“I’m from Missouri,” the old saying goes, “you’ll have to show me.” There are as many tales about the origin of this saying as there are stars in a moonless Ozarks sky. It may have been the Confederate commander who, when told to surrender or suffer peril, didn’t believe the Union soldier’s boast of outnumbered troops. It may have been U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver who told a room of distinguished gentlemen attending a Philadelphia banquet in 1899 that he came “from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” It may instead have started as a term of derision leveled against contract miners from Joplin, in the state’s southwestern corner, when they were met with unfamiliar methods of extraction in Colorado: “He’s from Missouri, you’ll have to show ‘im.” Whatever its origins, by 1914 T. Berry Smith had set his poem “Show Me, I’m From Old Mizzoo” to music. Salting self-deprecating humor with defiant regional pride, Smith crooned, “I’m a willing learner, tell me something new; But you’ll have to show me, I’m from old Mizzoo.”
I have lived the greater portion of my life in the Show Me State. Most of that time can be mapped along the stretch of interstate highway connecting my hometown of Springfield, the “Queen City of the Ozarks,” in the southwest corner of the state, with St. Louis, a riverfront city founded by fur-trading French Catholics in 1764, where I now teach at Saint Louis University. Driving north along the 200 miles between Springfield and St. Louis, the mile markers tick by as stretches of farmland and forest, punctuated with exits promising fast food, fuel, and Holy Ghost religion, give way to suburbia. Nearing the Mississippi River on the state’s eastern border, a skyline of steeples, long-shuttered factories, and a sprinkling of skyscrapers rise out of the horizon, reaching a crescendo in the gleaming stainless steel of the Gateway Arch on the banks of the mighty river.
Reflecting population trends across the country, one could describe Missouri as a “blue city/red state” divide. Indeed, outside of its two major cities and Columbia—home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus—the majority of the state is Protestant, white, and Republican. This was the Missouri I knew as a girl and it is a Missouri most often represented in political commentary and popular culture—from Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s 2006 documentary Jesus Camp to the Netflix crime-drama series Ozark. It is a Missouri I catch myself distancing myself from and, at the same time, a Missouri that is home. As I drive the familiar interstate, between the home of my girlhood and the home I now build, I wonder if perhaps, even in these polarizing times, even from the fog of my attachment to a place I often do not recognize, there is something to glean from this asphalt ribbon—always under construction, my mother would be quick to add—between the holy hills of the Ozarks and the red bricks of St. Louis, something that draws us out of flyover binaries and into clearer focus on life in the Show Me State.
For much of its nearly two centuries in the union, folks from my home state have crowed the “show me” motto with Vandiver’s gin-washed confidence. Just what we choose to see has been more difficult to agree on. Missouri is a state of contradiction encapsulated in its devil-may-care motto. In this gateway state, as shaped by the violence of colonialism as it is by the mythologies of grit and gumption pioneers, is there anything that brings us, the people of the crossroads, together? Torn from its indigenous inhabitants, the region flew under Spanish and French flags before it was purchased by the United States in 1803 (the old-timers allege that all three flags once flew in a single day). It was a slave state but never joined the Confederacy. The governor of Missouri once expelled early Mormons from the state with threat of violence and Latter-day Saints today look to a suburb of Kansas City for the returned Christ. It is both Missour-ah and Missour-ee, a difference in enunciation that announces a wallop of difference to those who have ears to hear. Barack Obama lost the state narrowly in 2008 (by 3,632 votes) and Donald Trump won handily in 2016 (by more than half a million votes). At one time a reliable bellwether, pundits now claim Missouri as a baseline of retrenched conservativism. Even still, there are surprises: In August, voters rejected so-called “Right to Work,” an anti-labor pillar of modern conservatism that the state legislature had adopted a year earlier, by a margin of more than two-to-one. The state, in short, encapsulates the contradictions of a crossroads—the meeting place of east and west, north and south, free and slave, liberal and conservative, laborer and capitalist, native-born and immigrant and refugee. Frothy eloquence be damned. You have got to show me.
PERHAPS NOWHERE IS THE ostensible divide between mostly rural Greene County—which encompasses my hometown of Springfield—and mostly urban St. Louis more vivid than when it comes to matters of race and religion. According to 2017 population estimates, Missouri is 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black. The city of St. Louis is more evenly split, at 45.6 percent white and 47.9 percent black. Greene County, in the heart of the Ozarks, is by contrast very white, north of 90 percent. The black population hovers just over 3 percent. At the turn of the twentieth century, Springfield’s manufacturing industries had led to a thriving black community. All that changed on Easter weekend 1906 when three black residents were lynched on the town square. Tokens were made of the Good Friday slaughter, perhaps even finding their way into trouser pockets as white residents celebrated their resurrected savior two days later. Black residents fled for their lives. There are other stories to be told about race and religion in the Ozarks—including the ministry of Father Moses Berry, a converted Orthodox priest who has built a church on the land where his ancestors were enslaved by others in his family tree. Inside the Orthodox chapel Fr. Moses, as he is known, displays artifacts of enslavement—quilts, manacles, dolls, chains—in a room adjacent to the icon-and-incense filled sanctuary. But Fr. Moses and the small congregation of the faithful who meet for liturgies at Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church in Ash Grove are still, in 2018, enough of an exception among their neighbors to be a curiosity for those who want to know and easily overlooked for those who do not.
Data on religious adherence in Greene County is harder to come by than it is in larger metropolitan districts. In the 1980s and 1990s, my evangelical girlhood was surrounded by other white Protestants, and a small community of white Catholics, that seldom recognized race or religious diversity outside of white American Christianity. Recent estimates have put the adherence rate of the county’s mostly white evangelical Protestant population as high as 67 percent, along with almost 18 percent mainline Protestant. Black Protestants counted by the Association of Religion Data Archives in 2010 amounted to less than half of one percent of religious folks in Greene County; Catholics just under 11 percent; Orthodox Christians a tiny fraction of a percent. In many ways the Ozarks, my homeland and heartland, continues to represent the kind of cultural homogeneity that, if left untended, metastasizes into something ugly, something evil, even if it is unintentional. It is true that there are communities of Vietnamese Catholics, South Asian Muslims and Hindus, and Latina/o Pentecostals in the Ozarks. But many of these groups are structural outsiders to the cultural power persistently brokered (and blinded) by white Protestant Christianity. This is not finger pointing. It is self-reflection.
The city where I live now, St. Louis, is also shaped by a long history of racial, ethnic, and religious difference. A century ago St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the nation, with plans to become “the unrivaled city of America, the envied community of civilization and the exposition city of the planet,” as a former mayor once soliloquized. By mid-century, however, that dream was buckling under the weight of its own optimism. At century’s end, the city’s population was less than half of what it had been at its peak. Housing covenants in the early twentieth century created a housing map that is still racially segregated, despite statutory and constitutional judgements against segregated housing decades ago. St. Louis County has been a separate jurisdiction from the city since the 1870s and it, too, bears the marks of this racially fraught history, as city residents and their children moved further west of the Mississippi riverfront into more than 90 suburbs, concentric rings that tell brick-and-mortar stories of white flight. The result today is a racially segregated metro buoyed by financial, policing, and regulatory policies joined with educational and political districting that make any attempt at redress beyond the reach of most of those who suffer most. The city’s religious landscape is mapped directly onto this racially bounded history.
As with the rest of the state as a whole, slightly more than two out of three St. Louisans are Christian, but in the Arch City, Catholics (21 percent) outnumber white evangelicals (16 percent), according to 2017 data from PRRI (statewide, the percentages are almost exactly flipped, 23 percent white evangelical and 16 percent Catholic). St. Louis also has Missouri’s highest percentage of black Catholics, black Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. PRRI also tracks an increase in the religiously “unaffiliated” across the metro since 2013 (from 19 percent to 23 percent). Along a two-mile stretch of Weidman Road in affluent west St. Louis County, a Catholic church, an Islamic mosque, and a Hindu temple each rise out of the suburban landscape. Moving back east, perhaps driving along Delmar, a street that has long divided the city racially and economically, conservative and orthodox Jewish congregations on the western end give way to historically black Missionary Baptist and AME churches as drivers cross the county line into the city. More than half a dozen Buddhist communities are sprinkled across the metro, from neighborhood mindfulness centers to monastic communities. In south St. Louis, Bevo Hill is the heart of a thriving Bosnian refugee community that now claims several mosques and is as much a part of the city as French, Czech, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants have been in their successive waves of settlement. St. Louis, like the rest of the state, may be majority Christian and majority white, but hidden within those statistics is a city of vibrant religious, racial, and ethnic diversity that has few counterparts throughout the Midwest.
Still, the city’s story of religious diversity constantly confronts religiously infused racial conflict. When Archbishop Joseph Ritter integrated the city’s Catholic schools in the late 1940s, he was met with such resistance that he issued a stern reminder of the penalties, up to and including excommunication, for anyone who would “interfere in the administrative office of their Bishop by having recourse to any authority outside the Church.” More Americans are familiar with recent chapters in this old story. In August 2014, a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in one of the city’s northern suburbs, swirling the deep waters of racial tension that have often, sometimes silently, sometimes violently, erupted to the surface. The ensuing fight for justice was as much a wrestling with theological and religious imperatives as it was with the metro’s discriminatory legal structures and militarized policing. In September 2017, another white police officer was found not guilty in the death of another unarmed black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, again leading to protests. Echoing Ferguson three years before, faith leaders and lay religious activists were among those who marched for racial justice and police accountability. As the city’s faithful had done during the Civil War, when congregations divided over slavery, and through the decades of Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and institutionalized racism that have followed, religious communities throughout the city today are splintered over issues of racial, economic, and social justice.
IN MY CAMPUS OFFICE, I keep several artifacts of American religious culture, many I’ve procured over the years for teaching, and some of which I’ve inherited from previous generations of my Ozarks family. Among these are pamphlets that once belonged to Aunt Lectie, who was old when my grandmother was a girl. She was, by trusted accounts, a strait-laced lady who cared for my grandmother, quilted to raise money for her church, and loved Jesus. But she was also a bigot who collected anti-Catholic screeds, wrote in the margins, and saved the cheap pamphlets until she died. Today her nasty pamphlets, published locally by an embattled Southern Methodist preacher in the 1890s, are carefully stored in archival boxes in my office at Saint Louis University, a Catholic, Jesuit university in the heart of the city. I keep these documents as tangible connections to a past I want both to preserve and to erase. Preserve so that we know what we are capable of; erase because sometimes knowing who we are, who I am, is painful to confront.
I have tried running away from Missouri, tried reinventing myself as someone from another place with another story, but here I am, again, trying to make sense of a place that has never made sense, not really, a silty handful of river water that trickles down your arm just when you feel it in your grasp. Like so much of America, Missouri is a place defined by its contradictions, by its impossibilities. In the stories we tell ourselves, the place where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River is the “gateway to the West,” the opening of a frontier and the first step into our better selves. Here, too, is a history of violence carried out in the name of cross, crown, and country. Running along the southeastern border of the state, just south of the confluence of those mighty rivers, is a fault line so powerful that in the early nineteenth-century its tremors rattled teacups in New England. It is probably a little too on the nose to describe Missouri as the place where America collides upon itself, but there is some truth in that hyperbole. There is often violence here, but crossroads are also the places where we become most human by learning to see each other and ourselves through new eyes. I want to claim a Missouri that recognizes its history of violence but chooses to show the world hope, even grace. Show me. Make me believe.
Rachel McBride Lindsey is assistant professor of American religion and culture at Saint Louis University and co-director of Lived Religion in the Digital Age, an interdisciplinary research initiative funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. Her first book, A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, was published in 2017.