Route to Recovery

A trip through the epicenters of the recession

Religious and commercial billboards collide in Alabama

Nov 16, 2009 16:49 UTC


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Billboards in Alabama are a curious mix of the crassly commercial and deeply religious, often side by side.

For instance, we saw “Go to church or the devil will take you” next to a billboard advertising a BBQ restaurant chain. Or “It’s your choice, Heaven or Hell” — where Heaven was depicted with blue skies and white fluffy clouds, while Hell was all fiery flames – shared space with a billboard for gas station with cold beer.

Alabama is firmly within America’s Bible Belt, an area dominated by evangelical Christians where church attendance is very high. Thus it seemed odd that religious messages would stand so close to an advertisement selling earthly wares, as the two seem to be somewhat at odds with each other.

But that was nothing compared to the two-sided billboard we saw a mile or so from downtown Birmingham.

On one side a poster cheerfully proclaimed that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” a reference to the fact that Christmas is less than six weeks away. A picture of a piece of holly was included to underline the poster’s festive, family appeal.

But on the other side was an advertisement for Hooters. For those people not familiar with this chain of bar restaurants, it is best known not for its food but for the physical attributes of its largely young, female staff, who wear tight white t-shirts and snug-fitting, uber-short shorts. A group of these young ladies adorned the advertisement.

The contrast stopped us dead in our tracks. Two messages were worlds apart but stood back to back.

We’d be curious to know what other people think of this combination. Is it just us who find this double billboard extolling the virtues of both Jesus and Hooters striking?

Photo by Carlos Barria

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Emulating the greatest generation and avoiding “God Inc”

Nov 9, 2009 16:12 UTC

BELLA VISTA, Arkansas – Pastor Jonathan Watson says that he would like to be more like America’s greatest generation than the destructive one that followed it.

“Many people I know of my generation would like to be more like our grandparents’ generation than our parents’ generation,” Watson, 34, said in his office at the Bella Vista Assembly of God. “That was America’s Greatest Generation. They were children of the Great Depression and they were a generation of people who lived by a standard.”

The generation that followed – the Baby Boomers – were the “hippies of the 1960s, the disco goers of the 1980s and the power brokers of the 1980s,” Watson said. “That generation has eaten up everything that their parents left them and leave nothing but debts behind them for the rest of us.”

Watson, whose church is in this small town near Bentonville in Northwest Arkansas, which is home to retail giant Walmart, said he believes that America needs to rebuild its sense of community and rediscover its moral compass.

“The hippies wanted to do good things and change the world. Unfortunately, they changed the world for the worse,” Watson said. “Many of us have looked at our grandparents and think that their way was better. We think it’s better to buy a house and live in it for 40 years, spend your life with just one woman and love your children.”


In a country where many churches are aiming to expand their numbers and mega churches have become ever more popular this pastor wants to keep his flock small.

“Everyone in America wants a bigger church,” he said. “A bigger church brings more money, more clout and more power. But if you have thousands of people in your church it’s hard to minister to them and build relationships with individuals.”

“After a church reaches a certain size it becomes God Incorporated,” Watson said. “Not that that’s a bad thing, mega churches do lots of good work, but we prefer to keep our membership small so we can have a relationship with everyone.”

Watson’s church averages service attendance between 230 and 280. Attendance was higher, but he recently set up a new church in Centerton, about 10 miles away, with some 40 members of its congregation, which is now growing.

The pastor said that this is the model for expansion, that rather than growing beyond its maximum capacity of up to 700 people, the church would rather set up fresh congregations and church’s using a portion of the congregation.


Watson said that although his congregation has been growing, the average donation per capita has fallen 10 percent to 20 percent thanks to the financial difficulties some of his congregation find itself in.

“I hope that for everyone this crisis will help people learn there are people here to help,” he said. “And I hope that eventually more people will go beyond the idea of finding a dollar and spending it as soon as you can.

Photos by Lucy Nicholson

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Wow! He’s gone a short ways sense his days at CBC. His dad pastored one of the biggest churches in springfield, mo. Keep memebership down! Ha. You mean noone wants to come here him talk. There is no such thing as the greatest generation or the worst. There is good and bad in each generation. Sounds like reverand watson has grown out of touch with the rest of the world. I’m 32 and went to school with him. I don’t know a single person under the age of 80 that thinks the 40s was the best times. Arkanasas hardly counts as the rest of america.

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Learning to live with less, and appreciating it

Nov 9, 2009 15:30 UTC


BELLA VISTA, Arkansas – For a man who has had his salary cut 10 percent and now has to work hard to make it to his next paycheck, Denny Robertson is in a philosophical frame of mind.

“I have had to learn to live with less. But I have shelter and I have food, so I have everything I need,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable to run out of money before the next paycheck, but we’ll get by.

Robertson, 34, is a product engineer at tool maker Kennametal Inc. at a facility in nearby Rogers. Facing the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, earlier this year the company laid off some staff locally and – in a bid to preserve jobs – gave others one week of furlough, or unpaid leave, every month.

After five months of that, however, the company gave salaried staff a 10 percent pay cut instead in order to keep the facility open at all times.

“If the economy shows signs of improvement then my salary will go back up,” Robertson said. “But I’m not holding my breath that the economy is improving and I’m not banking on it.”

“I keep hearing that the economy is recovering but I just don’t see it.”


Robertson and his wife Rebecca have two young daughters and have had to rethink their budget.

“We have picked up some good habits because of my situation,” he said, speaking at his home in this leafy small town in northwest Arkansas, which is just a few miles from the home of low-cost retail giant Walmart in Bentonville. “We eat out less and I have become more disciplined at making my own lunches for work rather than eating fast food every day.”

As a result, he has lost 20 pounds this year without any additional exercise. The Roberstons also now buys second-hand clothing and with the holidays coming up is planning to buy gifts only for children in their extended family – they will make cookies and other gifts themselves for the adults.

Robertson has stopped paying into his 401(k) retirement savings plan and the family now relies on credit cards only for emergencies.

“The credit cards are only for unexpected things,” he said. Recently his two daughters came down with the H1N1 virus and even with his healthcare coverage he had to charge co-payments and prescriptions to his credit card.


Robertson said that living with less has made him appreciate his church even more and he has raised his tithe payment to the church to 10 percent of his income.

“Even once my salary rises I’ll continue to do that,” he said. Another thing he said that will continue is that he intends to live within his means and not buy into America’s consumer culture any more.

He said that his church has members who are children of the Great Depression and this downturn has taught to appreciate what they went through growing up.

“In one way this recession may be a good thing for my generation,” Robertson said. “Perhaps this is what we need to build a little character.”

“We don’t have to have the latest TV to enjoy life,” he said. “Sure, I’d like to have that TV. But unless I can pay for it in cash, I’m not going to buy it.”

Photos by Lucy Nicholson

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Kids really are expensive! We all just need to tighten our belts a little and we’ll be fine. People have lived with far less in the past.