CAL MORRIS WAS 20 and studying religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., when he offered a stranger a ride. As they crested the Red Mountain Expressway, dropping into downtown, Morris, who’s white, and his passenger, a black man old enough to be his grandfather, talked about how bad public transportation in the city was, how hard it was to get to work without your own ride.
The next morning, in his religion classes, Morris announced he was raising money to buy his new acquaintance a car. “I was thinking: ‘I go to Samford. ... It’s one of the richest places ever,’” Morris recently remembered. “I figured I could get the guy an $800 El Camino.” Instead, his professors and peers offered calls for prayer. It was his friends at work, not his classmates, who knew what it was like to need a break, and so they pooled enough money for the car.
That was two decades ago. The “El Camino incident” set off a series of revelations for the kid raised middle class in north Alabama by evangelical parents who never really talked politics at home or at church. Morris began to see how racial and economic disparity were tied to public policy, and how his conservative Christian friends tended to ignore or fetishize vulnerable folks as nothing but needy.
He isolated himself from the evangelical community. He moved into his car in the woods with his dog. He abandoned the notion of leading a church and kept working in coffee shops, like the one where he’d met the old man, searching for ways to build the kind of community he idolized in Wendell Berry novels, searching for ways to be of use without any white savior hang-ups.