Friday, August 29, 2008

Of Reunions, Restaurants and Road Signs

As the summer is drawing to a close, I thought I would briefly comment on a few recent road trips in the American South. The accounts may not be as exotic as my Syrian travels, but then again, maybe they are even more so. As visitors to this blog can attest, a favorite pasttime of mine is observing the churches I pass on my journeys. Hopefully, this is more than just an opportunity to poke fun and wax sarcastic. I acknowledge my own droll sense of humor, and try to keep a rein on it, but I do believe many of my targets offer some insight into the state of American religiousity. Perhaps I am too critical (my wife certainly thinks so) and perhaps the weirdness is all on my end of things. That said, three recent excursions have supplied me with plenty of ammuniton.

In mid May, I made a mad dash through eastern Oklahoma and up to far northwestern Arkansas. I have one aunt still living. She and her husband retired from St. Louis 30+ years ago to a corner of the Ozarks remote even by Arkansas standards. They are now in their mid 80s, living alone, though assisted by my wonderful cousin who moved nearby. I felt strongly that I needed to see them, and soon. Happily, they were in fine health, and I look forward to future visits. I am not a big fan of Arkansas, frankly. I proposed to drive north through eastern Oklahoma and then cut over east only when it became absolutely necessary.

As I was approaching Idabel, Oklahoma, I noticed a billboard, proclaiming:



Now I know what these civic-minded folks were trying to say. I get it. But my first impression was the literal one: "Jesus Christ is the light bulb over Idabel." And I suspect that there may be some dim bulbs passing this way whose understanding never goes beyond that.

My path took me through Fort Smith, Arkansas. In the 1850s, my ancestors (the family of my surname, in fact) settled in a valley about 20 miles south of the city. The region is more reminiscent of nearby Oklahoma than the general perception of mountainous Arkansas. The hills are only rolling, with farms boasting real, substantial pastures in the spreading valleys. The Civil War disrupted things in this valley before my people could get settled good. They, and a clutch of neighboring families, were Unionists. Killings were not unheard of, with the father-in-law of one of my uncles being shot down. An aunt was caught alone in the fields by Rebel bushwackers and apparently raped (though this sort of thing just wasn't talked openly). She was never the same afterwards, and died sometime later, unmarried. A couple of uncles slipped across the the border into Indian Territory and joined up with Union forces. My particular ancestor, who had a young family, could not easily do so. He and a brother-in-law were drafted into the Confederate Army, but on Christmas leave, gathered up their families and fled to Indian Territory. They made it to Texas in early 1863, the last of my tribe to arrive. The rest of the family rode out the war and remained in Arkansas. Every time I am close by, I stop at the graveyard where they lie buried. The cemetery grew around the churchyard of the Coop Prairie Cumberland Presbyterian Church, an historic church dating to 1848 and the church of my ancestors. In that sense, the church had meaning to me. But no more. The church building has been modernized, and apparently the word "Presbyterian" was a little too restrictive for post-modern sensibilities. But then, even the word "church" is considered too dogmatic. For now, it is simply the Coop Prairie Fellowship, or something like that--honestly, I can't remember exactly, for they all run together. But what did get my attention was the large painting of Jesus on the outside of the church. From here on out, my ancestors lie buried in the shadow of the Happy Hippie Jesus Church. Oh well.

My second excursion took my wife and I to Jackson, Mississippi to attend an annual family reunion, on my mother's side. In 1776, a young German boy with a funny name enlisted in the British Army to fight in America. Once here, he decided the better course would be to fight against the British instead. So, from 1779, he served in the colonial army. At war's end, he married a North Carolina girl and began raising a large family, first there, and later in Georgia. When he died in 1816, he was a substantial farmer, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a Justice of the Peace, though still speaking with something of a thick German accent. For the last 29 years, representatives of his innumerable descendants have gathered for a reunion in some Southern locale. None of us are closely related to one another, but we treasure these yearly gatherings.

To speak of Southern eccentricities is to repeat oneself. At one point, I found myself chatting with a group of cousins that consisted of a NASCAR driver, a Mobile society doyenne and a Holiness preacher. The NASCAR driver created the most splash this year, arriving in his candy-apple red, vintage 1966 Corvette, with pictures of the plantation he had just purchased (1832 mansion house with columns and the whole bit).

One of the cousins of my generation is a Mobile attorney. Each year, she invariably ends up as the source of some memorable anecdote or incident. This year was no exception. We rented a restaurant for our Saturday night banquet and meeting. By the time we all left, the staff was anxious to close up. Halfway back to the hotel, my cousin remembered she had left her jacket at the restaurant. So she and her 85-year old aunt circled back to the restaurant to retrieve the jacket. Upon return, they found the establishment to be closed and locked up tight. Sure enough, the jacket was hanging on the hat rack, just inside the door. My cousin left a note on the door with her name and address and instructions for mailing the jacket back to Mobile. But before leaving, she noticed that the lock was just the normal residential variety. She jiggled the knob, and was able to push the door open. This, of course, set off the alarm system. With the siren blaring, she turned to her aunt and yelled "Get in the car, Aunt Mae! Get in the car!" 85-year old Aunt Mae took off running across the parking lot, as my cousin reached in, grabbed her jacket, pulled the door shut and ripped off the note with her name and number. They peeled out the parking lot and made their way safely back to the hotel.

Jackson is favorite of ours. We always drive by Eudora Welty's house. We always spend an hour in Lemuria, one of the best Southern bookstores. And Jackson is a good city for eating out. Dennery's is still in business--the haunt of Miss Welty. But this year, we stopped at another favorite of mine, the Elite Restaurant downtown. The same Greek family has operated the establishment since 1947. Interestingly, they are of the same family that founded the noted Texas eatery of the same name even earlier.

Once the reunion was over, we looped up through the Delta, turning a 5-hour return trip into 8 hours. This is sort of thing I enjoy and my wife patiently endures. But there is method to this madness, for we were able to stop in Greenwood for Sunday dinner (often referred to as "lunch" elsewhere). There were joined the local Episcopacracy at Giardina's, going strong since 1936, next door to the elegant Alluvian Hotel.

From there, we turned West, heading for the Greenville bridge. Along the way we passed the Jim Henson Muppet Museum in Leland (just look for the giant frog). Who knew?

At Greenville, I wanted to visit the kneeling knight in the Percy family plot there. Time constraints and a failure to locate the cemetery dictated that I postpone this to another trip (Ask directions? Never!) The impressive new bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville is nearing completion. From there, we angled across southeastern Arkansas, into Monroe, Louisiana, which put us within 3 hours of home on the interstate.

I saw some of my most memorable church signs on this Delta loop. One thing I noticed was perhaps a new trend--the mix-and-match of traditonal evangelical denominational names. The New Bethany Assembly for Christ is supposed to be somehow different, I suppose, from just the run-on-the mill Assemby of God. Then there was the Charismatic Holiness Church of Christ, which will make about as much sense to any Southerner as say, Ralph Nader Republicans. In Greenwood, a storefront church caught my eye: The Endtimes Encounter Church, with Pastor and Apostle Sherry _________. At least we don't have to wonder what they are all about. But the church that gave me pause was the Emanuel Baptist Church in Leland, near the Muppet Museum. Their sign on the highway outlined their plea:

Acceptance, Purpose, Family and FUN!

I can grudginly grant them the first three, even though they would be way down on my list if I was coming up with that sort of thing. Seems like humility, love, patience ought to be in there somewhere. But fun? And not just fun, but FUN! Why must everything in this country be fun? Can't some things simply by their very nature be deadly serious? The sign bothered me much more than any of the evangelical charistmatic church configurations I noted. Church--the Body of Christ--is serious business. And if we have to market it differently, then to quote Flannery O'Connor, "to hell with it."

But what really got my attention was a little church on the outskirts of Bonita, Louisiana, just north of Mer Rouge. The chuch was named--and you can't make this stuff up--"The Holy Ghost Disturbed Church." To me, this is right out of Flannery O'Connor. I think I know what they are referring to--the stirring-up of the waters at the pool of Siloam. Somehow I can just image a church member being asked their religious affiliation and replying, "Oh, I'm a Disturbed Christian." So am I, so am I.

Finally, my wife and I took a long weekend trip to Galveston. We are not at all beach people. Galveston has always had the reputation of being the most cosmopolitan and well, least Texan of our cities. It has been years and years since I've been there. Practically the entire city is the "historical district." We planned to meet friends there and attend the premier of Jaston Williams' and Joe Sears' latest play at the Grand Opera House. Afterwards, we had a memorable meal at Di Bella's, a old-time neighborhood Italian diner. In approaching Galvestion, one should avoid Houston at all costs. We turned off to the east of the city, driving through some pleasant rural areas located surprisingly close to Houston. Two churches along this stretch of road caught my attention. One was the "Melchizidek Divine Church." I just have no idea. Melchizidekians??? The next church down the road was "The Changing Lifestyles Fellowship." This name may actually imply something they probably didn't intend. And then finally, there was the appropriately brief and to-the-point "Happy Church."


Ranger said...

I was the a ring bearer in my cusins wedding many moons ago. The church was called "Happy Church" but it was in Colorado Springs. Appropriatly my cousins sonn to be spouse showed up to the rehearsel in a cut off mesh shit. Very dignified.

Ranger said...

ok, maybe I should have done some spell- checking, sorry!

John said...

No, it sounds like you had it right the first time.

Anonymous said...

You may think these are not as "exotic" as your Syrian travels, but to an Aussie in Sydney they most definitely are. Truly interesting and fascinating as well.

I do not want to raise a prickly issue, so feel free to ignore/tell me to shut up, but is it due to your family's history that Arkansas [still don't know how you Americans get the pronunciation you do with that... :)] that you are not overly fond of Arkansas? It sounds like a lot of sad history there.

And your cousin's great aunt looks fantastic for 85 in that photo: and wow! what a story. :)

Thanks again for sharing; truly fascinating.

John said...

Thanks, Ian. Concerning Arkansas...well, I guess it has more to do with good-natured rivalry between neighboring states. Texans like to joke at the expense of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana...and they eagerly return the favor! We Texans are sometimes guilty of believing our own PR, which is always a bad thing. But Arkansas has always struggled with poverty and backwardness. And while I am just not attracted to the state, some of the nicest people I have ever known have been Arkansans. So, don't put too much stock in my off-handed put-down of the state.

And the lady in the picture is not Aunt Mae, but her 87 year-old sister, Inez.

Anonymous said...

Wow...looking very good for 87.

Thanks for the Arkansas comments...we have similar rivalries here: though we have far less states.