I’m a town in Carolina, I’m a detour on a ride
For a phone call and a soda, I’m a blur from driver’s side
I’m the last gas for an hour if you’re going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind
I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl
I’m the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade,
Where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.
– from ‘I am a town,’ by Mary Chapin Carpenter
To paraphrase John Cougar Mellencamp, I grew up in a small town, I was raised in a small town, and life in a small town has shaped me.
I grew up in small towns in Texas but also had the opportunity to live in a small town in North Carolina for a time. Small towns are lovely places. Neighbors know when you are home, care when you are sick and know when you go to bed. There is little criminal activity, but also little employment. Small towns don’t always have the opera or symphonies or major league professional sports, but they have community picnics on the fourth of July, Friday Night Lights in the fall and annual fairs and festivals where there is sure to be funnel cakes, cotton candy and delicious smells.
Recently I had the opportunity to crisscross the “blue highways”* of small town America, specifically traveling through little villages and towns I had passed through in my childhood or whose restrooms and convenience stores we had visited on family vacations. Perhaps I had always remembered these places with a heavy dose of nostalgia, but the well-kept courthouse squares, the tidy and prideful little towns we would pass through one-by-one on the U.S. highway all looked a bit beat-up and frayed, not nearly as vibrant and attractive as I remembered them. I have strong memories of childhood trips trying to waste away time on long car rides wondering about what it would be like to live in a place like Menard or Cameron or Carthage or Garland, what it might be like to gather at the diner or Dairy Queen or the five-and-dime with all the old men every morning to rehash the results of last Friday night, to talk about the prospects of the local football team, or to sit together in silence around a warm cup of coffee. But I wasn’t wondering such thoughts on that most recent drive. Rather I was wondering why things looked so tired and worn out. What about those who grew up here? Would they stay? Were there good opportunities here for them like there were for their parents? Or to quote Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town, Saturday Night,” would they “go ninety miles an hour to the city limits sign, put the pedal to the metal ‘fore they change their mind”?
Eventually, I had to leave my drive and all the blue highway ribbons behind. The traffic got heavier and I entered into the sprawl of the suburbs and the outskirts of one of the fastest growing cities in America. Across the horizon, cranes were putting up new shiny buildings faster than a child’s play set. Suddenly I knew why there was rust and frayed edges, worn out signs and vacant buildings along those blue highways. Many of them were moving to the suburbs, exurbs and to new opportunities available through urban expansion.
I have two young boys and one of their favorite movies as young children was the Disney/Pixar movie “Cars” in which a brash young racecar finds himself accidentally trapped in a town off the beaten path and off the closest interstate. Located on a “blue highway,” Radiator Springs missed out on the advances and “progress” of the contemporary age. Now, it’s a bit dated, a bit worn out, a bit out-of-step compared to the more strategically well placed interstate towns and cities. Throughout the course of the movie though, one begins to see the beauty and endearing qualities of Radiator Springs, in spite of its deficiencies (perhaps you can tell I have seen this movie a lot!).
I love all those small towns and small churches, especially the Presbyterian ones that find their place along the blue highways. They don’t have the shiny church programs or the huge programming staff. What they are able to do to “keep the religious customers” satisfied may look paltry in the modern marketplace. Many of their members might come across as too blue collar or ordinary to pose as the centerfold of a church marketing brochure. But perhaps that is what makes those churches so real and special and unique in the first place. Those blue churches are run by volunteers mostly, people who pour their heart and soul into those communities of faith, folk from all walks of life, who taught Sunday School or took time to speak to one another or care for each other, who walked the floor with a sick child that was not their own, who stayed up through the night in the church parking lot cooking a pig for the church-wide lunch. For me, these blue churches have been the heart and soul of my faith, and those faith communities have offered an unrecognized and overlooked service to the larger church, connecting us together by the blue highways that run between them. It is important to remember that Jesus was not from Rome or Jerusalem or even from Capernaum or Jericho or Bethel. He was from Nazareth, a place barely on the blue highways. In John 1:46 Nathanael sums up Nazareth in this way: “Can anything good come from there?”
We dare not turn the clocks backwards. Progress continues apace. The cranes continue to erect shiny new buildings and carve out new neighborhoods where corn and soybeans once grew. But I worry about those blue highway towns and churches. They have been the heart and soul of so many Presbyterians and they have been the bread and butter of the Presbyterian Church. Whatever the future holds, my hope is that one will find that it is often the blue highways, not the 16-lane interstates, that lead us to the heart of God.
* “Blue highways” is a reference to William Least Heat-Moon’s book, “Blue Highways,” in which he recorded his experiences circumnavigating the United States only on the “blue highways.” These, at least at the time the book was written, were the colors of the very smallest highways on roadmaps.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.