I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt.
But I never really thought much about it until I moved away for eleven years, and then moved back. Things I used to take for granted, or never even took note of, sing out loudly to me now through the eyes of my children who did not grow up here.
My husband’s job and educational pursuits took us away to Charlotte, North Carolina. I had comforted myself with the idea that I was still a Southern girl living in another Southern town. I found out quickly that it just wasn’t so. Charlotte is a huge melting pot of people from all over the world. On my very first trip to the grocery store there, I passed a man on a cell phone speaking some foreign European-ish language I didn’t understand. I stared at him with my mouth gaping open, and it was then I knew I wasn’t in Kansas, er Birmingham, anymore.
Much to our amazement, in the birthplace of Billy Graham, we found there to be a large Christian-hostile population.
It was the first place I had ever experienced true discrimination due to my faith. There were many who didn’t want to have anything at all to do with God or the church. This posed a problem for us for a while, right up to the point that God gave us new eyes to see these people the way He did.
Suddenly, we were drawn to the very people that wanted nothing to do with us.
It doesn’t make sense, but we spent the next ten years of our lives figuring out ways to reach these people for Jesus. It meant we had to say goodbye to the traditional worship styles we had always known. Some didn’t understand this, but to reach the unreachable you have to go way out on a limb sometimes. We had to dip into modern culture, and show these naysayers that God, the Bible, and being a Christ follower was relevant to their lives. Following Christ didn’t have to be kept as a museum piece that did not speak, in meaningful ways, to them. We needed to show them that even through their doubt, and even their hostility, God was still pursuing them relentlessly.
It affected the way we raised our kids.
People we would once have shied away from, we suddenly sought out. We began to see random people at the mall, in movie theaters, and restaurants as people who needed Jesus. We actually invited sinners to church, and did the happy dance when they showed up. Did they have blue hair and a few tattoos? Even better. We wanted to hear their stories, and they were so surprised to find a pastor who didn’t condemn them for their past, but offered them a future in Christ just the way they were. We were given eyes to see their potential as Christ followers; what they could be if they turned their lives over to Him. As I said, this affected our children too, especially our oldest. Rather than secluding himself with only Christian friends, he took risks on kids we called “underdogs”. While we cautioned him to make sure his closest friends were believers, we encouraged his investments in others who were not.
It’s ten years later, and we have ventured back home to the Buckle.
I am surprised by the culture shock it has been for our kids. On my son’s first day of high school here, when asked about the day, he mentioned that he hardly heard anyone at school using foul language. Unfortunately, that was commonplace in the high school he attended in Charlotte. It had been a challenge to be around it, and not participate in it.
Here, most of my kid’s new friends attend church at least some of the time. Kids here openly label themselves Christian on Facebook. My kids have heard teachers defend their faith in the classroom, and have heard kids praying on their own at school. A small cross sticker on the spine marks books by Christian authors in the public library in town. There is a church on every corner. It’s all very different for them, and it’s been interesting to see them adjust. They look around for kids who don’t know Jesus, and are having trouble finding anyone who doesn’t at least claim Christianity.
What they are finding is quite interesting.
Before, it was the non-Christian hostility or apathy they had come to know, and figure out how to overcome. Here, it is the other way around. They are finding that all this religion can sometimes breed a judgmental outlook. There is sometimes little grace afforded those unfortunate people whose sin becomes public. Growing up, I knew I had been given the gift of mercy, but even so, I was still a closet finger-pointer. I’d judge how well I was walking the Christian faith by how poorly I thought others were. I expected people to clean up their act, and come to Jesus, but God showed me that folks have to come to Him first. Our pastor in Charlotte used to say that if you are a jerk, and come to Christ, you are then a Christian Jerk. It takes time to clean up life lived apart from Him.
I loved growing up in the Bible belt, and I am so happy to be back.
The environment is wholesome and comfortable. I am enjoying watching my kids figure all this out. Church is a part of the culture here, but they are learning, perhaps better than ever, it isn’t about going to church or a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s about a relationship with Christ where His love for you is separate from the good or bad deeds you do. Your value in Christ is not found in whether or not you take up space at a local place of worship, but rather your value is found in Him alone. Perhaps that’s the message they should share now. It’s the message of grace, really. Showing that to extend grace is just as important as to receive it.