The past few days, I’d gone on an unplanned trip down to Birmingham to visit some old friends from college. It had been a few years since I’d seen some of them, and I’d missed them all. Getting a chance to catch up with them was pretty awesome. Nonetheless, the differences between the Birmingham I knew as recently as 7 years ago and nowadays was kind of striking.
There’s more religious billboards along I-65.
That’s the main interstate highway between Huntsville and Birmingham. I’d ridden along that stretch of road many times over the years, and this past time carried a big difference in who was doing the advertising. There was one sign disputing a natural theory of human development (evolution, more generally), and a few others telling everyone that when they die, they’ll meet the Christian deity.
It had gotten me thinking about what sort of places I’d been riding past all these years. What was happening in these communities whose names were only known on exit signs? How different are they between where I live and where they live? What sort of significance can be found in the different perspectives?
Sometimes it takes getting out of a local area to realize how much different nearby places can be. Yes, I consider myself living in rural Alabama, but there are many places which are infinitely more rural than where I live. Those places have small communities which haven’t changed much in the two centuries since settlers moved there, except to add electric power lines and telephone lines. Just based off of their advertising, I’d warrant they have some good places to eat, and quite a few churches to attend.
I even noticed a difference between north and south Birmingham.
Friends of mine live just north of the city proper, but really to outsiders if you live near enough to the city, you just tell people you’re from Birmingham. To locals, you explain where exactly you live, whether it’s Gardendale, Hoover, or Woodlawn (to name a few). Within this small stretch of land that’s Jefferson County, dozens of towns and cities thrive. North Birmingham has a lot of communities with some traditional churches.
I have to admit that it was kind of weird hearing some old friends griping about certain things. At one point, a friend of mine quipped that gay people were only having problems because of the lifestyle they chose. Another friend had to remind him that’s not how being gay works. That conversation wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. I just had this sense that we didn’t really hash out our ideas on big things. More likely, my old faith had blinded me to it.
Where a person lives is partly defined by what you see.
Once, when I was visiting potential colleges for me to attend, I went to the University of Seattle. At the time, it was the biggest city I’d ever visited and adventured through. An important thing I learned was that every city has its own collection of things that are everywhere. Seattle has its teriyaki joints, Huntsville has its gas station restaurants, Orlando has its massage parlors, and Tampa has its strip clubs.
On this trip, I noticed all the church signs I previously ignored. There were a ton of them. From Baptist mega-churches to small Messianic Jewish temples to other denominations, along with a few churches that had shut down since last I was out there. It was just different than I remembered.
It was a strange journey.
I felt like I was looking at something familiar for the first time. Certainly this has given me cause to examine my changed perspective. It’s like I found a ton of things that I’d been ignoring. What other blind spots do I have?
To be sure, some places in Birmingham seem quite friendly to people who don’t want to be bothered by the local Bible culture. In other communities, you can get surrounded by churches of all shapes and sizes. It will take some active searching to find other faiths and religious views. This serves as a gentle reminder of who the majority really is.
None of the people I knew really changed much, but I still felt surprised at listening to them fully for the first time. They’re still friends, and they are dear to me, but I just can’t help my cringing at some of the stuff I’d heard. Mostly, it makes me glad that most of my friends are the same good people I knew in college. No, I don’t agree with them on everything, but they’re awesome when they just let themselves be human.
That’s something I’d like to remember. Despite the church culture and demands for indoctrination to a specific set of religious rules, people can find a way to be decent. Decency can change with perspective, which means that it’s a process that nobody really can fully perfect. We’re all just practicing at it, hopefully finding lessons we can teach future humans so they don’t have to put up with our mistakes.
Somewhere underneath all the fluff and angry words and lofty ideals is this common thread, and we all get to choose how to weave it into our lives.