The Itawamba County Times: The Only Newspaper in the World that Cares about Itawamba County

If I had to choose between The New York Times and The Itawamba County Times, I would pick my parents’ weekly newspaper. Before we visit Mantachie, Mississippi, my mother starts saving The Times. If I am there on a Wednesday, we have a quiet competition to see who will get the ICT out of the mailbox.

The New York Times consistently fails to report stories The Itawamba County Times covers. The ICT does a superior job with births, birthdays, school awards, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, church news, and local mischief.

The NYT is not as good with high school basketball. In the ICT, Sam Farris wrote about the buzzer beater in the Mantachie Lady Mustangs’ thrilling 56-55 over the Mooreville Troopers. (Full disclosure: my cousin Jan’s husband Jeff is mayor of Mantachie.)

 Wagster caught the pass in stride and took three dribbles and in an act of heroism had the presence of mind not to go try for a layup but to stop, pull up, and take the three. The ball left the junior forward’s hand and in mid-trip the horn sounded throughout the building, but all eyes were on the ball that was seemingly hanging in the air. Wagster’s shot fell and the roof nearly blew off of the Mustang Corral. Players were jumping up and down, fans were cheering, and one very proud mother was beaming with pride as tears of joy fell at what her daughter had just done.

Anna’s mom cried again when she cut out the story for the scrapbook.

Mrs. Sumner’s “Charleston Place News” keeps readers informed on the goings on at the assisted living residence. Jo Ann writes, “The main problem with most at our facility is one of the residents referred to as Mr. Arthur.” I assume she means arthritis. If there actually is a Mr. Arthur I hope no one reads her column to him.

Mrs. Dobbs writes the “Mantachie Talker,” which shares the good deeds of citizens like the group from Tombigbee Baptist Church “bringing two months of wood for my fireplace” and Eddy “picking up my medicine at Walmart.” Edna has been through a lot. She suggests, “Use a different caregiver after each stroke so as not to overdo one child.” Maybe she needs to use a different doctor to keep her from having another stroke.

In a small town paper your classified ads cannot lie. Under “House for Rent” the description is, “House is very nice.” Bobby knows that if he writes “Exceptional house with exquisite master bedroom overlooking lake” his friends will laugh at him.

The “Church Page” lists the starting times for Sunday school, worship, and Wednesday night services for 123 congregations—64 of which are Baptist—along with a devotional and Bible Trivia.

The winning entries in the Annual Coloring Contest are printed in full color. Madi Daugherty of Fulton won the four and under category. Her work is suspiciously good for a four-year-old.

Terry Allen and Brandon Isbell were arrested for breaking in to Gum Church of Christ. They allegedly took sound equipment, heaters, televisions, a coffee pot, and toilet paper. If they had realized it would be listed in the paper they might have skipped that last item.

The ICT’s “Law Enforcement Reports” are addictive even to an outsider. Each entry is a chapter title in a mystery—though you need someone from Itawamba to tell you the stories behind these entries:

These three, for instance, leave questions unanswered:

“Suspicious activity, Hwy. 178 West”

“Disturbance, Sunset Dr.”

“Scam, Shiloh Rd.”

This could be an embarrassing 911 call to make:

“Vehicle stuck in field, Dobbs Rd.”

Should this be against the law?

“Contributing to a minor, Ryan Rd.”

What does this mean?

“Secure landing zone, Sandy Springs Rd.”

You might think this could be cleared up before the police arrive:

“Livestock in the road, Estes Morrow Rd.”

You hope this call was from a police officer’s spouse: “Request to speak with officer, Van Buren Rd.”

Big city newspapers are landing on fewer driveways each day, but the press is thriving in small towns. While the daily papers are closing up shop, 8,000 weekly newspapers are going strong. 23,434 people live in Itawamba County. The ICT has 28,685 readers.

Sandra Newton, the office manager, says the difference between her paper and the big daily newspapers is that, “We know the people we’re writing about.” Weekly newspapers are part of the community they serve. They tell the stories of people whose stories are not going to be told anywhere else. The ICT proclaims, “Your story is our story.”

Churches should remember this. People love to predict that mega churches will soon swallow up small local churches, but rather than compete to have the biggest, most entertaining church, local churches should tell the story of the people who live next door. The church is there to care for those who are not going to be cared for anywhere else. Our churches need to say, “Your story is our story.”

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Your World Is Too Small

Less than 10% of the world’s population speaks English as their primary language.  Less than 5% of the world lives in the United States.  Less than 2% of the world is Baptist.  Less than 1/100 of 1% of the world is a member of a CBF church.  I have spent most of my life in a good but tiny corner of the world.

A Malaysian saying argues that too many live with limited vision, “like frogs under coconut shells.”  Perhaps if, as J.B. Philips put it, “Your God is too small,” it is because our world is too small.  St. Augustine wrote, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Six months ago Carol and I went where 99% of the population is happy to speak Spanish in a country that is not the United States.  While serving as the Interim Pastor of Santiago Community Church, during a party at the manse (Anglican for parsonage) I said, “Carol is the only Baptist I have seen in several months.”

A Taiwanese woman replied, “I’m a Baptist.”

Sophia and Carol are the only Baptists I saw for several months.  The church we served had people from 23 nationalities and 18 denominations.

Carol and I hiked along the Pacific and in the Andes.  We saw sea lions, penguins, and a blow hole.  We ate pepinos, pastel de choclo, and Super Ocho candy bars.

We celebrated Chilean Independence Week and the country’s newest holiday, “Protestant Day.”  We were entertained by the Andes Highlanders dance team and a jazz tango trio.  At a Muslim Iftar I met a diplomat from Iraq whose wife left him in Paris—which he does not consider the most romantic city in the world.

Carol and I went salsa dancing, horseback riding, and to the 56th anniversary of a fire station that has a swimming pool.  We saw the world’s largest swimming pool—which is really big.  I visited two of Pablo Neruda’s three houses and read 2/3 of a book of his poetry without understanding why he won the Nobel Prize.

We enjoyed being in a country with pictures of Nobel Prize winning poets (Gabriela Mistral) on their money instead of Indian fighters (Andrew Jackson).  I was, for the first time, mistaken for an Australian.  When asked to bring something exotic from her home country, Carol took Dr Pepper.

We drank coffee with the Archbishop of Canterbury and learned to greet people with a holy kiss just like Paul said we should.  We shared church with people who climbed Kiliminjaro, ran with the bulls of Pamplona, and hitchhiked to South America from Wisconsin.  I led a Bible study that included a 27-year-old who has been to 41 countries and bull riding camp.  I worshipped with people who were shocked to meet someone who has only lived in one country.

We shared church with courageous people who became Christians as adults and had their lives changed.  God reinvented them.  My experience is that people who have seen the world tend to have a bigger view of God.  People who know only those like themselves begin to think God is like them.

Thomas Aquinas said, “I have seen thingsthatmake my writings like straw.”

Most preachers do not have to see much for that to be true for their preaching, so seeing the world helps.  The more we understand about how big God’s world is, the more we recognize that some things we ignore matter and some things we give a lot of attention to do not matter much.  When I studied the Pentecost story (different nations coming together in the Spirit) with young adults from Chile, Finland, Germany, El Salvador, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Jamaica, I was reminded that the church is about the Spirit bigger than we realize.

Ministers are tempted to focus on the success of the institution but the world need God.  We need to preach to ultimate concerns—love, joy and peace.  Churches need to speak of God who is bigger than we have been led to believe.

The kingdom of God does not extend as far as we can see.  The kingdom is far bigger.  When the trumpet sounds for the party to end all parties we are not going to recognize many of the people there.  Come that great homecoming parade, the processional will be filled with those who have nothing in common but the grace of God that invites us home.

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