Tennessee, and Me

This is my last week in Paris, Tennessee, and I haven’t done a single blog post on my time spent here.

This is partially because I’ve been prioritizing other writing projects, and partially because I realized, once I started trying to write about this place, that I don’t quite know the tone to strike when documenting this sort of month-by-month travel.

My travel writing is usually very event-based. I’m going out, breaking away from the everyday, doing fun things, and seeing cool stuff. But this new type of travel is such an odd mixture of eventful things and ordinary things. Like yes, I’m in a new location, around new people. But I still have to work, and they still have to work. It’s not quite as exciting.

So what has it really been like to relocate to Tennessee?

Let me see if I can sum it up for you.

The first person I met upon arrival that rainy Saturday night was Jenni Yoder, my new roommate and friend. She gave me a tour of her little house, showing me my room, and where I could make hot water for tea. There was a welcome basket on my dresser with insect repellent and water and snacks and maps of things to see in Paris TN.

Jenni explained to me that her parents were gone on a trip, and so she’d periodically go across the street to her parents’ house and cook for her three younger brothers. Her whole family went to a small church in a log cabin, and I was welcome to come along, she said.

So that’s what I did the next morning. I ate breakfast, met her brothers, and went to her cozy little church.

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Her church was tiny. Maybe 20 adults, total. And lots of small children. The service was cozy, informal, and discussion based. People were kind and welcoming.

But there was something about it that made me feel completely out of place.

The discussion seemed to be in some sort of coded language. At first I just thought people were just being vague, and I was about to ask for clarification, when I realized that I was the only one in the room who didn’t understand.

Eventually I pieced together what was going on. Let me see if I can concisely explain it to you. There’s another church in the area, a much more conservative church, that Jenni and her family used to go to. There was a lot of pain and dysfunction in that church, and eventually, a group of people split off and formed their own church. The log cabin church.

That means that every single member of the log cabin church has the same pain memories. They were hurt by the same people and the same institutions. So when they talk with each other about it, they don’t have to go into long explanations. All it takes is a few vague words about pain, and everyone knows what they’re talking about.

Actually, one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about the Mennonite culture in Tennessee is that it’s very much a church split culture. I should ask Jenni about the exact details, but the way she talks about it, it makes it sound like every Mennonite church in the area was formed by a split with a different church, with the original church not even around anymore.

I know that Mennonites in general are way too split-happy. But I realized, after comparing Oregon with Tennessee, that in Oregon we’re much more of a migration culture than a split culture.

I mean, before my time I think there were a few splits. And maybe Riverside was technically a split from Brownsville? I’m not sure. But for the most part, when Harrisburg had issues people migrated to Halsey in droves. And when Brownsville had issues, people migrated to Fairview. And people leaving Harrisburg and Halsey used to migrate to Brownsville, but now Riverside is a much more popular destination.

Anyone know the science about what causes splits vs. migration?

Anyway, I’m not going to claim that either is a particularly healthy option. But being in Tennessee makes me think that a split creates an even more insular environment, because not only did this group grow up in the exact same community, but they have all the same pain reference points now too.

I went to the log cabin church again the next Sunday, because Jenni’s brother was speaking. The next weekend I was in Nashville with my cousin Jason, and I went to an Anglican church. That was really cool. I’d never been in a liturgical service before. It felt extremely reverent. And then this week I caught a little virus and stayed home and drank tea.

So from the church community standpoint, I didn’t really get very far in Tennessee. A month sounds like a long time until you realize that it means only four Sundays.

Most of my connection actually has been with Jenni’s family. They live across the road, and I eat meals with them several times a week. They’ve all been incredibly kind and thoughtful and generous. And Jenni also introduced me to some of her friends from her previous church, who are coming over for tea this afternoon. So I’ve made friends, but not really community, if that makes sense.

I’ve also spent time on my own exploring the town. The coffee shop, the library, the park. And I’ve noticed a few fascinating things about Tennessee culture in general. But I think I’ll save that for the next blog post.

4 responses to “Tennessee, and Me

  1. I’m sure you are working on a larger book and likely have many themes but this theme of sectarian difference and the problems they can cause feels extremely valuable. Think Northern Ireland, Middle East etc. It seems that some differences in “interpretations” of “the word” can lead some groups to want to kill other groups. What I find most charming about this post is that in this case we learn that Menonites only seem to get riled enough to find another building to congregate in on Sundays? Anyway — this feels like fertile ground to explore in whatever larger piece you are working on.

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  2. splits versus migration. I can’t speak from a scientific or studied point of view, but as I have experienced both personally, I can give you my personal thoughts on the subject.
    My history is that I’m protestant, non-Mennonite. I don’t remember ever NOT knowing Jesus, though. Somebody took me to church when I was very young (pre school) because I remember Sunday school and Christmas pageants. My grandpa died when I was a month old an my grandma, within a few years, had joined Wycliffe and moved to Peru. When I was four I remember her coming home on a sabbatical…and then every two or four years after that until I was twelve when she came back to work in the states, but still with Wycliffe. she remarried when i was 13 and for a few years I had a wonderful grandpa. But my grandma wrote me letters faithfully while she was far away, and we shared our faith from early on. but I don’t recall my mom going to church, and when I was in grade school, I would snag a ride with whatever friend or neighbor would take me, so I experienced quite a few different churches.
    When I was 13, we moved to Eugene and I found a church that became my first real “home” church. It was a Church of Christ. It was a noninstrumental Church of Christ. Which means that it grew out of a petty split hundreds of years prior because a congregation was too poor to afford a piano so said, “Well they didn’t use pianos in the early church, so neither do we.” Which, if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion would mean that they should have not used electric lights or heating or worn Nikes either….but….. That was my first experience with a split…a petty difference that someone tried to elevate to a scriptural difference.
    After I graduated from college I had a job interview for a teaching position at Christ’s Center here in JC and was so moved by the hearts of Red Crab and a few of the other elders present in the interview, that I started attending Christ’s Center on Wednesday nights, fell in love with JC, moved here and then attended CC regularly. Unfortunately, CC split. By then I was married, and about the time of the split my husband and I moved away, so we never really got involved in either side of it. When we moved, back, we just avoided both halves and picked a different church altogether, but CC had felt so much like home that no other church could fill that void.

    I think, though, that many people at that time “migrated” elsewhere, not wanting to be a part of either side of the split, but like us, had trouble finding anything comparable. You would think a church is a church, but they all their own flavors, and when you are hungry for something and another church doesn’t “fill” that, it almost feels better not to go to church at all. When I was still at the Church of Christ, it was a very “old” congregation and the young married people with young kids were feeling not accepted at all. There were certain older people who insisted on sitting toward the back, but then complained when people’s kids, who sat in front of them were a little wiggly (although not even disruptive). it felt “kid intolerant” And people migrated away to places like Faith Center or Willamette Christian Center, where there was a looser atmosphere, bigger congregations, and a little more anonymity. I know one long-term family who migrated to Faith Center so they wouldn’t be ask to do a certain job every single time it needed to be done. They ere burned out.

    My observation is that migration happens when there is something more comfortable to migrate to, and splits happen when what’s out there already isn’t any closer a fit to what you need than what you are leaving. When transporation was an issue, it was easier to start a new church in Joe Smith’s house than to travel 20 miles to the next church. Migration happens when there are lots of similar churches with an easily travelable distance.

    But either way, they all happen because we are sinful humans and we think our feelings and our differences are of greater importance than Jesus desire and prayer for us in John 17 (18?) that we all be united in love, so that the world will know we are His disciples.

    (and I totally get what you mean about the Anglican experience. I had the opportunity to attend mass with my catholic cousin a few years back and it was so awesomely reverent…we do miss that in our typical church service here….there is definitely room for and need for BOTH).

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  3. I’m greatly enjoying reading these blog posts. One of my favourite things about them is simply the fact that you had the idea to go on this adventure and now you’re actually DOING it. Sometimes we dismiss our ideas as unrealistic, and don’t pursue them, and I think that we miss out on a lot when we live that way! Best wishes in your travels!

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  4. “I’ve made friends but not really community,” is an excellent phrase and I’ve been looking for it for a long time without knowing it. That sums up all the relationships I have made in my entire life, outside my nuclear family. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it’s got a weird undercurrent of loneliness-or maybe just lack of belonging- to it that confuses me sometimes. Because I don’t FEEL like I’m missing anything, but then sometimes I suddenly am reminded that I’m not a part of a group and I don’t know why it is that it then feels the way it does. I guess I’ve made friends but not really community. Nicely put.

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