I’ve lived in just about every region of our country: I’m from Alaska; about the only place I haven’t lived is the East Coast, but I’ve been lucky enough to stay and travel pretty extensively there too.
The most beautiful place I’ve lived is the South. And there is nothing more gorgeous than the northern end. Tennessee, Kentucky, and the northeast corner of Alabama, where Cheaha State Park is located, have a combination of mountains and trees unlike anywhere else.
Coming from the West, I never realized you could take a drive “of a Sunday” and see five or ten small towns, each with food to try, each with history not to be missed. I was used to markers of gold strikes and pioneers who made it to that particular place alive – that was the accomplishment. The South is full of markers of a much different sort: Battles waged over what kind of country we would become, and daring pioneers who struggled up a different kind of mountain. Often they did not live to see the top, but they are remembered no less fiercely for their fight.
When I moved, I prepared myself for racism and sexism. And it was there. But I also got to confront some of my own ideas about race for the first time. Just after moving to Montgomery and realizing I was the only white person in a packed restaurant, I was fascinated and excited to be living in such a place. I didn’t understand until much later that what I felt then was a luxury, a luxury not shared if I had been a black Southerner in that reversed situation.
A co-worker prepared me for the church question, for which I was eternally grateful. “The first thing everyone will ask you,” said Lenita before I left the newsroom in Nevada, “is ‘what church do you belong to?’” I have no religion, and have no interest in gaining any, so in that respect, escaping the South to the Midwest – where everyone is religious, but no one would have the bad taste to talk about it – was a relief. It’s always interesting to me that the people who have the most horrible things to say about other people, who harbor the most racism and hate, are also the ones who speak the loudest about what great Christians they are and seem the most concerned about other peoples’ souls.
But churches have another meaning in the South. They were a place where it was safe to meet, to organize, and to learn. There is a reason here the term is “church home”. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott and many other protests, is just feet from the Montgomery Capitol building. You can feel the strength of spirit and character coming off mere photos of protests that happened on this street; I can’t even imagine how overwhelming the actual feeling was on those days.
When I was driving through downtown Montgomery on Sunday morning, seeing the men and women, dressed in their incredible Sunday best, hats every color of the rainbow, file into churches of amazing history and glory – I might have no religion, but I know what these churches mean. The hardest thing to understand about the South, is how Dexter Avenue itself didn’t change as much as it changed the rest of the world.