Rags to Riches

OprahOprah Winfrey was born into a poor family in Mississippi, but this didn’t stop her from winning a scholarship to Tennessee State University and becoming the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

In 1983, Winfrey moved to Chicago to work for an AM talk show that would later be called The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Today Winfrey’s net worth is in the billions.


We love these kind of stories, don’t we?  These “rags to riches” stories, where some poor kid, through hard work and determination, rises to the top?

I’ve been thinking about that lately where Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is concerned.  I’m not saying that he was a poor kid, but let’s allow that his worldview may have been impoverished by the circumstances of his early life.

Born in 1959, Northam and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor’s farm and as a “stock boy” at Meatland grocery store. 

Humble beginnings, right?  And can you imagine that on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the sixties and seventies, Northam’s appreciation for African Americans may have been stunted by his environment and experience?

In my own experience, growing up in rural West Virginia around the same time, I remember the hateful things that were said about homosexuals (we hadn’t learned the word “gay” yet).

I myself said things that I am ashamed to remember.

But when I moved to Washington, DC, in 2000 I became pastor of a Baptist church in DuPont Circle, home to a large portion of the city’s gay population.  I got to know gay people, some of whom were brave enough to visit my church.  I listened to their stories over coffee in the neighborhood, and many of the stories they told broke my heart.  These days, when someone tells me, “I’m gay,” I remember those stories and feel a generosity of spirit that I didn’t have as a boy.

In its own way, it is a “rags to riches” story, and I’m wondering if Ralph Northam has a similar story where African Americans are concerned.  Would he say that when he posed for a racist photograph in 1984 he was “poor” in terms of his love and understanding for African Americans?  Would he say that now, because of his experience (and, I believe, a wife who keeps pushing him to grow, as my wife does), he is “rich”?  And do we have enough generosity of spirit to allow him to change?

I’ll just bet that when Oprah Winfrey walks into the nice stores in Chicago these days they let her shop.  Nobody says, “You’re poor!” because even though that was once true, it isn’t anymore.

To those who would call Ralph Northam a racist I say, “That may be true.  He may have been a racist once, and he may still be a racist.  I don’t know.  But it may also be true that he used to be a racist in the way Oprah used to be poor.  Maybe this is a rags to riches story.”

If that’s true, it gives me hope that all of us could become more generous in spirit, and learn to love those who are different from us as if love were money and we were all billionaires.

–Jim Somerville

10 thoughts on “Rags to Riches

  1. Nice, Jim.

    My own feelings about the Northam fiasco have morphed over the time period since this story emerged. I’m trying to be respectful of the African-Americans who, for very good reasons, are deeply offended, while also showing understanding for those of us who grew up “poor”. Your words here help.

  2. I think that’s a great analogy! I think when we’ve been caught in a wrong, we can be more of a witness for change, and yes, he’s learning the hard route he needs to now take to educate others.

  3. Jim, thank you for sharing this. Allowing someone to redeem themselves has become a rare thing in our society these days. I personally have experiences where I have not been allowed to redeem myself from mistakes I have made. It makes one feel like you are not worthy of redemption which certainly does nothing for your self esteem. I guess my personal experiences make me more likely to feel that Governor Northam deserves an opportunity of a second chance. What he makes of that second chance is up to him and hopefully he has learned from his mistakes and will take advantage of the opportunity to redeem himself.

  4. Agree with you for the most part here…..but I have other more pressing issues with Mr Northam regarding his stance on late term abortion ….. enough said.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful analogy. I have been searching for a clarifications day I think I just read it.

  6. Love this. I am more bothered by his attitude toward abortion. It is beyond me to understand how a Pediatrician can support infanticide.

  7. I believe this could be the truth about our govenor. The problem I’m having with him is his stance on abortion. He said that in 2019.

  8. I am with Jim without feeling the need to imagine whether or not he is/was a racist. I would normally draw a distinction between a person going as MJ and a person making it their intent to do something established as racist, at least from the understanding of blackface from the perspective of a lot of people. It would be interesting to see if in our culture of outrage whether African Americans are truly only one bloc in this whole issue with the Governor. I don’t think he should step down over that. Way way more bothered by his stances on abortion.

  9. I commend FBC Richmond for hosting recently, a long-time friend and former colleague on the subject of homosexuality. As a bachelor and as husband to my former wife, I always found Richmond’s First Baptist Church welcoming to persons from all walks of life, without regard to sexual orientation. I know that in its 239 year history, First Baptist has had among its flock those who have struggled with this subject and lifestyle. My heart goes out to those who have not yet found deliverance from this lifestyle. It can and does happen. Surely, this is an opportunity for ministry to reach out to these individuals and their families and I pray that this will be a first step in that outreach.

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