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Asilomar banned books Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real John Steinbeck Monterey Bay Salinas The Grapes Of Wrath

Breathing John Steinbeck

Last month, March 2010, at the invitation of the Episcopal Diocese of Diocese of El Camino Real, I had the privilege of traveling to the Monterey peninsula of California, to present to the members of the clergy and laity the Stewardship University educational program that I created in Arizona to help increase the effectiveness of stewardship programs in congregations. If you have never been there, the Monterey Bay area should be high on one’s travel wish list. It is stunningly beautiful, has many things to see and do, and possesses a rich history to go along with its world famous aquarium and its world class and unique, little golf course: Pebble Beach.

The offices for the DECR are shared with one of its Latino congregations and are located at Seaside, in the facilities of an old church–they’re really quite lovely in a humble sort of way, as are most of the towns in that area: Monterey, Seaside, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Pacific Grove. You also ought to visit Asilomar if at all possible, or even stay there, as it is truly one of the State of California’s most unique and affordable resorts.

If anyone has paid any attention at all to American literature in the last century, you really cannot avoid encountering the spirit of Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck as you walk along Cannery Row or visit the farmlands in nearby Salinas or Spreckles. The stewardship program that particular Saturday actually took place at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salinas where it so happens the Steinbeck family were members. The church was in a different location then, in the early part of the 20th century, but it has a display case marking the membership of its most famous parishioner, including photos of the young John as a Sunday school student and serving as an acolyte–though in that photo he appears to be reading his service leaflet, or did he have a book tucked inside?

Salinas and its surrounding region is often called America’s Salad Bowl, as much of its produce is lettuce, fruits and countless other vegetables. The dirt is rich and black, the land flat or gently rolling surrounded by beautiful hills–it is a farming paradise, if not mecca. For a guy who grew up in a farming county in an agricultural state (Indiana), seeing the soil got me excited–I have been living among red clay and brown sandy soils for over 12 years now. Truly, the dirt was so rich and black you could smell the organic matter in it. That may not smell like much to some people but it smells like money to a farmer.

It was also not lost on me that this was the land of Cesar Chavez, who organized farm labor in the 70’s, creating the United Farm Workers union in the process, which in large part ended the kind of abuse of migrant workers that Steinbeck wrote about in much of his literature, most notably The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath
. While I was in Salinas, I realized I had never actually READ John Steinbeck. A week later, having dinner with some friends in Oak Creek Village, near Sedona, Arizona, I shared this tidbit, that I had visited the Monterey peninsula and the Salinas Valley, blah, blah, blah, and that I had never read John Steinbeck.

“How is that possible?” my friend asked me, stunned at this gap in my literary education (good thing she didn’t ask about William Shakespeare!). Tell you the truth, I didn’t know why. I really had no answer for that. Until now.

Since I realized that I hadn’t read John Steinbeck, it occurred to me that this was a temporary problem. So I checked out The Grapes of Wrath on CD and began listening to it (“reading it”) while I traveled about in my car (I do this all the time; it makes total sense when you drive as much as I do.)

First of all, The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkable work, filled with sweeping passages, characters and ideas, if not ideals. And it is filled with meanness, treachery, bad language, drunkenness, violence and sex; frankly, it breaks your heart at times. All of which point to why I never read John Steinbeck before: No school or college I ever attended or my church youth group, my parents nor any other group in my Indiana hometown would have recommended me to read The Grapes of Wrath. No way. It had probably been banned in our library and schools before I turned ten. “It isn’t edifying to the Lord.” Yet, as Steinbeck so shrewdly points out, neither is much of the behavior of many of the typical “good guy” characters of his epic novel. At least he’s an equal opportunity blamer–no one falls outside the reach of his influence, insults and flavor.

Without realizing it fully, while driving through the Salinas Valley and visiting St. Paul’s, and eating dinner on Cannery Row later that night, I came to understand that I had been breathing John Steinbeck all weekend. I found myself thinking about him as I moved from doorway to doorway dodging rain sprinkles on the wharf, and under the charming influence of beautiful farms, with mega-rows of produce, life giving smells of farm labor and rich black soils. His criticisms of the way farm and land owners treat migrant workers still sound fresh and relevant in this present struggling economy where farm laborers still “get it” from The Man or worse, don’t get jobs at all (or have jobs to begin with). Other laborers have fared the same or even worse than farm laborers.

Pondering his upbringing in the Episcopal Church, I can only say that maybe some of John Steinbeck’s sense of fairness or desire for justice and the rights of all persons might have been shaped by his time riding the pews at St. Paul’s, his desire to tell the truth, to shock us into actually doing something about our neighbors in poverty or need, those whom Jesus says we are to love as we love ourselves. It brought to mind my childhood friends, the boys who lived cater-corner across the street from me, in a poverty stricken ghetto, homes owned by slumlords, many of them, church-goers.

The church that I grew up in (not an Episcopal Church, but one of the fundamentalist, evangelical variety) was always quick to evangelize these folks, thinking, I guess, that if these people only had Jesus as their personal savior their lives would be better. Perhaps. Maybe we could also have advocated for them with their landlord to provide better heat, to fix the screens on the windows and doors, to make certain their homes were safer, warmer in the winter.

While the landlords happily pocketed their tenant’s money, they most likely saw their renters as “Hillbillies,” as less than human, like the migrant workers in Steinbeck’s writings, who, despite their humanity, suffered immensely under their powerlessness. As Tom Joad discovered, it takes courage to speak truth to power. John Steinbeck was reviled by many people for writing The Grapes Of Wrath, especially land and farm owners and many business owners, as well. But his voice was not drowned out. Scores of people heard his indictments against unchecked greed, the real danger of capitalism.

May we all have the courage to breath a little John Steinbeck in and out of our souls and bodies, allowing his words to fill our hearts; and may we have the courage to act upon what we ponder. Countless poor still need justice in their lives today, still need advocates where they can find them. May our simple reflecting on John Steinbeck empower us to help produce a breakthrough in the life of one in need of a breakthrough, be it a job, food to eat, or place to stay.

I think Steinbeck would have wanted it that way: That being inspired, we act on what we read in his books, and in so acting, help to transform lives, one life at a time.