Bible Belt

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Memory eternal -- Preacher Jess Moody

Months after the end of World War II, leaders of Youth for Christ sent evangelists to work in the battered cities of Europe.

The rally teams were led by two of the new ministry's rising stars. The preacher in southern Europe was the Rev. Billy Graham of North Carolina and, in northern Europe, the Rev. Jess Moody of Texas filled that role.

That says something about the oratorical skills of Moody, whose life story was later turned into a Gospel Films feature called "Riding the Pulpit."

So it was no surprise that Moody later served as president of the Pastors' Conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in 1969, was asked to address tensions in the Vietnam War era. Moody's sermon -- "The Christian and War" -- left many pastors stunned and others infuriated.

"My country is sick and cannot seem to get well," he roared, offering what he called a "personal paraphrase" of the Prophet Jeremiah. "My countrymen have not been ashamed when they commit all kinds of hell-raising. … It has become impossible for them to blush. This means they are going to fall."

Then Moody veered into another life-and-death issue affecting those committed to ministry in urban America.

"This is my blood I'm spilling in this sermon," he said. "I've been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God's free air will be a Baptist breath, but you listen. … It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner! And you can't do it without both.

"We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next 10 years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the 21st century."

Moody died last month at the age of 93, after several decades out of the spotlight. He lived to see Southern Baptists slowly, but surely, denounce the sin of racism. In 1995 the SBC repudiated "historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past." America's largest Protestant flock apologized to African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."

Tensions lingered, and in 2017 the SBC made headlines by repudiating "white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil" that continues to attack America, while urging advocates of "racist ideologies" to repent.

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

In every religious sanctuary, there are people who believe they've staked out pews as their very own.

The same thing happens at Waffle House, those very-Southern, 24-hour-a-day diners in 25 American states. Many of the patrons claim their own territory day after day, week after week.

The Rev. Gary Liederbach is a Waffle House regular in Madison, Ala., where he leads the One Direction Community, a circle of house churches, community meals and kid's groups targeting people who may not feel comfortable in regular churches. He's an ordained United Methodist minister, but doesn't wear that on his sleeve when using the Waffle House as his unofficial office.

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner's middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn't see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular that, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called "Chuck."

When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud f-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.

"The two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck," wrote the pastor, in an online reflection. "One said, 'Now you listen here you mother f***er, this man here is a f***ing man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f***ing @ss!' " Another added: "He's my f***ing pastor! … Show some f***ing respect!"

The waitresses exchanged high fives and one shouted an image -- sort of -- from a recent Bible lesson with Liederbach: "Sword of the spirit, b*tch!"

Chuck walked out.

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

On the subject of abortion rights, the 2016 Democratic Party platform language prepared for candidates was as firm as ever.

"Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice," it noted. "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion -- regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured."

Most of the party's candidates agreed on other implications of that statement, from legal third-trimester abortions, taxpayer funded abortions and gender-selection abortions, which usually means aborting unborn females.

Most Democratic candidates backed that platform -- but not all.

Thus, it stunned some Democrats, especially in heartland and Bible Belt states, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez drew another bright line defining who participates in the work of his party.

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

Needless to say, these were fighting words for Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

"I am glad this conversation is taking place," she said, in a telephone interview earlier this week. It would help if the party's chairman "sat down and talked with us, because we are obviously feeling left out.

Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt

This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.

"The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing -- hence, the leaking roof," noted J.D. Vance, in his "Hillbilly Elegy" memoir about the crisis in America's working class that shaped his family.

"Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life."

Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.

"Why didn't our neighbor leave that abusive man?", wrote Vance. "Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn't she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?" And ultimately, "Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?"

Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.

"It's a classic chicken and egg problem," said Vance, reached by telephone. "Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people -- children especially -- are caught in a vicious cycle."

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

When the newly elected bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa visited his future residence, one of the first things he checked out was the garage.

Father David Konderla didn't need extra room for a boat or an off-road vehicle or some other tie to the Heart of Texas ranch country that has long been his home. He needed room for his woodworking power tools.

The priest has crafted four crosiers -- the gracefully hooked shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's pastoral work with his flock -- for bishops in Texas and New Mexico. He recently finished one for himself, preparing for the June 29 rites in Oklahoma in which he will be raised to the episcopate.

"I'm sure I don't know everything there is to know about Oklahoma, but it's a place that has a lot in common with Texas when it comes to how people see life," said Konderla, the second of 12 children, and the oldest son, in a Polish-Irish-German family in Bryan, Texas. The future bishop worked as a machinist for seven years after finishing high school, before entering seminary.

While people outside the Sunbelt think about Catholics in Texas, they think about the state's vibrant and growing Latino culture. That's appropriate, he said, but it's also important to remember the legacy of European immigrants in Central Texas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Now those two historic streams of Catholic life are blending with Catholics from Africa, Asia, South America and around the world, as well as converts to the faith.

Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma are changing, but much remains familiar, said Konderla.

Donald Trump's mysterious appeal to the 'evangelical' voter niche

When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.

"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.

Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.

One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."

Official stamp of history for Flannery O'Connor

Famous authors are often invited to elite dinner parties in New York City, a setting in which the rich Georgia drawl of Flannery O'Connor stood out like a dish of cheese grits next to the caviar. 

At one such event, O'Connor ended up talking to author Mary McCarthy, who opined that her childhood Catholicism had faded, but she still appreciated the Eucharist as a religious symbol. The reply of the fervently Catholic O'Connor became one of the most famous one-liners in a life packed with them.

"Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it," replied O'Connor, as reported in a volume of her letters. "That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me."

The fact that this literary legend now graces a U.S. postage stamp -- more than 50 years after her death -- is a testimony both to the greatness of O'Connor and to the fact that her radical, even shocking, vision of life has always been impossible to pigeonhole, said scholar Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University.

In particular, O'Connor refused to bow to man-made idols -- including the U.S. government and the civil religion many attach to it, said Wood, speaking at a National Philatelic Exhibition rite in McLean, Va., marking the release of the author's commemorative stamp. She refused to make her faith private and polite.

Catholic South shall rise

Catholics in the urban Northeast are getting used to the headlines.

Parishioners in East Harlem have decided to conduct a vigil in a beloved old sanctuary because church leaders plan to lock the doors -- forever. The Archdiocese of New York recently said it would close or merge 21 churches in order to gather more people in fewer pews to be served by a declining number of priests.

A parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Angels told the New York Times: "People have been baptized here and married here, received first communion here. ... When they close the church, we are going to stay inside."

This is one image of American Catholic life today.

However, it's only part of a bigger picture, said Steven Wagner of QEV Analytics in Washington, D.C. While parishes are closing in regions long known as Catholic strongholds, more missions are opening in regions where the Catholic flock is small -- but vital.

For every Boston, there is a Knoxville, Tenn. For every Philadelphia, there is a Savannah, Ga.

"The church is closing parishes in the Northeast, but Catholics are building them in the South and the Southwest," said Wagner. "We know that a lot of that is driven by immigration and population trends. ? So if you really want to know where Catholicism is alive and where it's struggling, you can't just look at membership statistics. You have to ask other questions."

That's what Wagner and co-writer Father Rodger Hunter-Hall have tried to do in a study entitled "The State of the Catholic Church in America, Diocese by Diocese," conducted for the conservative Crisis magazine. Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.

In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined if the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same, 29 experienced growth and 141 suffered deceases.

Then Wagner and Hunter-Hall counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had zero ordinations in 2005 -- including large Sunbelt dioceses in Dallas and Houston.

"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."

To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, they charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, Wagner and Hunter-Hall stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions due to immigration and, as always, many people enter the church through intermarriage.

However, that kind of growth "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," said Hunter-Hall. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."

Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses that they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses -- including a stunning number in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast, especially New England.

Thus, Wagner and Hunter-Hall noted: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."

Size is not always a virtue and, it seems, the first may become the last. Small dioceses -- especially in "missionary" regions -- consistently attracted more converts and more new priests.

"It sounds strange, but if you're a Catholic and you want to go where the action is you need to go to places like Alexandria (La.) Tyler (Texas) and Biloxi (Miss.)," said Wagner. "Catholics all over America are facing unique challenges. It seems that some people are handling them better than others."

Church signs along the road

Donald Seitz had suffered through a long day during a bad week at his office on Nashville's famous Music Row.

On his way home from a business call, he drove past the Greater Pleasant View Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn. As usual, the no-tech sign out front offered a folksy thought for the week. This one caught his eye.

"He who kneels before God can stand before anyone," it said, in black, movable letters inserted by hand into slots on a plain white background.

Seitz pulled over and got out of his car to study the sign.

"It's all about timing," he said. "I've driven past thousands of church signs in my life, but this was the right sign on the right day. It got me. That's the thing about these signs. They grab you when you least expect it. They move you, somehow."

Before long, the president of Redbird Music crossed the line between intrigued and somewhat obsessed.

Along with his wife and their young son, he packed their car full of camera equipment and "lots of sippy cups" and hit the road. His goal was to find as many of these old-fashioned signs as possible -- the kind that say things like "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous," "Exercise daily, walk with the Lord," "God answers knee mail" and "Give God what is right, not what is left."

They spread their trips over three years and Seitz stopped keeping track of the miles after they passed the 20,000 mark. The result was "The Great American Book of Church Signs," which contains 100 photographs taken in nearly 40 states. The pilgrimage, he said, was like reading "one long American sermon."

Seitz did have questions. He wondered if these signs are still common at rural churches, but rarely used by city megachurches. Also, do some denominations embrace them, while others they are too simplistic? Would he find a red-church vs. blue-church pattern?

Many of his preconceptions were based on his experiences living and driving in the Bible Belt, especially two-lane roads in the Southeast.

"This book could have been done in Tennessee, alone. In fact, I think I could have done a whole book in Nashville," said Seitz, laughing. "In this part of the world, you can throw a rock in just about any direction and hit four or five churches that have these signs. ...

"Church signs are more common in some places than others, but if you keep looking you'll find them at all kinds of churches all over the country."

Thus, the Harmony Hill Church of God in Fayetteville, Tenn., proclaimed, "Faith is a journey, not a destination." But Seitz also found a sign that said, "Love God with all of your heart, then do whatever you want" in front of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, New York.

The Tompkinsville (Ken.) Church of Christ's sign warned rural drivers that, "A dam holds water back. It's not my last name. God." On the other side of the doctrinal aisle, the sign at the South Church Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Portsmouth, N.H., announced -- with typically broad-minded sentiments -- that, "True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess."

Seitz said he was surprised that he saw very few signs that included political themes, although it was easy to read between the lines of one that said, "The Ten Commandments are still posted here." It was

also easy to interpret another marquee that stressed, "God is not a Republican or a Democrat."

This is not advanced theology. The message on a typical sign is only eight words long and is the product of a volunteer's clever imagination, research in old church bulletins or, in the digital age, a quick search on the World Wide Web. Most combine a chuckle with a moral message that strives to appeal to strangers as well as members.

After all of his travels, Seitz decided that the archetypal church-sign message was this one: "Life is fragile. Handle with prayer."

"It's succinct, it has that little pun in there and it's powerful, if you think about it for a minute," he said. "That's the essence of a good church sign message. That's what you're trying to do -- get people to stop and think for a minute."