The Boy on the Bus:
My Odyssey Through the Heart of American Christian Evangelical Politics
Calvin Ryerse, 19, he/him/his
Content & Trigger Warning: This post includes references to American Nazi terror attacks and images of Proud Boys.
I think I was fifteen or sixteen when I first watched Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (2000). The film follows William Miller, an awkward teen, who ends up on tour with an up-and-coming rock band, writing for Rolling Stone in the heyday of 70s rock and roll. It’s one of my favorite movies. If I’m being really honest, I wanted to be William: on a rock tour, documenting the lives of rock stars while traveling around the country on a bus.
Flash forward to today. I’m sitting in the front seat of the bus driving down some interstate outside of Atlanta. We’re heading to North Carolina where we’ll do a couple of events before heading back up to Ohio and then Pennsylvania and then finally we’ll spend the night of November 3, 2020, election day, in front of the White House. This has been my life for the past two months; a non-stop journey into the heart of the intersection between American Christian evangelicalism and politics. I’m working for an organization called Vote Common Good, who is interested in helping white evangelicals and Catholics, who voted overwhelmingly (81% and 60% respectively) for Donald Trump in 2016, to wake up, speak up, and stand up in their communities for a change on election day. If just 5% of these voters flip in this coming election, Donald Trump has no pathway to the presidency. We provide the energy, permission, and vocabulary for folxs to do so. Teamed up with a group of pastors, musicians, rappers, politicians, and other common do-gooders, I have traveled to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, live-streaming events to thousands, as we try to provide a counter-narrative to that of religion in politics.
I need to write these words, perhaps because I’ve failed to do the journaling that I would’ve liked to. I need to document the textures of my emotions from this time, all the nooks and crannies of my worry and doubt and hope. I’m scared that this will all be for nill and that the president’s scariest authoritarian tendencies will overpower and kill our democracy. I’m scared of those Karens in Florida who told me, “see you on November 4th” as they tried to take over my live stream with their Trump flags and their boos. Of that Nazi in Flordia who I confronted and yelled at, as he stole our Black Lives Matter signs from the side of the road. He drove off in his truck telling me “Black lives don’t matter.” I also get teary-eyed when I think about that on the night of November 3rd, I’m going to be outside the White House as Joe Biden gets projected to win this election and finally, we can get this oaf of a president, this child in an even larger child’s body, this rapist, this racist, this materialistic, this misogynist, this immoral, this scum, this shithole man, this deep dark chasm of a human, this deeply broken, mentally ill, traumatized, unloved person away from unlimited power. I do not agree with everything that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have on their platform, but I also know that they have the most progressive platform of any major party candidate ever.
I grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, as a pastor’s kid at an increasingly progressive church. Church was always a place that was not for me. It was the family business. I had my Sunday morning chores that were about making the experience of church one that was most comfortable and inviting for everyone else. So, as a result, I grew never feeling connected to the religion, to God, to my own spirituality, but I also know instinctively how to operate in explicitly religious spaces. I know how to talk the evangelical talk, both from my experiences in the church and growing up in the Bible Belt. The people that Vote Common Good are trying to reach are my grandparents, my great-aunts, my best friends’ parents, my grade school teachers, and my parents’ friends. They’re the people who say that they believe in faith, hope, love, morality, and the teachings of Jesus, but have blindly supported and a man and a party whose policies create greater inequity and perpetuate racism, white supremacy, and colonialism. I felt compelled to immerse myself in the murk of this sub-culture of the nation, one with so much power and so little understanding. So here I am, doing the work with the skills that I specialize in, to try to reach a small fraction of these people to try to change just enough of their minds to avoid another four years of this catastrophe.
The question that I get most often from people is: Well, is it working? And I’m sure you, dear reader, are wondering the same thing. Truthfully, so am I. The short answer is, yes. But perhaps not in the way that you are expecting or want. Never has a Trump supporter came to one of our events and left doing a complete 180 and decided to vote for Biden. And this is not to a fault of ours. And this is because real life doesn’t work like that. Change does not work like that. From my experience around religious voters, voting for anything that is not Republican is a rejection of not just a party, but their team, their community, their church, and their family. I can tell you though, that I’ve watched as my colleagues, my friends, have connected with these people, through their art. I’ve watched as Karens listen to Dan perform his song, Hymn for the 81%, and become visually uncomfortable, they cross their arms, they look away, but their bodies begin to sway, their foot begins to tap. The message being internalized in their minds and bodies. And this gets to the root of the work that we’re doing. We are offering a different narrative about what faith and its intersection with politics can be. So many people I’ve met have expressed the fact that they didn’t even know that Christians who identified as Democrats even could exist. We are giving those people something to challenge them, something to stir their souls.
At the beginning of the tour, we took a break from our normal event schedule and staged a ten-day, one hundred and thirty-five-mile faith pilgrimage of racial reckoning from Charlottesville, Virginia to the White House. Around twenty-five of us, a majority white, cis, middle-class, middle-aged (or older) started at the site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally where Heather Hyer was murdered and walked those miles in the blistering August of Virginia. For days, we took over a lane on state highway 22, causing hours of traffic. We held our protest signs “Walking to DC” and “Honk for Justice” and “Faith Walkers for Racial Justice” and “Black Lives Matter” through known white supremacist hotbeds. Some people were truly disgusted by our presence, a hindrance in their daily commute, a thorn in the back of their narrative of racial supremacy. Others greeted us with cheers, honks, emphatic thanks, and tears of overwhelming emotion.
I watched and guessed as each car passed what they would do. It turned into a game for me, as I tried to capture on camera a “fuck you” or a “black lives don’t matter.” I talked with these strangers around me, getting to know why they would possibly be on this journey too. I met a pastor, giving up his job because of his commitment to this movement. I met a faith author who, unbeknownst to me, made an enormous impact on me as a child. I met these everyday, ordinary people who should by every definition and assumption of mine, be against what I believe in, but they weren’t. They were excited to hear about my journey, excited to learn from me. I will always have a connection with them.
Change is coming. Sometimes it feels invisible, but it’s there, working in the hearts of people all across this country. I’ve seen it, time and time again in the very people who seem to be the farthest to reach. From the young trans pastors in Wisconsin who have spent the summer turning their church into a safe shelter for black lives protestors to the young Mississippi-born rapper who was instrumental in getting rid of the Confederate battle flag from the Mississippi state flag, to pastors who have left their churches and communities because they know that we must get rid of Trump, to the tapping toe of an old white woman wearing a MAGA hat, change is coming. There are millions of these stories all across the country, of a changing tide from hatred. So please, I beg of you, do everything you can in the next two weeks to get us out of this mess. Fight like your life depends on it because it does.
Admittedly, bus life is not as sexy as Cameron Crowe made it out to be. I’m not documenting rock stars. (Well, some of them are.) My mental health has seen a pretty noticeable drop while living on the bus. As I take on this job, I’m also a full-time student at ZOOM university (I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it just opened up this year!), I’ve tried to continue the work of this blog, and just exist as a human. It’s extremely hard. My anxiety about contracting COVID-19 is a constant hum in the back of my mind. I’m stressed out and don’t eat very well. But here’s the thing. This work is not about me. It is not about Joe Biden or even Donald Trump. It’s about all of us; the common good. Donald Trump and his Republican cronies are a unique threat to the life of this planet and all of its inhabitants and they must be stopped. On November 3rd, I will cry, either because we lost or we won. On November 4th, I will sleep and go to class. On November 5th, I’ll wake up and it’ll be time to get back to work. Black men will still be shot in the streets by a racist, corrupt, and punitive policing system, our prisons will continue to dehumanize its enormous population, the pandemic will continue to rage on, children will still be in cages, the earth will still be on fire, and on, and on, and on.
But, I have hope, how can I not?