Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Living in the South ~ The Buckle of the Bible Belt

       When we began to look for a new home, we decided to relocate closer to Hubby's Grandparents who lived in eastern Oklahoma. They were getting older and really needed someone around to help them out. We decided to settle in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. This area offered four seasons and the mountains that Hubby and I missed.  (I hadn't ever seen any place as flat as south Louisiana!) And yet, the Ouachita Mountains were close enough we could still help out the Grandparents. 
       We moved to the largest town in the Ouachita Mountains, Mena. A town with a whopping population of approx. 6,000.  Hubby affectionately calls Mena, The Buckle of the Bible Belt
Bible Belt is an informal term for an area of the United States in which socially conservative evangelical Protestantism is a significant part of the culture and Christian church attendance across the denominations is extremely high. (to quote Wikipedia)
      In other words, the Bible Belt has a population of conservative thinking church goers. The Bible Belt area stretches from Texas to the eastern seaboard and as far north as Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. Mena sits just about in the middle of this area - hence the name, Buckle of the Bible Belt.

       While the people in this part of the South are still quite friendly and helpful, the familiarity we had experienced in Louisiana was not in evidence here. Rugged country and great distances between communities serve to isolate many of the residents of these areas. This isolation causes a closed way of thinking and a wariness of strangers.  And you thought Deliverance was just a movie.....

       I quickly realized that the "Good Ol' Boy Network" is alive and well. It's not how good you are at what you do that matters but who you know and who you are related to. The difference between social classes is very apparent. The wealthy feel like they are doing the poor a favor by employing them. And the poor are quite happy to work for piddling wages. People are comfortable with this arrangement because that's the way it's always been. Change and progress are not always welcomed or accepted. 

       I noticed that women are not always treated on an equal basis with men. I think this is due in part to the religions of this part of the South, many of which place restrictions on women. Now I may play the 'Dumb Broad ' on occasion but please don't insult me by assuming I have a low IQ just because I'm a woman. Hubby has had to rein me (my temper and my mouth) in on several occasions.

       There is still the sense of family and community, though not as strong as in the Cajun country. And the people of these Arkansas mountain hamlets will definitely come together in case of emergency or disaster, disregarding their differences. In 2009 when the town of Mena was hit by a tornado, over 600 homes were damaged or destroyed. For a month after the tornado, various churches would distribute free lunches, bottled water, and other essential items to those affected as well as to the volunteers assisting in clean-up and rebuilding. The local Mennonite men volunteered their construction expertise and rebuilt several homes. This combined effort helped strengthen the feeling of community in Mena. Unfortunately, that bond weakens over time.

       Before the economy took a nose dive, Mena had a fairly diverse economic system. It wasn't necessarily thriving but a variety of industries called the Mena area home - a small electric motor assembly plant, Tyson chicken farms and processing plant, numerous aircraft refurbishing businesses at the local airport, and quite a few classic car restoration shops. All these industries, and a few more, brought in outside dollars to the community, something which is vital if a town is going to  be vibrant and thriving. But, alas, a lot of these businesses are what are called 'luxury industries' - businesses that are dependent on people having throw away income. When that excess income dried up, so did the businesses dependent on it. And in a small town, it doesn't take but a few businesses to close to create a lot of lay-offs. And it doesn't take but a few lay-offs to strike a hard blow to a community's sense of Hope in the future.


Mr. Macabre said...

I am really loving your descriptions and stories of where you've lived!

And you've hit the nail right on the head with this post, you could be describing my home town, but then again, most all Southern small towns are this way.

Beaudoin-Laroche said...

one of my terrors of moving to a warmer state! While I feel religious in my heart,,i don't outwardly practice it in a church..and I don't think i could keep my normally shy mouth shut when faced with that kind of foolishness. I have a teddy the dog t shirt ( actually several!) that says Its not ok to obey ( i have a terrier..hello) and even in PA they look at it as a political statement! and maybe it is! LOL

Suzie said...

Jeanne, I'm really enjoying your journey, even though I haven't posted every day. Having lived in Michigan my whole life, I can't personally relate, but have had relatives that lived in the South (my Aunt was born and raised in Michigan, so it was quite a culture shock for her to move to the Carolinas). Between her stories, and now yours, I find your insightful descriptions fascinating! Thank you SO much for sharing each step of the way, with us!

Linda in New Mexico said...

My baby moved from here in the land of Manana, no rush, no gush New Mexico to Mississippi for work. Culture shock. She lived in Jackson. Then back here and then she moved to South Carolina and it was even more culture shock. When you are raised in an historically based multi cultural acceptance area and move to an area that is still divided by class and race...she was a changed person when she got back here 2 years ago. Much different appreciation for loosey goosey and acceptance, I'll tell ya. The Olde Bagg
Love your perspectives.