I’m re-reading Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way because I’m loaning it to the pastor of a church I now attend. Given the content and the assumed stereotypes of pastors, my loaning of this book seems odd. I’ve seen this pastor’s personal library, and he has religiously subversive books like N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, and books by Paul Tillich and the Niebuhr brothers. Suffice it to say, Going All the Way is in his area of interest. He is not a native of Indianapolis, but moved here seven years ago to one of the poorer communities on Indy’s near west side. He wanted to bring a gospel to the poor and struggling instead of a gospel that has been marketed as a brand for bored, complacent, middle class white people. Wakefield’s book came out in 1970, and is set in 1954 Indianapolis; but the culture had not changed in those sixteen years of civil rights, counter culture, and Viet Nam; and Indianapolis culture has not change much in the last forty-seven years—save for a mild interest in the arts. Going All the Way does not focus solely on the criticisms of Indianapolis’ religious, social, and political culture, but also draws attention on a growing counter culture. There is much more to Indianapolis than The Colts, The 500, or giant American flags on both sides of pick-up trucks roaring around I-465. There also exists the voices of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised—the least of these who are ignored in the name of the Republican Party’s image of Jesus.
There are people in Indianapolis who now pride themselves as a blue city in a red state, but the city is Midwestern blue. That kind of blue means the city is as conservative as their rural counterparts, but they’re ok with LGBT people, people of color, social justice, and the plight of the poor; however, they’re comfortable only with the idea of these groups—when these groups start sitting in their pews it’s a different story. The behavior I have observed in the local conservative and liberal people is what Wakefield observed through his character, Gunner after meeting up with an old friend from high school. Gunner had just returned from being overseas during the Korean War and the friend, whom he and Sonny called Shins, told him he had to go out and get a job—any job. Gunner is thinking about returning to school to get his Masters in philosophy, but Shins dismisses a philosophy degree because it cannot be used outside of the lawyer’s office. Throughout the night Shins tells Gunner he has to settle down, get married, have kids, and so on and so forth, but is quickly irritated with Gunner’s response: “Why?” That’s a question Shins is unable to answer outside of what is expected. Gunner wants more to life than a wife with the two point five kids and a picket fence in the suburbs. When I returned to my old neighborhood at 30th & Shortridge to spend time with some of the people who lived there when I was a boy, I was insulted. I had returned to school two years earlier, and when I went to visit them in June of 2012, I was preparing to transfer to Blackburn College in central Illinois. I had a full beard, and someone decided to tell me I was unemployable and looked like a bum. What does that even mean? Should I be like him and most of the residents of my old neighborhood who are unskilled cogs who think they have it made because they own a house and a truck? They could lose their things at any moment because they are disposable, and can be replaced by someone who is just as unskilled, uneducated, and deluded as them.
Sonny, though, deals with a different set of conflicts from his mother and her religious friends. Sonny is an atheist, and liberal in how he views people. He finds racism absurd, and people should be allowed the freedom to live and be, regardless of their skin color. Upon his arrival to Indianapolis, Sonny’s parents, along with her mother’s friend pick him up in a station wagon owned by his mother’s church where she also works—the company car if you will. Sonny is told that his alma mater, Shortridge High School has become “darker inside” because many African Americans were moving in to the north side and sending their kids to Shortridge. I went through something similar with my aunt in the early 2000s when I told her about going into Broadripple to spend some time with friends and catch an art show. I had been going there for years before the village became a trendy brand, and there are still some good spots for art. “Be careful. It’s gotten dark over there.” I knew exactly what she meant, and told her she was ridiculous—the color of a neighborhood is not a gauge for safety—, and she was a racist for speaking such stupidity. Of course she was offended, and said she wasn’t a racist because who wants to admit they’re a despicable person? Sonny’s mother and friend react the same way as my aunt when he hinted at their racism. They’re good Christian people and good Christian people don’t hate, but their actions say otherwise.
Sonny’s mother overwhelms him with religion in an attempt to bring Sonny back to a belief in God and a follower of Jesus; but not just any follower. Sonny’s mother belongs to a group called MRA which is a right wing, nondenominational Evangelical Christian group who have bought into the doctrine of conformity by the military industrial complex. In this culture, Jesus is white, a capitalist, American, and hates those who disagree with conservative American policies. The liberals are the enemy, and many of them are educators in the universities such as Indiana University where Sonny attended and graduated. What his mother, or her group, fails to see is they are why people are opting for atheism—or at the very least not affiliated with any religion—because their religious practice oppresses people who are not straight, white, or Protestant. Why would anyone, who desires to be a decent person, want to be a part of that kind of religion? Brennan Manning said the single cause for atheism is Christians who profess Jesus with their mouth, but deny him with their actions when they walk out the door. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys talked about such people in “Moral Majority” as he yelled out, “God is dead if you’re such a fool!” Sonny’s education had nothing to do with his beliefs changing, but rather what he experienced in his own life. The religion his mother practiced was myopic and only good for dealing with surface issues, but does nothing for the deeper rumblings of existence. Atheism was the logical conclusion for Sonny.
The first time I read Going All the Way, I resonated with the portrayal of the political and religious culture of Indianapolis in the 1950s because not much had changed; and up to this point, I still have these views; but the point of the book, for me, is not the criticisms. Regardless of your hometown, you can never go home again once you leave. You can return to the same location, but your high school, friends, and family look different. They haven’t changed, but you have. Sonny lived across the country working behind a desk for the army, and Gunner was wounded in Korea and experienced Zen Buddhism while stationed in Japan. When they both returned their perceptions had changed. Sonny didn’t know what he wanted when he returned home, but he knew he didn’t want the religion and politics of his family. Gunner shared a similar sentiment, but wanted to explore life instead of doing what he was “supposed” to do. For me, I have traveled and lived in various places across the country, and, recently, I lived in Portland, OR surrounded by trees, mountains, and laid back people. Things did not work out according to what I wanted, and I made the long trek east with a year stop in Lincoln, NE. When I arrived to Indianapolis in August of last year, I saw the people in a different light. Most of the people I knew in high school had become dull witted facsimiles of their parents with more kids they can afford, and/or they have become increasingly right wing and attend God’s favorite, wealthy, white Evangelical church. I also noticed the hatred my mother and the rest of my family have towards me—that hatred had always been there, but I didn’t notice the subtlety. Did they change? I don’t think so. I think I outgrew whoever these people were, and found their paradigms asphyxiating. Is that true for all of Indy? No. I still associate with the artistic community while becoming a part of it through my writing. Like Sonny and Gunner, I can either choose to find that other community ignored or demonized by The Indianapolis Star, or I can leave town and never return. At this point, I am opting to stay. There is such artistic potential that has yet to be tapped, and I think the counter cultural community here is vibrant. I haven’t returned home, but I have to make a home in the place where I was born. That’s the message I get from this second reading of Going All the Way.