ASHEVILLE, N.C.—Saying that America is a large country is commonplace, a cliché, but it is such a defining quality that it is worth noting. And, of course, you note that quality well when you cross it by car.
Our trip began in Charlotte, N.C., which was a part of America’s frontier west when it was settled by Presbyterians in 1755. After our country’s discovery in the 1600s, our ancestors spread west, but encountered a major obstacle: The Appalachian Mountains. So they turned south along The Fall Line, the border between the Piedmont region and the mountains themselves. Today, Interstate 85 follows some of the same route. Richmond, Va., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., in addition to Atlanta, were all founded as trading towns and stopovers for those preparing to cross the mountains and head west.
The Presbyterians who settled Charlotte left a lasting mark. Today, Reformed Theological Seminary and a half-dozen other seminaries, the headquarters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a number of significant missions organizations, and more than 700 churches help make Charlotte one of the most “churched cities” its size in the country.
But two hours west, the scene of our first stop in Asheville, it’s different. Just outside Asheville is Ridgecrest, the largest conference center in the nation for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. Also just outside Asheville is The Cove, the conference center for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. But Asheville is better known, according to CBS News, as “a New Age Mecca.” In 2000, Rolling Stone called it the “new freak capital of the U.S. “Coexist” and “Keep Asheville Weird” are the bumper stickers of choice here.
Asheville also is the home of WORLD Magazine. WORLD’s founder, Joel Belz, had been living here in part because he had edited The Presbyterian Journal, a conservative voice in the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Journal was founded by Billy Graham’s father-in-law, the missionary physician L. Nelson Bell, who settled in Asheville. The Presbyterian Church eventually fractured, with conservatives forming the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. Most of the conservatives who supported The Presbyterian Journal went with the new denomination, so the raison d’etre for the publication died. What did not die was Joel Belz’s passion for journalism with a Christian worldview. So he founded WORLD in 1986.
If you are reading this, you already know about WORLD. What you may not know is that yesterday, when I passed through Asheville, our headquarters housed more than WORLD staffers busy putting out magazines, producing radio programs, and maintaining our websites. The 2014 meeting of the World Journalism Institute was also underway. Under Marvin Olasky’s leadership, World Journalism Institute is training the next generation of Christian journalists. I did not stop by the office for long, but I did have a chance to ask Marvin how it was going. He described this year’s crop of young journalists as “smart and hard working.” They do some of their journalism on the streets of Asheville itself, interviewing the new-agers and others there with polite but direct questions. Some of the interviews these young journalists conduct here give a new meaning to the phrase “Keep Asheville Weird.”
When I looked into the room and saw the WJI students taking notes as our Washington bureau chief Lee Pitts lectured, I could not help but wonder if the next Nelson Bell, or Joel Belz, or Marvin Olasky was in the room.
Only time will tell.