Let’s start with a bit of disclosure.
I’m not afraid of flying. Really, I’m not.
But as the plane I’m on starts to descend, I realize I’m afraid.
Not beacuse we’re rapidly losing altitude. There’s been no abrupt change in cabin pressure. No air masks have dropped, and I’m not jumping into action because I’m the only person sitting in one of the exit rows. There’s been no last-minute bout with teeth-rattling turbulence. This has been a smooth and uneventful flight. In fact, the only moment where my eyes rolled and my stomach lurched was when the airline announced they were charging for Planters peanuts.
This fear is different, causing me to feel like I’m standing at the mouth of a dark cave and my flashlight batteries are running out. I know I have to go in, but I feel unprepared, just like I do now, unsure of what will happen when I land.
When this plane touches down, my feet will grace Southern soil for the first time in almost five years. And as silly as it might sound, I’m worried if the home I left, the South I left, remembers me.
A memory circles around me like a vulture. One where I visited an old stomping ground I hadn’t frequented in 10 years. Some life-giving times happened there. Some heavy and intoxicating moments took place there too. Upon my return, I was sure I’d feel connected as I once did. Back when I was as much of a fixture as the Friday night fiddle player and the thick and encroaching ivy covering the brick exterior. I knew the place no longer belonged to me in less than five minutes. The faces I saw around me were the new occupants. I was only visiting.
I’m afraid the South will treat me the same, which nearly breaks me.
I stroll off the plane expecting Atlanta to welcome me with a sweltering, humid hug typical of early summer. Smothering me the way a grandmother or great aunt’s embrace might. Instead, the ATL greets me with a cool-laced kiss that makes the light denim jacket I have on seem like not such a bad idea after all.
“I stroll off the plane expecting Atlanta to welcome me with a sweltering, humid hug typical of early summer.”
I graciously accept my good fortune, grab the keys to my rental car and receive a sign I know is coming from God almighty herself. On the halo-shaped stretch of road known as I-285, the heavenly hosts nudge me toward the billboard reading “Bojangles Famous Chicken and Biscuits.”
I knew this would be my first stop and first meal.
Since being called away from the South, I have tried to find meaning through different practices. I’ve worn my accent on my sleeve, accepting it with a bit of pride I didn’t know I had in me. I’ve consecrated kitchens and turned them into sacred spaces to invoke my people’s spirits and unique foodways. This has left me tasting my way through the tidewater of Virginia and experimenting with the sweet Sonkers of North Carolina. I’ve dabbled in the richness of low-country recipes and even tried my hand at the profound regional offerings of an Alabama barbeque sauce good enough to sop up white bread. All have grounded me and affirmed I can carry the South with me wherever I go.
Yet, I’m discovering some things aren’t portable, and there are some things even Amazon cannot deliver. A Cajun filet biscuit is such a testament. Coasting down the beltline, I realized I was missing more than spicy yardbird wrapped in wax paper. I missed the experience of receiving one. The early morning drives where I’d wait ever so patiently in those long lines inching my way around the drive-through lane. Congregating with others needing the exact fix of bo-rounds and sweet tea. It would seem my concept of comfort extends beyond the food to the ritual of obtaining it.
Rituals and remembrance are dangerously powerful. Step into any church building, and you’ll whiff their alluring aroma along with hints of incense and last Sunday’s casseroles. There are rituals we look to continue and the ones we’re brave enough to create. Both offer transitional opportunities.
Like doors, rituals can be passed through and, in turn, be closed and left to mark the former. They allow one to move into the future or venture back into the past. As I pull into the parking lot, I think of the words of fellow Southerner and theologian Tom F. Driver. “To lose ritual is to lose the way.”
As I place my order, I silently pray I’ve retained the ability to enjoy this simple offering of fried goodness. The first bite seizes my soul and leaves me in a transcendent state. Yes, I still have it, and this ritual still has value.
For the next several days, I’m walking in and out of those ritualistic doors of value. I participate in the ritual of gathering in person with classmates I’ve never seen from their shoulders down. We worship, study and eat together every day. We are an incarnational community. Present with one another. Struggling to resurface from the half-life we’ve been in the last three years. Together, we reinvent the ceremony of proximity that includes the elements of space, time and relationship.
By the end of the week, I’m drained yet somehow complete. My appetite is too. I enjoy meals from around the world thanks to the strip malls running up and down Buford Highway.
I suck down hand-crimped dumplings and destroy monster Mandarin lion’s head meatballs at Northern Chinese Eatery. I use two hands to carry a paper plate filled to the breaking point with Indonesian cuisine courtesy of Batavia in Doraville. I chat about Hot-lanta’s living conditions with Makayla, the bartender on duty at the French-themed Blind Pig Parlour Bar. Our conversation is natural, turns spiritual, then back to her gushing over the beauty of her city.
While holding the muddler, she holds my attention, explaining the ingredients of the custom cocktails she concocts on the fly for me. As I stir my drink and take a sip, I’m blown away by her attention to detail and humbled by the consistent heavy pouring of hospitality I’m receiving from the South. I could walk out of The Blind Pig tonight and be content with all I’ve experienced. Still, there’s one more ritual to enact before I say my goodbyes, head to the airport and home to my family.
I need to visit the shrine that is Waffle House.
“Where Bojangles was my welcome-back meal, Waffle House will be my farewell bite. Nothing crazy.”
Where Bojangles was my welcome-back meal, Waffle House will be my farewell bite. Nothing crazy. I’ve eaten too well the last few days for tatters scattered and covered. As much as it pains me, I’m passing on the grits too. Instead, I go for the classic, the pinnacle of culinary excellence: Coffee and a pecan waffle smothered in a liquid most outside of Vermont would recognize as syrup. The place is mostly empty, with more staff than patrons. This is good since I need a booth. I need to sit where there is an empty space across from me.
Empty chairs placed around a meal have meaning. Signifying a readily available space, a literal seat at the table, to any who need it. For those of Polish heritage, particularly during Christmas, the expression Gość w dom, Bóg w dom is lived out.
A guest in the home is God in the home.
A reminder: Those we welcome to our tables can bless us as much as we can bless them. So keeping an open seat is a hopeful practice to encounter the holy. It’s a ritual of expecting and welcoming a blessing from another.
“Those we welcome to our tables can bless us as much as we can bless them.”
I keep this seat open for such an opportunity.
And in the same way, other expressions of faith leave a chair open for a beloved prophet; I leave this open for a prophet I knew named Don. We spent time in many Waffle House booths together, and this visit was no different. His spirit and memory are here with me now. I wonder if I’ll ever eat in a Waffle House again without making sure there is an empty seat for him.
Finally, with the coffee consumed and the cup empty, when I can’t muster another bite, I go to the counter to pay my check. I’m greeted with the sounds of familiar warmth wrapped in a southern drawl.
“Was it good, baby?” The angel behind the counter asks.
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you for that. Thank you for feeding me and feeding my soul. I haven’t been in a place that sounded like me in a long time. I appreciate listening to you sing as you cook. Thanks for serving me a bit of home.”
“Hot dog, baby! I like to hear that!” She says, clapping her hands. “You have a blessed day, baby,” she said.
I told her I was off to a good start.
Amen, and amen. Until next time ATL. Thanks for remembering me.
Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, spending time in the kitchen and amateur gardening, Justin spends time with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters. He began his tenure as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Ct. in August. Find his ramblings at blacksheepbaptist.com.
Going out for coffee and finding nourishment instead | Opinion by Justin Cox
How Don Durham and I became neighbors | Opinion by Justin Cox