A Southern Baptist in exile in the Bible belt

A Southern Baptist in exile in the Bible belt June 26, 2012

Both Alvin McEwen and Rachel Held Evans point us to Joan Garrett’s insightful, empathetic portrait of a Red Bank, Tenn., family: “A tempest in my soul: A son’s secret brings a Southern Baptist minister to his knees.”

This is beautiful storytelling and impressive reporting. It is, in other words, what good journalism looks like. Kudos to Garrett for immersing herself so thoroughly in her story, and kudos to the Chattanooga Times Free Press for giving her the time and the room to do so.

The story of Matt Nevels recalls in many ways all those other recent articles fretting about the Millennial generation’s disillusionment with the church. Nevels’ story shows the human side to all those statistics and all that polling data — putting a face on all those numbers. Like so many those Millennials, Nevels experienced personal pain at the cruelty and rejection the church showed someone he loved, and that pain forever altered his perception of the church.

But the difference here is that Matt Nevels is 78 years old. And he is a retired Southern Baptist minister.

Here is Garrett setting the scene for this story of Southern Baptists in the South. This is an affectionate, evocative description of a community shaped by American evangelicalism:

There are more than a dozen churches along Dayton Boulevard, just a speck on the congregational landscape of the city. These are the gathering grounds of Red Bank, where business is done and children are bragged about and standards are passed down. These are the places where people come for their beginnings and ends.

In Chattanooga, and in the one-red-light towns and the farmland of North Georgia and North Alabama — the buckle of the Bible Belt — Christian faith is a thread that runs through everything. High school cheerleaders paint Bible verses on signs. Hamilton County commissioners bow their heads before meetings. Store owners use little Jesus fish on their advertisements.

Believers call that faith the community’s bedrock. Scriptures tell them to do good, love their neighbors, be faithful to their husbands and wives. They tell them not to steal or kill.

But while these beliefs knit people together, they also tear apart. As Jesus said in Matthew, they turn sons against fathers, daughters against mothers.

The faithful hold firmly to God with one hand, family with the other. But sometimes we are forced to choose. If we can’t hold onto both, which one do we let go?

In 1991, after 25 years of defining himself by his position in the church, Matt Nevels’ faith abruptly and irrevocably collided with the death of his middle son.

Pour a fresh cup of coffee and go read the whole thing. (Unless you’re at work and you don’t want to be seen sitting there, crying at your desk, in which case, read it tonight when you get home.)

One of the things Garrett captures here is the way that faith, identity, community and belonging all come together to add up to shape not just what we think or what we believe, but who we are:

Many of the families tell stories of leaving churches or being asked not to come back.

Matt tells them about how he and Frances walked away from Red Bank Baptist. How hard it is to find a place now for his faith. He doesn’t say it aloud, but he still longs for his traditions, his church.

When he is alone, he thinks of this absence as a kind of emptiness. He tried other churches but could never bring himself to pull his name from the Red Bank membership roster. His son Keith is still a member there. … Sometimes he regrets leaving the church. Sometimes he doesn’t.

This called to mind David Gibson’s recent RNS commentary in response to the suggestion by Bill Donohue that uppity nuns and contraception-using liberals should just shut up and leave his Catholic Church.

“The Catholic Church isn’t the Kiwanis Club,” Gibson wrote. “It’s an imprecise analogy, but I think of it like being an American.”

That seems like an apt analogy to describe Matt Nevels: He is in exile, a man without a country. That’s an uncomfortable place to be. I fully understand that.

But I also find some comfort and some hope in this: Most of the Bible was written for people in exile. That’s where it’s meant to be read.

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