It used to be that growing up in the South was equivalent to going to church on Sunday. Which meant that every kid that practiced his cuss words on the playground during the week, come Sunday, also got dressed in clothes that made him squirm and itch.
I grew up among people who were church goers. When you’re a kid, you don’t question these things. You assume that if you go to church, and all your friends go to church, and all your parents’ friends go to church, then everybody must go to church. And you never think about life in any other terms.
Our parents would get together with friends on a Saturday evening over at the Mobley’s house on James Street to grill hamburgers and churn up some peach ice cream. A backyard full of adults sitting in aluminum folding chairs and kids playing tag or catching lightning bugs. The ladies huddled in a circle enjoying one another’s company. The men standing around the grill commenting on when the burgers were done enough.
At the end of the evening, we’d all part ways. “See you tomorrow.” “You bet. Y’all be safe going home.” And the next morning we’d see the same bunch of folks in the pews that we ate hamburgers with the night before. That’s just the way it was.
I don’t mean to imply that literally everyone went to church.
I remember seeing Mr. Jones, I never knew his real name, mowing his grass on Sunday mornings. We’d pass him on our way through town. His gray hair and his old-man-bare-chest getting tan in the sun. A canned beverage in one hand and the other hand holding the steering handle of his 32” Snapper riding mower. I wondered if he knew the lessons that Miss Helen Greer taught us in Sunday School about a special place reserved for those who mow their grass on Sundays.
These days, it seems that church going folks are smaller in numbers. Or maybe it’s just that my childhood assumptions were all wrong to begin with. Small towns have always had a certain contingency who like having the Church around when they need it, but who in practical application don’t seem to need it all that often.
One thing for sure, the Corona pandemic has hit church goers pretty hard. When the mandates came down the pipeline, there were some who took a stand. “I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I can’t be in the Lord’s House on Sundays.”
Others pointed out our Biblical obligation to live with respect under the leadership of our government. Still others were just glad to have an approved excuse not to go. In the end, and almost unheard of before in these parts, a whole heck of a lot of church goers stopped going. Period.
But it’s coming back. It’s not what I would call a miraculous sign, but maybe a sign of some kind, nonetheless. On Easter Sunday, chairs and pews everywhere had more people in them than anyone could remember since over a year ago. There were smiles behind masks that couldn’t be hidden. A breeze of fresh air blew through the sanctuaries of Baptist and Methodist and Pentecostals in every town. The amens were a little more audible. And the handshakes and hugs were a little more energized. Amazing Grace. And Holy Cow. It felt like comeback after a long drought without a national championship.
Now, I realize that an outsider to the South might not understand what this means to those of us who grew up on VBS, Funeral Home Fans and pot-luck suppers. Church is almost as much a part of the culture as it is part of our faith.
Let’s say you’re not from the Bible Belt. You move to a small town deeply rooted in Southern tradition. Here’s a few things you should know.
Out of the first 100 people you meet, somewhere in the conversation about work and family and food and humidity, close to 97% of the people you talk to are going to ask you, “Now, where’d ja say you folks go to Church?” You didn’t actually say anything about Church, but this is a backdoor way of getting the subject out on the table.
To be fully honest here, this is a polite bit of nosiness as much as it is a kindness. Like I said, we operate off the assumption that most every person goes to Church somewhere, but we also understand that the affiliation can be complicated. The point of this question is to figure where you stand on the subject of church and to see if we can help point you in the right direction.
If you go to stuttering, right off we know that your church going habits are not regular and that your Sundays are reserved for spending time on the lake or for sleeping in or for mowing the grass, which I hear is about two steps away from a left turn on the road to Hell itself. This opens you up to a friendly invite to join the fine folks at First Church this coming Sunday.
Some of you will lean on the past. As in, “Well, we were raised Baptist.” This means that you remember what the inside of a church looks like, but you haven’t actually been inside one since Uncle Jake died five years ago. An invitation will follow.
My personal favorite. “My Daddy was a preacher.” We can see the right through that one.
Then there’s the overly enthusiastic. “Oh, Sister. Thank you for asking. We’re just hoping to find a Church that loves Jesus. Hallelujah! We’ve been raising our hands to the Lord since we could walk.” The Pentecostal folks meet just down the road.
And finally, “We were hoping to find an Episcopalian Church in town.” We have no idea what that means.
Living in the Bible Belt doesn’t make Southerners any more righteous than the next guy. Same as going to Church does not automatically punch your ticket for a mansion built on streets of gold. The Church, whether located in the south, north, east, or west, is about owning up to the shortcomings that can ruin us and tapping into the Resource that can complete in us the life we were created to live. Apart from that, church folks are just a bunch of misfits like everybody else.
If you were to ask me if I’m a religious man, I’d say no. Ritual and ceremony and perfect attendance pins and conversations that end with “have a blessed day” are not my thing. If you were to ask me if I am a man of faith, I’d say yes. Like many, I’m struggling on a journey that is often illusive and demanding, but which, more often than not, is rewarding and gratifying all at the same time.
I owe much of who I am to a whole host of Sunday School teachers with little flannel graph characters. To preachers who were honest and decent men. To youth leaders who put up with clueless teenagers. To parents who were faithful. To an entire community of church goers who made an honest effort at practicing things like love and kindness and forgiveness and patience. None of whom were perfect. Most of whom lived and died giving their best.
I’ll just leave it at this. My roots run deep in a lot of different directions. I have a long way to go. But come Sunday, I know where to find some solid ground to build on.