By Alan Bean
Four people died on the evening of April 26, 2014 when a vehicle driven the wrong direction on Texas highway 287 slammed head-on into a vehicle carrying four passengers. No one knows why Terri Johnson, forty year-old Wise County Justice of the Peace, was driving the wrong way, although alcohol has been ruled out as an explanation.
Authorities were slow to release the names of the three other persons killed in the head-on collision and they have been largely overlooked in the reporting of the story. They weren’t responsible for the accident, and they didn’t hold prominent positions in the community, so all the attention descended on Ms. Johnson.
Last Saturday, my wife Nancy and I drove three and a half hours to Quanah, Texas to attend the joint funeral of the three semi-anonymous victims of this unspeakable tragedy: Juan Rios, 32, of Quanah, his wife, Amy Culwell, and Juan’s mother, Terry Rios, 50, also of Quanah. Nancy and I were in attendance because Amy is Nancy’s cousin, the daughter of Craig Culwell of Tulia, Nancy’s step-uncle.
I had never met Juan, Amy or Sherry, and sometimes felt like a bit of an impostor. But the 800 people who jammed First Baptist Church of Quanah knew these people and hard grief was etched in every face we met. The sanctuary might have held 500 people sitting shoulder to shoulder, with 300 more pressed along the walls and foyer. There must have been 100 floral bouquets arrayed across the front of the sanctuary.
There was something remarkable about the entire experience, and four days later I’m still trying to figure out what it was.
I suspect the families had a hard time finding clergy willing to preside at the funeral. Juan and his mother Terry were both Roman Catholic while Amy belonged to the Church of Christ. This isn’t the gay-marriage-blessing United Church of Christ we’re talking about here; this is the southern Church of Christ, the staunchly conservative wing of the Restoration Movement that refuses to worship or “fellowship” with Baptists. Catholics are right out.
As a result, the two officiants were a Catholic deacon who serves three North Texas parishes (the shortage of priests grows more acute each year) and a Baptist from a small church in a small town I had never heard of. Unlike most of their clerical colleagues, these men were willing to give solace to a deeply traumatized community even if it meant stretching the rules a bit. If your theology doesn’t let you respond to deep grief, you need a new theology.
Both officiants bent over backwards to be inclusive and welcoming. “We come from different backgrounds and denominations,” the Catholic deacon declared, “but we all follow Jesus and we all want to get to heaven.” When he asked how many of us were Christians every hand shot into the air. Well, maybe not every hand. He didn’t ask if there were any atheists or agnostics in the crowd, or if some preferred the “spiritual but not religious” label. That’s not a thing in Quanah, Texas.
The town is named after Quanah Parker, the Comanche leader who defied the US Army for years before finally being driven onto an Oklahoma reservation by a lack of food and good options. Colonel Ranald McKenzie and his soldiers brought Quanah’s followers to heel by slaughtering 1500 Comanche horses. Since a Comanche warrior is out of business without his horse, Quanah and his men surrendered to the white man and quickly adapted to his ways. The Comanche leader went on hunting trips with Teddy Roosevelt and started his own church–an adaptation of Christianity famous for its use of sacred peyote. “The White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus,” Quanah said, “The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus.”
Like Quanah Parker, the people of North Texas are socially adaptable, and it was on display during the worship service. I couldn’t get over the diversity of the congregation–it looked exactly like the demographic breakdown of the surrounding community. Most of the mourners were white, but many were Latino and the African American community was surprisingly well represented.
I doubt very much that anyone has made a concerted effort at racial reconciliation in Quanah, Texas. That sort of thing would be frowned upon. But the three people who died in a tragic car wreck were well known in the community. Juan was a trucker and his Anglo wife, Amy, worked for years as a hair dresser. Both had attended high school in the same general vicinity and, a dozen years after graduation, encountered their old school friends on a regular basis.
The Sunday morning worship hour may be the most segregated hour in America; but when the school bell rings on Monday morning, we are about as integrated as we ever get, especially in small Texas towns where private schools aren’t an option and there’s just one school.
I have no way of knowing how many of the 800 people crowded into the sanctuary were regular church attenders. If the music was anything to go by, not many. I am used to officiating at funerals where the family has no church connection, but back in the day folks seemed to know a hymn or two, or they just let me pick the music. At the funeral in Quanah, the family picked the music, sometimes with eyebrow-raising results.
It could be argued that Country music, largely because it deals with the ordinary stuff of life, offers its own brand of spirituality. Take Luke Bryan’s recent hit, And Drink a Beer. Bryan calls the song “a memorial” because it was inspired by the untimely deaths of two family members.
When I got the news today
I didn’t know what to say.
So I just hung up the phone.
I took a walk to clear my head,
This is where the walking lead
Can’t believe you’re really gone
Don’t feel like going home
So I’m gonna sit right here
On the edge of this pier
Watch the sunset disappear
And drink a beer.
When that last line came over the PA system (there was no live music at all) all the church folk did a double take. Did the singer just say what we think he said?
Luke Bryan didn’t head down to the local church and visit with his pastor when the bad news arrived–he walked to the edge of a pier and drank a beer. There aren’t many piers in dry North Texas, but I suspect most of the folks on hand for this funeral deal with their grief by picking up a cold one.
Other than Kris Kristofferson’s One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus, none of the songs were particularly religious. The recessional was Mariah Carey’s take on the old Harry Nillson song I Can’t Live, if Living is Without You. It’s a brilliant pop song, but there’s nothing remotely hopeful about it. But then we are talking about the deaths of three innocent people who by all rights ought to be alive, so the lyrics fit the occasion to perfection.
Well I can’t forget this evening
Or your face as you were leaving
But I guess that’s just the way the story goes
You always smile but in your eyes
Your sorrow shows, yes it shows
I can’t live, if living is without you
I can’t live, I can’t give anymore.
A lot of people in the room felt precisely that way. In fact, the lyrics of the songs that were played evoked deep sobs and emotional gasps throughout the room, so I guess they did their job.
The pastors said all the expected things about the dearly departed being in a better place, walking with Jesus, being reunited with family members, and all the rest, but it didn’t fit the occasion and the preachers appeared to know it. They also gave the mourners permission to be mad at God and assured us that God was big enough to take it. (Thirty years ago, such sentiments would have been almost unthinkable.) I suspect the country songs communicated because they didn’t try to say too much. In the face of senseless tragedy, there isn’t much to say.
When the church no longer central plays a central role, people find alternative communities of consolation. The folks who raised their hands when asked if they were Christians were sincere. Of course they were Christians. They are Texans, for God’s sake, and being a Christian is just part of the mix even if you rarely get up in time for worship on Sunday morning. But you didn’t sense that religion was the primary glue holding this group together. There must have been 60 people, most of them women, wearing Dallas Cowboy uniforms. In the bulletin, Terry Ann Rios was pictured in a Cowboy jersey–I guess she was a big fan. So were her friends. Watching the ‘Boys while grilling burgers and drinking beer is a big deal in small Texas towns, so showing up to a funeral in Cowboy blue and white makes a certain kind of sense. It evoked kinship and a sense of shared identity.
In similar fashion, the trucker friends of the fallen Juan Rios made a point of driving their Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks to the church and they led the processional to the interment service ten miles to the north. It was 45 degrees F when Nancy and I got up that Saturday morning, but it was 95 when we arrived at the country cemetery shortly after noon. We must have walked half a mile to the graveside service, passing at least forty trucks parked in long rows along the way. The truckers formed a close-knit fraternity, an alternative church of sorts. They wanted to make a statement, and they made it.
North Texas is changing. The churches, once the heart and soul of every Texas community, are gradually losing their influence, especially among the beer-drinking crowd who watch the Cowboys on television, holler for the local high school team Friday nights, listen to country music, and rarely make it to church. This slice of Texas rarely votes, they don’t know anybody who’s anybody, they are over-represented in the state’s jails and prisons, they work hard at demanding and often demeaning jobs, and when they die the papers and the TV crew from Fort Worth pay little attention. So they cobble together an alternate culture in places where no one is looking, using bits and pieces of whatever lies close at hand and hanging onto one another for dear life.
As three balloons were released into the air a cheer rose from the crowd. Then we made our way back to our vehicles. I couldn’t help noticing the confederate flag flapping beside one of the headstones, a sinister reflection of the old Texas. Somebody felt they were honoring the memory of a loved one by planting a symbol of hatred and division by their grave. Maybe they thought the deceased would derive some consolation from the stars and bars. I wondered how these Old South holdouts, the quick and the dead, would feel about the racially diverse group of mourners filing out of the cemetery. Texas might not be changing in ways conservatives or liberals might desire, but in its own ornery way, Texas is changing in hopeful ways few of us comprehend . A funeral in Quanah, Texas gave me a glimpse into one emerging slice of the new Texas, and there’s a lot there to like.