When our new community was hit by a natural disaster, I couldn't help but watch the local response through the eyes of sociologist (and in particular, a sociologist of religion). How would a Bible-belt state weather this storm differently than the pagans back where I come from—bless their hearts? TV was providing nearly 24-hour coverage of the storm during its height, the governor gave press conferences twice a day, and social media feeds were buzzing. All that gave me a chance to find out.
Saturday's rain was steady but the flooding of which we'd been warned had not hit by the time everyone went to bed that night. By morning, things were getting serious. Chris had barely made it home from a hospital call at 3am and knew, first hand, that the roads were no longer safe. Others had yet to reach that conclusion.
1. Going to church.
Churches seemed on the fence about what to do that first Sunday. The multi-site church we'd been attending closed some of their campuses and published statements that if you couldn't get out, it was fine to stay home. Other churches seemed to be taking the same line. But as the morning went on, more and more announced closures. Before long the news anchors were telling everyone "assume your church is closed!" (Not a question of public importance back in the Northwest.) In fact, they cited our local mayors who let it be known that they were asking ALL churches to cancel their services. "This is not a day for going to church. It's a day for Bedside Baptist and Pastor Pillow!" quipped one reporter.
Another new anchor shared how if she hadn't been called in to work, she had expected to be teaching Sunday school this morning down at her church, Shandon Baptist Church. Ironically the lesson was on Noah and the flood! That's not a story that would be told on broadcast TV back in Eugene, even though allusions to Noah or building an ark might be made.
Later we would learn that an older man from our part of town was drowned in his car that morning and had been believed to be on his way to church, First Baptist of Columbia.
Going to church. It's what you do here.
In comparison with some other parts of the country, church-going seems normative. Any time we've run Sunday errands we've noticed a lot of people in their "Sunday best," the existence of many "come as you are" congregations notwithstanding. (A note about "dressing up": What constitutes casual dress is a bit differently here. It might not be overstating the case to say that "dressing down" here is about like "dressing up" in the Northwest.)
Although people in Columbia seem pretty "churchy" to me, some of the older folks Chris is meeting at the hospital express concerns about the younger generation not going to church. They point out that churches that used to be big now are small. Chris has had a number of African Americans, in particular, speak of today's youth as lost or ruined. They blame the situation on people today getting too many government handouts and not having to work for things (as well as not being in church). Not sure how much the input he is getting is flavored by his religious identity (as a member of the "spiritual care" department). He's getting used to being referred to, at least occasionally, as a "pastor." He's had the opportunity to pray with many people.
2. Being the church.
Many, many of the churches are taking an active role in flood response, so much so that by the time our own isolation ended and Chris could get out, we weren't jumping up to volunteer. It didn't seem as if there was any lack of volunteers from among the Christians, from across the state, and beyond. Many churches took people in, collected supplies, distributed water, etc. and I'm sure that fundraisers and flood relief efforts will continue to characterize much of the local outreach for months go come. Well done, South Carolina.
I'm sure there's a lot more that could be said about what it looks like for local Christians to "be the church," but I'll wait and write more about that as I learn more.
Christian identity notwithstanding, the city of Columbia has all the usual "structures of sin" (and then some). There's an unusually high level of violent crime. Plenty of signs of drug and gang activity, too.
3. Using religious language.
In the Pacific Northwest, it's not uncommon for people to speak of prayer in times of crisis, but you're just as likely to hear references to "sending good thoughts your way." Many prefer to sound spiritual without being religious. I'm not hearing that in South Carolina. When people talk about praying for others or asking prayer, it sounds like they really mean prayer, as in interceding and talking to a Sovereign, Creator God. I like that. So, during the storm and in the follow up, there was a lot of talk about God and about prayer, and people said things you wouldn't necessarily say in other parts of the country. They talked about "being a people of faith."
I suppose they are probably just as likely to say "I'll pray for you" without actually doing it... orthodoxy is one thing; orthopraxy is another.
Another aspect of religious speech I struggle with a bit more. That's the expectation, in religious circles, that people are supposed to respond in ways they really wouldn't in any other context. In a classroom, workplace, or with family or friends, who shouts out agreement to someone who's talking? You don't do that! Well, not beyond nods and "uh huhs" and the like. But in all the churches we've visited and most of the chapel meetings I've been to on campus, people have been scolded if they don't offer enough "amens."
I really don't like that. I'll agree with you if I agree with you, not just because you say so, and I'm probably not going to shout it out! And if I were going to do that, why not use ordinary English?
We had a pastor back in Eugene who always asked us to flip back and forth between different passages, and often he'd say, "when you're there, say, 'I'm there.'" (Instead of "say amen!") That made a lot more sense to me. He was actually asking for feedback, not demanding a religious response.
So, I don't want to "amen." I see that it's expected, though. Oh well. It's not like I've never run into this before. I probably need to just let go of my reasons for finding it ridiculous or manipulative and accept it as part of the culture. Not wrong, just different.