They wait for us by the side of the road, not that most of us notice. We've got places to go, things to do, people to see. So we zoom past, one eye on the clock, the other on the rear-view mirror. And never spot them.
You can't see them from the interstate, at least not most of them. They've been cleared away along with the old billboards and junked cars and all the other reminders of the past. Between one exit and the other, nothing must distract from the hypnotic highway. The object is to create a no-place. Instead of being somewhere, we are so many miles or hours away from somewhere. Till then we are in transit. Life is suspended. Our blinders are in place.
It is only on the two-lanes, the blue highways on the map, the curving old roads through the countryside, that we might take note of them for an instant, or at least where they used to be. But only if we're looking for them. And fewer and fewer of us are. We've got games and Global Positioning Systems, iPods and Kindles, even television screens waiting to light up at our touch. There's no need to notice where we are. We might be tempted to look outside our selves. Or even risk solitude. Can't have that.
So we roll on, eyes and minds elsewhere. We don't notice them, or even where they used to be. Some are covered with kudzu, hidden from view. Others have slowly collapsed in a heap of lumber. We give them a glance, if that, and hurry on. Sometimes only a foundation may remain, the rest is memory. A kind of afterlife.
We sense them rather than see them, the old country churches. They're gone yet they remain. Like a dream that fades but never disappears, as if it were a ray of light, a reflection of the first burst of Creation still streaming across our patch of universe. Abandoned, unpeopled, crumbling slowly by the side of the road, still the old churches live. And call to us, as in call-and-response, the traditional refrain of the black church.
Sometimes someone responds. Someone like David Mann, who's now visited hundreds of these old churches here in Arkansas, capturing the light they shed on black-and-white film. They may be decaying hulks not used in decades, or they may still be holding Sunday services for the few faithful.
A selection of David Mann's pictures now hangs in an otherwise empty hall at the Arkansas Studies Institute here in Little Rock, tucked away from the crowd heading for the coffee shops and bars in the River Market neighborhood, or maybe to the farmers' market or down to the Clinton Library. Once again the old churches are being passed by. But still they call to us.
The pictures in this exhibition don't come with a catalogue, happily. Words would only get in the way. Even the titles of the pictures some plain, others ironic are useful mainly to identify the photographs. The absence of commentary comes as a relief. Explanation is the great American vice.
The images alone are more than enough: A broken sign at the side of the road, with an arrow pointing to Holiness. A bare electric bulb suspended from a ceiling, like light in a dark place. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. A tarpaper tabernacle folding in on itself. Old wooden benches worn away by prayers. A solitary little sprig of a tree that has sprung up in front of a boarded-up door. A sign on the corner of a neatly preserved old church that says only No Trespassing, as in forgive us our trespasses. A solemn notice on a graveyard fence reads: Do Not Open Graves Without Permission the tribute of a world always surprised by Easter.
Each picture is a simple gift. As in the Shaker hymn, 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, / 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be… There is something about these pictures that says: This is where you ought to be. Something that says: Be still. And know.
The exhibit doesn't end till September 26. Till then, like the churches in the pictures, it calls to us.