Thursday, July 28, 2011

God's Landing Strip

Liberty Baptist Church, Lanexa, 2011

If you go out to take pictures along Southern rural roads, rarely will you run out of material to shoot. One thing you’re sure to end up with, though, is a lot of pictures of churches.

Most Southern towns can be counted on to have at least a Baptist and a Methodist church and usually racially segregated versions of each. Slightly larger towns will have Episcopalians and Presbyterians, too, and maybe a Catholic church thrown in every now and then. Around the edges of towns will be a few small Pentecostals churches. Although there is an old Christian church over near Suffolk that has been concerted into a Muslim place of workshop, generally speaking temples and synagogues are extremely rare.

Antioch Baptist, Saluda, 2009

Churches still mean a lot in small towns. They are representations of not only religious affiliation, but also class distinction. They are also important elements in the local social fabric, small town churches are also places to be noticed missing from should you be so inclined as to opt out. (I once had a client who was incompetent in his job, but who was instead criticized during his annual performance review for not having been seen in church lately.)

On my drive to Richmond earlier this week, I had a chance to revisit some of the familiar old churches along Route 60. Virginia’s rich soft red clay is so plentiful that the survival of many historic churches can be traced to their having been built with brick. But not all churches could afford brick, so you see lots of old wooden churches like the ones shown here.

I’ve always found it interesting how churches demonstrate their faith through design and landscaping. Some churches are big and showy, meant to impress. Others are simple and homespun, making, if anything, a statement against showiness. Years ago I went down to interview a group of Southern Baptist church ladies in a little country town south of Atlanta. While I sat in the sanctuary of that beautiful little church listening to the ladies discuss foreign missions, curious dairy cows pressed their noses up through open windows as if they were regular members of the group with something to add to the conversation.

St. Luke's, Courtland, 2008

I get the impression that the members of Liberty Baptist Church, shown at the top of this post, apparently felt that a beautiful and clearly identifiable church with an iconic steeple were not expressive enough and therefore took the additional step of installing a cross formed from loose white pebbles in the front lawn. One assumes the lights are there to illuminate the cross at night. But when I looked at the cross in the daylight it reminded me of nothing more than an airport landing strip.

Capeville United Methodist, Virginia, 2006

Main Street United Methodist, Onancock, 2009


  1. When I first went to work after moving here the mechanics in the truck shop told me all you have in this town are motels, gas stations, fast food joints and churches. I think the churches just might out number the burger joints!

  2. My home town of Parksley on the Shore had a Baptist and a Methodist church. It was too small to have any other denominations. Until recently it was entirely white with the blacks living in their own town, ironically called Whitesville, which was seperated from Parksley by the cemetery, and here they had their own churches.

    BTW, my cousin was married at the Main St. Church in Onancock, it is equally as beautiful on the inside.