"I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” - Flannery O'Connor
Florence, Alabama, is a small town nestled in a bend of the Tennessee River. Only about 40,000 people live there—lots of Baptists and artists, but mostly Baptists. My family moved there when I was about 6, and I lived there through college. It’s an hour from the nearest interstate and, when I was a kid, I remember people saying that’s the reason the city could never grow much—too far from all the action. I have no idea if that's true or not.
Florence is classically southern.
Summers are hot and sticky. If your family has money, you spend summers on a boat at the river. If your family has a LOT of money, you spend them at the Turtle Point Yacht & Country Club. Turtle Point was where all the rich kids hung out. I tagged along with friends a few times.
Sports are a big deal in Florence—football is king, basketball’s a distant second, soccer is for communists, and hockey is as relevant to people in Florence as who got runner up in the 1916 presidential campaign (Charles Evans Hughes, FYI).
Politically, Florence is very conservative. In 2016, Trump carried 72% of the vote to Hillary's 25% in the county.
Florence is also unbelievably safe. Some years, the city doesn't record a single homicide. People lock their doors at night, but they'd be fine if they didn't.
Florence is small, but it is potent. Within a 15-minute drive, you can be at the Coondog Cemetery, the Renaissance Tower, Newbern’s Catfish, the birth home of Helen Keller, a restaurant in a cave, the legendary FAME Studios, and the HQ of the 2010 GQ Designer of the Year, Billy Reid. Oh and John Paul White, formerly of Civil Wars fame, is from there as well. Those of us who grew up in Florence are very, very proud of our motherland.
When you live in a big city like Atlanta, coming home to Florence feels like letting out a deep breath.
Every time I drive into the city, I roll down the windows and play Jason Isbell’s Alabama Pines as I come across O’Neal Bridge. That song captures how every small town kid feels when they move away to the big city. The ATL is home for me now, but Florence will always be "home-home,” if that makes sense.
Florence is also very religious—Christian rather—or more accurately Christiany...or Christianish maybe.
We have all the flavors—the Baptists, Churches of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, 7th Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Charismatics and a smattering of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and prosperity Gospel types. These are all very nice people.
But it’s the Baptists and the Churches of Christ that rule the roost in Florence. Their buildings are the biggest and their guys dominate local politics. Of course, I think the Baptists have better theology and better music, but then again I’m biased.
When I was a kid, dad was pastor of Florence’s big Woodmont Baptist Church.
Woodmont was the second biggest church in Florence with over a thousand members. Only Highland Baptist was bigger. Both churches drew the same type of people—white, middle to upper class. No one ever said it, but there was always a rivalry between Woodmont and Highland. Even us kids knew it. We kind’ve resented the Highland kids because they had a big fancy gym with ping pong tables, a walking track, and a workout facility—a free health club for all their members, basically. Jerks.
Being a preacher’s kid in a small town is a low form of southern royalty, and I was aware of this at an early age.
As a kid I could basically wander the halls of our big old church at will, anytime, without interference. No one questioned a Trapp boy—not the organ player, or my Sunday School teachers, or the janitor...especially not the janitor.
I was the youngest of three sons—Brady was the oldest, Brian was the middle, and I was the baby. All the Trapp boys were the same—tall, skinny, dark skin, dark hair. The old people could never get our names right so I just answered to anything with a B—Brady, Brian, Brett, Britt, Brent, Bert, Bart, Barry, Ben, Birdy. Didn’t matter...I knew what they meant. I had a lot of pride being a preacher’s kid. I remember, at school, proudly telling my friends what my dad did...
”He’s the pastor...of Woodmont. You know...the really big one down near the bowling alley. nbd. ttyl, kid."
Religious people can have a lot of pride, and we start 'em young in the south.
The people of Woodmont were the best humans...
There was Mrs. Sissy who taught the kids on Sunday morning. We would eat snacks, learn about Jesus, and watch McGee & Me videos.
On Wednesday nights I would go to Royal Ambassadors, which was like a Baptist version of Boy Scouts—tie a knot, read a Bible story, build a fire, discuss said Bible story, go snipe hunting, review said Bible story.
There was Brother Max who led the choir. He loved the song “To God be the Glory,” so he insisted we sing it every Sunday...every. single. Sunday. To this day I can sing that song in my sleep. If God needed a swig of glory on a Sunday morning, He knew the tap was always open at 2001 Darby Drive.
Then there were the ladies of the Sounds of Joy Trio who would sing on special Sundays. Their big hit was a cover of Sandi Patty’s “Was it a Morning Like This?” which they sang every Easter, without fail. Straight up chills...every single year, even when you knew it was coming.
I also did Bible Drill. That’s where kids memorize Bible verses to see who can recall them the fastest. It was competitive, like a single-sport Baptist Olympics.
I was the Ryan Lochte of Bible Drill, and Rachel Rogers was my rival, my Michael Phelps. Rachel was sweet, but she was fast—a Bible ninja. Rachel ended up getting a PhD in psychology so I don’t feel so bad about it now. I loved Bible Drill, but the only verse I remember is Malachi 3:10. I remember it because it was the longest, most challenging verse, so we kids practiced it a lot. Ironically, it’s a verse about tithing. Very sneaky, Baptists...very sneaky...
There was Brother Greg, our youth pastor who had forearms like telephone poles. Brother Greg wasn't your typical, young goofy youth pastor. Greg was deep waters—kind-hearted, compassionate, and a Jesus-lover through and through. My best memories with Greg were on youth trips—places like Kentucky (for ministry) and Colorado (for skiing).
Maybe my favorite person at Woodmont was Lynwood Beers. Lynwood was one of the old guys at the church. He had a full head of platinum white hair and sat on the front row in a wheelchair every Sunday. One morning, Lynwood wheeled over to me and said, “Brett, I’ve got something for ya. Come out to my car.” I followed him out to the parking lot where he popped his trunk and pulled out a 5-foot long wooden airplane propeller.
“My dad flew planes during the war, and this is from his plane. I want you to have it.”
It had an incredible old, faded Sensenich Bros. logo on it. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but now I think it’s awesome. It hangs in my loft in Atlanta.
I loved the people of Woodmont and still do. Growing up, they were my community, my village. They loved me so well and not one of them ever did anything to harm me.
They represented all the good things of how a church should be. I know a lot of people have been hurt by church-folk. But that's not my story.
I guess some would say the south is Christ-haunted, but in Florence—in MY south—Jesus didn't do much haunting. But He was around, though. He was always around... 👊
B.B.P.S. — Have you read the Guardrails? It's the list of rules governing the Blue Babies Pink writing.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.