Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Great State(s )of Tennessee


We have just completed the 18th General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Memphis. This assembly was publicized as the first CBF General Assembly held in Tennessee but that does not really tell the whole story.

To put things in perspective, let me provide a little excursion into Tennessee history, culture, and economics. When our family first moved to Tennessee in 1970, Winfield Dunn (from Memphis) had just been elected governor. The state had long promoted tourism with the slogan “Welcome to the three states of Tennessee.” It was the message one saw when first driving into the state. One of Dunn’s campaign initiatives (if not a promise) was to do away with the slogan and promote the unity of the state. So, the theme became “Welcome to the GREAT state of Tennessee.” Dunn’s motives may have been pure, but the initiative was doomed to failure.

There are three distinct parts of Tennessee; they are usually called “grand divisions.” Moving from west to east, the west portion is from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. The middle (not “central) division is from the Tennessee River to the time zone line marking the divide between central and Eastern Time zones. The eastern part of the state is from the time line to the North Carolina state line. Tennesseans have recognized this fact of life for years and organized accordingly. There were three Baptist conventions (one for each grand division) before there was a state-wide Baptist convention. Tennessee Baptist once had a college in each grand division and a hospital system in each. The coordinating council of the Tennessee CBF takes these divisions (along with clergy/laity, male/female) into account in recommending council members.

To oversimplify, west Tennessee is Memphis, the blues, cotton plantations, flat Delta land and now Fed Ex (oh, and I can't forget Elvis--although he came from Tupelo, Mississippi). Middle Tennessee is Nashville, country music, insurance companies, rolling hills, horses, and (more recently) Nissan and Saturn. East Tennessee is Knoxville and Chattanooga, tobacco, Oak Ridge, the Smoky Mountains, Appalachia and THE University of Tennessee (I told you it was an oversimplification). The point is that if you have been in Memphis, you have only experienced one part of the state. The same can be said for the middle and eastern portions as well. (Such divisions are undoubtedly true in other states as well, but I know Tennessee best.)

All of this is background to make the point that this General Assembly was not just a Tennessee meeting. It was a Mid-South meeting. Historically, Memphis has been a cultural and economic center not just for west Tennesseans, but for the citizens of north Mississippi and east Arkansas as well. The meeting this week would not have been possible without the leadership and participation of churches in Arkansas and Mississippi. CBF of Arkansas, CBF of Mississippi, and Tennessee CBF were all involved. The number of churches in Memphis that choose to identify in some way with the CBF movement are few and far between, so this cooperation across state lines was essential.

Even so, I have to point out that leaders from middle and east Tennessee took on significant leadership roles as well. Michael Smith of Murfreesboro headed up the worship team. Naomi Brown of Oak Ridge and Brian Johnson of Knoxville led the youth track. Phillip Moody of Tullahoma, along with a number of volunteers from middle Tennessee, Memphis, north Mississippi, and other locations, took on the arduous task of the children’s track.

The primary thesis of this little discourse is that old political and geographic realities often define our perspective and limit our opportunities. It should be clear that the interests and concerns of Baptists in the Mid-South—west Tennessee, east Arkansas, and north Mississippi—tend to be more alike than those of Baptists in east Tennessee (who may be somewhat more attuned to western Virginia, west North Carolina, or north Georgia concerns—depending on exactly where they live in east Tennessee).

If we took these common interests seriously and could overcome some prejudices, we might recognize and act on a new paradigm built on common interests rather than being divided by state lines. Is it possible that moderate Baptists in the Mid-South—who gravitate toward Memphis for their work, shopping, information and health care—might find ways to work together for Kingdom causes? (Maybe the fact that Elvis was born in Mississippi but found fame and fortune in Memphis could valid my argument in some way; but I digress.)

One concrete example of this type of cooperative is Olive Branch Baptist Fellowship in Olive Branch, Mississippi, just across the state line from Shelby County, Tennessee. This new church start has benefited from the support of CBF of Mississippi, Tennessee CBF and churches in Memphis. Trinity, Cordova; Second, Memphis; and First, Memphis, have all helped Chuck and Martha Strong and this growing congregation in north Mississippi. Both state CBF organizations receive mission contributions form the Olive Branch church.

I applaud the effort of Governor Dunn to provide a new vision for “the great state of Tennessee,” but his efforts collided with reality. Perhaps we need to recognize that it is time for moderate Baptists to face the reality of the Mid-South and organize accordingly.

1 comment:

Ircel said...

By the way, I should have noted that Winfield Dunn was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and graduated from Ole Miss.