Y’all should know that they talk differently here in the South. It hit home for us four Yankee cyclists when our wonderful Warmshowers host, Paul Hierstein, who lived in the pine hills of Lumberton, Mississippi, told us a story. There in Mississippi, a worker in a furniture store from New York impolitely flagged them down, saying, “Hey! How you guys doing?” Paul explained to him that he didn’t care where the man was from, but “Hey!” was no way to greet your elders and that his wife was not a guy. Courtesy and respect is something we’ve found Southerners value dearly.
Paul and his wife Judy wore white hats as they drove us from their country home, the Magnolia Plantation, to church on the Mississippi coast. But their Lutheran congregation, a denomination more common in the North, was another reminder of how much US-Americans migrate here and there; Southern culture is created and embraced by Northerners as well as by born-and-bred Southerners. Paul himself grew up in Illinois, and the few native Mississippians in the church were mostly kids. Even though it was our third worship service in the United States, we were a bit taken aback by all the resources filling the pews: multi-page bulletins with a full order of service, news and notes; thick, bound hymnals with full scores; and bibles in case you would like to follow along with the Scripture reading, which was also printed in the bulletin. From our time in Latin America, we had become accustomed to singing from a projector and a more spontaneous order of worship–just one example of the familiar becoming foreign to us as we re-enter our own culture. After the church service there was a US tradition our bellies have been missing for far too long: a big ol’ potluck. Members had been asked to bring regional dishes from their areas, assuring us that the US indeed has culinary pride and diversity, not just pizza and hamburgers. Michael was able to have macaroni salad while talking about Iowa wrestling to a guy with a John Deere cap on his head and a Maid-Rite sandwich on his plate. Home is getting closer.
We heard more about the destruction from Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi gulf coast. Many of the big hotels and casinos have been rebuilt along the beach, but empty lots remain. Flood insurance is so expensive now that many residents can’t return, but some are making the most of this disaster. Beautiful sculptures from some of the uprooted oak trees now adorn the seashore parkway in Biloxi.
Our next worship service was quite a flip from our Lutheran experience. We heard that Hellfighters Motorcycle Shop and Mission at the Cross might have space for us to lay out our sleeping bags in Laurel, Mississippi. The mission is a home for recovering drug and alcohol addicts, and has a distinct motorcycle-culture flavor. Men at the mission restore Harley-Davidson motorcycles to sell at the shop, and eat, sleep, and pray communally in a building across the street. Though some leave and return to their addictions, the men who stay had remarkable stories about the power of Jesus to completely change their lives. After the meal, a visiting preacher who had also struggled with drug addiction led a Holy Ghost Meeting, or revival, in a tent outside. Mixed with amens and gospel music, the speakers blazed his message about God giving us dominion over addiction, even the “spirit of crack” which had ravaged his life. We felt the same Holy Spirit moving that night in the Southern African-American style of worship that we had experienced in many Latin American evangelical congregations.
In Meridian, Mississippi, we caught up with Bonnie and John Opel in their hilly acreage outside the city. Bonnie once taught with Michael’s mother in Pennsylvania, and first moved down to Mississippi with Mennonite Voluntary Service. She took us to a bible study at Jubilee Mennonite Church, where many of the members also stayed around after serving with MVS. Bonnie works as a schoolteacher in the Meridian public schools. City schools have predominantly black students, while the county schools have mostly white students, reflecting the implicit housing divide in the area. But we also met Latinos in Mississippi, including Joe, a Mexico native who now teaches Spanish-language Sunday school at Jubilee Mennonite. We also stopped at a grocery store run by Guatemalans in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Speaking Spanish with immigrants in the United States has sometimes made us feel at home here in our own home country, integrating the experience we’ve had in Latin America right here in the US.
We stayed in the Mennonite Disaster Service warehouse in Columbus, Mississippi. Semi trailers loaded with tools and supplies come there to be carefully reorganized by workers such as Al and Sue Carroll, Pennsylvanians who come down to serve. They let us sleep in the volunteer trailer, which had more comforts and amenities than many homes we’ve stayed in outside the US. Al and Sue told us about some very enthusiastic conservative Mennonite youth who have helped out at the warehouse, speedily laying concrete and painting all day and still finding energy to play volleyball late into the night! We all have certainly seen the effects of MDS’s important work while biking along the gulf, and so it was great to meet some of the people that make it happen. Ironically, there was a tornado warning the night we stayed with.
From Tupelo, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, we rode the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. This route was once used to transport soldiers in the War of 1812, slaves to the Deep South and the port of Natchez, and “Kaintucks” returning from Lousiana. These Kaintucks were workers in the early nineteenth century hired to float goods down the Ohio River on handmade rafts. As navigation up the fast-flowing Mississippi and Ohio Rivers was difficult before steam engines, they often walked their way back north on the Natchez Trace. Historical descriptions of weary male travelers with long beards, light packs, and simple clothing made us feel like we found our ancestors in spirit on the Trace. We met several other cyclists on this beautiful highway, where commercial traffic is prohibited and the speed limit is 50 mph. We rode a bit with Suzy, a cyclist who lived in Philadelphia, whose brother in New Orleans is planning to use old wood gathered from the rafts Kaintucks used and dismantled so many years ago. Wish we had David Smucker along with us to soak up all this history!
The music started right away in Tennessee. Phil Watson, a Warmshowers.org host south of Nashville, played some blues guitar and even jammed with us on some of the numbers we picked in Latin America. Then in Nashville we rolled in to Hotel Chicamauga, the home of the up-and-coming, to-the-stars band Kansas Bible Company. KBC formed at Goshen College, and we loved seeing what they’ve done after moving to Nashville as a group three years ago. Seeing friends from Goshen College deciding to do big things together is always an inspiration. We were able to catch KBC playing a great live show at a competition with 9 other local bands to qualify for the Bonnaroo music festival. Their 10-piece wall of sound, complete with horn section, blasted away the hearts of the audience and the votes of the judges. They’re going to Bonnaroo to build a planet with you! Music City has treated them–and us–well.