HerKentucky is thrilled to welcome our newest contributor -- my friend and sorority sister Erin Smallwood Wathen. Erin is a London, KY native and an alumna of Transylvania University and Lexington Theological Seminary. Erin and her husband live in Arizona with their two small children and their dog named Van Halen. Erin is the Senior Pastor of Foothills Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in north Phoenix. Erin's blog, Irreverin (Facebook her here) is featured as part of the Progressive Christian Network on Patheos; her reflections on faith, family and pop culture always keep me entertained! -- HCW
I live in the midst of an amazing desert landscape. Trails from my backyard lead into the foothills of the Sonoran Mountains. Their silhouette defines the north horizon, and depending on season and time of day, they range in color from blue to brown to green, sometimes even pink. The giant saguaro cacti lift their hands in praise each morning. Most days of the year, the sky shimmers an aching, iridescent blue that your eyes can scarcely take in. It provides a backdrop for the twice daily hot air balloon shows that we enjoy from our patio. Meanwhile, the sacred smell of the scarce rain defies description. And don’t get me started on our rainbows. Like God got a new set of magic markers and took up the spirit of a 3-year-old for the day.
And the moon and stars that live over my house? I’m sorry, but they’re better than yours. They really are.
All this is true. But y’all…some days I need some green grass so badly that I almost wish I played golf. (out here in PGA land, they somehow manage to find water enough for rainforest-like turf, even in the dead-ass middle of summer). Some days, I want to see fall color so badly that my family will pile in the car and drive two hours north. Some days, I want to order a biscuit and know that it did not come from the freezer. Some days, I need to say ‘y’all’ and not have it be a thing. You know?
Of course you know. You are Kentucky women. You know what it is to love a place and have it be a part of you. You might even know what it is to leave such a place. And if you know what it is to leave, then you also know what it means to take it with you.
There is, of course, much that I miss about my old Kentucky home. Beyond the biscuits and the four distinct seasons, I also miss a world in which people know (and care about) their neighbors. And I certainly miss life where people know what’s what about a certain spirit that comes from a barrel. True story: my husband and I were in a nice restaurant and we asked our server for the top shelf bourbon selection. And—I swear to God, ladies—he tried to offer us a ‘wonderful Crown Royal blend…’ (sigh). We had to learn him something about bourbon right then and there. But at least we tip well…
ANYway…I miss the place on the map where such things need not be explained. But what I’ve found in my wilderness wandering years is this: for all that I miss and even mourn about my homescape, most of what really matters is that which I’ve brought with me. And I don’t just mean an old Southern Living cook book and my grandmother’s end tables. I don’t even mean the ‘y’all’ that occasionally comes from my pulpit—unbidden and unplanned as though brought forth by the Holy Spirit.
While my literal Kentucky accent has certainly rolled with me for this whole journey, what I really brought with me was a certain kind of voice. It is a voice that you can hear in my preaching, in my writing, and in my everyday encounters. It bears a ‘charm and disarm’ quality that allows me to say things preachers can’t always say (like, ‘yes, Jesus loves gay people. And in fact, if the church had more of them, we would have better decorations and better music—choreography, even!). It also tells the world that I’ve got just enough redneck lurking right beneath the surface, so perhaps you don’t want to mess with me.
It’s a voice that speaks the truth even when the truth is not pretty—and while I know many prophetic preachers and powerful parents who can speak the truth in love, my brand of gospel is uniquely Kentucky. It bears the tones of Wendell Berry and Loretta Lynn, echoes of Silas House and my own grandparents. And I’m pretty sure that, like Moses, I had to leave home and head out to the wilderness in order to really hear it.
On my frequent sojourns in the desert, I take in the stark beauty of this landscape. For all its barrenness, it is a stunning and deeply spiritual place. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I brought that wilderness voice with me. It keeps me rooted for the roaming, and calls me to speak, to preach, to write the world’s truth, as it was and is to come. It is a gospel that both moves and shapes me; it grounds me and keeps me moving, all at the same time. And you’d better believe, that good news is for not just some of us, but for y’all.