Roy Hoffman, a novelist and journalist, is author of the novel “Come Landfall” and essay collection “Alabama Afternoons.”
There's a vast barn and field at Oak Hollow Farm 15 minutes from my house that gets rented out as a party venue. This week it served as the media-thronged site of a rally for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, with celebrity guest Stephen K. Bannon, invoking God, guns and making Alabama great. At the same hour, at the University of South Alabama across Mobile Bay, a panel discussion was underway on the topic of inclusion. With more than 600 in attendance, six of us from an array of backgrounds — Jewish, Christian, black, white, Asian American — conversed with moderator Soledad O'Brien, the broadcast journalist, about connecting across lines of race, religion, gender and ideology. Such differences challenge not just those of us in this community but also those far beyond.
That these events went on simultaneously was coincidental, but looking back, I see them as representing the two forces at work in my home state, which now is a bellwether for the nation: coming together vs. staying apart. When O'Brien asked me what our state does well and what it doesn't, I spoke of Alabama's famous and often well-deserved reputation for hospitality. Newcomers such as the immigrants of my grandparents' generation arriving at Mobile's downtown blocks and speaking little English felt welcomed enough to stay and put down roots. "Come on in, y'all!" But running against that grain, I added, was the counter-impulse of a culture anxious about outsiders and fearful of those who look, act, pray or speak differently, even if they live on the other side of town. "Trespassers beware!"
This push-pull, this embracing change or bracing against it will still be with us whether our next senator, as predicted, is the far-right Moore, a longtime public figure who's made no secret of his disdain for Muslims, gays and those whose sense of faith differs from his evangelical Christian fervor, or mainstream Democrat Doug Jones, in a possible upset. Either way, I feel strongly that an ever-increasing openness, a cultural diversity, is inching forward, if not evidenced by raw numbers, then in the kinds of people who increasingly call Alabama home. Demagogues can still win at the ballot box, but the opposition — those who yearn for and work toward inclusion, a sensibility that crosses political lines — is growing stronger.
In recent weeks, for example, I have enjoyed being among hundreds of Indian families, all from our area, celebrating the Hindu festival of Navaratri by lighting candles to the goddess Durga. I have visited a Muslim friend who teaches in a Muslim school in Mobile, and I have gone to lunch with a buddy who tells me his daughter, who is gay, stays in Mobile because she loves it as home and does not want to move to some strange, far-off metropolis. I have had drinks with a white couple who joined a predominantly black church because they feel a heightened spirituality there, and I have been to the preview of a documentary on the life of St. Francis being created by filmmakers from close by that emphasizes the unity of all faiths. I have seen mixed-race couples, if still a rarity here, strolling hand in hand, unbothered, on Fairhope Pier.
These stories, under the radar in the nation’s perception of my home, continue, like the prayers we say at High Holy Day services as part of a small but observant Jewish community in our area. At my temple in Mobile, Moses, with the Ten Commandments in his arms, looks over us from a stained-glass window as we ask forgiveness for our litany of sins.
One of those prayers on Yom Kippur, this weekend, asks pardon for the sin of xenophobia, as well as for the mindfulness to do better in the new year.
I pray it for my fellow Alabamians, too.