A northerner explores Christianity in the American South
James Hudnut-Beumler profiles churches, ministries, and movements with long-held traditions and potential for change.
James Hudnut-Beumler remembers taking road trips to visit his father’s family in southern Ohio. On the ride home to Michigan, he and his brother would imitate the unfamiliar “twanging accents” of their relatives. Today Hudnut-Beumler teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University and considers himself “a student of southern religion and culture.”
Based on a decade of interviews and observations, the book gives an overview of contemporary southern Christianity. Hudnut-Beumler profiles several dozen ministries, movements, and churches. He begins by revisiting a tradition familiar to the South: celebrated southern hospitality. He extols southerners’ generosity in welcoming, feeding, and caring for people in their churches and “extended community.” Then he explains the limits of this hospitality: many southerners are opposed to government programs, including those that would extend aid to poor people whom the churches aren’t reaching. Many observers, including the author, see a contradiction here (since people in the South experience the greatest levels of food insecurity in the United States).
Yet Hudnut-Beumler highlights exceptions. Christian outreach ministries that address poverty include the United Methodist Society of St. Andrew, the evangelical organization Feed America First, and the impressive 31-year-old ministry of Room in the Inn, an interfaith effort that began with providing shelter to homeless people and now offers the Campus for Human Development with thousands of courses “from spirituality to GED preparation.” He also lifts up examples of outsized, unexpected Christian social action in response to Hurricane Katrina, including the Common Good, RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans), and the Micah Project.