I’ve just returned from a trip to my childhood home of Trenton, Missouri, after having been away for almost two years. During this visit, I looked at my town with a new perspective–I took a closer look at the lived religion that surrounded me for the first 18 (or so) years of my life. I was born in Princeton, just 20 minutes outside of Trenton, and moved when I was a toddler because my dad took a job at the high school as a math teacher; my mom worked at the elementary school. Anytime I tell someone I was born in Princeton and lived in Trenton, they think I’m from New Jersey; not quite. Trenton is in rural north Missouri, just 2 hours northeast of Kansas City and only about 1 hour from the Iowa border. Princeton has a population of about 1,000 and Trenton around 6,000, and both are surrounded by corn and soybean fields, a few fledgling cattle farms, and some very large corporate farms. It’s also a very Protestant region–mostly Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God, and Pentecostal. And just to mix it up, there resides a large Amish community just fifteen minutes outside of Trenton in the little town of Jamesport.
I’ve spoken often of how my personal religious experiences have informed my academic endeavors, but it took this particular trip home for me to realize just how much I have taken for granted the interconnection between rural life and religion in my hometown. Below, I try to tell this story through pictures. I should preface this story with thanking my mom, Marilyn Woodward Bain; my dad, Jack Bain; my sister, Lori Bain Kupsky; and my brother-in-law, Drew Kupsky; for happily driving around with me as I took these pictures over the last few days. My mom and dad reminded me of churches I had forgotten and even took many of these pictures since I was stuck in the very back of the van (things haven’t changed much since I was a kid).
This cross is located on Highway 6 East, right at the entrance to Trenton. It usually comes as a surprise to those who aren’t expecting it since one can only see it when cresting a rather long hill.
This abandoned church is on the street leading to my parents’ (and my former) house–it used to be a grocery store where my mom worked, then it became an evangelical, non-denominational church, then a parochial school, and finally, a storage building. No one has ever wanted to take the cross down. There are a few active congregations in Trenton that have set up shop in abandoned stores–not because of lack of space, like in urban store-front churches, but because of lack of funds to build a church.
I went to the fancy church in town–the First Baptist Church. This congregation previously attended church on Main Street, near the old Union Pacific Depot, but as stores went out of business, the street gradually became vacant, and the church building began to fall apart, the congregation put together a campaign in the late 80s/early 90s called “Building for Tomorrow.” I was pretty active in the campaign, even donating money from my allowance and babysitting work to the project. I also seem to recall being pretty excited about the white pews with light blue cushions, something that caused quite the controversy at the time. My parents still attend this church as well as several friends, one of whom just got married and baptized (which is, true to the denomination’s name, a full dunking) here last month.
This is the “rival” Baptist church in Trenton, called Tenth Street Baptist. I once filled in as their pianist during an evening service, and my parents even attended this church for a few years. There are a few more Baptist churches in this small town, but none of them have the size of congregations that are found at FBC and Tenth Street.
The surrounding countryside has many quaint churches–there are often no paved roads that lead to them, only gravel roads, and there are usually fields, forests, and cattle surrounding these little churches. This is Dockery Chapel, a rural church in between Trenton and the mostly-abandoned rural village of Hickory.
And I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the lone truck parked in front of Dockery Chapel–take a close look at the hitch and you’ll see a striking example of the mundane (or profane??) meeting the sacred.
This was the Baptist church in my dad’s little town, Brimson, which is just a few minutes outside of Trenton. The population has now dwindled to 50 residents. Dad says he remembers attending this church for Bible School and also recalls that there was a rivalry between the Baptists and the neighboring Assembly of God congregation.
Coon Creek Baptist Church has a thriving congregation, despite the fact that it’s impossible to find. There are few sign posts on the maze of gravel roads that one must take to get there; thankfully, my parents grew up in this area and had no problems finding it. My dad’s sister is buried in the adjoining cemetery. Not pictured is the Morton Building that was erected in order to accommodate the growing congregation. Directly below is a photo of the farmland that surrounds this chapel.
Edinburg Baptist Church is only just outside of Trenton, but most people who attend this church are from other, smaller towns nearby. My parents were married here and I remember going to this church when I was a child. My parents told me that I loved the organ music because I thought it made church services sound like a circus.
I think what I have taken for granted the most is the Amish community near Trenton. I still do not give it a second thought when I see a horse and buggy parked in front of the grocery store, and I still find driving behind their buggies incredibly frustrating!
Religion is more clearly lived in an Amish community than in most….their dress, mannerisms, and work habits are closely tied to their religious practices and ideals; while the Amish reject the technological innovations of the modern world, they do not reject the people who use these technologies–Amish and the non-Amish communities surrounding them coexist quite comfortably, as seen in the photos below:
Amish congregations do not meet in a church, but hold services in their homes. Nestled between corn fields is the parochial school, where children meet in a one-room house:
What I took away from this amateur photo-journalism project was this: that religion is not just lived in church, on Sundays, but it is lived everyday, everywhere, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. Lived religion is a billboard advertisement inviting you to church; it’s the cross that greets you everyday when you come into town; the Amish farmer who waves when you pass his buggy; a sign for a revival posted on the bulletin board of a local restaurant; a favorite drive through the country, looking at all the rural churches; the gospel music that plays on the radio every morning; praying before a meal at a favorite diner as the waitress patiently waits for you to finish.
To conclude, I leave you with a picture of one of my last images as I left town today, the end of my hometown and the beginning of the journey back to my temporary home.