Esau McCaulley remembers his past, dreams of the Promised Land in new book

In a vulnerable and inspiring new book due out in September, the New Testament scholar and writer recounts the story of his father's fall from grace and his long journey home.

“How Far to the Promised Land

(RNS) — Esau McCaulley was almost another statistic.

As a teenager in Huntsville, Alabama, he was sitting at home watching television when a drive-by shooter opened fire on his family’s house. One of the bullets passed a few inches from his head. Had he moved a muscle, his life might have been over.   

In his new book “How Far to the Promised Land,” due out in early September, McCaulley imagines what the headlines in the newspapers might have said if he had died that day: “Black Youth Killed in Drive-by Shooting: Crime Out of Control in Northwest Huntsville.” He would have just been another nameless Black victim of gun violence.

“People would have known exactly what my story was about,” McCaulley said in a recent interview. “But they would have been wrong. That’s not the whole of who I was.”

In a follow-up to his award-winning book, “Reading While Black,” McCaulley, a New York Times columnist, New Testament scholar and theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, tells the story of growing up in a poor neighborhood in Huntsville, where he dreamed that football would offer him a way out.

When a knee injury derailed his major college scholarship hopes, McCaulley ended up playing at Sewanee, a Division III school known for its beautiful campus in the mountains of Middle Tennessee. There he met his wife, discovered his calling to ministry and found a life different than he could have imagined growing up.

But his success left him troubled.

“I felt trapped by the story that people were telling about me — this kid who escaped poverty and made it to the middle class,” he said. “That was the story people wanted to hear. But I felt like that wasn’t true. Because it made it seem like the only people who mattered were the people who succeeded.”

In his new book, inspired by the death of his father in 2017, McCaulley said he set out to find the beauty in the stories of broken and complicated people, including many in his family and the neighborhood. Their struggles, even if they did not end well, can still be filled with glory, he said. And they tell us something about America.

McCaulley spoke to Religion News Service in late August. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you describe your dad — given all he went through? At one point in the book, you talk about his own childhood trauma, including being raised by a father who had lost two children in a house fire before your dad was born.

In part one of the book, he’s a villain. That’s how I talk about him. He’s the man who became an addict. He’s the one who stole from my family. He’s the one who is abusive to us. He’s the one who came home was on drugs and was punching holes in the wall while I was hiding in my sleeping bag, praying that the police come to keep our family safe.

That’s who he was.

Then I began to understand that he was someone who had his own trauma. One of the last things his father says to him before he dies is that he is no good, that he would never be anything as good as the kids who died in the fire. That marks him. But it puts him in context.

At the end of his life, he’s searching. He’s searching for a way to be the man he never could be. So, he’s kind of a tragic figure. I describe him in that way, as someone who is very easy to hate — but who is complicated.  

Not to give away the ending, but there’s a change late in his life, right before he dies. How do you make sense of that?

Toward the end, there was, not a reconciliation, but the beginning of something. I found it profoundly meaningful that he died in California, far from home. He was still making the same promises and saying, “I’m going to come home.” When I was a kid, and my father would leave, I would take it personally — as if he left because he hated me and was making promises on purpose to make our lives harder. When I got older, I began to understand that every time he made those promises, he wanted to keep them. His failed promises, I began to see, were striving towards something that he never could quite obtain. I would describe my father as someone who reached for something. And who, by the time he really figured out what it was he was looking for, literally ran out of road.

When did you stop hating your father?

It was really when I stopped looking at him as my dad and saw him as a human being. I don’t want anybody to die and never have a relationship with their children. If I’m looking from the outside, I would say, that’s a tragedy. It became more and more difficult for me to speak about grace all the time to everyone else, but not extend it to the people around me. Once I saw my father as a fallible human, then I could begin to wish for him what I wish for everyone else. The whole point of Christianity is that the story is not over as long as we draw a breath. Once I began to see him as someone in need of the grace of God, that gave me the strength to begin to hope for more for him.

I feel like his death speaks to a lot of my family’s story — that they were reaching for something and didn’t quite get there. And I would say that happens to a lot of black people in America. We are reaching for this promised land — this place where we can live our lives in peace and security. But a lot of us haven’t gotten there.

One of the most powerful moments of the book comes when you talk about your cousin Clarice, who contracted AIDS in the 1980s. You write about her death but also her victories in life, which you say were fleeting but still glorious.

Sometimes the only people who get nuanced are the famous, successful people. But the poor don’t get nuanced. They become one-dimensional characters. What I really wanted to say is no, you need to see my family. And by seeing them, you can see America.

There’s a high body count, or high death toll in the book. Because a lot of people died around me. And some of them died very young, under tragic circumstances. But that tragedy isn’t the only thing that is important about them.  

One of the things that happens when someone dies is there’s kind of an assessment of that person’s life. We look at all of the things they may have done or may have been accused of doing. And because they made these mistakes in their past, we assume we know what they would have been in the future.

But the whole point of Christianity is that the plot twist is always right around the corner.

One more question. You are named for your father, but for years you’ve gone by your middle name, Daniel.  But in the book, you begin to see your given name, Esau, in a different light. Why is that?

One of the questions I get, probably more than any other question, is, why do I have the name Esau? Because anyone who knows the story of Esau knows Esau isn’t the most heroic character. I always thought of him as the loser of the Bible, who sells his birthright for a bowl of pottage. But if you live with the text — you realize something different. Esau’s brother Jacob, who is the hero of the story in the Old Testament, is actually a scoundrel. He robbed and took advantage of his brother.

But in the end, when Esau had every right to condemn his brother, he forgives him and embraces Jacob. There’s a parallel with the story of the prodigal son — when the prodigal son is coming back home, and his father sees him — the father runs to embrace him. It’s the same language used to refer to Esau forgiving Jacob. I say to people all the time, Esau is paradigmatic of God’s forgiveness and undeserved mercy.


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