In the spring of 2008, my wife and I loaded up a truck and moved to Tennessee, where I’d taken a job as the religion writer at a newspaper in Nashville. I’ve spent the decade since then covering religion in the South, first at the paper and later as a magazine writer and freelancer.
I thought I understood how things work here. But I was mistaken. A new book from Vanderbilt Divinity School professor James Hudnut-Beumler, Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table, helps explain why.
Based on a lifetime’s worth of work—Hudnut-Beumler grew up visiting his mom’s relatives in Appalachia—the book winds its way from a slave cabin in Spring Hill, Tennessee (about five minutes from my house), to the storm-ravaged neighborhoods of New Orleans; from a Catholic monastery in the sticks of Alabama to the headquarters of the Sons of the Confederacy.
Along the way, we see the many splendors and the deep flaws of Southern religion. It’s a place where faith is always personal, where everyone knows your name, and where the Bible shapes everything. At the heart of this new book is the question of Southern hospitality. Who is able to “sit at the welcome table,” in the words of the old spiritual? Who is turned away? And why is the South—a place of such kindness—so divided and inhospitable at times?
Hudnut-Beumler answers these questions and more in a book that’s part pilgrimage, part history lesson, and part celebration of the many versions of Christianity in the South. He writes with grace about almost everyone he meets. At one point, he visits a table at a homeschooling convention that features tips on “food security”—how to plant your own garden and raise your own crops. An inferior writer might have mocked these people. Instead, he sees echoes of Wendell Berry in their desire to reconnect to the land. Still, Hudnut-Beumler doesn’t shy away from the deep divides and sins of Southern Christians.
One of the first questions a Southerner asks when meeting a stranger is “Who are your people?” In the South, hospitality is conditional. People want to know who you are—where you come from, where you go to church—before they know how to treat you.
There’s a superficial friendliness—think “Bless your heart” delivered with a smile. But Southerners keep their distance unless there’s a bridge between them and a stranger, no matter how tenuous. “Moreover, the newcomer who finds a bridge is no longer a stranger but a kind of kin,” writes Hudnut-Beumler. “The person asking the question is proffering a deep kind of enduring hospitality—conditionally.”
The hospitality is conditional, in part, because the South has been shaped by scarcity as well as by faith. There are Wednesday night church suppers full of fried chicken, biscuits, and Jell-O salads. But a surprising number of people struggle to put food on the table the rest of the week. And the South isn’t just the Bible Belt. It’s also the Meth Belt—a place where poverty and addiction are commonplace and opioid overdoses are among the leading causes of death.
These circumstances—and a sense that charity begins at home—make Southerners eager to help their kin but wary of helping strangers. “Although southerners will give to those they know, they hate being forced to help others, especially those beyond their gaze,” explains Hudnut-Beumler.
Southerners will rush to help each other when disasters strike. When a tornado or hurricane devastates a community, chances are a host of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians will follow in its wake, bringing chainsaws, hammers, and hope. Months after Hurricane Maria, Southern Baptists were still cooking thousands of meals for disaster victims in Puerto Rico.
But they will raise hell when asked to send government aid to foreign countries or pay higher taxes. As one Southern Christian explains, “We hate the group but love the individuals, as opposed to other parts of the country, where they love the group but hate the individual.”
In one of his most hopeful chapters, Hudnut-Beumler retells the story of the faith-based response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and around the Gulf Coast. The chapter opens with a TV reporter standing outside a church in New Orleans, not long after the hurricane hit the city. One of the church members was setting up tables outside so that the church could feed neighbors who were without power.
“Are you doing this for your church members?” the reporter asked.
“No, this is for anybody who is hungry and needs food,” the church member replied. “It’s what we do as a church. We feed people.”
Southern Christians have remarkable confidence in what they can do to help their neighbors. When things go wrong, they get to work. And they don’t stop until the job is done. That’s the case for Ben McLeish, one of the founders of St. Roch Community Church, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in New Orleans’s Eighth Ward. The church was planted after Katrina, and one of its early goals was to help the community rebuild. Now its members also run a community development organization.
The church, a multiethnic conservative congregation, links its development work to theology, McLeish told Hudnut-Beumler. Rather than focus on immediate charity, the church looks at long-term, holistic community development—something unexpected for a conservative Southern evangelical church.
“There’s a verse that haunts me about John the Baptist, about how he is called to make a way for Christ, but also to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,” McLeish told Hudnut-Beumler. “If a man is not working or a single mom is not working and struggling, it’s really hard to keep your head up and have pride, have dignity about yourself, and deliberately raise your children. But if we can help create livable wage employment opportunities that count in this discipleship, mentoring model, then we can really begin to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and that alone would revolutionize families in our neighborhood.”
Hudnut-Beumler sees the faith-based disaster volunteering after Katrina as a kind of penance—a way for Americans from North and South alike to make amends for the neglect that caused the levees to fail.
He also sees something more: “Disaster relief,” he writes, “is also a place where racial divisions seem more susceptible to being bridged because something is being built in this American society so divided by race and class, rather than being analyzed, argued over, or torn down.”
The Other ‘Christianities’
The South, while a stronghold of evangelical faith—according to LifeWay Research, about half of America’s evangelical believers live there—is home to a number of different “Christianities.” It’s the place where George Augustine Hyde founded the nation’s first known gay-affirming congregation in 1940s Atlanta, where Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following emerged as one of the first serpent-handling congregations, and where a handful of Catholic nuns founded a worldwide religious media empire.
There were few Catholics in the South when Mother Angelica and a few intrepid friends left their convent in Cleveland and set out for rural Alabama, looking to set up a monastery in the heart of the Bible Belt. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. By the time Mother Angelica died in 2016, the Eternal Word Television Network (ETWN) had a worldwide audience, and Catholicism was thriving in the South, mainly because of Hispanic Catholic immigrants.
That’s a major reason why Southern Catholics have taken a lead in advocating for immigrants. When Alabama lawmakers passed legislation that targeted undocumented immigrants in 2011, Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham sued to block its enforcement, with help from his Episcopal and Methodist counterparts.
Catholics in Dixieland have welcomed new immigrants with open arms, writes Hudnut-Beumler. “When it comes to people from Latin America,” he writes, “Catholics simply do not panic like other southerners. They see—as they have been taught to see—the future of their church, and they see their new sisters and brothers in the faith.”
No book on faith in the South can pass over the Civil War and the civil religion of “the Lost Cause,” which depicts Confederates as “models of Christian virtue,” even in defeat. The Lost Cause could be summed up in a story told about Father Abraham Ryan, “the Catholic poet-priest” of the Confederacy, whose poems lamented a brother lost in battle. When asked if she knew who killed the Messiah, writes Hudnut-Beumler, Ryan’s niece replied: “Oh, yes, I know. The Yankees.” Faith and the Confederacy were so closely tied that even Jesus was enlisted in the rebel cause.
For white Southerners, the Lost Cause gave comfort to a defeated people who wondered if God had abandoned them. But it kept them from reckoning honestly with the cruelty of slavery and, later, Jim Crow.
“Everybody in this country has inherited a burden,” attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson told Hudnut-Beumler. “We’ve all been infected with a legacy of racial inequality. A narrative of race difference was created in slavery and rather than confront it, we have tolerated it. And in the South, we have celebrated it.”
In the end, Hudnut-Beumler is hopeful the South can overcome its divisions over race, politics, sexuality, and culture. In part, he says, that’s because its people still take seriously the Bible’s admonition to welcome strangers. Despite their differences, Southerners still want to find their way to the welcome table and extend Southern hospitality to one and all.
It just might take them a while to get there.
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine and a former religion writer for the Tennessean.
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