Holding on to Houston from Afar

Curator’s Note: We’re back with a brand new season of content from Sowing the Seed. We will have new posts, video, and other media coming your way starting next week. But after reading a powerful essay by an old friend (and one of my favorite writers), I realized that I needed to write something else before getting back to business as usual. It’s a rough reflection on home and away. –RN

Watching images of Hurricane Harvey, I’ve been able to do little but reflect on the past. I was born and raised in Houston. It may be America’s bustling fourth-largest city, but somehow I never thought the national news would feature the site of my first date, first speeding ticket, and countless other personal moments. For a while it’s been the place I visit once a year. And I’ve taken for granted how much history happens between each trip.

Vintage Richard Newton, circa 1990

People who know me have asked how I’m doing. “I’m holding,” I usually reply. The phrase still sounds forced coming out of my mouth. It doesn’t yet roll off the tongue like it does from the friend who coined its apropos usage. “Our people spent too long ‘hanging’ on,” she says. Why should we have to do so on our own accord? Her words are deep with many truths. I take it as an admonition: Watch the words and the bodies against which we define our reality.

My newsfeeds tell of many Houston realities. A popular one is that for a few days, there have been no races, no political parties, no religious divisions. All differences, it seems, were submerged underneath the only identity that ever really mattered–a flood of needs. And so when we meet each other in the light of our needs, the city can rise out from the waters of despair.

It’s an affective narrative, sure to bring together the flotsam of a place that can never be the same again. It’s the synchronic snapshot of the one Houston many will hold on to as some other city takes form.

And though I’m not home there, I know that image like I know the Texas pledge drilled into me during state-funded catechism. For me–the religion scholar, the cultural critic, the ex-patriot that I have become—it leaves something to be desired.

I saw a glimpse of it in a trailer for Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The motion picture flashed foods, cultures, and stories from the world over. But in the editing lay the rare description of a stranger’s Houston that rings truer than a native may be able to provide.

That picture moved me to take hold of a different Houston that I see more clearly in the wake of Harvey– the Houston I didn’t realize I missed. It’s a Houston where coming to terms with difference matters a great deal.

In that Houston, the emergency broadcasts of municipal news conferences were only in English at first. Yet as the storm went on, ASL interpreters and Spanish-translators became a fixture next to city officials, To match, there were people arriving at shelters ready to translate English into Tagalog, Vietnamese, and countless other tongues.

No one mocked the good ol’ boys whose pickups and fishing boats rescued people in the sprawl.

I didn’t hear about anyone slapping the hands of those ride-or-die Houstonians providing a warm meal at the taquerias or the South Asian markets. Once again their doors remained open even while a nation tries to shut them out.

Maybe one day we will all look back at this as ol’ time religion with a new twist–people gripping to the mystery of faith in carpeted mosques, a mythic mattress salesman, and a football legend who never quits.

I’m not convinced that differences ceased to matter. In fact, I think the differences are spelling the way to the city’s ongoing salvation…or at least my own.

It matters that mass referred fittingly to a Catholic priest kayaking the elements to the hopeless just as it did to a number of synagogues, churches, schools, and local businesses confounding our disbelief in each other.

From a distance, I’ve been playing this city’s anthems thanks to local ensembles like the rock band Hindsight and Divisi Strings. Musicians using their art to heal will always manage to echo even in the dampest of circumstances.


Because in a city that’s home to minds that got us to the moon and that vow to defeat all diseases, it should be easy to see that our differences need not be sublimated in the tepid waters of insistence or the shadow side of supremacy. There’s a future that will appreciate difference as it’s greatest asset. It will run out the clock on the label of “other” until it falls into obsolescence.

In the storm and in so many words, this is the Houston I’ve been trying to hold on to. It’s the Houston I now believe in even though I spent my youth foreswearing it. It’s the Houston that, when I reached out to it, held me back–and not the way I had so long feared.

So I’m holding onto a Houston made up of friends and strangers who were willing to risk it all to help me and mine. I’m holding onto a Houston with people who I thought had forgotten me but remembered me in a crucial time. I’m reaching out for the strength to reconnect with the too many I’ve lost touch with because I remember again that life is always fleeting.

I can’t in good conscience accept a narrative where our differences are moot because I can’t help but see how many of them are facets of our journeys and gifts. When forced to choose what to take and to leave behind, are those not too precious for us to so easily let go?

Yet when we do, I hope we can find ways to help each other to take hold again.

It will still be awhile before I go back. In the meantime, it’s all I can do to recite the rosary of friends’ street addresses that I haven’t thought of in years. Lately I keep coming back to a Jain saying that, despite my degrees, probably would not have come to me now save for my Houston roots. The saying is called the Michami Dukkadam:

“If I offended you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word, or deed, then I seek your forgiveness.” 

It seems to me that this is as good of a word as any to start writing a next chapter. To all those holding on to home, many happy returns.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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