There are a lot of similarities between my last home, Chicago, and my new home in Northern Alabama. Chicago has its own music group: Chicago. Alabama has one, too: Alabama. Chicago has its own song: Sweet Home Chicago. Alabama has Sweet Home Alabama.
In Chicago, Wind Chill subtracts from the actual temperature to make it seem even colder. In Alabama the Heat Index adds to the actual temperature to make it seem even hotter. These are similar in that both are designed to make you feel better about how bad you feel. Chicago has snow & cold, but so does Alabama. The difference is that in Chicago it takes 20” or -20° before anyone considers cancelling anything. In Alabama, the possibility of snow forces cancellations.
A funeral procession in Alabama causes traffic to slow down and stop out of respect for the deceased. Chicagoans don’t slow down. Traffic is not moving anyway. You do, however, wonder how the deceased will vote in the next election.
Chicago has deep-dish pizza. Alabama has stuffed baked potatoes as big as your head. In Alabama, “fixin” means “in anticipation of” an event. In Chicago, “fixin” means something was broken. Like an election.
Chicagoans (at least in the suburbs) shop at Wal-Mart. Alabamians shop at The Wal-Mart. Up there, people use shopping carts. Down here it’s a buggy. In Chicago, a parent might say:
“Listen, kids: we’re getting ready to go to Wal-Mart. I want you to stay by the shopping cart and behave or there will be consequences.”
“Listen, all y’all: We’re fixin’ to go to The Wal-Mart. Stay by the buggy and don’t get to fussin’ or there’s gonna be a whoopin’.”
People love it down here. Unlike Chicago, I have yet to hear a single person whine about living in the Tennessee Valley. Yes, it’s stinking hot, and people with allergies tell me the Indians called this “The Valley of the Sick Head” (which I always thought was in California, and not about allergies). People here love to laugh, love to eat, love their family, and love their friends. Here, if you say “they’re family,” it is the highest compliment you can pay someone who doesn’t share your DNA. I hear it a lot around Friendship Church here in Athens. When they named it “Friendship,” it wasn’t for nothing.
Other than trivial differences, people here are just like people everywhere. The biggest culture shock was that there wasn’t any. It was like hearing Captain Sully on the intercom saying “brace for impact…” and then… nothing.
A lot of folks worry about culture shock when they consider joining small groups. They don’t really know what to expect, but they imagine the worst-case scenario. When I first joined a men’s small group I was anxious about what might happen: learning a secret handshake? Telling my darkest secrets? Stripping to my briefs and beating drums? (I was pretty sure this wouldn’t happen with Methodists, but I wore clean Tidy Whiteys just in case). It wasn’t like that at all. They were guys pretty much like me, facing the same challenges with job, family, and life in general. Soon they were good friends who I could call when I was in over my head, and who called me when my dad died and they knew I was hurting.
When you decide to “brace for impact” and join a small group, you may not find the culture shock you were expecting. You may find a safe place and a warm welcome. Just like I’ve found in Sweet Home Alabama. Take the risk.