Yancey’s Where the Light Fell (Convergent, Oct.) digs up his roots in the fundamentalist South in the 1950s and ’60s.
Why write a memoir?
In a book called Listening to Your Life, Frederick Buechner convinced me there’s really only one thing a writer has to offer: a unique point of view that nobody else has. I like to say that I’ve tasted some of the worst that religion has to offer, but also some of the best. There are a lot of memoirs about people who grew up in an extreme faith environment, and throw all of it away, reject it. I took a different path. My path was to sift through and find what was what worth keeping and what should be rejected.
What is worth preserving from your fundamentalist past?
Several times in the book, I look back and reflect on this little group of 100 people in a church on the grounds where my family’s trailer was parked. We were actually living on the church grounds. It was your classic “hellfire and brimstone” church and I could never get away from it. I asked myself, “Why did people keep going? Why did they show up each Sunday?” In those days, we were different because of all the things we didn’t do—bowling, mixed-gender swimming, drinking, smoking, all these things. We took the Bible verse “Come out from them and be different” seriously. We dressed differently, we acted differently. We stood out. We were a marginalized group. In the end, the church served as a community of support. Life is difficult, especially if you’re in a poor community and you feel like you’re on the margins already. Those who grew up in Black churches have a very different, but also similar experience, where church was the one place where we could come, be ourselves, and find a community of support.
What changed for you?
It started cracking apart when I realized that this “Southern culture” I grew up in was a deeply flawed, whitewashed, and racist narrative. It was in my high school days when those cracks started to appear in my own life and I wanted to separate myself from that culture. I was attracted to literature, good music, and the culture around me was not something that really nourished that. I wanted to find a different place. I wanted to distance myself.
What perspective has this given you on evangelical Christianity in the U.S.?
Somehow, in the midst of all that fear and fundamentalism, the light of God’s love seeped through. In my own story, along with the worst, I had very good experiences within evangelical subculture. Along the way, I gravitated toward people who were positive models, people fighting sex trafficking or visiting prisoners. At root, the word evangelical means “good news.” I cling to that. While the rest of culture hears “evangelical” and thinks of a media caricature of a redneck racist who supports Trump, my experience is with people who sacrifice themselves, reach out to others, and spread mercy and compassion and love.