I never tire of telling people that my family’s only real claim to fame is that my momma’s people are from Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
I’ve been there quite a bit these past couple of years. First to bury my uncle, and then my Granny back at Easter this year. But when my Granny and her brothers were growing up, there was another fellow, a bit younger than most of them, who would go on to make their little place famous. His name was Andy Griffith, and he died this week at 86.
Andy introduced America to Mt. Airy as Mayberry, but he didn’t bother changing the names of the characters he’d grown up around. My uncle, Otis, gained his place in Americana as Mayberry’s town drunk. Otis’ sister, my Granny, led the choir at the little Baptist Church on her street in Mt. Airy. When we were back for her funeral this past spring, my wife, Leah, took the kids over to the lunch counter on Main Street while I met with my uncle, who now directs the funeral home. After we’d all told our stories and sung Granny’s favorite song—”I’ll Fly Away”—we walked back over to Main Street and got an ice cream cone at the lunch counter. As I was paying, the fellow there said, “So sorry to hear about your Grandmother. Tell your family I’ll be praying for ya’ll.”
Some of Mayberry, of course, is just nostalgia. But some of its appeal is the longing that all of us have for a place where we’re known—for a lunch counter where the guy who serves you ice cream also says a prayer when your Granny dies.
This longing, I think, gets at the heart of what the gospel promises and what the church is called to be. Back in the 1990’s, when some of the church growth people were looking for an image in popular American culture to capture the essence of the church, they latched onto the tv show Cheers. “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,” they said. Churches started handing out name tags, training their greeters to memorize names and directing new visitors toward small groups.
Now, I like a place where people know my name as much as the next person. But Mayberry, it seems to me, is closer to the kingdom of God than Cheers. The bar in the basement where friends gather after work is a “third space,” a place for individuals to opt into community on their own terms. It is a product of the fast-paced, fragmented modern life that Mayberry was created to resist.
Mayberry is an ideal. Sherriff Andy doesn’t carry a gun, Uncle Otis lets himself out of jail and there’s a famous episode about a “Man in a Hurry” who gets stuck in town because his car breaks down on a Sunday is transformed by his stay there. The peace of the place is contagious. But it is, in a way that Cheers can never be, a place where people live and move and have their being. It’s a place you can be from, a place you can come back to, a place where people not only know your name but also know (and talk about) what everyone used to say about you when your mother bounced you on her knee.
To say that the church is like Mayberry isn’t to say that it’s an ideal place, but that it’s meant to be a real one—not just a third-space where we check in for our religion fix, but a community where we know people and are known. It is a space where our habits are transformed by a peace that is greater than ourselves. It is a place that’s not only good news for me, but also for the world.
RIP, Andy. As we sing in the bluegrass tunes of Mt. Airy, “go rest high on that mountain.” Say “hey” to Otis and Granny for me. And say a prayer that the circle might be unbroken as we live into the gift that is community.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (MDiv, Duke Divinity School) is a writer, preacher, and moral activist. He and his wife, Leah, founded the Rutba House, a house of hospitality in Durham, North Carolina. Jonathan directs the School for Conversion, a popular education center in Durham committed to "making surprising friendships possible," and is an associate minister at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church. Jonathan is the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books, including Reconstructing the Gospel.