The Uvalde native bears witness to the children who died there
I have never been a Matthew McConaughey fan. His Lincoln MKZ commercials are annoying. There is something about his southern drawl that irritates me every time I hear it. (Sorry, I am from New Jersey.) I don’t think I have ever made it through one of his movies, although my spouse tells me some of them are pretty good.
But today I am a Matthew McConaughey fan.
On Tuesday, McConaughey went to the White House to talk about his hometown: Uvalde, Texas. The actor and his family recently went back to Uvalde to visit with the families and community members suffering in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in American history.
If Wikipedia is correct, McConaughey spent the first eleven years of his life in this small community. His mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father ran an oil pipe business. During his speech in the White House press room he said that Uvalde was the place where he learned to “revere the power of a gun.” Now, over forty years later, he was back in town to engage in an act of solidarity with residents enduring indescribable pain after nineteen children and two teachers were killed in Robb Elementary School.
I don’t know if McConaughey still knows anyone who lives in Uvalde, but that doesn’t matter. He got in his truck and drove to this town because its people and institutions played an important role in shaping his character. As a favorite son, he is part of Uvalde’s story. But Uvalde is also a part of his story. The men and women who have inhabited this community across the generations are, in some small way, his people. He and Uvalde share a common bond sustained by the neighborhoods and institutions of this particular piece of earth in southwest Texas.
McConaughey’s sense of place brought added power to his White House speech. He talked about Alithia Ramirez, a ten-year-old victim who loved art. She dreamed of studying one day in Paris. Alitha’s father just got a job as a lineman and they were planning a trip to SeaWorld.
McConaughey read from a letter written by Maite Rodriguez, a nine-year-old who wanted to attend Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.The letter expressed her interest in the university’s marine biology program. Maite’s body was so disfigured following the shooting that Ulvade officials could only identify it by the green Chuck Taylors she wore every day. It was her custom to draw a small heart on the right toe.
We learned about ten-year-old Ellie Garcia, a spiritual seeker who memorized Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Ellie was killed before she got a chance to recite that verse during the Wednesday evening service of the local Southern Baptist Church.
These kids might have become the next Matthew McConaughey. Or Matthew McConaughey might have suffered a similar fate.
The actor also talked about sitting in the living room with twenty members of the family of Joe and Irma Garcia, including their four children. Irma was one of the teachers killed during the shooting. Joe, her husband, died the next day of a broken heart. They dreamed of retiring and buying a food truck.
Matthew McConaughey came to the center of global power—the White House—and bore witness to the lives of those killed in Uvalde. He named their names, celebrated their dignity, and told their stories. He asked Congress to act with meaningful gun restrictions. And in the process he did the Lord’s work.
Shortly after McConaughey delivered his speech in the White House, I couldn’t help but notice a tweet from Charlie Kirk, an evangelical Christian who runs a right-wing organization called Turning Point USA. He wrote: “Matthew McConaughey just lost so much of the goodwill and respect he earned for years. Don’t go to Biden’s White House and lecture us on guns. Go back to acting and those slick car commercials.”
Here was one of the leading figures of the Trump Right criticizing McConaughey from Twitter, a placeless and rootless void where he and his 1.7 million followers heave virtual condemnation on their enemies and call it Christian politics.
While McConaughey looked in the eyes of the suffering, came face-to-face with their pain, joined in their lament, and exercised compassion and empathy with people to whom he shared a common connection, Kirk used this tragedy to promote his brand and score political points. In the process he dehumanized the victims and their families by disparaging the man called to bear witness to their humanity.
It is likely that Kirk will be speaking in a megachurch near you this weekend. Expect bombastic tirades against supposed threats to the republic, angry rants about how “the left” is coming to take your guns and freedoms, and conspiratorial fear-mongering designed to get you to cast your vote for the next political strongman.
But if you really want to see what it looks like to advance God’s kingdom on “earth as it is heaven,” take twenty minutes and watch McConaughey’s speech.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current
John Fea says
Thanks, Barbara. As I was writing this piece, I learned McConaughey is a Christian. The contrast between these two approaches to Christian engagement is striking.