Friday, July 31, 2009

What's a Church of Christ boy to do?

I recommend the post of a new blogging acquaintance, entitled "What's a Church of Christ boy to do?", found here. Dissatisfied with the limitations of Restorationist theology, he is contemplating Orthodoxy, among other options. Where he is now, I once was. His is a well-written essay, and he invites response. For those unfamiliar with Church of Christ issues, this is an excellent primer. By all means, check it out.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reflections from a Road Trip: the Deep South

A new generation meets the storyteller

[This brings my summer travel posts to a close. I plan to stay home for a while.]

In 1776, the British army recruited an 18-year old German boy from northern Bavaria to fight the American colonists. After 2 years of doing that very thing, the young man followed his conscience, defected and joined the Revolutionary Army. War's end found him in North Carolina where he in turn found a wife. Johannes died in 1816 in Georgia, a modestly prosperous yeoman farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher. For the last 30 years, this man's descendants have gathered for a reunion in different parts of the South. These are my mother's people, though she gave little thought to these get-togethers. In the 30 years, I have missed perhaps three. My wife and I attended this year's event in LaGrange, Georgia, and then drove on to Savannah, where we spent a couple of days before returning home.

Without going into any great detail, I will simply post some observations from the trip, in a Best and Worst format, as follows:

Best mid-sized Southern city:

Jackson, hands down

Most picturesque small-town Episcopal church:

Church of the Holy Cross, Uniontown, AL

Most photogenic decaying Southern mansion:

behind the Church of the Holy Cross, Uniontown, AL

Most surprising:

Selma, Al, much more than the Edmund Pettus bridge, with an interesting downtown, not yet in total decline, with impressive churches and the stand-out Mishkan Temple Synagogue

Best eastbound travel tip:

Alabama police are apparently serious about the 45 mph posted along Highway 80's eternal construction

Best location for a remake of Gone with the Wind or any other moonlight-and-magnolias Southern potboiler:

Greenville, GA, with a row of authentic antebellum mansions lining the western entrace to town, culminating in a Norman Rockwall courthouse square

Most eye-catching Orthodox temple:

St. Innocent Orthodox Church, Macon, GA

Favorite Savannah squares:

Monterrey and Lafayette

Favorite Savannah view:

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist as seen across Lafayette Square from the second-story windows of Flannery O'Connor's childhood home

Silliest church sign:

seen in front of Reidsville Baptist Church, Reidsville, GA: "Youths: Confused about Jesus' Second Coming? Watch the Left Behind movies here." ho-boy

Most idyllic Southern hamlet:

Ailey, GA

Bridesmaids in Forsythe Square

Friendliest Fruit Stand:

McGuinty's McApple Orchard, Rochelle, GA

Most beautiful Baptist Church:

First Baptist Church, Plains, GA

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Ugliest Baptist Church:

Ladonia Baptist Church, Phenix City, AL

In Bonadventure Cemetery

Competition between old-time downtown Jackson eateries--The Mayflower vs. The Elite Cafe:

The Elite Cafe has a slight edge until The Mayflower's bread pudding is factored in, leaving it a dead-heat

Best westbound travel tip:

If you fill up with gasoline and visit the restroom in Jackson or Vicksburg, you can make it to Texas without ever having to even stop in Louisiana

Reflections of a Road Trip: Pirates in the Piedmont

In early July, I tapped the frequent-flyer bank and spent 4 1/2 days in North Carolina. The ostensible purpose of the trip involved meeting fellow researchers at Blowing Rock, near Grandfather Mountain. Most of the time, however, I shuttled between Charlotte and Salisbury, in the heart of the Piedmont. The Appalachians are certainly beautiful, but they don't hold my interest for long. I guess I am more of a rolling-hills-type-of-guy.

My visit just happened to coincide with the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain. While these Scottish festivals are often heavy on affectation, this one is the granddaddy of them all, as authentic, I suppose, as these sorts of things can be. I visited our clan tent, ate a Scottish meat pie, and watched some good ole-fashioned pole-tossing, duck herding and Scottish wresting (just like Turkish wrestling except that the contestants are not first slicked-down with olive oil.) And of course, there was the obligatory Celtic band (that I was never able to actually see for the crowds) and the ever-present din of bagpipes (which somehow seem appropriate here in the mountains.) That said, I still have the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing is merely an excuse for men to strut around in kilts and pretend they are laird o' the manor. Oh well, I have done worse myself.

Charlotte epitomizes the much-ballyhooed up-and-coming New South, with little time for the quaint distinctiveness of our various regions. (Bill Kauffman has some excellent observations on this aspect of Charlotte in a recent article, here.) On my first night there, I attempted to look up a first cousin that I had never met. One of my dad's brothers was something of a ladies' man, you might say. Swarthy and handsome, with a pencil mustache, he cut a dashing figure as a young man. Just before the Second World War, he married a stunning California girl, much too beautiful for her own good. Neither my uncle nor his new wife particularly behaved themselves while apart during the conflict, and not surprisingly, their marriage was a casualty of the war. Loraine went on to other marriages (as did he), and from the look of things, did quite well for herself in a material sense. I am intrigued by a snapshot of her taken 20 years later, in 1965. Even at that time, she was a dead-ringer for Audrey Hepburn. Anyway, there were 2 children of this marriage. The daughter was murdered years ago, and the son, I learned, lived in Charlotte. I especially wanted to meet this cousin, if for no other reason than he bears my grandfather's exact name. I googled and found the address and decided to just show up unannounced--"Hi, I'm your cousin"--at the front door. When I arrived at their house, the car was in the driveway and the lights were on. I rang the front doorbell. Nothing. After a couple of minutes, the blinds parted and two eyes looked out at me for a moment, and then disappeared back into the house. I rang the doorbell again. After a while, I began to feel foolish standing there on the front porch. So, I left my card in the door and moved on. It is a bit funny to realize that others may view one as a suspicious-looking character.

The next night, I chose a restaurant downtown for supper. The meal required 2 draft Yuenglings, so I deemed it prudent to sit awhile on a bench outside before driving back to the motel. I relaxed in front of the nearby Charlotte Metro Station. I am a sucker for any train, subway or tram, and enjoyed watching the sleek new train pull into the station. The high-rise behind me was outfitted in futuristic multi-colored neon tubing running up the building. While sitting there, the lights started flashing in sequence. An audio recording accompanied the light show so that each time a neon light flashed, it triggered a creepy laugh-like soundtrack. Until then, I had been sitting in silence, admiring the train. Now I felt as if I were intruding, almost as if the building was laughing at me. Suddenly uncomfortable, I made my way back to the safety of my room. I am sure Charlotte is a lovely city, and snap initial impressions can often be misleading, but, I'm just saying....

Salisbury, on the other hand, was altogether inviting. Located midway between Charlotte and Winston-Salem, the city is far enough removed from either to avoid (so far) the sprawl inching its way. I found the town to be one of the most impressive I have visited. Salisbury is a quarter of the size of the city where I work, but its downtown is actually much larger. The beautiful old commercial buildings are still in place, functional and in good repair and housing actual businesses. The library (again much larger than in my larger city) is a beautiful Georgian brick building, in perfect harmony with the surrounding neighborhood. A graceful 3-story spiral staircase anchors the structure, with the library teeming with actual patrons instead of just warehousing the homeless. Apparently the city fathers decided generations ago to maintain and beautify their downtown, with mature trees, crape myrtles and statues lining the thoroughfares. In 1950, my city had a town square that people now would drive many miles to see. The short-sighted businessmen would have none of it and had nearly wiped it clean within 20 years. Ever since, town leaders have been fighting a losing battle to "revitalize" downtown. Would that we have had leaders of the caliber of those in Salisbury.

The rural Rowan County Piedmont is as pleasant as any you might find: sturdy farmhouses, ancient red oaks, towering Presbyterian churches of Georgian brick every few miles, acre upon acre of soybeans, and corn reaching to the sky. My great-great-great-great-great grandfather settled here from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the 1750s. Some brothers and innumerable cousins poured into the area between 1750 and 1785. They formed a web of connections with a half-dozen other area families that holds to this day. I suspect I could stop at most any farmhouse and in short order establish a connection of some sort. Wood Grove is the oldest surviving house in Rowan County, a 3-story country manse built by my kinsman in 1774. After 235 years, the place remains in the family. My extended kin fill the 4 most historic church graveyards in the area. When they first arrived, my Scots-Anglican family tried to establish an Episcopal church in the area. Fierce opposition from their Scots-Irish Presbyterian neighbors prevented this from ever happening. After a final attempt in 1769, my family settled in to become solid, respectable Calvinist churchmen. But my particular line did not stay here. In 1784, my ancestor moved on to the next frontier, this time in Georgia. The next generation settled the frontier in Tennessee, and the next Arkansas, and the next Texas. Nowhere did they establish the connectedness with a particular place as did those relatives who remained in Rowan County, North Carolina. My Piedmontese cousins stayed put and prospered, becoming fat and happy. Or so it would seem.

My Arcadian idyll was tempered a bit on my drive from Wood Grove Plantation to the old Thyatira Presbyterian Church. Two observations reminded me that the region I was in the process of romanticizing was in fact, very much in the 21st-century along with the rest of us. The fields of corn parted and flowed around a 5 acre home place. The woman of the house--certainly old enough to know better--was out by the road, mowing the yard with a push a thong bikini. For all practical purposes, she was mowing the yard in the nude. Upon arriving at Thyatira Church (the oldest Presbyterian church in central North Carolina and one of the state's most historic structures), I couldn't help but notice the sign out front. The following Sunday, they were having "Contemplation Sunday." What in the Sam Hill is a Contemplation Sunday? What it told me is that the wells are drying up here as well.

Of course, religiosity is still alive and kicking in North Carolina, as befits the home of both Billy Graham and Heritage USA. Indeed, the state seems to be ground zero for AM radio religious broadcasts. I listened to a fair sampling of them on Sunday afternoon after Liturgy in Charlotte, while I wandered along the back roads of Rowan. One preacher assured his audience that the Bible would be in heaven. Somehow I never envisioned eternity sitting with a Bible in my lap, highlighting and cross-referencing proof texts. Of course, bibliolatry can even carry over into the naming of churches, such as the storefront King James Baptist Church. One probably wouldn't want to walk in there with a NIV Study Bible. Another radio evangelist illustrated his sermon with examples taken from the Civil War...excuse me, The War of Northern Aggression. He explained to his flock that the only people who referred to it as the Civil War were "Yankees and other ignoramuses" (that would AM religious broadcasting is much more entertaining that talk radio.

For me, the real insight came from my day in the county courthouse, pouring over old deeds, wills and estate settlements. The people I was tracking were certainly an acquisitive bunch, accumulating land and slaves at a quick clip. And they seemed a litigious group, as well, showing no hesitancy in suing the kinsmen who sat across the aisle in their Presbyterian churches. They purchased, sold and traded slaves with cool indifference. Back in graduate school, my professors warned us repeatedly of presentism, that is, the projecting of contemporary values onto the past. Much of what passes for the popular understanding of American history is simply that. And I am not unfamiliar with the type and tone of the documents I was reviewing. That said, some of them simply took my breath away. Slaves were divvied-up between children as nonchalantly as one divided the kitchen utensils. Sometimes a will would contain a provision for one heir to receive a particular slave and her children, except the 2 oldest, who were to go to another heir. A 1827 deed I remember in particular. A debtor of my most prominent kinsman deeded him 2 slaves in partial payment of his obligation. The document contained instructions to the grantee to sell the slaves as quickly as possibly to apply to the debt. The servants were identified as Clarissa age 3 years thereabouts, and Porter about 18 months.

Reading through the county histories and cemetery records rounded-out the picture for me. Prosperity and Presbyterianism characterized antebellum Rowan County. And while this continued on after the war, the society had something of a dark underbelly. A number of high-profile and grisly murders seemed to crop up far too often, the most sensational occurring as late as 1906. A tension persisted between the white over class and their former slaves, now tenants. It would seem that a thin veneer of culture, sanctimony and piety covered over what could be termed a brutish society.

On my last day there, I determined to drive back out to Thyatira Cemetery. I uncovered an intriguing story concerning the hanging of 3 pirates back in the 1700s. What pirates were doing this far inland is a mystery to me. I suspect that they might have been merely highwaymen. No matter, they were captured and strung up in quick order. The elders of Thyatira Church agreed to allow them burial in the churchyard, but with one caveat--their names could not be inscribed upon their tombstones. Only a skull and crossbones would be allowed on the stones--perhaps as a warning to future pirates. I could not leave the state without seeing these graves. Thyatira Presbyterian Cemetery covers several rolling acres enclosed within an ancient rock wall. The gravestones are aligned in the straightest lines I have ever seen in any cemetery. Maybe it is a Presbyterian thing. It took me a while to find the graves, but sure enough, there were the 3 smalls stones, each carved with a fading scull and crossbones.

In looking down the rows of monuments marking the earthly repose of these respectable planters and merchants and churchmen, I could only think of acquisitiveness, of greed, of thirst for power, of trade in human flesh, of families torn-apart, of Clarissa and Porter. Pirates all, rows and rows of pious pirates. This is not to condemn this particular community, for they were no better or no worse than their contemporaries in like circumstances...or us, for that matter. But I walked away a bit thankful my family left here before succumbing to these particular temptations (to be sure, they found others along the way.) I suddenly stopped and walked back to the pirates' graves, to do the only thing I knew to do. Before each of the 3 stones, I crossed myself and chanted the haunting and unforgettable words we sing at Orthodox funerals:

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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Larison on Cantor, the "Judea-Christian tradition" and other silliness

Reaching out to the Muslim world may help in creating an environment for peace in the Middle East, but we must insist as Americans that our policies be firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded. ~Eric Cantor

So Cantor means that he will offer support to opposition Maronites in Lebanon and work to realign U.S. policies in the Near East to favor Armenia, right? No, I guess that wasn’t quite it. When he says that policy should be “grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” maybe he means that we should repudiate aggressive warfare, collective punishment and indiscriminate bombing, especially when those methods also adversely affect local Christian populations. Oh, that’s not it, either? Of course, it means exactly what you would think that it does, which is that we must support Israel to the hilt with support defined as the embrace of the most hawkish, counterproductive policies possible.

As is usually the case, Dr. Larison calls it just exactly right. Read the rest of the post, here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Obscure Destinies

My good friend, novelist Milton Burton, occasionally posts a short story on his blog. His latest submission is a good one, loosely based on an actual event, if I am not mistaken. You can check it out here.

Reflections of a Road Trip: In the Amish Country

It has probably been 18 years or better since I last visited Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This region is the very heart of Amish country, or at least that which is well-known to the non-Amish. At the time it struck me just how perilous their situation was, with incredible societal pressures bearing down on them. And not just from society in general, but from the mere specifics of their particular location--in a populated area much too close to the growing city of Lancaster. I wondered how they would be able to hold out. The fact that Lancaster County is one of the most beautiful in the nation does not help matters. But upon my recent visit, I am heartened by the fact that they seem to be holding out very well indeed. The city of Lancaster sprawls out along the Lincoln Highway, sucking up the old Amish communities of Paradise, Kinzers and Gap. Tourist enterprises seemed poised to swamp Intercourse and Bird in Hand along the Old Philadelphia Pike. But the Amish agricultural world begins immediately behind the commercial strips. By the time you have traversed several hundred feet, the sense of their world begins to take over. In short, the ramparts of defense against modernity seem to be intact.

I did not venture here to gawk at the Amish. My ancestors of the surname I bear came into the Pequea Valley from Scotland in 1720. My particular forebear, a younger son, moved on to the North Carolina frontier in the 1750s, but others of the family stayed here for a number of generations. Using the wonders of modern GIS technology, I was able to overlay their 1734 land patents onto a Google Earth aerial. So doing, I was able to pinpoint exactly where their farms were located. I wanted to see this land, as well as visit the Episcopal Church they helped found in 1729 and a couple of the old graveyards where my people buried. So, the Amish aspect was incident to my main purpose. They came later and bought up the land of the original English and Scots settlers (like mine). Today, my family's original homestead in the New World is a pristine Amish farm. It couldn't be in better hands.

Old family farm (now Amish), Lancaster County, PA

I must say that I would have made a terrible Amish person. I am too much a product of the modern world, I suppose. But it is hard to say, looking at their world from the outside. That said, I have tremendous respect for these people. Regardless of what you think about the theological underpinnings of their way of life (which I largely reject), the culture is a silent and damning rebuke to the excesses and wreckage of modernity. The contrast could not be more stark. I stayed at an old tourist court on the Lincoln Highway. Having driven from far western Michigan the day before, I was a bit fatigued and slept a little later that Saturday morning. By the time I started my day, the tourist hordes were already milling around Paradise. Taken as a whole, we were not a pretty sight--shorts, tee-shirts and flip-flops seemed to be the uniform of choice. None of us seemed to have missed many meals. After frequenting the tourist shops along the highway, many of them would probably cap-off their day in the Amish country by taking the kids to the nearby Dutch Wonderland Amusement Park, as touted by countless billboards featuring their grinning purple spokes-dragon. For you know, nothing says Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish like purple cartoon dragons.

But once you actually drove through the Amish farmlands, a different pattern of life was being played-out. This was no "weekend," but a work day like any other. The laundry was already hung out to dry on lines stretching from the farm houses to their barns. Barefoot girls were mowing the yard with manual push mowers. Men were in the fields harvesting. Young boys were moving cows from the dairy to pastures across the road. Young families were loaded into their buggies (pulled by the most beautiful horses imaginable) on quick trips into Intercourse or Bird in Hand for provisions. Everyone was brown, lean and angular. One sensed a discernible rhythm to their lives, in vivid contrast to the aimlessness of we weekenders.

I was to have supper with new friends Richard and Fran at the historic Revere Tavern that night. Their families had both lived in the area for 10 generations or so. In fact, Fran's family had owned the neighboring farm to my family back in the early 1700s. Her people had stayed put, and as a consequence she knew most everything there was to know about the area, and not only knowing everyone there, but how their family fit into the context of a 280-year local history. I found it all very European.

White Horse Tavern, Lancaster County, PA

I met Richard earlier in the day, as we walked around St. John's Cemetery, with its gravestones dating back to the 1740s. He took me on a tour of the church itself. The present structure is the 3rd, built in 1834. For lunch, we grabbed a sandwich and a couple of Yuengling lagers at the White Horse Tavern. A local family (still in the area) built this establishment in 1740. The original building survives, and most importantly, it has always been a tavern. As it is located halfway between my family's old farm and their church house, I feel confident that I was not the first of my line to put my feet under the bar there. Richard and I talked of the various pressures on their Amish neighbors. First, there is the simple fact that they have staked out a counter-cultural existence amidst the swirl of a modern world. This is exacerbated by the fact that their lands here are not isolated, but close to cities and sliced by highways. This in turn makes real estate prices sky-high, with the choice Amish land coveted for both residential and commercial development. Finally, there are simple demographics. The Amish marry young and have large families. I passed a young couple in their buggy on a back road between Paradise and Intercourse. Their very young son sat on the bench between them, while the wife held the baby. I thought it an idyllic Amish country scene. As I passed them and looked in the rear view mirror, I saw that their 3 older children were sitting on the buckboard behind. As I say, this was a young couple, and there will surely be more children beyond these 5. This is typical. Simply put, not all of these young Amish can remain here. There is not enough land for all of them to farm. So, many move on to other Amish communities in other parts of the country. Also, the young people are given a choice about the time they are 17 or 18. For a year or so, the teenagers are allowed to sample the modern world, to drink and party and experience the outside for themselves. I had seen a documentary about this before, so I was not unfamiliar with the practice. Afterwards, they choose whether they want to remain Amish or not. Richard told me that there had been tragedies. Teenage boys, trucks and alcohol are often a lethal combination. Four teenage Amish boys had been killed in a recent pile-up on the dirt road that runs beside my family's old farm. Lord have mercy.

St. John's Episcopal Church, founded 1729

I asked Richard about one sight that caught my attention. I saw a couple of Amish men mowing their yards with new zero-turning radius riding lawnmowers. Apparently, there is some loophole, or dispensation when it comes to this sort of thing. He knew of one man who had an underground electrical line into his house which powered a washer and dryer. And, it was not unknown to see the occasional Amishman sitting at the end of the bar at the White Horse Tavern. But by and large, the center seems to be holding.

On my way out of Lancaster County, I passed along the back roads of the southern section of the county, on my way to Port Deposit, Maryland. I was interested to learn that the Amish are not merely huddled in the touristed area east of Lancaster, but are in fact scattered all over the county. Everywhere, I saw young Amish walking together in groups or taking the family buggy out for a ride together. Apparently, Sunday afternoon after church services is the free time that young Amish have to seek out their peers and hang out together, as young people are wont to do. This is how it should be.

Family plot, St. John's Episcopal Cemetery

Friday, July 17, 2009

Reflections of a Road Trip: What I like about Missouri

On my recent travels, I spent the better part of 2 1/2 days in south-central and southwestern Missouri. I had not been in the state since a hurried visit to my aunt and cousins in St. Louis at age 14. So, I had little prejudice about Missouri, one way or the other. I think we Texans can often exhibit a Texo-centric view of things, particularly when it comes to other states. An acquaintance of mine--a stock-broker--encouraged me to outline my itinerary to his co-worker, also a college-educated broker. Upon doing so, he replied, "all blue-states, huh?" Well, yes, I guess you could put it that way. I let it pass and spared him my editorial comment on the relative merits of red-state vs. blue state (a near useless distinction, anyway.)

My paternal grandmother's paternal side settled in Missouri in the early 1840s, and my branch of the family peeled-off to Texas immediately preceding the Civil War. So, even in my genealogical musings, Missouri fits into the narrative as hardly more than a way-station to Texas. While in the state, I did visit the rural graveyard and found the marker for my 3rd-great-grandmother who died in 1855. When I am in cemeteries, I often wonder about the lives of the departed. She grew up in Litchfield County, CT where her people had lived for 150 years. After marriage, she and her husband and their ever-expanding family pushed on to Ohio by 1815, to Indiana by 1825, and as a widow to Missouri by 1845. Before her death, I wonder what she made of this, her last home in these rolling hills of central Missouri?

Two of her children pushed on to Texas in 1859. As a whole, the family was Republican, Unionist and Campbellite--only 1 of which would serve the family well in the Texas of 1861. I suppose the westering impulse had become ingrained in them, but I do wonder why they made the move. For I was to discover that this part of Missouri was both productive and not at all unpleasant in appearance. The countryside I visited was quite pretty, with rolling hills and a good mixture of forest and farm land--not beautiful in the classical sense, but in its own way, much better. The farmsteads themselves completed the picture, neat and modest--perhaps not the large farm complexes one associates the Midwest, but not at all characterized by the creeping trashiness that has taken root in much of rural America. There seemed a certain sameness to the houses in this corner of America--not that there was no diversity or character, but rather there did not seem to be the great disparity between rich and poor that one often finds in my part of the country. What this tells me is that, in some ways, society is better ordered in Missouri than in my home state.

I started not to post this picture of the yard sign I passed on a Missouri back road, as it could be something a cheap shot, an all-too-easy opportunity to poke fun at certain elements of American society. Clearly, these folks have an agenda. "Christianity" can be a useful word when used sparingly, but it is NOT that in which we believe, or at least not that in which we should believe. Perhaps that is our problem--the substitution of belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as cited in the Nicene Creed with an all-encompassing systematic abstraction labeled "Christianity." Nor have I ever been one to wrap myself in the American flag, so to speak, and have no doubt that my views on American exceptionalism would damn me in the eyes of the owners of this sign. I have no idea what it means to "think American," but I am afraid I would not like it if I did. I could agree with the last item, unless of course it was lumped together with other items to project some ideological agenda, as is the case here. And while I take issue with each and every item, I have to admit that there is a certain plain-spoken straight-forwardness about the sign which I have to respect. I think Missouri is that kind of place, and I can certainly deal with that.

And Missouri offers up surprises along the way, for those who have eyes to see. East of Ash Grove I passed this incredible octagonal stone barn, like none I have seen before. I was not the only one stopped by the roadside for a better view. I had to chuckle a bit at the faded civic boosterism of the "Ash Grove: Home of the Ash Tree" sign. Of course this is certainly better than that of Gainesville, Missouri (located much too close to the Arkansas border, apparently) which proclaims: "Welcome to Gainesville, Home of Hootin' and Hollerin'."

Ash Grove is struggling, it appears, with its most logical future as a bedroom community for nearby Springfield. I passed through this growing city twice and stopped once. I do not have a feel for the place yet, and it would be unfair to judge. At first glance, all appeared to be shopping centers and commercial strips and mega-churches along the highways, such as the intriguingly named "Truth Church." I never found the center of the city, though there is undoubtedly one somewhere. My time was limited, so I did not linger long here. It is hard to say exactly where the South ends, but one senses that by Springfield, you have crossed over that line. Anyway, I think Springfield deserves a second look one day.

In the countryside, Missionary Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ and pentecostal churches predominate. So, you can imagine my surprise, in a particularly remote stretch of back road, when I stumbled across St. Francis Church. They billed themselves as Anglican, and "traditional Episcopal." Now what you expect in this neck of the woods. More power to them, I say.

Before leaving Missouri for points north, I had to find the grave of my cousin Mary Jane Barbee, who died in January 1884 in Ash Grove. She was related on my paternal grandmother's maternal side, the first cousin of my great-great-grandmother (though it is doubtful they ever met, considering the different worlds in which they lived.) She came of age in Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when her uncle was in the governor's mansion and her father and another uncle in the legislature. Her father, my remote uncle, was an attorney and politician, who prospered mightily in land speculation stretching from Alabama to Texas. He was most well-known, however, as an early preacher and writer for the Christian Church (note: until the late 1800s, the term Christian Church was most often used to designate the current denominations of Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches.) His oldest daughter was educated by tutors, spoke French and was an accomplished pianist. In 1853, she married Dr. Barbee, an up-an-coming young minister in the Christian Church. He had been a medical doctor in Cincinnati, only to abandon his practice for the ministry after being converted from Presbyterianism to the Christian Church by none other than Alexander Campbell himself. Up until 1862, he pastored the Linden Street Christian Church (now Lindenwood) in Memphis. When the city fell, the Barbees decamped to her parent's farm in northern Mississippi.

The family was pretty well busted up by the war, and in its aftermath, Dr. Barbee worked as a college president, first in two institutions in Kentucky, then one in Kansas City (which he called "the ugliest city in America") and finally a new college in Ash Grove, Missouri. At each location, Mary Jane was his ever-constant and invaluable assistant, both in administration and teaching. Wherever they lived, she conducted music classes for the students and townspeople alike. Soon after arriving in Ash Grove, she succumbed to tuberculosis, and her grave became the first in the new city cemetery.

Dr. Barbee remained in demand for preaching engagements, and he traveled extensively. He seemed frustrated with the reception he received in San Antonio, Texas. Barbee was shocked by the perceived looseness of society there, where the Germans "counted beads, said 'Ave Maria' and drank lager beer." As a preacher of the Christian Church/Church of Christ persuasion, used to moving with church circles in the upper South, he was unequipped to deal with the free-spirited nature of San Antonio. Dr. Barbee died at a church convention 8 years after his wife.

By this time, the sons had located in Kansas City, where they pursued careers in insurance and journalism. A daughter, Allie, had located in San Antonio, to continue her father's work there. She was a noted church worker, in the very best sense of the word. Allie contributed articles and poetry to the various church publications of the day, and devoted her time to working in the orphanages and benevolent institutions in the city. And in her last years, she was alone, as her husband--a failed businessman given to drink and gambling--had committed suicide. Allie succumbed to tuberculosis at an even earlier age than her mother.

Only one of Allie's children married and had children, and about ten years ago I had occasion to correspond with the grandchildren of this son. He had been a successful sugar broker fairly early in life, and his family moved in the affluent country-club set. Pictures of this family shared with me seem to all revolve around golf course or pool settings, or those featuring evening gowns and cocktail glasses. The family was not large, just barely hanging-on you might say. They were unknowing and indifferent, it seemed, to anything before their grandfather established himself in the San Antonio moneyed set. Religious considerations did not really seem to enter the equation at all, much less any knowledge of the particular faith in which 3 generations of their immediate ancestors had devoted their lives. This particular faith, I might add, was once important to me as well, as it sifted down by fits and starts through 5 generations from Mary Jane's cousin to myself.

I found the later chapters in that family's saga to be all rather sad. Prosperous they were indeed, in the finest tradition of American success stories. Perhaps things would have been different had they all settled-in around Ash Grove. As it is, Mary Jane's monument stands starkly alone, devoid of any other family. I think faith can be nurtured and maintained in places like Ash Grove. I found that to be the case the Sunday I worshipped there--not in the restorationist Christian Church downtown, the church of Mary Jane's family (and once of this distant cousin), but rather in the little Orthodox temple on the outskirts of town.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Not Another Convert Story

Recent travels and work demands have preventing me from keeping up with the blogs I like to frequent. I've tried to remedy that situation this long holiday weekend. Over at Fr. James Early's excellent blog, I discovered that I had completely missed an on-going series, detailing one couple's conversion to the Orthodox faith. I heartily recommend the blog in general, this narrative in particular, and have links to each section of the story at the end of this post.

That said, conversion stories can be a bit tricky, and should come with lots of cautionary admonitions. Even the word convert comes with some baggage, but until someone comes up with a better descriptor, it will have to suffice. First, each account is obviously particular to the person affected, and their reaction will not be exactly replicated by anyone else. In 2003, I walked into a Bulgarian Orthodox church with my good friend and travelling companion. When I walked out, the course of my life had changed (though I didn't realize it at that moment). My friend was right beside me the entire time, but walked out thinking it merely quaint and colorful. That is how it works--our life-changing experience will go unnoticed by our neighbor.

Second, we are often too quick to broadcast our experiences, either out of genuine excitement about the course we have embarked upon, or perhaps exhibiting some need to validate our decision. When I first started blogging, I posted some accounts of my experience. Today, I would probably leave them unwritten. And while I have often alluded to what happened in my case, I have never given a full-throated, complete account of what actually transpired. I can tell my story--but even after 6 years, am reluctant to pontificate upon Orthodoxy itself, and am careful to steer the narrative away from that angle.

And finally, a bit of perspective often changes our narrative somewhat. As we are first constructing the story, it is hard to resist the temptation to portray ourselves always as "Noble Truth-seekers," and those from whom we come out from amongst as "hidebound and pig-headed traditionalists." In time, we come to better appreciate the foundations we received in our former communions, and the part it played in our becoming Orthodox. In time, we realize that our conversion was probably messier and less noble than our telling of it suggests. In time, we can see the part that pride played in our actions, often even to a greater degree than in the church we left behind.

But these "convert stories" are part and parcel of the American Orthodox landscape, perhaps as in no where else. Maybe this is because the change is or should be so removed from what is normative for our culture. What I have noticed is that while each story is unique, one aspect holds true for most: namely, the catalyst for pursuing Orthodoxy is some exposure to and/or experience of Orthodox worship. That is certainly the case with the story I have linked, my story, and most others I can recall. Those conversions based solely on intellectual inquiry, be it theological or historical, do not seem to hold, in my experience. Clearly this is not due to any deficiency within Orthodoxy itself, but lies rather in the motives and approach of the convert. When someone becomes Orthodox as a mere intellectual choice, one made between competing ideologies and based on their own understanding, then they are free to choose something else later on. And they often do. Simply put, the Orthodox faith is infinitely bigger than that, and choices made under those assumptions may fail to account for the cosmic dimensions of what is actually happening.

Another reason this particular story resonates with me is the fact that this couple came out of the Church of Christ, my former religious affiliation. The young man was a missionary to Estonia, where he bumped-up into Orthodoxy. Leaving the Church of Christ can be traumatic, and not at all the same as switching say from Baptist to Methodist to Assembly of God, etc. For the Church of Christ is a restorationist sect, as are the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses. Unlike the other two, the Church of Christ has mainstream Protestant Trinitarian beliefs (though they wouldn't use the word), but they believe that they "restored" the New Testament church in the early years of the 19th century. For them, church history begins at Pentecost and then stops cold at the end of the 1st Century, going underground (I suppose) until the early 1500s when the Reformation started out right but just didn't go far enough, and then picks back up in the early 1800s with Alexander Campbell finally figured out the correct interpretation of Scripture, thus "restoring" the church. [The irony is that the Church of Christ is distinctly ahistorical in tone, and has failed to instruct its members in even its own particular history. Consequently, modern members are uninformed, unconcerned and/or dismissive of their heritage, causing something of an existential crisis within the church. For without adherence to this narrative, the "distinctive plea," as they used to say, of the Churches of Christ becomes meaningless.] So, when one leaves the Church of Christ, the thinking is (or used to be) that one is not merely going from one Christian denomination to another, but one has in fact left the church. This understanding is not nearly as universal as it was a generation or two ago, but the thinking does persist. When one becomes Orthodox from this kind of background, it can become messy. Such was the case with me. So, this couple's story is of particular interest to me.

I now have very few remaining associations with my old Church of Christ friends (and family). Undoubtedly, there is enough blame to go around on both sides. But I do know some of them used to check out this blog to see just how far I had fallen. Perhaps some still do. It is my prayer that they read this couple's story.