I knew something was up in Memphis when I got an invitation to become a fan of The Waffle Shop at Calvary Church. It was going to get underway at the beginning of Lent, they said. Lent, do you tell me? There seemed to be a lot of of excitement about the food, more than is usual for Lenten fare. The fish pudding! The gumbo! Who was making the Bourbon Chocolate Pies? Something about tomato aspic, too, and peppermint ice cream.
Good Lord. "I'll be right down!" I typed in, and pressed SEND.
Calvary's renowned Lenten Preaching Series provides cover for this annual food fest, to which hundreds of people come from all over Memphis. It's at the Episcopal church, but one of the Baptist ministers in town seems to volunteer in the salad room. Waffle Shop is ecumenical in scope. Oh, the waffles! The chicken hash! The shrimp mousse and the Boston cream pie! How is one to choose? And how is one to recover from all that food? Those people all seem so friendly, but I think they were trying to kill us.
Here is the thing: in the South, you don't choose between faith and food. The church was full for the sermon and the basement was full for the food: simple as that. It is a culture of exuberance about every good gift, and Southerners are impatient with any attempt to look aside from God's goodness. They know very well what hard times are, and they just don't feel the need to court them.
"Did you know they got $10,000 for one of those I AM A MAN signs?" someone said at dinner.
You remember those signs, hundreds of them. A photo exhibit in the airport brought it all back: there was Dr. King, there were the quiet people, walking forward together, there were the signs, plain block letters: I AM A MAN.
"You're kidding! I've still got mine," our hostess said. "I don't want to sell it, though. Things'd have to get pretty tough before I sold that."
That was a white person talking. A church lady. Yes: the church, with its tomato aspic and its chicken hash, its phalanx of older ladies at their waffle irons, was also willing to struggle its way out of the dark side of southern history to the other side. This struggle continues: Memphis is a different city from the one in which Dr. King died, and it is also the same city. It is a work in progress, more visibly so than some cities, a blend of cultures more loving and mutual than Yankees usually imagine when they imagine the American South.
That was a polarized age. This one is, too. There are times in human history when the devil gets the upper hand, and people take a perverse pride in their own snarkiness.
But they don't have to stay that way. People can listen and learn and grow and change.
Tomorrow night, Friday, Feb 26:Barbara Crafton kicks off St Luke's, Metuchen's Lenten supper series with a talk on developing a spiritual practice. 6.30, pm. She will preach at all services this weekend.
This Saturday at St Peter's Bay Shore,Long Island: a quiet day with Barbara Crafton. www.stpetersbayshore.org
Saturday nite, feb 27th: British Invasion Tribute's benefit concert for Haiti relief at the Forum Theater in Metuchen. 8pm. Seven local restaurants are offering a preconcert dinner discount. Tix$20 at the door. Visit www.metuchenmatters.com for more info or buy tix at www.showclix.com. Benefits Episcopal Relief and Development's Haiti Relief Fund.
Yeh! Yeh! Yeh!