Growing up on a farm in a part of Florida that’s more 4×4, college football and Sunday church than it is poolside cabanas or theme parks, I have a deep appreciation for the small-town and rural South. I love the people, I love the culture, and I love the food. It’s almost impossible for me not to turn into a roadside boiled peanut stand, or an off-the-beaten-path barbecue joint, when I drive country roads. After living for years in places like Miami, New York, Vancouver, Houston, and DC, I had the opportunity to move my family back to the general area where I grew up. I direct things all over the country, so I can kind of live anywhere there’s an accessible airport. I figure, I might as well live in a place I love. It’s a great place for my kids, especially because they get to spend plenty of time on the farm with my mom and dad. And it’s a wonderful place to come home to after I’ve been on the road shooting a long project.
The drive from my home to my parents’ place, which was my home as a kid, is about 30 miles. It takes me down country roads through the middle of a swampy state forest where I did a lot of camping and canoeing as a teenager. It also goes through a couple of tiny little towns — you know the kind — a convenience store or two, a small engine repair place, a bait shop, and several churches. I know the road well, because it was one of two ways to the beach when I was a kid.
I passed by New Hope a hundred times before I got the opportunity to stop. Not that I didn’t want to. It’s just that the only reason for me to drive that road these days is to go to my parents’ house. I almost always have the kids with me, and we’re almost always going for dinner, or coming home after. Not good to show up to Grandma’s house for her home-cooked meal after you’ve filled up at the barbecue joint. And the barbecue, like many small barbecues, is only open a couple days a week. So I wanted to stop, but I didn’t get the chance for a long time.
At first, I wasn’t sure whether the barbecue was connected to the church. The smoke shack is under a big tree on the far end of a dirt parking lot that I now know is church property. But from the road, without the signage Scotty recently put up, you could have easily thought it was just near the church, not connected to it. That is, unless you stopped and talked to Scotty, of course. Driving past so many times, and wanting to stop, but not being able to, I began to write a narrative in my head about this guy out there with the barbecue shack under the tree.
“I bet he’s got good ribs,” I’d say to myself. “It’s always those guys in the parking lots who make the best ribs.”
“You know what?” I’d ramble on in my head, “I bet that barbecue supports that church. Probably a tiny little congregation that can’t raise a lot of money. I bet they’re selling barbecue to help out. And you know what else? I betcha that guy out there cooking is the Preacher. And…wait a minute…wasn’t that church on the other side of the road a long time ago?”
I finally got frustrated just driving by, so one day when I had a little free time around lunch, I made a special trip, just for a rib sandwich. I came away with a lot more than that. Scotty’s food is about as good as I’ve ever had — and I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue. In true barbecue-man fashion, he won’t talk in detail about his recipes or his cooking techniques. But he will talk with you about life, and faith, and God, and how the New Hope Barbecue came to be. And as it turns out, every part of the narrative I’d heard in my own head is true. Now, you might say that an observant person with some knowledge of rural Southern culture might come to the same narrative I did without ever stopping the truck — and you’d be right. And the notion of a church running a side business to help raise money isn’t anything unusual, really. But this was different, and I knew it right away.
Conversation with Scotty flows freely from subject to subject. One minute, he can be discussing the ongoing theological arguments over some point of Christian doctrine, the next minute he’s segued into the practical matters of being a country preacher with a small congregation, or the struggles facing all small churches in America. The very next minute he’s warning you not to cut your marinating short — especially with pork butts. That takes time.
If you buy some barbecue, you’ll pick it up in the kitchen in the back of the church building, where it’s been kept at optimal warming temperature since it came off the smoker. They follow the state health codes to the letter at New Hope. In the kitchen, you’ll meet Mattie, Scotty’s mom, the church’s Sunday School teacher, and maker of some of the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever tasted. Like Scotty, Mattie is tight-lipped when it comes to her recipes. But she showers anyone who enters the door with blessings, praise, thanks, and kind words. For most people, the food, plus interaction with either Scotty or Mattie, is enough to get you back. The more I talked with Scotty and Mattie, and the more people connected with New Hope I met, the more I realized I had to make a film.
The people of New Hope are genuine, they’re characters on film with true character in life. To a person, they are driven by the kind of unwavering faith you simply do not see every day. I was raised going to church on Sunday. I go to church now. And while my parents and both grandmothers worked hard to instill faith in me, for some reason it didn’t take root the way they hoped. Even now, as a Christian, I struggle with faith. But my experience making this little short documentary showed me how powerful strong faith can be in those who maintain it. It made me want to find ways to strengthen my own faith. But as Scotty will tell you, emphatically, over and over, and over again….faith without works…does no good. At New Hope, though, that’s not a problem. I’ve never in my life seen a group of people who all work so hard — in concert — for what many of us might see as a small reward. They work hard because they believe unfailingly in their mission, and in their church. They work hard because they have faith that it will do some good.
It’s just a short little documentary, still work in progress. I hope it’s entertaining. I think it will be, because the people I put on camera certainly are entertaining. They’re a bit quirky, how they seamlessly blend themes of God and community and Spirit with a deep knowledge and appreciation for meat on a smoker. Their energy is infectious. Their work ethic is admirable, and their faith is certainly strong. On top of all that, they’re fun to be around. I’m thankful — to them, and to God — that I got the opportunity to know them, and introduce them to you.