Curtis Schneekloth met Clint Schnekloth today for lunch at TaMolly's Mexican restaurant in Texarkana. Yes, that's right. Read it again. There are no typos.
I actually grew up thinking it wasn't at all unusual that there was a Curtis Schneekloth in the world, exactly my age, who I was confirmed with and went to church camp with each summer. There were enough Schnekloths/Schneckloths/Schneekloths in the Quad Cities for me to not even consider the name unusual.
Then I moved around the world a little bit and found out how strange it sounds to certain others.
Anyway, Curtis and I have stayed in touch through the years, and our lives have paralleled each other in strange ways. He lived in Prague while I live in Slovakia. He moved back to the Midwest about the time I returned to the Twin Cities for seminary. And now, to continue the pattern, he just moved to Texarkana while I'm living in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
There's that old Chris and Johnny song, some of you may know it, "We lead parallel lives..."
Anyway, it was great to catch up. His wife (who is from Russia) teaches English to American students at the community college. He works at the Cooper Tire plant, one of the major employers in Texarkana. So we had plenty to discuss, plenty of stories to share, over our somewhat brief lunch, because...
I was actually in Texarkana for work. I was visiting the correctional center in Texarkana. Men from Washington County (my own county) don't have a correctional facility available to them nearby, so they end up in places like Little Rock or Texarkana (3 to 4.5 hours drive distant). It's a hardship, especially for their families, who have to travel considerable distance to see them. Or in this case it's a day-long commitment for their pastor to come see them.
The correctional facility in Texarkana is, literally, and by literally I mean lit-er-al-ly, on the Texas/Arkansas border. You actually enter Texas on Highway 71 while driving through town, and when you reach the federal post office building, when you take a left turn to enter the parking lot of the center, there's a big sign that reads, "Welcome to Arkansas!"
I'm always overwhelmed and amazed and saddened that our correctional system places so many incarcerees at places on the borders, far away from family and other social nets. It's one of the reasons I love our ministry at the correctional women's center here in Fayetteville, because we actually get to minister with women who live in Fayetteville and Springdale, who plan to return to those places when they are released. Re-entry ministries are so important, and more easily managed in those situations.
I drove through the Ouachita forest and mountains to get from Fayetteville to Texarkana. The gorgeous fall foliage and rolling mountains reminded me what I love about the Ozarks. These mountains are jaunty and angular. They don't need to prove their grandeur, like the flexed muscles of bodybuilders. Instead, they're smooth and rounded, like the shoulders of great swimmers.
Yes, I know, Arkansas is predominantly Baptist. But it continues to surprise me just how Baptist it actually is in some places. Drive the 170 miles from Fort Smith to Texarkana, and you see dozens and dozens of churches, some gargantuan, some crumbling, most Baptist, with a smattering of Pentecostal and Annointing and Church of Christ mixed in for good measure.
Is it possible that the water itself in this part of the country is Baptist, so when you wake up and take a shower in the morning, you get re-baptized? I ask this only slightly in jest.
What you don't see any of is, well, Lutheran churches. I honestly think the entire time I was in the southwest part of our state today, I was the only ELCA clergyperson there. I might be wrong, and would be happy to stand corrected, but once you head south of Fort Smith, the ELCA just isn't there. This includes Texarkana, a really large city, with no ELCA presence whatsoever.
My friend Curtis is desperate for Lutheran worship, and can't find it anywhere in a hundred mile radius.
It made me wonder, might there be a way to resurrect the Methodist circuit rider model? I could imagine our denomination calling a person who would travel around from town to town or region to region organizing "centers of mission," installing leaders of worshipping communities, then communicating with them regularly to support them in their work.
It wouldn't matter if they were congregations of 3 or 30 or 300. The pastor would ride the circuit and provide missional leadership.
Who would populate these congregations, you might ask? My experience is that many people who move up to Fayetteville move here from some of these areas, and it is a novelty for them to have access to a congregation that actually matches their faith, moral outlook, and sense of freedom in Christ. The kind of witness represented by the ELCA and some of our full communion partners could add considerably to the overall witness of the Christian church in these places. Plus, if recent national surveys are any indication, there are plenty of people unconnected or disconnected from any church, and that is as likely true in southwest Arkansas as anywhere.
On my way home, for some reason my internal compass kept directing me towards Oklahoma, so I missed an exit and took Highway 70, albeit very briefly, into that great state. I almost did it again on I-40 near Fort Smith. So, that means three states in one day.