Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cross at the Side of the Road


I have been doing quite a bit of job-related driving recently. Last week I drove to near Beaumont, then over to Austin and back home on one circuit. Earlier this week, I was on the Oklahoma border. In better economic times, I would have probably declined these jobs, as they are outside of our normal trade area. These days, we do not turn anything down. Not only can we do that job, we can do it tomorrow.

A drive deep into southeast Texas is an interesting experience. Of all the regions of our state, I would have to say this area is the least stereotypically Texan. To those of us located even just a few hours north, it seems more an extension of southwestern Louisiana, but without the Cajun flavoring. The flat land was always poor and never much good for farming. The region remains impoverished, given to logging and trailers.

I never mind driving, for there is always something to see along the way. Roadside churches are a never-ending source of interest. In one town, I passed a storefront church--the New Life Church (but of course)--which, in its storefront window promoted not only the church, but its fresh shrimp and catfish, as well their print shop for tee-shirts and banners. They also managed to find room for a poster denouncing "Obamacare." Further down the road, I passed the ramshackle Church of Ace, which struck me as funny, in a "Church of Butch" kind of way. But, I later discovered that Ace is the name of a now near-extinct community there, which explains the wording. Still further on, I passed the Community Missionary Baptist Church, a modest structure to be sure, but neat as a pin. On the sign out front, they proclaimed: "Teaching the Bible, verse by verse." You have no doubt what these people are all about. About 750 feet down the highway, I passed another, more substantial Missionary Baptist Church. The story here is clear, if you know how to read the signs. The smaller church split off from the larger church, and their statement of purpose, as spelled out on their sign in front, served as something of a rebuke to the older church, where apparently, they perceived that the Bible was not being taught, verse by verse.

But poking gentle fun at small-town Texas religious idiosyncrasies is not where I am going with this story. The placing of crosses and memorials at the site of highway traffic deaths has become a common practice (This was not done in my youth, and seems to be a phenomenon of the last two decades or so.) On a long stretch of straight highway, I noticed a particularly large white cross in passing. Something about this memorial caught my eye. I pulled over and made a u-turn and went back to verify what I thought I had seen. A small sign next to the cross said simply "We will miss you Josh Henry." Upon closer inspection, I noticed that friends had written notes to his memory all over the white cross. His cap was hanging over the top of the cross, and his hard-hat was hanging on the left bar of the cross. A football had been propped-up against the foot of the cross. A couple of beer bottles were standing upright nearby. The immediate area had been swept clean, and in what had originally caught my eye, a ring of crushed Bud Light beer cans encircled the cross.

I did a google search a few days later, and learned a few more details. Josh died after being thrown from a truck that wrecked on October 17th. He was 21 years old. The particulars follow a sadly familiar script: 2:30 in the morning, 92 miles per hour, and of course, driving under the influence of alcohol. The driver walked away from the mishap, but has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

I do not know about his religious affiliation, but would guess him to be nominally Baptist or Pentecostal or some variation thereof, as is normative for the area. His funeral was probably overflowing in attendance, and no doubt the preacher comforted the family with his assurance of heaven, based on a childhood profession of faith. Back in my Church of Christ days, we snidely referred to this as "preaching someone into heaven." [We, of course, eschewed such behavior, as I am not sure we really believed anyone was actually going there.] This is all speculation of course, on my part. I am just guessing, based on my knowledge of the culture.

But Josh's makeshift memorial serves a stark rebuke to any funereal platitudes, smooth words and warbling Southern gospel hymns. It seems to me that the friends who erected this memorial weren't buying any of that at all. This young construction worker loved football, beer and having a good time with his friends. And now, for his buddies, abruptly and incomprehensibly, he is gone, leaving a gaping hole where once existed their life with him. We exert so much time and effort in the construction, maintenance and nurturing of the Lie--the unreality of our existence, if you will--that is to say, our denial of the fact that every day is the day of our death; if not today, then certainly tomorrow. And for all of us, there comes a time when this edifice crumbles in the face of the Real. Josh's friends--confronting eternity--struggled to comprehend this reality. Does he live on only in their memories? Or is there more? And why this way? Their messages and testimonies scribbled on the roadside cross, in a pitiable attempt to hold on the memory of Josh, and the placement of tokens of their life with him, spoke volumes to me. For we are all pitiable and feeble. We all seek to hold tight to that which is slipping away. We mourn over death, and ask why. For Josh's friends, my prayer is that they one day will know that this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality and that in the end, Death is swallowed up in victory. And for Josh, all I can say is all I know to say--With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.

15 comments:

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I wonder if they realize that they are doing the not very Baptist praying to the departed in addressing him directly. It's not Baptist, but it's natural. Memory Eternal.

James the Thickheaded said...

Thank you for your thoughts. Something to think about. Been to a lot of funerals this year... and only one where you got the impression the fellow actually believed. These things are kind of hard to know what to say or offer to the family... as is the thing to do without "pushing".. if you know what I mean.

John said...

Andrea Elizabeth,

Exactly! They were stuggling to do what comes natural to us all--even though, as you say, it flies in the face of everything they've been taught. Perhaps you have pinpointed what struck me about this, and what I struggled to describe.

Steve Hayes said...

I first noticed those roadside memorials when I visited Greece 12 years ago, and asked about them. Some of them lloked like permanent shrines.

A couple of years later I passed one in Albania, erected in memory of a priest and his family who drove off a mountain road, and, far from rendering first aid, the local inhabitants robbed them as they were dying. The shrine marked the place where the car had left the road, with an ikon and candles, and we stopped there briefly to pray.

Now such memorials are found in many countries.

Kirk said...

Thank you for the post, John. It comes at an appropriate time for me, as one of my daughter's friends was killed in a car wreck just a few weeks ago. I think that automobile fatalities are some of the most difficult deaths to deal with, since the friend or loved one is here and living one day and gone the next. Old people are supposed to die and we expect to deal with sickness on occasion, but the sudden death of a young person is hard to understand.

This is especially true in a culture that expects God to be in control of every little detail of our lives, some people reaching so far as to believe that God would arrange a parking space close to the door when we go shopping. Many people are taught that God will ensure the health, prosperity and safety of those He loves. What are they to make of a loss such as this? Did the deceased to something to anger God? If "God is in control," what kind of plan must God have if it involves the death of a young person?

s-p said...

A beautiful reflection, John. Roadside memorials are indeed a microcosm of the depth of our heart and the veracity of true dogma. It is interesting to me that, when faced with ultimate things instead of Sunday morning verse by verse sermons we fall back on Truth in our behavior.

Milton T. Burton said...

Superb and meaningful post.

Actually, about one third of the nation's Cajuns do live in Southeast Texas. They have migrated over in the last five decades or so to work in the chemical plants and refineries around Beaumont and Port Arthur. Saturday afternoons the local TV stations in Beaumont typically carry local Cajun music programs. OR at least they did twenty or so years ago.

The Ochlophobist said...

Beautiful reflection John.

Ranger said...

A friend of mine died this past week. He left me a memorial..a 715 foot hole to draw water from. With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant Destal, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.

Mimi said...

May his (and the others who have been mentioned in the commetnts) Memory be Eternal.

Fr. James Early said...

I agree with the other posters. This reflection was wonderful. Among other things, these type of memorials (which are found on nearly every street in Houston) serve as reminders of our own mortality, and in that way also they are very Orthodox. May his memory be eternal.

Radoje S. said...

Roadside memorials have an interesting history in Serbia. The oldest ones date back from the epic retreat during in WWI. Soldiers who fell by the side of the road were buried there, with a crude memorial. After the war, more formal memorials were put up. These memorials (headstones really) are called "kraj putashe", which literally means, "by the side of the road. Interestingly, the word "kraj" can also mean "end", so they could also be known as "the end of the road".

John said...

I remember small white crosses put on the side of the road where a veteran of WWII had died. They bore no identification of any kind. This was in the 1950's.

Anonymous said...

The town where I live as well as a few miles out of the city limits has around four memorials.

Three are right next to each other on a side street called 'beer can alley' by the locals. You can probably guess what happened there.

I don't know if it is more heart breaking to see the memorials go untended, or to see a new teddy bear or flower placed with it...

Lew said...

I've often wondered when these types of public memorials started cropping up. We seem to have made death quite tacky, complete with teddy bears and toys when a child dies, yet this is a sort of public and perhaps spontaneous way of mourning the death of someone. Does anyone know when it really started here? I don't remember any major examples before Princess Diana died.