New to Vermont, Part II.

New to Vermont, Part II.

It’s not too late to sign up for the free coursework offered through the Vermont State Colleges system available to Vermonters whose jobs were affected by COVID-19. (CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO.)

I earned a university degree almost four decades ago, but I enrolled in two online community classes this fall, including a Storytelling and Media course (with Mike Spry) which required me among other learning modules to record a podcast and try my hand at writing a newspaper article. I ended up employing both of these assignments to highlight the story of someone new to Vermont, a young family member who came here from Portland Oregon. Bex came to Vermont to find the space to ask the questions that they needed to ask in order to shape a new story, not only for themself but for their peers, the Evangelical Christian community and maybe even this nation.

Click here to listen to New to Vermont, Part I, a podcast!

Part II, below:

It Felt Like War

Marlboro, VT
1:11 pm, November 1, 2021

Protestors march into downtown Portland, Bex Burcham, June 2020.

26-year-old Bex arrived in Vermont last month just as the leaves began to explode in color.

“I had a dream about these trees,” Bex said, “Just before I left Portland.”

It was late September when Bex messaged an aunt in Vermont in the middle of the night.

“I was experiencing some serious burn-out,” Bex said, “And I knew I needed a safe place to rest and write.”

Bex grew up the oldest daughter of six children in a relatively isolated Evangelical Christian community in rural Oregon. At 19, Bex relocated to the coastal city of Portland where they attended bible college and studied literature.

“I’d always loved to write,” Bex said of the fantasy stories they’d begun penning at the early age of 7. By the time Bex was in Portland, they’d begun to dabble in non-fiction, writing boldly on a personal blog about the war inside their body–the self-hatred of flesh, the sin of desire. 

Before COVID reached Portland in early 2020, Bex had left Christianity and had begun exploring and claiming an emerging identity. They named their new blog, The Queer Apostate–A Journey of Falling In and Out of Love with Evangelical Christianity.

The following summer, Portland became a flashpoint for the Black Lives Matter movement and Bex found themselves swept up in the protests.

“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really know about BLM before George Floyd,” they said. “I’d seen signs and hashtags… But I’d lived in a bubble from the day I was born.”

Just before Bex reached out to their aunt in Vermont, they made this post on Facebook:

Are you deconstructing your childhood experience in homeschool evangelicalism? I want to hear your story! I’m especially looking for more writers and artists from our community. PM me!

Bex was brought up to think that race was no longer an issue and climate change was not real and other social issues were distractions. “I just see it all so different now,” Bex says.

Bex first heard of the BLM protests in Portland when they received an alert on their phone notifying them of an 8 pm. curfew.  “I was off social media at the time so my roommate explained what was going on.” 

The roommate invited Bex to participate. “We made signs at the kitchen table,” Bex said, “And our other roommate read-aloud tips about tear gas.”

Bex dismissed that roommate’s concerns as overly cautious. “I was not at all prepared for what we walked into. Not hundreds of protestors, but thousands.”

Bex later wrote an account of their experience on their blog:

When I first heard about the brutal killing of George Floyd, I was heartbroken, but my attention faded into the noise of the news cycle… When the protests started, I saw the story as the news told it: rioters and looters antagonizing police… From my bedroom reading the news and watching live streams, my own resolve felt distracted, conflicted.

Then I kneeled with 10,000 people in front of a police station.

Bex felt hesitant at first with the idea of protesting. They were brought up in a culture of “niceness,” a niceness that didn’t allow for disruption of polite society. But Bex attributes their experience of the protests in Portland with an awakening to white supremacy and the stronghold it has in Evangelical Christianity.

When Bex describes the speakers at the protest gathering on the waterfront, their eyes light up, “You can’t turn away after you hear those stories,” Bex says.

Bex was galvanized to stand with people of color in her community by the words of Reverend E.D. Mondainé who said to the thousands gathered: “There is no safer place to be than in the company of hope.”

In the Company of Hope
was the title Bex gave to their post about the protests, calling on others to join in.

“Kneel with us,” Bex shouted among the other protestors kneeling in front of the police. Bex was just feet away from the line of officers in riot gear who were gripping batons, tear gas, pepper spray and guns.

Bex wrote on her blog that they stared into the eyes of a young cop, barely over twenty and thought he was on the edge of tears.

“Maybe I was projecting,” Bex wrote. “Maybe I needed to see humanity in these soldiers.”

Bex said her heart broke that night. “There was no question in my mind,” she wrote, “The police started the riot.”

“I can’t breathe!” the voices of the kneeling protestors called out. “I can’t breathe!”

They gave us three minutes before the tear gas hit… There was nowhere to run. Any group over ten was surrounded and gassed, flash bombs hit every few feet, people were choking and pouring milk over their eyes, calling for our medics, but still chanting “Stay together, stay tight!”

I wanted to run, but the smaller the group, the more danger for each individual. They needed bodies. I had to stay. Even as we faced the line of cops marching toward us with our hands up, standing still, they launched attack after attack.

Bex watched not only the city they called home but their worldview, transformed over the days of the protest in Portland in 2020.

There were chain-link fences blocking off half the streets, police car lights flashing behind them. Businesses… boarded up. Helicopters and drones hovered above us –

“It felt like war,” Bex said of Portland. “The fear I felt of the police… a tiny fraction of what people of color face consistently.”

In the months that followed, as the protests waned and COVID dragged on, Bex began to spiral. They couldn’t keep up with their studies or their workload and they had difficulty meeting very basic personal needs. When they found themselves unable to eat or bathe, they reached out to an aunt back east. Although Bex didn’t say it, what they describe sounds like PTSD.

“Come in time to see the leaves change,” Bex’s aunt replied. “Before the first snow flies.”

Just days after Bex arrived on the backroads of rural Vermont, they celebrated their 27th birthday.

Almost a month has passed since and the surround of color that welcomed their arrival has fallen to the ground.

“It mostly rains in Portland,” Bex says, about the west coast city they left behind. “I’m looking forward to a real winter.”

Bex tells their aunt that they want to shape a new story while they’re here and when their aunt, who is also a writer, asks Bex how they think Vermont might play a part in the telling of a new story, Bex smiles and replies that it already has:

“In the space to ask that question.”

Bex in Vermont, October 2021. Kelly Salasin.

Kelly Salasin

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