The weather is perfect. Families sit on blankets, eating fried chicken that was cooked in iron skillets. A band plays music on a miniature stage. Guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
This is the church my friend’s mother attends. It’s tiny. Most of the congregation is late-sixties or mid-seventies. But there are plenty of young families, too.
Tonight, they are having a picnic.
The chapel is the only structure around for miles, surrounded by farmland and hayfields. Behind the all-brick building is an outhouse. It’s not operational anymore, but it’s maintained for historical purposes.
“It’s a two-seater,” says Brother Williams, a deacon. “When I was a boy, I did my business out there a lot.”
The fiddle, guitar, and mandolin are playing the song “Precious Memories.” And I can’t think of a better tune for tonight because the memories are getting thick.
These are Baptists, but not the hardshell kind. These are the sort who go to college football games toting soft coolers.
Even so, no matter what kind they are, you can’t get Baptists together without having food. It’s in our DNA. Scripture says, “Wherever two or three are gathered, a chicken must be brutally murdered.”
There is some serious fried chicken here tonight. The real kind. Homemade. Church ladies place this food on a table that’s covered in gingham. The tablecloth is clipped with clothespins to keep it from blowing away.
In the pasture behind the church, children are playing a game of Tag.
I see an old man with a dog. He’s wearing an Auburn University cap—the man, not the dog. The dog follows the man everywhere he goes, begging for food from strangers.
I meet a woman who moved to the area from the big city.
“I used to have a good job in Birmingham,” she says. “I was in marketing, worked with some pretty big names, but I hated it.”
I ask why.
“Oh, the stress, the traffic, you can’t even buy groceries in Birmingham without having a nervous breakdown. We moved here so we could breathe.”
I stand in the buffet line with a boy who wears a baseball uniform. He is holding a paper plate, and it looks like he is about to burst from excitement.
There is nothing as wonderful as a table filled with fried chicken. Nothing.
The boy loads his plate purely with casserole. A rookie mistake. If you fill your plate with casserole, you won’t have room for drumsticks. Then you’ll be forced to get a second plate for fried chicken, and everyone will think you’re greedy.
Baptists tolerate some things. But greed from boys in baseball uniforms is not one of them. I know this.
I sit on a blanket, I listen to the band. And I have to pinch myself. Where am I? Does it get any better than this?
The world isn’t like this anymore. Every day another shopping complex is built. Another Dick’s Sporting Goods, another KFC.
The tiny downtowns from long ago are now graveyards. You can walk down any Mainstreet U.S.A. and see vacant shop windows where mannequins once advertised summer fashion, and little hardware stores offered a pound of nails for a dollar.
Churches are different, too. Some of the modern churches are named after verbs, and have their own marketing teams.
Also, music has changed. I read an article saying that fewer children play musical instruments today than ever before. The rise of computers has eliminated the need for piano lessons.
That’s a shame. I grew up playing the accordion, watching Lawrence Welk with my parents. Do kids even know who Myron Floren was? Would they care about Peggy Lee, or Kitty Wells?
What will happen in fifty years? Will people still get together on church lawns? Will there be guitars and fiddles? Or will there be DJs with verbs for first names, and marketing teams.
Will people still make fried chicken, or will they buy it from a store? Will this little chapel still be around, or will it be bulldozed to make room for an Old Navy?
I like the old world, and I don’t want it to disappear forever. And I’m starting to feel sad about it all because I’m pretty sure the old world is gone for good.
Until I see a little boy playing Tag. The little boy runs so fast he is almost invisible. He laughs out loud. His sister is chasing him. He is happy. And I’m feeling better inside.
He sprints past people who are eating. Past the old man in the fedora. Past the hay pasture. Past the buffet, past the kids climbing trees, and past musicians onstage who play:
“How they linger,
“How they ever flood my soul…”
Nights like this are medicine to me. The older I get, the harder these places are to find. But no matter how far away they seem, no matter how imaginary they become, all I have to do is hear a fiddle, a dog, or a child laughing.
And I know that church ladies are still out there, frying chicken in iron skillets.
And all is not lost.