National Geographic : 2001 Sep
DAYTON, TENNESSEE It was Thursday night in Dayton, Tennessee, and from the McDonald's on Highway 27 you could hear the sound of gospel music floating high above the Golden Arches. It was fast food for the soul-a mix of Big Macs and hymns like "Hillbilly Heaven" and "Have a Little Talk With Jesus." Among the gathered was Marcella Harris, who used to be a honky-tonk singer but changed her tune and was saved. And Henry Harris (no relation), who answered the call 25 years ago when he was running a bulldozer in a gravel pit and heard the voice of the Lord in the sound of the machine's gears. The McDonald's gospel sing has been going for two years and is so popular that, word has it, Wendy's is about to start one too. "There's also one at the Hardee's in Soddy-Daisy," a town 20 minutes down the road, Anna Kyle informed me. A tiny woman with a mass of golden curls, Kyle acts as unofficial hostess for the big sing. "Hardee's holds theirs the same night as ours," she added. She did not look pleased. In Dayton you can spend practically every night worshiping: the Wednesday night prayer meeting, the gospel sing on Thursday, a Friday night "Jesus Jam" (Jesus is an "awesome dude," one teen explained), and a performance by the Dayton Christian Ballet on Saturday. To the question "Why are folks in Dayton so passionately religious?" Daytonians would answer: "Why is everyone else not?" There are places to live, and there are communities. Dayton is a community. It's a town where generosity is a given, whether in the form of a casserole or a grant for a local college, a place where kids grow up without the threat of drive-by shootings. It is founded on the rock-hard conviction that the world-not to mention Dayton, Tennessee-runs by the grace of God. This is Bible Belt country. The defining question is not "What do you do?" but "What church do you belong to?" Dayton is the county seat of Rhea (pronounced RAY) County, where there are some 130 churches for BIGGEST EMPLOYER: La-Z-Boy CLAIM TO FAME: 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial NUMBER OF BIBLES IN HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY: 11 COPIES OF DARWIN'S ORIGIN OF SPECIES: 0 FAVORITE FARE AT DAYTON COFFEE SHOPPE: Chicken-n-dumplings; 1,800 servings sold each month BAD DAY TO EAT THERE: Saturday: cook's day off "We sing praises to a great God and Savior," says 81-year-old Tommy Burdett (center) of the Thursday night McDon ald's Singers. "So far we haven't had any complaints."