There’s something awful special about seeing the South from the pavement of asphalt back roads mostly forgotten by the majority of population. It is there among scrub pines, pecan trees and cattle watering in a nearby stream, that you will behold a sight that soothes the soul.
You will find peace amid the rustle of a slight breeze. You will see the remnants of a day’s sweat and the strong reminders of simple times. On these rural routes we sometimes drive, it is easy to catch a shade tree mechanic at work on his old car or a woman knocking at a door while holding a casserole dish in the other hand.
You won’t see a lot of subdivisions — hardly ever — and the fanciest houses are often brick ranches that stretch long and have yards that are perfectly manicured by people showing appreciation for a roof over their heads. Many, though, are just old farm houses with screen doors that bang and have backyard clothes lines.
It is not unusual to see a little house with a single-wide trailer that’s been pulled in and set up. That happened a lot back in the 1960s and 1970s. Young people got married so the parents gave them a patch of yard to set up a trailer.
There, as the road rambles through acres of trees that have been allowed to grow for a hundred years or more, you’ll see rusted barbed-wire fences that have been standing through two or three generations. Churches line the way. Most are simple, some need work and, occasionally, there is a big, fancy one made of brick. But always there is a sign out front that says something like, “Jesus Saves” or “Jesus is calling.”
In the truly rural part of the South, these church signs speak the language of the early 20th century. They say, for instance, “Sunday School at 10 a.m. Meeting at 11 a.m.”
Once I was staying at a friend’s beautiful lake house in the deep woods of Tennessee. I visited a little church one Sunday morning that had “meeting” at 11. It is a one-room, white clapboard church where Sunday school is held by dividing the church’s space. The adults meet in the choir loft, teenagers are in the center of the church and the kids are in back, squirming to keep their voices down and not disturb the other classes of folks who are talking in quiet voices.
As I joined the small congregation that filed out after the service, I shook the preacher’s hand and told him how much I had enjoyed the sermon. He preached that morning from the book of Matthew. I remember that.
He accepted my appreciation then put his hands on his hips, reared back and looked at me, knowing: “You must be one of them lake people.”
I knew what he meant. The people who build majestic houses on that lake are not part of his flock. They are country music stars, famous race car drivers and other people who have done extraordinarily well with money. That preacher’s flock comes from a tumble of rusting trailers and farm houses with roofs that leak more often than they don’t.
“I’m staying at a friend’s house.” I looked out at the front yard where women in inexpensive dresses and men in overalls and dungarees had gathered to talk. “But these,” I said, gesturing toward them, “are who I am. I was raised in a little church like this, and I was one of the kids who had Sunday school on the back bench.”
He laughed and patted my shoulder. “Anyone is welcomed here in the Lord’s house. Rich or poor. It just happens that we’re mostly poor.”
The poor who live in wonderful, undisturbed places like that, though, are far richer than they might think.