Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Secret ‘60s History of Cookeville, Tennessee (Banjo & Bread, Chapter 5)

En route to Ireland via Atlanta in May 2014, I returned to the Open Door Community to show the intentional Christian collective to my wife Jeannie in a long-overdue visit, my first since living there briefly as a Resident Volunteer in 1987, when I was a 19-year-old student from Antioch College. In going back, I hoped to catch up with the co-founders of this Presbyterian base community in the Catholic Worker mode, Vanderbilt Divinity School alumnus Eduard Loring and his partner Murphy Davis. Days before my visit, Murphy emailed that she and Ed would be out of town. Instead, she suggested we get with the Open Door partners who had graduated from Tennessee Tech. So we spent an enchanting few hours with Calvin and Nelia Kimbrough, who met and were married in my adopted hometown of Cookeville when they were students at Tennessee Tech in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

After meeting, eating with, and listening to my new friends talk story and then seeing some of their voluminous scrapbooks of gorgeous archival evidence, I realized that the Kimbroughs were the people I needed in my project; they were missing links in the lineage. Not only theologians and historians, Methodist ministers and radical married monastics doing full-time work as Jesus revolutionaries, they are artists and musicians who were practicing hippy Christians back-in-the-day. During the Kimbroughs’ time in conservative old Cookeville, the campus Methodist community at the Wesley Foundation was a hotbed of hippy happenings and progressive forums, of theatrical performances and liturgical experimentation. Meeting these creative Christians so committed to social justice would be a visionary glimpse of the Beloved Community on any day, but to sit with them, listen to their stories, see the pictures, and catch a glance at the vibrancy of the tiny Cookeville counterculture they’d created back when, this returned me to the deep waters of radical Christianity in which I had been baptized as a child—and entirely reframed this thesis. Over months of interviews conducted in Cookeville and Atlanta, over countless emails, social media posts, and phone calls, Calvin and Nelia revisited the 1960s and showed me a colorful Christian counterculture we could simply call the church. 

Their suggestions for further research uncovered striking anecdotes and audacious connections, revealing how the hippy Christians showed up several years before the Jesus hippies and thrived as part of a larger campus Christian movement, interacting with the New Left and organized as a global ecumenical revolution under the banner of groups like the World Student Christian Federation, the Methodist Student Movement, and the University Christian Movement. What began as my tentative and theoretical foray into the backstory of hip Christian countercultures has been dramatically transformed into a first-person theological biography of these marvelous mentors and friends with whom I feel a deep kinship and soul connection. 

Not in library or bibliography, not in some stranger’s dissertation or yet another database, I finally found the best source for understanding the ‘60s—not in books but in colleagues, not far away in California but in this conservative Tennessee college town.

To read the next chapter, go here:

If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
professor.andy.smith [at] with 'Banjo & Bread' in the subject line.