Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 2 of 3

The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reese begins here.

Chuck Reece can’t help but share some of his favorite stories of finding new writers for The Bitter Southerner.  There was the piece Cy Brown, a University of Georgia student, pitched him about A Carolina Dog.

“I don’t know about you growing up in Virginia, but in Georgia I often heard the phrase ‘He’s as skinny as an old yeller dog.’ Come to find out, the yeller dog is an actual breed. At the time it had just been recognized by the British Kennel Club as a breed and, not only was it its own breed, it was the only breed of dog that was native to the North American continent. So this story had 14,000 years of history bound up in it. These dogs found their natural habitat in the pine barrens in the Carolinas. This is a great story that’s about the loyalty and love of a dog and all his history you had no idea about.”

Mickie Meinhardt sold him on a piece that aimed to make Ocean City, Maryland a bona fide Southern town. “She sends a completed story, no pitch, and then, ‘Oh, by the way, my buddy Gunner [Hughes] is a photographer,’” Chuck says. “A lot of times that’s the phrase that you like to hear because you gotta make sure your photographer is good enough. But she said, ‘Gunner’s already got some pictures and we’ll put them in Dropbox for you now.’…damned if Gunner Whatever-his-name-is isn’t a really good photographer. It happens like that.”

And then there’s Clay Skipper, who wrote what Reece credits as the single best opening line in Bitter Southerner history:

CR: [Clay] had been working as a research assistant for Wright [Thompson in Oxford, MS] on a project and he pitched me a story. The national [college] football championship was coming up. Alabama was going [to the playoffs]. There was a shot they were going to make it to the championship game. He was like, “I want to go to [Coach] Nick Saban’s home town [in West Virginia] because it’s been devastated by the loss of the coal industry.” He went up there and he wrote this beautiful story about how football and the memories of their state championship high school teams was all [that] so many people out there had to hold onto.

So we published that and people liked it. He called me about a month after that and said, “You know what the Alabama Gang is?” I was like, “Yeah, NASCAR.” He said, “Did you know Red Farmer, who was the oldest guy in the Alabama Gang, is still racing dirt tracks in Talladega and he’s in his eighties? I want to do a story.” 

I said, “Yeah, man, go for it.” 

Chuck Reece

Chuck Reece

About two months later, I was driving back to Atlanta from somewhere in Alabama. I’d been over there for something and I stopped to get gas. I looked at my phone, checked my email, and I had an email from Clay with the draft of his Red Farmer story attached. I was like, “Well, I’ll pop the attachment open real quick and look at the lead.”…I pulled it up here so I could read it to you: “In the noon sun of a bitterly cold January day at the Talladega short track, an 82-year-old race car driver worries about time.” 

Clay Skipper is now a columnist for GQ. He was on his way to the new job in New York when Chuck called from the gas station to tell him how much he enjoyed that opening line. Clay told Chuck that the Bitter Southerner Saban story helped land him the job.

Even from three states away I can see Chuck beaming as he tells the story.

The other great source for Bitter Southerner stories is writers who have projects tucked away that they haven’t found the right outlet for.  One of the early ‘gets’ for Reece came from a long-time friend, Charles McNair.

CR: We went out for lunch one day at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, which is an old restaurant in Atlanta that’s been around for a half a century plus. I was telling him what we wanted to do. Charles himself had, about ten years earlier, tried, with one of the guys who founded Paste magazine, to start a magazine with that attitude called Scout and they’d never really been able to find the money to do it. I told him, “Well, we’ve got this digital [platform] and the cost of entry’s real low. I need stories and I don’t have any money.” 

He was like, “Well, I’ll take a flier on it.” He came back with this beautiful piece called ‘Denise McNair and Me.’ Charles would have been a young boy growing up in Alabama when the 16th Street Church bombing happened in Birmingham. Charles was always sort of haunted or weirded out about that. He shared a last name with one of those little girls [who were killed], Denise McNair. He told me about that over lunch and I was like, “There’s something in it and I bet you can find it.” The story wound up revolving around the night his father who took him to a Klan rally, not to show him what he shouldn’t do, but to begin the indoctrination. The way he wrote about the contrast of those little girls and his own family…

I know that no individual story we do is going to completely warp someone’s perception style. But I hope that, over time, if people dive in and look at a random cross-section of what we’ve done they would learn a lot of things about the South that they didn’t know and they would hear the voices of a lot of people who didn’t fit the mold.

 

The Heartlands Interview with Chuck Reece concludes on Friday…

Why You Need to Know This Bitter Southerner: Heartlands Interviews Chuck Reece, Part 1 of 3

I was standing in a cemetery near Onancock, sweating in the mid-July heat, when Chuck Reece asked me how I got from radio journalism into ministry.  I was supposed to be interviewing him, but Chuck Reece, even over the phone, is a master at sniffing out stories and he trained his curiosity on me before I got down to asking him about The Bitter Southerner, his labor of love.

I had intended to be back at the office for this.  Or at least in some air-conditioning.  But I had been detained down the road and so I had to search out some relatively quiet space to call and record.  The cicadas in the tall trees made a fuss, but otherwise the graveyard suited.  I set my laptop up to record and made the call to Atlanta.

I began with flattery, though not insincere.  Deborah Lewis, my colleague in campus ministry and a fine writer herself, had put me on to the Southern-oriented online magazine a few years back. I told Chuck, “In the course of watching you change and grow over the last five years, I’ve also started my own blog which was designed to try to understand what is happening to rural America in the wake of 2016 elections.”

And you’re doing a nice job with it actually.” He was luring me in. I fell for it.

“Oh, have you taken a look at it? Oh good. It’s been fun. I started out as a radio news director and disc jockey at a country music station and this kind of takes me back to the days of that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journalism when I didn’t have any guidance or direction. I was right out of college and they just wanted something to make us sound local. I just got to follow my curiosity wherever it went.”

What led you from journalism to the ministry?” There was the question.

“It’s a long story but probably the shortest answer is Annie Dillard.”

Well, there you go! I get that.”

Let me just say right here that Chuck Reece is awesome.

The Bitter Southerner began as the brainchild of Reece and his partner, Dave Whitling.  They claim that the spur to their five-year-old project was a beef about bartending—specifically the lack of respect that Southern practitioners of the craft receive.  If you look at the ‘About’ page of the site, that legend is there.

But their ambitions were grander than a simple blog about drinks could contain.  With a background in covering media and design and that honed ear for a killer story, Reece was always going to go for something larger.  And that’s there on the ‘About’ page, too:

Recent election results suggest that the Southern mind hasn’t evolved much, that we’re not much different from what we were in 1936, when Faulkner was struggling yet again with the moral weirdness of the South. Almost 80 years later, it’s still too damned easy for folks to draw the conclusion that we Southerners are hopelessly bound to tradition, too resistant to change.

But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It’s also full of people who face our region’s contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. The Bitter Southerner is here for Southern people who do cool things, smart things, things that change the whole world, or just a few minds at a time.

The world knows too little about these people, which is, alas, another reason to be bitter. But it prompted us to create The Bitter Southerner™.

So the site has evolved into something more vibrant, more ambitious, and more weird than can be wrangled into a simple description.  It’s a collection point for new angles on Southern culture.  And for some of the best writing about the South on the web.

Perhaps you can see the attraction. For someone who was voted by his college roommates as ‘most likely to end up on a porch writing country music by a rusty refrigerator,’ The Bitter Southerner is salve to the soul. And to have all that plus an appreciation for Annie Dillard?  This was prime territory for a Heartlands interview.

 

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Chuck Reece

“So, let me tell you about my Bitter Southerner story for the day,” I told Chuck. “I got up this morning and I read your article about Who Owns a Woman’s Shoulders.” The article, by Caralyn Davis, was an uncomfortably accurate picture of the over-familiarity some male church members feel in approaching women in church settings. The article was written by a United Methodist lay woman about her mother’s experience in a lay speaking class.  

“It hit me, as a United Methodist District Superintendent, right where I live,” I told Chuck. “So I reposted it on Facebook and it’s been blowing up. It was exactly the kind of story that I think I appreciate the most about your site—it was personal, it described a subculture within the South that is definitely there and definitely ripe for looking at in new ways, and yet it touched on some really deep and bigger issues, too.”

CR: Those personal essays—that was a really weird thing. When we started, the first 12 months, all we did was the one big feature story every Tuesday. People just started sending us these things. We hadn’t asked for them and after a while the stack got pretty high—the virtual stack, of course. And you know what? Some of them were really well done and even the ones that weren’t written so well, you could tell that they were written with feeling and purpose. 

When we got through the first year and said, “OK, we’re gonna keep doing this,” and we started trying to make some money so we could start paying writers, we were like “Well, let’s start publishing one of these every week on a Thursday,” and that’s how the Folklore Project section came about. It’s sort of amazing the quality that we see in those things and I like the fact that The Bitter Southerner must feel to people like a community in which such stories are welcomed and understood.

People have felt welcomed and understood in the Bitter Southerner community.  It’s not just the personal essays that get published in the Folklore Project section.  Writers, especially younger writers, seek the site out to pitch ideas.  “I think these younger writers know that we’ll edit them with care and they know that we will make their story really, visually appealing on the web,” Chuck says. “It’s like I used to say to people when we were begging for stories for free: “At least you’ll get a good looking clip out of it.”

The Heartlands interview with Chuck Reese continues here…

When Flo (and Other Storms of Life) are Raging

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

—Isaiah 43:2

As I write this, it looks like the Eastern Shore will be spared the worst of Hurricane Florence, (or Flo, as I’ve come to call her this week).  I’m praying for the people of the Carolinas who seem to be receiving that ‘worst.’  I’m expecting that the United Methodist disaster response efforts, through UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) and UMVIM (UM Volunteers in Mission), which would have come here if Flo had turned our way, will now be headed south.  And I know that United Methodists here will be generous in their support of these efforts.  (Look for special giving opportunities in the next week.)

We did have an epic downpour on Sunday night here.  Roads in the Belle Haven area washed out.  Our camp director, Michael Henry, his wife, Alison, and son, Isaiah, had a harrowing, multi-hour trip back to Occohannock on the Bay that night through the pouring rain.  Also, high tides this week flooded Tangier, Wachapreague, and other low-lying areas.

IMG_7723Incidents like these remind us that we live on a small, strip of sand on the verge of a great, vast ocean.  Most days I don’t take the ground beneath my feet for granted, but when I see the power of the wind and water, I marvel that we can live so many days without thinking about whether the weather will threaten our lives and our homes.

There’s a measure of grace in each day.  There are things we can trust.  Most days we get to live without thinking about the dangers and we receive what we need.  God will provide and God does.

And when the hurricanes come, as they will…when the storms of life are raging…God will stand by us.  Islands may shift, property may be lost, but didn’t we get to discover again this week that we are bound together more in the face of such dangers?  And didn’t we lean into our prayers a little harder?

Whatever Flo may bring, I want to trust that the God who calmed the waters of Galilee and piled up the currents of the Jordan and the waves of the Red Sea is still present in the storm.  And I give thanks for the connection of United Methodists who answer the call when there is a need and remember the promise of Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.” [8:7]

When Angels First Trod the Earth: A Review of Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith

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A Cave at Qumran

It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago.  Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins.  One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.

The folks who built Qumran?  They stayed for 200 years.

If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947.  The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE.  A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River.  Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.

Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern  Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:

During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.

Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere.  Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.

In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles.  For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era.  Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.

Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes.  What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership.  The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious.  It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.

The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great.  For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.

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Philip Jenkins

But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways.  For instance, the story of early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought.  But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.

Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site.  But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem.  They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world.  The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.

The Last Sunset: Poetry

fullsizeoutput_28I didn’t really believe it was my last

as I watched a sky so orange as to subdue

the harshest skeptic of sundown magic.

But I wondered.

How many people in mortal peril see such sights as they slip away?

Polar explorers perishing under pulsating green northern lights?

Mountaineers admiring the blue tint of the ice as they

plunge inside a crevasse?

There is beauty in this world, I tell you.  Beyond me.

After me.

–Alex Joyner

What You Can Learn from 3 Hilltops: West Bank Edition

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Flagpole in Sebastia

Sebastia

On the highest point in Sebastia, where a Roman Temple, the Northern Kingdom’s palace, and innumerable pagan holy sites once stood, there is a ramshackle wooden flagpole sporting a small Palestinian flag.  Or at least there was last week when I visited.  Locals report that the flagpole is the frequent target of attacks in which Israeli soldiers or others come to knock it down, its presence being an offense to the Israeli settlement on the next hilltop over.  Invariably a new group of youth will sneak up to the top of the hill in the dark of the night with a makeshift replacement, risking detention in the process.

So it goes on the hilltops of the West Bank.  Where once the kings of Judah and Samaria slipped off to engage in illicit worship, (like old King Ahaz, who “sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree” [2 Chronicles 28:4]), now statements are being made. Israelis and Palestinians know the high ground is the landscape of power and they are staking a claim.

Beit Jala

IMG_8173Southwest of Bethlehem, Daoud Nassar is the Director of Operations for his family farm, which is scattered over 100 acres on a hill with an enviable view.  Standing in Daher’s Vineyard, as the farm is known, you can see terraced landscapes, olive trees, and three Israeli settlements ringing the property his grandfather bought in 1916.  Nassar’s family has the papers to prove their long-standing claim to the property, a claim they have asserted from the time of the Ottoman Empire through the British Mandate and Jordanian control up until the present.  Even so, they have been fighting with Israeli authorities to keep their land, which has no access to water or electricity and which can only reached by car via a circuitous route around the settlements.

Nassar has made a demonstration camp out of the property.  On the day we visited, a group of New Zealanders were working projects, some of the 7,000 or so international visitors who come to the site each year.  Forbidden to build new permanent structures, Nassar’s family has created a Tent of Nations out of caves and cisterns.  It’s part environmental education, part non-violent resistance, and part 1960s-era Christian commune.  

At the entrance to the farm a carved rock declares, “We refuse to be enemies.”  It’s a statement of the philosophy of the Tent of Nations.  Despite daily indignities, such as being harassed by people in the settlements for the behavior of the farm’s bees, the site persists as a witness. They’re still there on the hilltop and they will remain and keep fighting for their heights through legal means.

Rawabi

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Rawabi

West of Ramallah, the bustling, de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories, a city has risen on another mountain.  Rawabi is the dream of Bashar Masri, a Palestinian developer who has pulled together $1.4 billion in investments to build a new city.  It’s a place that would seem at home in the Western world.  Shops like Mango and American Eagle sell up-to-the minute fashions in an outdoor mall.  Apartments hug the hillside, housing the first 4,000 of the hoped-for 40,000 residents.  A 12,000 seat Roman-style amphitheater welcomes big name musical acts for concerts. Families come in for the day to picnic and rent four-wheelers.

For all this, Masri has had to deal with a myriad of obstacles.  Despite being in Area A, the Palestinian-controlled zone of the West Bank, water and road access had to be negotiated with Israel, which controls the zones surrounding Rawabi. An inadequate two-lane road connects the city with the road to Ramallah. Site workers have had to deal with harassment from nearby settlements.

On the other hand, some Palestinian leaders have decried the use of Israeli products in construction.  Activists in the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, & Sanction] movement claim that such cooperation “normalizes” the occupation of the West Bank by Israel and weakens the resistance that Palestine needs to show in its struggle for true self-determination.  Others believe that the very unremarkable nature of life in Rawabi is an affront to the suffering of other Palestinians whose daily lives are marked by repression and constriction.

But why shouldn’t there be a place where Palestinians can draw a long breath in a city of their own?  Thousands of jobs have been created in the construction of Rawabi and Masri’s priority is to bring in thousands more.  Women have unprecedented roles in the city, including a cadre of female engineers that have led construction efforts.  And the city is providing schools that are among the best in Palestine.

What You Can Do With A Hilltop

When Israel moved into the Palestinian Territories following the 1967 War, the hilltops became the most visible sign of the occupation.  Israel took over old Jordanian military bases and created new ones of their own. Settlers, now numbering over 500,000, moved onto others.

IMG_8220But Palestinians have some hills as well. And though Israel worries about the security risk they would pose if the peace process ever results in an autonomous Palestinian state, the three hills I visited show some of the potential for what Palestine could be.  Those with connections to capital and a vision can build Rawabis.  A Tent of Nations can offer environmental education, pioneer new conservation concepts, and foster peacemaking and justice.  And in Sebastia, the biblical city of Samaria, an historical park could bring visitors and preserve the cultural heritage of the land.

All of this, of course, depends on a political solution to the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, a solution that seems like a far-away dream given the leadership on both sides at the moment.  But in the meantime, while large car-dealership-sized Israeli flags fly on many a West Bank hilltop, others sport a Palestinian flag—either on makeshift timbers, or, as at Rawabi, on a large, metal pole at the summit surrounded by a statue of diverse people holding hands.  

It’s true.  You can seek to kill peace from a hilltop.  But you can also build it.

Other posts about Israel and Palestine:

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

Also check out my book on the conflict: A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine [Englewood Review of Books, 2014]

The Longoria’s BBQ: The Long-Awaited Heartlands Review

IMG_8073I was just getting ready to test out the brisket sausage when David Longoria sat down across the table from me as if we had known each other forever.  It was a slow Saturday in Everman on the southern fringes of Fort Worth.  The temperature hovered around 100 outside.  Inside the small restaurant with the red booths and scattered tables, it was comfortable but largely empty.  Too hot for BBQ, perhaps.

Myra, who had been so welcoming when I arrived, stood behind the register where I had placed my order, waiting for some more customers.  David’s father, Fred, walked in and looked the place over before sitting down with his newspaper.  David introduced me.

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Myra, David, & Elizabeth

We had already been talking about Fred, the founder of The Longoria’s BBQ.  David had taken over the pitmaster role from him some decades back.  Fred was the one who moved the business up from around Granbury in the hopes that the planned I-35W project would bring a whole lot of customers right by the new location.  As it happened, the interstate went in a mile or so west, but the BBQ became famous anyway.IMG_8070

I don’t do BBQ reviews often on Heartlands.  In fact, I’ve only done one other—for the Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina—and we all know the East Carolina version of BBQ is another animal altogether.  Texas BBQ means brisket, sausages, and ribs served up with raw onions, pickles, and jalapeños.  I grew up with the former, but, man, I do love the latter.

Longoria’s does not disappoint.  The sausages, all beef, are not as spicy as some, but they are sumptuous and worth the trip by themselves.  The brisket had a great blackened char which I adorned with just a little bit of their tasty sauce.  Pintos and corn on the side that did not detract from the main event.

I lingered over lunch with David since I never have had the opportunity to sit with a pitmaster before.  He explained the process and after lunch gave me a tour of the back forty where three blackened smokers sat for a well-earned rest after their culinary magic had been worked.  I tried a little of the brisket jerky and got a bag for my trip up to Archer City.  I also got a hat and a picture with Myra, David, and Elizabeth.

The Longoria’s BBQ has been listed in the Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ joints in Texas and will be featured at the upcoming Smoked event in Fort Worth this October.  But don’t wait til this BBQ is all duded up in the Stockyards to come try it.  Make the trip out to see it in its natural habitat—a plain, honest family place in a town called Everman.  Tell them Alex from Virginia sent you.

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Alex pointing towards home–from The Longoria’s Facebook page

And that’s your 2018 BBQ Review from Heartlands.  Until 2019…

Can Anyone Find Home in North Carolina?: A Review of The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

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Photo by Mika Matin on Unsplash

‘The intellect when it really tries

can for a time replace the sun

though it won’t ripen strawberries.’

—Anna Kamieńska, ‘Classicism’

It is often the curse of those who return to their small town homes after education afar that they feel an alienation from the people and customs that formed them.  Not that Henry Aster was ever of a piece with his surroundings.  Growing up in the northwestern-most corner of North Carolina, where the state meets Tennessee and Virginia, Henry was always unusual—preternaturally eloquent and bookish beyond belief.

When Aster returned from college to begin a law practice in Old Buckram, sporting a new wife, they took up residence in the most discordant house in the area—a glass and iron monstrosity built by an avant-garde architect that had been the scene of a grisly murder-suicide involving a family of five.  The “vulture house” perched on the edge of a mountain above the town and, with its massive library, became the perfect lair for Henry as he pursued his real avocation—writing a book, despite no discernible gifts for communication.  “Aster’s work, for all its brilliance, is impenetrable,” one reviewer noted, (21).

Aster is the looming presence in Phillip Lewis’s debut work of fiction, The Barrowfields.  Like Thomas Wolfe, another North Carolina writer, who also haunts these pages, Lewis’s Aster tragically learns he can’t go home again.  He occasionally looks the part of Wolfe, an obsessive writer scribbling passages of beauty that never really land, or Atticus Finch, as when he retrieves the town’s only copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying from a book-burning crowd on the titular Barrowfields, a barren patch of the town center.  But he doesn’t connect and he’s miserable, just like his growing family in the gloomy house.

Aster knows how to play the part of small town insider just enough to feel a fraud.  

He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place…he could do it well, while in his mind he must have been smack-dab in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County. (46-7)

But he shares an affinity with the preacher in the small church the family attends.  The preacher knows the struggle of doubt.  Without the resources of education or even reading the Bible, he staves off the terrors with words.  “Only by raising his exultant voice and filling the air with the sound of the Word of God would the demons be run from the sacred temple.” (82)

Aster writes from a similar compulsion.  “I write,” he says, “because its one of the only things that seems real to me…It’s the only way short of death to make time stop.” (45)  Those who know the power of books and writing will recognize the insight.

Aster’s disappearance mid-way through The Barrowfields sets the stage for his son, who narrates the book, to find his awkward way into adulthood.  In the second half, the book threatens to become a romance, then a Pat Conroy novel, before returning to Appalachian Gothic.  

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Phillip Lewis

Lewis’s writing is liquid and evocative, just like Thomas Wolfe, but as with Wolfe, the characters shrink into insignificance given the scale of the canvas.  There is too much land, too much vision, too much within us and beyond us to allow simple stories, even our desperate, tragic stories, to take the spotlight.

Which makes Aster’s alienation all the more emblematic of the limits of the mind against such a landscape.  It can liberate some, but entrap others.  And for all its brilliance, as Anna Kamieńska has it, it can’t ripen strawberries.

Lewis continues in a long tradition of homesick American writers.  It’s a beautiful but unsatisfying read that gestures at a place it can never quite arrive.  I feel the same about Wolfe.  After all he was the bard of home.  And I felt cold comfort traveling with him there, too.

Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.  Our senses have been fed by our terrific land; our blood has learned to run to the imperial pulse of America which, leaving, we can never lose and never forget.  We walked along a road in Cumberland, and stooped, because the sky hung down so low; and when we ran away from London, we went by little rivers in a land just big enough.  And nowhere that we went was far: the earth and the sky were close and near.  And the old hunger returned–the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and that makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Hogarth Press provided a copy of this book to the reviewer.

Small Churches Can Plan for a Healthy Future

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I like my doctor.  Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.

For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:

“Your cholesterol is high.”

“Still?”

She gives me a wry smile.  “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”

“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”

“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”

“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”

“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”

“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”

One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation.  Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important.  I started on the pills.

Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors.  The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend.  The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts.  That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].

Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page.  Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15)  That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!).  But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:

“We can choose our story.  We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer.  We can choose.” (15)

What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.

Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:

  1. Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
  2. Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
  3. and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.

The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health.  For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community.  What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?

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Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.  After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.

The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items.  For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it.  Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)

For other churches, the hard part is emotional.  When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.

A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church.  Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out.  Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.

admin-ajax-cfp-120x120On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends.  Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future

The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church.  When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave.  We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches.  But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.

By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical.  Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…