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.