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:
JESUS CHRIST IS THE
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).
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:
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."