My religion was country church. As the daughter of a country preacher, I couldn’t escape it until my dad took off with a younger woman and my maternal grandparents moved us into a house in town that my mother could afford on her teacher’s salary. This was 1988 when I was 17 years old, and I’d never missed a single day of church. With my history, you’d think I would have been a religious child or that I had grown up to become a religious adult. But you’d be wrong.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, country church was kindhearted; it welcomed curiosity; it was fun. Nevertheless, I wandered away from it. And now I’m finding my way back. My domestic situation (a preacher-dad who scooted), my spiritual beliefs, and God – none of these things has anything to do with it.
When I turned 18, I couldn’t stay at home. Somehow, I made it into the state university on Pell grants and a state scholarship for poor, country girls. I had no place else to go, and I understood from the people around me that college would improve my employment prospects. I disliked school a lot — just the idea of college was a special kind of exhausting — but I never looked a gift-horse in the mouth. You just don’t do that when a door is opened for you.
I went to the university for three reasons: gratitude, housing, and a meal plan. When I got there, I thought I should be an adult and find a church, too. In a small town with a big university – Iowa City – there were many options for church. I found an Evangelical Lutheran Church, the denomination I grew up in, and I went there one Sunday morning in April 1990. The organ was so loud you couldn’t hear anyone singing the hymns. Everyone smelled like perfume. Ladies wore makeup. The men looked like they were going golfing. The preachers had very white teeth. I tried another church. And then another.
Something else was going on in that first year away from home, too. The peers in my co-ed dormitory were really into Christianity and ideas about sin. These young men and women were beautiful, and they were good at talking. They invited me to something called Young Life, where they said I would be among friends. In fact, I would have a hundred new friends, just like that. Frankly, I didn’t want a hundred new friends. And I was confused by young people who were really into church. Hadn’t they already had enough church? Hadn’t they seen the movie “Footloose”?
One day I was walking across the grassy lawns in front of the Old Capitol in Iowa City. A group of women was giving speeches about their freedom to have an abortion. I wondered why they were doing this because I thought nothing stopped women from choosing to have abortions. Then I noticed a group of men and women standing among the audience who were yelling about “killing the unborn” and “God’s children.” I recognized these people from my dorm. I asked some people near me what was going on. I had no idea that abortion had become a big deal for Protestants.
Understand that, being raised by Baby Boomer/Silent Generation farmers and rural people in the 1970s and ’80s, we were living with very different cultural expectations than young people being raised in the ’90s and early 2000s. Adults back then didn’t really want to know what young people were up to on weekends; we’d been raised to be “seen, not heard” and “unseen, still not heard.” The drinking age was 18, and kids as young as 12 were out partying with their big brothers and sisters. Growing up in farm country, everyone knew what sex was without having the “sex talk” with a parent. We knew what a fetus looked like – livestock sometimes aborted theirs. Having an abortion was just an extension of something that was already a normal part of life: family planning.
Men, in particular, didn’t want to know about family planning: this was a part of the women’s world. For men in these older generations, family planning was better left a mystery than actual acquired knowledge; knowledge would require a man to establish an opinion on the topic and that was getting too close to womanhood than most men were comfortable with. Frankly, I suspect that men back then were more in alignment with Jesus than they are today; scriptural evidence proves that Jesus wasn’t concerned with his sister’s virginity, never mind his mother’s. Consider that men weren’t even allowed in the delivery room to watch their own babies being born – why would they want to know about whether their wife or daughter was on the nest or the pill? In this area, men trusted women to share information on an as-needed basis.
For my classmates who made the drive to the bigger towns to sort out the unintended event, that was their own business. If anything, the community – including the men – were tender with women and daughters who made the trip. They were tender because the human body, which had been pregnant, needed time and care to heal and recover. It never even crossed my mind that anyone would attack an experience that I understood was natural.
Seeing the young men and women from my dorm yelling about the “unborn” and “God’s children” was stunning: it was a type of Christianity I had never known. I had never even considered that men should be in on this conversation. To think that men took an interest in my “family planning” biology… well, it offended my femininity so much that, in the same year that I left home, I also left the church. Or maybe it could be better said this way: the church left me.
That was a very long time ago, and I’m in my 50’s now. My spouse and I have moved around the country a lot since the Great Recession disrupted our work. Two big cities and two big towns in 10 years. All the dislocation made me long for my country church – my people. It didn’t matter what I believed in or where my spiritual ideas lay; I just wanted that community from home.
Outside the Dallas, Texas, metropolitan area where I now live, the flat pastureland retreats from the city like a hotcake on a griddle. I am sure that I’m the very first person to use this analogy. You can look at Dallas on the computer through something called “satellite view” and you can see just how big it is and how the smaller cities are encroaching on each other. Some landowners are holding onto their small ranches inside these urban areas, made apparent on satellite view with squares of pasture that stand out like patched knees against the tangle of winding neighborhood streets connecting millions of households crowned with asphalt. There is no end to the asphalt shingles in Dallas, Texas.
I strongly dislike cities. I can’t drive in them. Everybody is impatient with my slowness. When I’m walking, I stop and wonder at things I have never seen before and that irritates people around me. Nobody else seems to want to look at tall buildings or golden domes or bridges. To cope with city life, I keep a small routine: grocery store, pharmacy, pool, apartment. I’ve built my own small-town right here in the city.
I took a chance on a church here in Texas. One day, I searched through satellite view for a country church. I found a Baptist church outside Plano whose sermon sign read: “If you don’t think God has a sense of humor, tell him your plans.” I loved this. But I was prejudiced against Baptists. I can say this because I come from some intense Kentucky Baptists through my paternal grandmother. The best thing about country Baptists is that they’re great cooks, good at loving, and can sing like no other. But I wasn’t looking for a Baptist experience and, despite their fantastic message on their marquee, I went up the road on the map and found an old country Presbyterian church that had a building that smelled like home: coffee and varnish and old wood.
The first Sunday I attended my new church, I drove past the established churches of the city where hundreds of cars parked in rows like shiny headstones in a graveyard; where ladies who look like Mary Kay ascend the steps on the arms of men in brushed suits. I drove past the industrial church-complexes of sparkling glass-and-stucco buildings that looked like small shopping malls and where parking was coordinated by people dressed like police officers. I drove outward into the pastureland where the four-lanes become two and, at an intersection across from a rural fire department, I entered a gravel lot and joined seven other vehicles resting quietly in the morning sunlight.
I went to the wrong front doors first. Then I found the right one and when I went inside, I could feel all eyes turn curiously toward me. It must have been a while since they’d seen someone new. An usher in a suit and cowboy boots left his conversation and brought me a bulletin and shook my hand. It was going to be a special service today, he said. And he was glad I came and they wanted me to join them because they were observing a place in the Presbyterian calendar with a Scottish celebration that would include a bagpipe, Scottish dancing, and something called haggis, which, the usher assured me, was the best that could found in Texas and that, even though I might not like the flavor, it wouldn’t be harmful to eat. “Oh,” I said with a grin.
To grin – or “grinning” – is something I remember from my country church. We didn’t smile politely, and we didn’t repress our joy. A grin was a good, catch-all expression for a variety of feelings, and it was an important part of a community where, frankly, people didn’t express a lot of emotion about anything; our sadness was born in reticent solitude. Our anger was channeled into our labor or our liquor. Our joy was shared with a wide and quiet grin. So when I learned that my first day back at church after 30+ years would be celebrated with a bagpipe, dancing, and haggis, I was delighted.
I don’t believe in signs or signs from God, because, if I did, I would have had to take it personally that, two months after returning to worship, the church closed down for the pandemic. Everyone in the church was over the age of 60-years, and I learned that they didn’t have a preacher anymore. The Presbyterian synod was supporting the parish with retired pastors who were willing to rotate through Sundays leading services and delivering some very fine sermons to an audience of about 20 people.
Before the church closed, I also learned that membership had been declining for about 10 years as the community aged. Younger people chose to attend bigger churches in the city. It was understood that younger people preferred bigger places-of-worship; places that had restaurants and coffee and social events and pop music. These were city churches that could afford to hire janitors to clean up after services. In a country church, you clean up after yourself. I didn’t like this trend that takes people away from my country church culture. I couldn’t understand what inspired people to leave churches where you could be yourself. Why would anyone want the pressure of standing next to Mary Kay ladies at Holy Communion? Maybe they like being anonymous in a big church; there’s no obligation to fulfill and no commitment to uphold when you’re one among thousands. They might miss your money, but they won’t miss you when you leave.
I’m going to have to move this spring; I’ll be landing in Appalachian Virginia. So I’ll be the new person again. I’m used to it now. This time, I am very lucky because, since the pandemic is still around, churches have moved worship online and so I’ve been able to join a church in our new home even before we leave Texas. They’re already looking forward to welcoming me there. Do you know, it feels so good to have people at the other end of an across-country move who are looking forward to seeing me. What a gift… you only get this welcome in a country church. There are still some really good ones out there too.
Sara June Jo-Sæbo grew up in the Midwest and currently lives in Texas.