Opinion

What I learned on my pilgrimage to the U.S. Center Chapel in Kansas

June 28, 2021 3:33 am

Visitors have left stickers on a sign at the U.S. Center park outside of Lebanon. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

I had some unfinished business with the Boss.

Back in February, my actual boss, Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith, considered sending me out to Lebanon, pop. 252 (at last count), site of the Jeep commercial in which Bruce Springsteen begged Americans to walk back their fury at each other and find common ground.

The ad stirred up some excitement, including the type common to inferiority-complexed Midwesterners who flutter when celebrities pay attention to us. Still, it’s always great when outsiders appreciate the stark beauty of the prairie, and director Thom Zimny’s snow-frosted fields might have cooled a few heads at least for the video’s two minutes.

 

But the message, reportedly Springsteen’s creation as much as Jeep’s, felt a little off. Like the way you have to calculate that Lebanon is the geographic center of the United States only if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii. What does “the middle” mean in a country where one side has moved so far to the right that our whole democracy’s in danger? Nearly 84% of Smith County’s presidential votes went to Donald Trump last November. Jeep or no Jeep, how does a Black or brown driver feel out on those lonesome roads?

All of which could have led to rich riffs after Super Bowl Sunday, but the pandemic still felt intense and I was in no mood to travel (besides, that conversation was already underway elsewhere).

But plenty of other people headed to Lebanon, said Linda Scott, the sole employee of the Lebanon Library, who estimated the Super Bowl ad probably doubled visitor traffic in town.

“Even during COVID, we had tourists that came through, just because they didn’t want to be at home,” Scott said.

“When you see a Florida tag, and the people on the news are saying Florida is the worst place, you’re just like, ‘What are they doing here?’ ” she said.

But she figured if people were in their own cars and just stopping for gas, they probably weren’t exposing anybody.

The U.S. Center Chapel had been an attraction long before the Super Bowl, said Scott, who grew up in Lebanon and came back after retiring from teaching in nearby counties.

“Back in the late ’40s, early ’50s, they made this the U.S. Center,” she said. “There was a park out there, and they had a motel and they had Sunday dinners at the restaurant in the motel. And then in ’57, ’59, whenever Alaska and Hawaii were added, all of a sudden the center was, you know, in some Timbuktu place.”

Last she heard, the old motel (vaguely visible for a moment in the background of the Jeep ad) was owned by some hunters, because hunting is another one of the area’s attractions.

“But you’d be shocked how many people come out there,” said Scott. “I mean, people from foreign countries show up.”

Folks in Lebanon know visitors come to the U.S. Center Chapel from all over the world because there’s a box in the chapel where people can leave notes. It’s locked in case they also leave cash donations, said Lebanon librarian Linda Scott, but a local woman collects the notes and sends them to the Smith County Pioneer, which publishes them. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

Scott said people in town loved Springsteen’s message.

“We all thought it was the only ad on the Super Bowl that was worth watching, frankly,” she said with a laugh. “It was so positive. I mean, it was all about, ‘Hey, we’re one country, we’re one people, let’s get rid of all these divisive messages and deal with each other one on one and figure it out.’ ”

“We can figure this out,” she continued. “But you know, if people just keep pushing everybody apart from each other, how can you ever have a normal discussion? If you’re an immigrant, it makes you bad. Or if you’re Black, it makes you bad. Or if you’re Mexican, you know, if you’re bad just because of some uncontrollable factor — I mean, that’s crazy. And we don’t believe that way in the center of the United States.”

Votes by Scott’s representatives in the Kansas Legislature, Rep. Troy Waymaster and Sen. Elaine Bowers, suggest some different thinking, at least when it comes to their transgender neighbors.

But I took Scott at her word, because I know the politicians who claim to represent Kansans don’t always uphold that Midwestern value of treating others as you’d like to be treated. I know our reality is a lot more complex than our rhetoric.

I was talking with Scott at the library because I’d finally made that trip out to Lebanon. Long-since vaccinated and ready for a road trip, I needed to write one last column for the Reflector.

It had been an honor to be part of the Reflector’s inaugural team. As opinion editor, I loved creating space for a new conversation about things that matter to Kansans, and it had been a joy to work with so many people who wrote guest commentaries from all over the state. Smith had also given me complete freedom to write whatever I wanted. So I decided to express my gratitude by taking him up on that offer from February even though he’d probably forgotten about it.

I wasn’t expecting any sort of spiritual experience at the small park where Springsteen and countless others had walked. If I had any epiphany, it was about how Zimny had somehow managed to make the chapel seem bigger than it is — though still tiny — while avoiding the more prosaic evidence of rural tourist parks.

This view of the U.S. Center Chapel outside Lebanon does not include a nearby shelter with picnic tables, barbecue grills or the expansive parking lot. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

The door to the chapel was open but the windows were closed and it was sweltering inside.

In a possible act of blasphemy, someone had left a red-Sharpy version of Springsteen’s script on the pulpit.

Inside the U.S. Center Chapel in June 2021, the pulpit held not scripture but the words to Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl ad for Jeep. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

At the parking lot, the trash can was full — evidence that other people had been there.

I sat at a picnic table in the shade of the shelter, hoping other tourists might show up so I could interview them about their pilgrimage to this not-easy-to-get-to place in Kansas.

I listened to the sound of the breeze and the meadowlarks. Down the road, someone cranked up a combine. American and Kansas flags flapped on their nearby poles.

Three crosses mark the view looking southeast from the U.S. Center Chapel toward Lebanon. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

But nobody else showed up. I began to think this was a message from God, an affirmation that it was time for me to quit asking people questions for a while.

One of the things I’d learned from a year of writing columns for the Reflector was that more Kansans need to make their voices heard. I’m ready to hear those voices.

The buzzing of flies was growing louder, their bites beginning to feel biblical. That, too, felt like a message. It was time to leave.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.

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