By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com
“You never know when you’ll be someone’s answer to prayer.”
These are the words I’ll remember most from my trip to Senoia, Georgia, the historic tree-lined town that’s now the home of the globally celebrated zombie apocalypse better known as AMC’s Walking Dead. There’s also an ongoing comic book series, but it’s the TV series that has fans circling the planet to visit tiny Senoia.
This week, as editor of our online magazine, I’m sharing a personal story of unexpected inspiration—even as I found myself surrounded by zombie fans. I flew down to Georgia with my wife Amy, plus one of our long-time copy editors Celeste Dykas and her husband Bryan to attend the wedding of the daughter of our marketing director Susan Stitt and her husband Evan. Anyone who has worked directly with our publishing house knows that Susan also is the head of a company called Morgan Street Media, which she operates from an office in their home on this quaint little thoroughfare called Morgan Street.
What few people know is that Morgan Street actually is inside the sprawling, walled-off set used by AMC to produce Walking Dead. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve glimpsed Susan’s house on TV many times. Weird but true—she runs her company and our marketing department from the heart of the TV set.
This past week, their home was wedding central and Susan hosted a rolling series of meals, receptions and what once were known as salons—occasions for diverse people to talk about life (and of course death given the apocalyptic world surrounding their home). Frankly, my life is so busy these days, I forgot how wonderfully inspiring a true, relaxed salon could be. In effect, the entire array of experiences surrounding the Stitt family wedding—all the many gatherings in Senoia—were part of Susan’s commitment to conversation. She even insisted that the DJ at the wedding reception regularly schedule periods when the music wasn’t set to an ear-shattering level.
“We told him—give people a chance to talk sometimes,” Susan explained.
At one point during the long wedding weekend, for example, I sat on the front porch of the historic bed and breakfast where Susan had suggested we stay and talked at length with a publishing family from Netherlands who had traveled all the way to Georgia because they are huge fans of Walking Dead. They weren’t part of the wedding at all, but they wound up looped into the sphere of the unfolding event as I talked with them.
“Why travel all the way across the Atlantic for this particular TV show?” I asked the Dutch couple.
“Well, we are not ‘believers’ like you would say it here in this country. We are what you might call agnostics—not part of any church,” the patriarch of the family said. “But we are fascinated by the theology of the Walking Dead. It calls us to think about the most basic values of life and death and community and even barbarism. What is life itself? What is the extent of human aspiration? Why are we here? What holds us together as humans? Doesn’t everyone around the world wonder about these deep values?”
You get the idea: We were in one of the most unusual corners of the U.S. for a wedding and while you might figure that all weddings are pretty much alike these days—you’d be—well, dead wrong.
Susan’s family is deeply committed to a life of faith. She and her husband and their adult children all take seriously the callings of their Christian faith. What was so inspiring about this several-day wedding celebration is the often forgotten core of our collective faith that Susan and her husband Evan modeled for all of us. In fact, they repeatedly called us to this value throughout the four days of this event.
What is this “deep value” they laid before us?
It’s that faith should be an open door and, as we walk through that door, our lives connect with others and we recognize the possibility that each one of us might make life just a little better for the strangers we encounter.
Think about that for a moment. If someone asked you to describe your faith, is that a value you would remember to include on your list? In fact, it’s a truth in all the world’s great religious traditions, often called “hospitality.”
This may surprise you as well: It’s a truly American value. Read Dr. Wayne Baker’s book, United America, and you can find the elements of hospitality listed in the core American values identified in Baker’s years of research.
Throughout the events and meals and chance meetings that were part of this long-running Senoia salon—we encountered a wildly diverse array of strangers. We discovered, over time, that we were chatting with ultra-liberal Clinton supporters, hard-core Trump backers and nearly every other point of the political compass—but in the context of this celebration those divisions never caused friction. We conversed with rich and poor. We talked with young and old. We sat with traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and seekers on their own spiritual journey—but doctrine never divided us. Most of us were white, but some of us were black, Asian and of other ethnicities.
I was surprised to discover this shared culture in the hot-button summer of 2016 where every chance meeting with a stranger is a potential powder keg. Of course, we should not be surprised, Baker writes in his book. In his detailed research, he found that the No. 1 American value is “respect for others.” Baker also found that the vast majority of Americans believe we should accept people of different backgrounds—and that none of us should be afraid to express ourselves, even unpopular ideas.
And in Senoia last week: People didn’t talk about front-page conflicts. Instead, we talked about our families, our hopes and—even though our faith backgrounds were so different—we talked honestly about our faith. And by that I mean, we talked about the many ways our faith helps us to wake up each morning and face another day.
Consider this example: One of the universal fixtures in a wedding reception, these days, is the DJ with the bank of electronic devices booming dance tunes through the reception venue. We all know the standard routine and DJ patter, by now. But this DJ, in that setting in Senoia, felt moved to interrupt the music to make a point of personal privilege. DJ Mervin Sweeting told us all how proud he is to be married to his wife, who he met through his church, and how especially proud he is that she is now an eight-year cancer survivor. We cheered along with the Sweetings.
Or consider this: Everyone knows about wedding toasts. The best man is supposed to crack jokes and usually verges on the risqué—perhaps even delves into the truly crude.
Not this time. In this case, the best man told about his deep friendship with the groom and the many ways this dear friend had helped him to develop his own personal faith. One way the groom does that is through a motto he shares with people, the best man said.
“I don’t know how many times he’s said this to me. It’s one of his favorite things to say,” said the best man.
Listening to the toast, we had no idea what would come next. A joke after the inspiring build up? Perhaps a final ribald jab at the groom? But no, what the best man shared from his friend Erik was a perfect description of what our religious traditions mean when they call us to practice what the great sages call “hospitality.”
The groom’s motto is: “You never know when you’ll be someone’s answer to prayer.”
Thanks for the hospitality Susan and Evan!
Congratulations Julia and Erik!