Traveling across rural Kentucky makes you appreciate just how amazingly beautiful America really is. The soft rolling hills, the forest on the cusp of autumn, the gentle creeks twisting between farm fields, and the majestic rivers are all timeless. I don’t think things looked substantially different in Lincoln’s day.
Then off on the horizon a cluster of late twentieth century civilization presented itself above the trees. It was curious and even a bit playful at first. Corporate logos thrust up like church steeples announcing the town. Here we are!
I pulled off the highway and started looking for the town. There were thousands of comfortable tract homes on quiet neatly maintained cul-de-sacs in every direction, but as far as a “town”… this was it. Gas stations, drive-thru banks, fast food joints, strip malls with the usual Chinese food and nail salons, mini self storage, and convenience stores. Farther down the highway I knew there were office parks, industrial parks, and regional shopping malls. But as far as something that might be described as Main Street or downtown… Nothing.
Then I found what very well might have been the spiritual heart of this place. A church. I was graciously received by the pastor and others who gave me a tour and explained the good work they do in supporting the members of the community. The building itself had been constructed during a boom, but sat empty and never used for years after the 2008 crash. The developer went bankrupt and the building made its way through the foreclosure process until the church people were able to buy the building at a massive discount.
Like the supermarket this building was originally meant to house, the church pulls in congregants from many neighboring municipalities. Its service catchment area is oriented around the highway flow just like the McDonald’s or the Jiffy Lube. It’s a great church organized by devout and passionate people, but it’s operating in a physical environment that makes any kind of genuine community a challenge since its members are disjointedly smeared across the landscape. I don’t think any of the people I encountered ever gave this aspect of their town a single thought. Americans have lived in this sort of dispersed manner for a few generations now. It’s normal to them. They probably wouldn’t want to live any other way.
But standing on the edge of the church parking lot looking out across the truck stop waffle house, mini mall landscape berms, and muffler shop dumpsters I felt… sad. Compared to the natural beauty of the countryside and generosity of spirit embodied in the good and righteous people of Kentucky it seemed as though they deserved better.