemn watching the little spell bound crowd gathering around the TV set. “You can do nothing about it”, I joked, “This goes much deeper than intellectual arguments,” I said as I pointed at the amazingly mixed crowd and Obama’s ability to bring it together. “It is like with Martin Luther King Junior,” she whispered as if surprised by her own words. She too sensed that there was something there beyond logical arguments and counter arguments. It was for me a moment so pregnant with meaning and history not to be forgotten. “Martin Luther King Jr. too had a very thin resume,“ told me Rev. West when I asked him about Obama’s relative lack of experience.
“What did you learn from your journey up to now?“ Asked me the former Theology profesor before going home. “I will write you about it” I said trying to buy time. I did not tell him that my head was buzzing with ideas. I did not tell him that all of a sudden, watching Obama’s speech in that company and in that town, my entire film came into focus. I started this journey as a devout secularist alarmed by the intrusion of religion into political life. Barak Obama’s speech was fueled by his religious and moral beliefs. The audience in the restaurant—all devout believers—sensed it and reacted to it precisely because of its moral vision. But suddenly at Matty’s I sopped being an outside observer anymore! I was no longer just a secular Jew who arrived from Israel few decades ago… I shared the vision too! No, no… I am still very much secular and have no plans to convert, but I suddenly understood that the real debate in this country is not between seculars and people of faith. With 90% of Americans seeing themselves as people of faith, that debate has been settled centuries ago . The real debate is between what kind of religious vision will dominate and influence American politics and how it can co-exist with the 1st constitutional amendment. I will write another time about the clash of those two visions.
Tomorrow we are in Florida with a Huckabee supporter and will also interview Rev. Joel Hunter, one of the new generation of leaders in the Evangelical Christian movement who is trying to expand the movement’s vision and moral concerns.