To put things in country-music terms, this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that) is about pain, sorrow, alcohol, divorce, blue-collar families, coffee, hard times, opioids and God.
Oh, and waffles.
If you don't live in Waffle House America, let me explain. We are talking about a chain -- in 25 states -- of old-school, Southern-style dinners that serve breakfast 24/7 and attract large numbers of workers and rural folks who don't work normal schedules.
If you want to laugh about the Waffle House world, you can listen to the country-fried tribute song by Stephen Colbert (a native of South Carolina) and alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, entitled, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Knuckleheads."
But the podcast isn't really about laughter. It's about the complex issues that affect ministry to many hurting people in this slice of the American people.
My chat with host Todd Wilken focused on my "On Religion" column this week -- which is about a United Methodist pastor in Alabama who is doing some interesting things while trying the reach working-class people. His name is Pastor Gary Liederbach and he uses his local Waffle House as his unofficial office on weekday mornings.
This anecdote sets the tone:
One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner’s middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn’t see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular whom, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called “Chuck.”
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud F-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.
“The two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck,” wrote the pastor in an online reflection. ”One said, ‘Now you listen here, you motherf---er, this man here is a f---ing man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f---ing a--!’“ Another added: “He’s my f---ing pastor! ... Show some f---ing respect!”
The waitresses exchanged high fives and one shouted an image -- sort of -- from a recent Bible lesson with Liederbach: “Sword of the spirit, b-tch!”
Chuck walked out.
Perhaps, the pastor thought, the waitresses needed deeper insights on St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which urges believers to “put on the full armor of God,” while taking up the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Chuck, you see, has plenty of reasons to be mad. For starters, he's sure that God is punishing him because of things he did in Vietnam. He thinks God is judging him, but he is sure as heckfire not going to a local church to let the nice people there look down their noses at him. And that's just the start of his pain. Read to the end of the column.
Welcome to the part of the Bible Belt and the great American Heartland where people often quote the Bible and cuss at the same time. Lots of folks have a Bible and gun nearby most of the time -- just in case.
Lots of churches don't know what to do with these folks. Some don't want to try, to be perfectly honest. America's opioid crisis has remained hidden -- for a long, long time -- because all kinds of people don't want to talk about the giant fractures in many white, rural and small-town lives.
All of this is why (forget Donald Trump) J.D. Vance's bestseller "Hillbilly Elegy" hit so many critics and readers like a two-by-four last year. (See this earlier column: "Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt.")
Nevertheless, the myth of legions of church-going country folks remains strong. But the Pew Forum has stats like:
In terms of education, 41 percent of “high school or less” Americans said they “seldom” or “never” attend worship services, and 48 percent said “don’t know.” Also, 61 percent of those making $30,000 a year or less answered “don’t know,” with 35 percent saying “seldom/never.”
Liederbach goes to the Waffle House to commune with blue-collar people. He likes to sit at the bar in the middle, he told me, because that where “you’re gonna get pushed to talk about real stuff." It took over a year for him to quietly blend in and become part of the crowd. He didn't wear the whole "pastor" thing on his sleeve.
Lots of Waffle House regulars have “real religious questions and real needs. But they’re terrified of being judged,” said Liederbach. “Their lives are often pretty unstable. They lose jobs a lot, and their families get pretty messed up. ... It took me a long time to realize that the Waffle House is their church.”
Now here is the question, for ministers as well as religion-beat professionals. When church-planters do their work, they are trying to be "successful." At the very least, that means getting a congregation large enough to pay its bills and put a roof over the pastor and some pews.
But what if these needy people don't want to come to church with the "normal" people? What if they just want to talk and even pray in the parking lot at the Waffle House? What does it mean to be "successful" when a pastor is reaching out to the invisible poor and suffering people in these corners of America?