I was born (1952) and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Well, in fact, I grew up in Forsyth County on the edge, the boundary, of Winston-Salem. A geographical fact which in time became an apt metaphor for my life. Thus, until I was 11 years old, I attended county school—not a small distinction in the late 1950s and early 60s. In fact, my sister, brother and I all attended the same school as it ran from first to twelfth grade! (There were giants on the earth in those days.)
L.P. Hartley’s opening sentence in The Go-Between could aptly describe what I remember of those days: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Living on one of the main roads leading into Winston-Salem from the north of the county, I can still vividly recall horse- and mule-drawn wagons bringing produce to markets on Saturdays.
My father, James C. Lawson, escaped the thrall of tenant-farming by having joined the Marine Corps in 1941—August, I might add, for those aware of the historical significance of the following December. Probably the only reason he survived the war and I am here is due to his decision to join Marine Air Corps. [Most of his friends who enlisted with him died in places such as Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.] How could they keep him down on the farm once he had discovered wings? Flying became his passion and his life’s work.
His profession also added another boundary between my family’s life and those around us. While nearly all of my school friends had their summer holidays at one of North Carolina’s undoubtedly beautiful beaches or in the equally stunning mountains, we flew places. We were bound neither to terra firma nor place. Hence another defining factor in my life: wander-lust.
Amongst the farms, barns, stores, villages and towns of North Carolina, and our visits to family in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Oklahoma and California—to name a few—I became aware of life’s cadences as enunciated in the syllables of speech. “Y’all ain’t from around here, are y’all?” “You guys talk funny,” and other such phrases defined for me the boundaries of persons and places.
Add to this that we had a German refugee who was our church’s caretaker, as well as a former GI and his German wife living in the small house behind ours, and the cadences multiplied. I became a keen observer and listener, not to mention a mimic. All of this comes out in ’Doing Time’.
Moving to the city
When I was 11 years old, my family moved into the city, Winston-Salem—an unexpectedly major, social dislocation for me. It meant that I had one year at the local ‘elementary’ school—before moving up to junior high school and then high school. In some ways I might as well have moved to Yonkers.
My schoolmates had already formed their alliances, dressed pretty much the same, laughed at the same jokes, and were usually mad about either N.C. State or UNC basketball and football, neither of which particularly interested me. In addition, I wore dungarees—like most kids in the county schools—not slacks, and my older brother’s hand-me-down shirts —not Izods. I felt I was an alien intruder! Thus I entered that boundary year of school as an object of both curiosity and, sometimes, derision. I became more watchful and observant.
The Civil Rights Movement was the background to virtually all of my early education—not to mention my life. It brought out the best and worst in the public, civic and church leadership and government. Bloodshed, cross-burnings, violence vs. nonviolence, marches, sit-ins, Freedom Riders, hypocrisy and nobility—all with a dash of Cold War and the threat of total nuclear annihilation.
Being schooled against the background of the Civil Rights movement
Junior high school was, for me, a time simply to be endured; a social, hormonal boot camp. I think I spent most of the time trying to remain invisible. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about those years was the fact that the Civil Rights Act was passed and schools were integrated for the first time. I again found myself inhabiting the borderland—this time racial—as I befriended one of the two Afro-American brothers who were the first to attend that junior high school. My less-than-understanding white brothers had that most imaginative of names for me: ‘nigger-lover.’
High school was, as I believe Frank Zappa put it, “a state of mind.” It at least had the positive effect of diluting many of the cliques that had formed in the three junior highs (one which was largely black) that fed into it, so 1) race was far less of an issue than it had been in junior high, and 2) I had more of a social life.
The academics were of a high quality and, when I wasn’t studying, I floated for the most part between groups of friends, again on the boundary, avoiding social clubs, but enjoying music and some sport as extra-curricular activities.
Vietnam came to join the Civil Rights Movement, not so much as the background, but as the foreground of my growing socio-political conscience. Turning 18 and having to register for the draft, overshadowed the fact that I could legally drink beer. Like for so many young people of that era, I loved my country, but loathed its policies. Its legacy is one that divides many Americans today.
Going to college had the personal feel of an emotional/intellectual emancipation proclamation. Having no interest in becoming a ‘frat rat’, the larger universities never held any appeal for me. I attended a small, private liberal arts college (St. Andrews Presbyterian) in the rural southern border of North Carolina. It was a hippie-haven in the middle of hostile territory—a sort of academic Fort Apache!
It was also a true learning community, where I formed many fast friendships that obtain to this day. (You know who you are.) My major was Philosophy and Religion, and thus I discovered Paul Tillich, and was both enlightened and delighted to learn his dictum, that the theologian is one who inhabits the border-country: auf der Grenze! The metaphor had brought me home.
Following my graduation from St. Andrews I came as close as possible to my ‘student prince’ days, attending three divinity schools—Andover Newton, Harvard and Duke—because each had faculty with whom I wished to study. I was awarded my Master of Divinity degree at Duke University.
Moving into the Prison World
It was while I was finishing my M.Div. at Duke that I came to work in the North Carolina Division of Prisons, beginning at the N.C. Correctional Center for Women and then the Wake Advancement Center for Men. After three years, I applied for a graduate fellowship at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, in order to pursue a PhD in Hebraic and Cognate Studies (where my ear for languages really came in handy!).
While I was visiting the campus and the city I was told about a position of Director of Adult Chaplaincy for the Cincinnati Workhouse, the purpose of which was to develop a volunteer chaplaincy programme: recruiting and training ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis, etc. to serve as chaplains at least 6 hours per month. My applications to both academe and workhouse were accepted. I spent my mornings cloistered in books and the rest of the day in the ‘cloister’ of a correctional facility!
I worked another three and a half years in developing the chaplaincy programme at the Workhouse, and later, the Hamilton County jail. From there I moved into urban parish work for 5 years. During that time I helped establish and fund a Drug & Alcohol Counselling and Referral Center, later called Interventions East—for the east end of the city where unemployment and substance misuse were rife. The experience learnt from setting up that initiative was to serve me well in later life.
Moving across to England
In the mid-1980s I moved to England, where I served in parish ministry in a Kentish sea-side town for 10 years. Over those 10 years I became disenchanted with an increasingly moribund United Reformed Church (URC), and found myself in a spiritual desert. Although I had engaged the help of an Anglo-Catholic priest colleague, who became my spiritual director, my renewal (ironically) came from a leap back into the life of a layman! I left the URC and went to work for the Rural Community Council in the area of rural economic regeneration and community development with disadvantaged rural communities. I did this work for a period of 5 years. Alongside this I became involved in an Anglo-Catholic parish, where I preached regularly.
From 2004-2016, I lived in East Anglia, near Norwich, where I was involved in training & development work for the Methodist Church in East Anglia. Alongside this I taught and supervised dissertations on the M.A. in Pastoral Theology (Cambridge), taught some Biblical Hebrew, did research and wrote. I still teach Hebrew at all levels, engage in training and continue to write. Please visit my other pages, if interested.
Retirement and Rewirement!
In 2016 my wife and I both retired and, because I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, we moved to North Carolina where the weather is kinder to such maladies. We bought a too-big house for the two of us with the idea that we would realise a long-held dream of running a B&B, which we in fact did. I also went back to work for the Methodist Church in the Piedmont area of NC—but half-time! However, after three-and-a-half years there, wherein we watched Trump spin his divisive and malignant magic on an already fractured society, and heard too much talk of guns ‘n’ Jesus, white supremacy and more; we realised that we were the oddballs and returned to Europe. We are now living in rural France amongst the forests and rolling hills of Normandie. Apart from writing and walking, my major concern is expanding my knowledge of French!
I am married to Chris, a retired mental health specialist in child and family psychiatry. We each have two children from previous marriages.