Sanford, NC

What is there to say about the South that has not already been said, either at great length and with great eloquence, or briefly and brutally?

If you grew up anywhere from Central Florida on up to the very southern edge of Virginia, the foliage and views are much the same, unless you’re heading into the Great Smoky Mountains, give or take some scrub pine or palmetto. Spindly loblolly pines and their thicker longleaf cousins tend to overwhelm the hardwoods like hickory and oak; magnolia, of course, pops up frequently. Waffle Houses abound. Little appears to have changed, outwardly.

The human makeup of Sanford, North Carolina, and its surroundings has changed, though. Where once every aspect of life was viewed through lenses of black and white, other shades have come into play: formerly migrant workers from Mexico and other points south have now begun to stay and put down roots, with nearly 20% of Lee County’s population identifying as Hispanic or Latino. Mexican tiendas and Latino-catering tax specialists dot S. Horner Blvd; a Peruvian chicken joint does brisk business on a Monday afternoon. One Latino man new to the neighborhood offered his white neighbor a statue of the Virgin Mary for his yard. (The white resident declined — “It was a bit too big,” he jokes.)

Otherwise, the story here is not so different from any other small southern town (Sanford’s population is 29,116). There’s a Walmart Supercenter that on a Saturday afternoon is packed. Chain restaurants that opened reasonably recently — Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday — are sometimes drawing customers away from local spots. A young woman working at a coffee shop-deli-type place is about to turn 21 and is more excited about being able to get a concealed weapon permit than being able to legally drink. If you weren’t born and raised here, odds are you came down as a retiree, or your parents did and now that they need some help you’re down here too, and you find you like it better than whatever rat race you came from.

It is where some people who count black men among their best friends cannot fathom the need for Black History Month or Black Entertainment Awards or Gay Pride anything. They will not be convinced that the playing field was never level in the first place, that white people — specifically, straight white men — get to start the race a hundred years ahead of everyone. They will not believe that we learn history from a white perspective, and that is why we cannot have White History clubs, and why Black History clubs are, in fact, not a bad idea. It is also where people will invite you to family reunions or Sunday dinner without a second thought, and ply you with sweet tea and strawberry cake made with real strawberries until you beg for mercy from the diabetic deities.

Farm kids have segued from weed to coke out here where tobacco crops still flourish; gang-like activities have sprung up, as happens when drugs enter the picture. “A friend of mine who used to be on the force once told me Sanford has all the ingredients for big-city crime except for the location,” one native, Dan, says. You’re told to stay on one side of the railroad tracks when downtown, and to maybe not go into certain bars unaccompanied.

As much as some residents proclaim we’re “deep in Trump country,” the vote tallies in Lee county from the 2016 election tell a bit of a different story. Lee County went overall for Donald Trump, but only by a little over 3,000 votes.

If you look at the precincts, you see yet again the rural-urban divide, even with Sanford not being particularly “urban,” other than it has a couple-block downtown area with two cafés: Two of the precincts containing Sanford went to Hillary Clinton.

The further away you are from something even approaching an urban setting, the more the GOP margin of victory increases. You get into territory in which, some Sanford people say, folks don’t necessarily know how to behave. Though even in Sanford, a couple “members only” bars — establishments that sell liquor but no food have to be private — don’t allow black people or women to become members, and attempting to bring in a black or female friend isn’t viewed kindly.

“I’d like to round up all those white supremacists in a field and tie ’em together and just lob a couple explosives at ‘em,” says Dan, who works in a comic book store in the downtown area. “Just take care of that whole thing.”

There aren’t nearly as many Confederate flags out here as you might imagine. Instead, small signs reading “thank you JESUS” pepper yards. One other resident hypothesizes they’re put up by people who attend one of the large churches nearby, trying to elicit a response instead of simply proclaiming their faith. After all, it’s unlikely that Jesus is wandering down Route 42 in the center of North Carolina.

***

Sunday morning. A couple decades ago, that meant loading up the van and heading to St. Stephen’s Catholic Community in Central Florida. Or, if your correspondent were staying with her grandparents, a Presbyterian church in Cocoa Beach.

The Broadway Presbyterian church, about five miles down the road from Sanford, boasts a handsome façade and a Main Street location. But when your correspondent walks in a few minutes before worship is set to begin, there aren’t more than 15 people in attendance, all well out of any demographic TV advertisers care about. (Old thought patterns die hard.)

Your correspondent’s appearance causes a minor stir — here is a new person, a woman, who is young and of marriageable age. Maybe she’ll bring a family, or convince friends to start coming too. Tendrils of hope suffuse the air.

There’s Beth and Arlene and Janet and Janice. They wear bright florals and other joyful colors, white and the blue of Caribbean seas under the noon sun. They form a sweet-scented circle of flesh around the newcomer, and the metaphor this brings to mind says a lot about who you are as a person.

The cynic would see vultures hovering around a dying fawn, and view questions like “Are you married?” and “How old are you? Almost 30? Putting it off for a while, aren’t you?” in a less than charitable light.

The optimist would see a pack of overjoyed hounds sniffing out a new arrival, eager to please and accept this young soul; inquisitive, as anyone would be, particularly when it’s been so long since anyone they didn’t know came through those beautiful double doors.

The congregants spread out, though just like in high school assemblies, the front pews remain empty. The interior is solid in a traditional way, with beautiful chandelier-type light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. The floor is beige carpet that you can imagine whispering constantly under hundreds of feet, back in the better days.

Those better days are long past. “A lot of families moved away,” says Arlene. “And a lot of the older folks just died out,” says Janice.

Competition is a problem, too. A long while back, another church up the road got a new minister who happened to be a biker. The local bikers began attending that church, which took on a reputation as a place of worship for those who didn’t feel they belonged; you could wear your leather and your riding boots. “This place was very white gloves and hat, and not everybody wants that,” the Broadway minister tells your correspondent after the service. Now, the other church gathers crowds of a thousand or so, offers pony rides for kids, the whole thing. They live stream their services and hymnals are a thing of the past thanks to projectors.

The minister of the Broadway church is a tall old man who brings to mind no one so much as the farmer in Babe, a man with a daughter living in New Zealand and a distaste for guns (with the exception of no-frills hunting rifles), who refused a raise that the church offered him because he knows they can’t really afford it. He adds that everyone here knows the church is dying, but no one can really bring themselves to talk about closing down, not yet.

The service is plain, leading off with a call for announcements. “Two days ago we celebrated the day I made Marty the happiest woman alive,” one husband jokes while his wife rolls her eyes. Everyone laughs.

The minister includes a long passage about refugees in one of his prayers, his voice writhing with emotion as he imagines children with no food, no family, forced from the only home they’ve ever known for reasons they cannot begin to comprehend. “The killing must stop,” he says, praying for a leader to rise up and end the bloodshed.

The sermon plays on the notion of prayer, which is more than simply asking God for stuff — it’s an expression of one’s relationship with the Holy Father. But, the minister argues, that doesn’t mean prayer for a specific outcome doesn’t work; the Christian at prayer is the most powerful force in the world. It may not work always, or even often, but it must work. Otherwise, there would be no point in doing it, and it would be a sign of a capricious God.

What’s remarkable is how quickly and thoroughly the mere act of sitting in a church can transport you back to childhood. The smell is the same as every other Protestant church you’ve been in, a scent you can only really describe as “church-y.” Being there conjures up the exact same feeling of sitting next to Grandma, trying not to fidget; of trying not to look too obviously at Mami’s watch. Trying to remember Catholics say “trespasses” in the Our Father, while Protestants say “debts.” Trying to absorb the homily or sermon even as skeptical questions ricochet around your mind.

The hymns sung are not, perhaps, the most eloquent or melodic, short and lacking a refrain. There may be some bias here, but the songs your correspondent remembers singing in Catholic mass were much better. Yet the catharsis evinced by them is no less real. Singing has always been a cathartic experience — there’s a reason you feel great belting out a ballad in the car, or drunkenly reaching for some note out of your range in front of a large audience at karaoke. The act precludes all other thought, a brief respite from the world. And when you’re joined with others in that act, it becomes a form of communion more powerful than any other, if only for the length of the song.

One of the women has the kind of operatic voice that makes you lower yours in deference, the product of some kind of professional training; it’s hard to discern who, exactly, this voice belongs to, because the acoustics have been designed to commingle the congregation’s voices all together. The woman’s voice contrasts somewhat endearingly with the minister’s, who feels the weight of the tunes he has to carry.

The service concludes with another gaggle around your correspondent. They’re eager to get to the Sunday School portion of the morning, so you’ll forgive them, but they have to get to it. Some people leave non-perishable food items in a box for the local food pantry. They do what they can.

Most people seem to do what they can, at least when it comes to local tragedies. Back in February 2016 — the second-to-last day of that month, actually — a fire ravaged three buildings in Sanford. It started in the cabinet shop and spread, consuming a comic book store with 60,000 volumes and other memorabilia. Attached to the comic book store was the space in which Robbie, his wife Kelli, and their children lived. They lost everything, but kept their lives. Well, except Thor and Loki, the guinea pigs.

“There was some ammunition in the room right outside where we had the guinea pigs,” Kelli says, horrified.

A GoFundMe was started by one daughter, bringing in a few thousand dollars. Neighbors and church folks dropped off piles of clothes; people helped them find a new home to rent. Kelli’s employer re-issued the paycheck she had cashed and lost to the flames. Robbie, devastated by the loss of his entire collection and, in many ways, his life’s work, wasn’t sure he felt like starting over again, having built the business up from just selling part of his own collection at a flea market when he was 24. But people began dropping off parts of their own collections, and soon enough, he had enough to get going again, renting a small space in an indoor arcade-type space downtown.

Robbie, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound, helps a young boy pick the first comic book to start his collection. Your correspondent picks up an early Squirrel Girl and declines to take the change.