What the Bible Belt Stereotypes Don't Tell You
"So have you found a church family yet?" She leaned in over her coffee, meeting my eyes across the dining room table. I paused for a split second, my expression puzzled.
"No," I answered, shaking my head and laughing nervously. "No church family yet. We're working on it though; we're getting close."
I looked down at my hands wrapped around my warm mug, at the half-eaten blueberry muffin on my plate. Then, desperate to change the subject, I asked my new friend which brand of baby bottle she preferred for her newborn.
The truth was, I hadn't understood her question. I hadn't any idea what a "church family" was; I'd never heard the phrase before. At the time it crossed my mind that "church family" might be a euphemism for "cult." "Great," I thought to myself, as my friend debated the pros and cons of Avent versus Gerber bottles. "I moved to a state where I'm supposed to join a cult. That's just perfect."
Such conversational awkwardness was typical in the weeks and months after my husband and I moved from Massachusetts to Nebraska. More than a year after we'd settled into our new home, I stopped to chat with another neighbor, a stay-at-home mom who lived three doors down. I found myself telling her about my husband's brother, who had recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and as I took a deep breath, struggling to blink back tears, my neighbor asked if she could pray for my family.
Her request, though genuine and kind, startled me and left me stuttering a stilted response. Never in my life had anyone asked outright to pray for me. This woman and I were near-strangers; we'd exchanged just a handful of greetings on the sidewalk in the months since we'd first met. What was next? I fretted. Would she ask me if I've accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior?
A native New Englander, I knew very little about the Midwest before my husband and I moved to Nebraska in 2001. Vague images of corn, combines, locust plagues, fanatical football fans, bad weather, and "Bible bangers" comprised the extent of my knowledge. I considered Nebraska part of the Bible belt, and that fact did not sit well with me. As far as I was concerned, those two words, "Bible belt," were synonymous with close-minded, preachy, judgmental religious people. Proselytizers, apocalyptics, and snake charmers rounded out the picture. I wasn't just leery of moving to the Bible belt; I was downright afraid.
In many ways, my stereotypical expectations of Nebraska turned out to be unnervingly accurate. Not only did my new state breed grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens and grown men who donned corncob hats on game day, Nebraskans were also shockingly comfortable discussing religion, faith, God, and Jesus in everyday conversation.
Take, for instance, that question posed by the new friend I'd met in the mom's group not long after I'd arrived. Asking an acquaintance in Massachusetts if she'd found a "church family," or even, for that matter, which church she attended, would be like asking her pants size. In New England, religion and faith is a private, personal matter; Massachusetts and its neighbors regularly come up on lists of the least religious states in the country. New Englanders are far less likely to attend church, believe in God, or consider religion important than those in the South and Midwest.
God and church are not discussed casually over coffee and blueberry muffins at your average playgroup in the Northeast. To talk about religion and faith with anyone other than your closest friends and family members is considered off-limits and decidedly politically incorrect. In Nebraska, on the other hand, God is woven fluidly into ordinary conversation, and questions like, "Have you found a church family?" and "How can I pray for you?" are not the least bit unusual.
When I walked away from faith my late teens, I swept my doubts and questions under the rug and promptly forgot about them. It was easy to avoid my questions about God and faith, because in my community and in my circles, spiritual conversations simply didn't take place. Relocating to Nebraska, however, brought my struggles with faith to the forefront and forced me to face my deep doubt head-on for the first time in 20 years. I couldn't ignore my questions about faith because God himself was part of everyday conversation. I couldn't avoid God because he was right there, staring me in the face at playgroup, in the grocery store, on the street.
For a long time Nebraskans' emphasis on faith and religion in ordinary, daily life startled and even annoyed me. I considered my peers' questions about my "church family" nosey and their casual mentions of God offensive. But as the months and years passed, my neighbors' and friends' ease with religion, God and faith eventually opened a door toward my own spiritual exploration. When I was finally ready, after a two-decade hiatus, to step a tentative toe into faith, their comfort and ease with talk about God was an invitation to join the conversation.
Over time, as I settled more deeply into my place, I came to understand that when Nebraskans reference God, religion, and faith in everyday conversation, their inquiries about my church family and their requests to pray for me are not indicative of their judgment or preachiness, but rather, a demonstration of their compassion and their desire to invite me into community and conversation. The Bible Belters I met and subsequently came to know and like in Nebraska typically don't use religion or faith to judge or condemn, but to invite and embrace
In the last 13 years I've found my place under the wide sky, amid the acres of rustling corn, and, yes, even among men who consider corncob hatsappropriate game day attire. I've also discovered that while Nebraskans do talk about God and their faith more frequently and easily than New Englanders, most of the assumptions I'd made about the Bible belt turned out to be untrue. My pre-conceived notions had been influenced by extreme examples presented in the media. I'd based my pre-impressions on stereotypes, not fact; on sound bites, not sound experience; on the extreme, rather than the typical. True, I've met a few preachy, proselytizing Nebraskans, but I now know from experience that they are the exception, rather than the rule.
Michelle DeRusha writes a monthly column about faith and spirituality for the Lincoln Journal Star. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband and their two bug-loving boys. Her first book, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, was published April 15. Connect with Michelle at her blog, michellederusha.com, and on Twitter and Facebook.