“It was no accident you came to us, Paul,” declared a man sitting among others huddled around a dining room table. “God sent you.”

I was caught off-guard for the first time in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and discovering the USA didn’t cater quite like Europe for young people travelling on the cheap.

I had arrived in New York from London several weeks earlier on a Freddie Laker special with Dean, an Australian from Adelaide. We trekked the Appalachian Way in Virginia then descended to the Field of Lost Shoes, a Civil War battlefield famous for glutinous mud. After leaving Dean, shoes intact, I thumbed my way via Nashville to Chattanooga.

Youthful fatalism and the pursuit of good times wrote the travel policy then. I had no guide book or definite plan other than, at some point, to catch up with Michigan friends I’d met in Europe. But now, I was heading in the opposite direction, meandering into a rhythm of travelling for travel’s sake and attempting to navigate America’s free-world contradictions during the comparatively mellow reign of Jimmy Carter.

Youth hostels – the backpacker equivalent in those days – were few and far between, and mostly a vague, down-market approximation of European counterparts. Consequently, I often kipped in decrepit downtown hotel rooms or slept on freeway verges being serenaded by the roar of cargo-bearing behemoths (though most of these misadventures were yet to unfold).

I arrived in Chattanooga low on money with an Australian Building Society cheque the issuers had informed could be easily cashed overseas. A First National Bank of Tennessee teller discredited this global free-market notion, countering with a transaction divide requiring a fortnight to cross.

To fill in time and preserve existing funds, I hitched to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and trekked that part of the Appalachian Trail, first going south then heading north when realising this was the preferred route if you desired company. The latter I had acquired while climbing Clingmans Dome, the highest peak, to find the view obscured by mist and torrential rain. The companion proved unpredictable as well clambering over me one night to escape what he thought was a marauding bear. Presumably he intended I be the meal. Bear false-alarms had been common, though – Dean and I experienced a few. This alarmist was probably a squirrel. But I digress.

Two weeks later, a little poorer and a lot lighter, I returned to Chattanooga discovering the cheque still in financial Limbo. Apparently it had to go via head office then a major bank in New York, counter the earth’s spin to parley with Australia before returning reborn, doubtless taking an interest-bearing rest at each step along the way. Now, its estimated time of liberation was uncertain, but what to do?.

I sought a work-for-board sleeping arrangement.

I first tried the local Catholic Church. Could my Antipodean childhood faithfulness or mum’s generous tithing be reciprocated here, north of the equator, along the lines of a Christian version of referred karma? The priest addressed me in the mid-afternoon sun, but was aloof to spiritual affinity, national origins or our shared plight as outsiders, giving some credence to my theory that setting drives a religion’s character as much as anything. Perhaps he sensed I was too far lapsed.

By his standards though, here in the Deep South, my dilemma was probably at the low end of the homeless and helpless scale.

Tourist Information, meanwhile, suggested a nearby house of young Christians. Rumour had it they took in boarders on a quid-pro-quo basis. I traipsed to it, anticipating a diverse bonhomie of believers by convenience – something like the YMCA.

This is how I found myself in a Chattanooga dining room facing a group of strangers adopting Last Supper pose, and learning, after a dramatic pause, that I was here, not at the tourist centre girl’s urging, but because of God’s will.

The words echoed in my mind: “It’s no coincidence you came …God sent you.”

Had I stumbled into a cult? My feet shuffled. This was awkward, and alien. I needed lodgings, but not religious transformation. Having explained why I was here, I didn’t know what else to say. Silence hid scepticism. My white lie was to let the spokesman’s reasoning go unchallenged. I was the guest, with a metaphorical cap extended. But by saying nothing had I given hope of a possible conversion?

They offered iced tea, which is how Americans preferred this brew then. It tasted better than I imagined – refreshing in the Southern heat.

They seemed harmless enough, and travelling beggars couldn’t be choosers. This was a bustling city, not a remote wilderness far from rescue. I put faith in an ability to withstand religious overtures, and in trust borne on past experiences that revealed events usually turn out okay in the end.

While not accepting their invitation in any more than vague terms, silence and the fact I hadn’t hightailed out the door was enough conviction. I was escorted to a room in an elevated, detached extension, which I shared with two other recruits. One, about thirtyish, had abandoned his Jewish faith to join the group. The other roommate was around my age, early twenties, and from Minnesota: he’d rejected a hedonistic youth and family disputes in favour of Godly commitment and a more meaningful life. They were likeable – sincere.

I later discovered that similar Christian groups were emerging all around America; their common-ground being an informal structure, rejection of the religious status quo, and pessimism about America’s future. They were mostly young adults looking for somewhere else to belong. They simply called themselves Christians – to them, mainstream Churches had lost their way.

In exchange for board I washed dishes in the Deli restaurant where volunteers combined serving food with selling religion, chorusing as they waltzed among the tables: “Anyone who loves Jesus say, ‘I do’.” Those concurring replied in loud unison “I do!” to hoots of approval.

While casual in formation, there were rules and hierarchies. Gender demarcations were drawn along biblical lines, and if boy-met-girl it was God’s will. By that reasoning any attraction represented with the thought “I like you” must have God in the background pulling the strings.

Even though hierarchy decreed a submissive role for women it seemed to be the females that most promoted their subservience by reiterating it and supporting it with Biblical references about wives submitting to husbands ‘as if to the Lord’. Though, like any biblical maxim it could be counter-quoted if one chose to investigate further. In practical terms, however, these particular women were more routinely territorial and wary of an outsider’s potential to disrupt group harmony.

The first morning, at a loss as to what I should be doing, I sat on the back steps to roll a cigarette – a smoking variation little practiced in America; locals often thought, hopefully, it was marijuana. The woman, who had dutifully followed her idea of ‘God’s will’ by washing my clothes, commented on my colourful jockettes then retreated to the laundry.

I extracted a pinch of tobacco from a tin of Prince Albert, lined the paper and lit up. A young girl, the woman’s child, recoiled and screeched as if a gun had been drawn.

“Look, mom! Look what he’s doing!”

The woman emerged to address her concern.

“He’s only smoking a cigarette,” she said, as way of calming her child.

“But, we’re not supposed to.”

It seemed the weed was evil even when it wasn’t weed.

“We’re not supposed to, but Paul can.”

Her tone of voice suggested only lesser beings would, subtly highlighting my status as an outsider yet to conform or pass religious muster. After a few self-conscious puffs I butted out.

The multicoloured undies were more acceptable, however, if unconventional.

Of course, nowadays smokers are pariahs all over the western world. As for myself, I was more of a travelling one by then, and eventually kicked the habit.

Later, God told the married women to promote boy-meets-girl. I was escorted into a lounge room where a stereo played to a cadre of new recruits. A girl from Virginia sat on a couch looking pretty and self-conscious. I was attracted to her. Was that God’s will too? If so, He couldn’t jolt me out of shy inaction or wariness about possible outcomes and the human manipulation behind them. Perhaps He inspired my cautiousness. In that case, who’s God was right? I danced clumsily with one of the women, at her prompting – I wasn’t exactly doing the Chattanooga Cha Cha. As a bonding exercise it failed to bear fruit.

I never saw the Virginian girl again, but I didn’t take it personally – she probably had better accommodation options.

The days mostly passed uneventfully, however. Maybe they went easy on me so as not to discourage commitment, but I never gained the impression anyone did hard labour. If you could embrace the doctrine and tolerate the lack of privacy it would probably be a cosy life. In some ways, proving the advantages of cooperative arrangements?

While ‘working’ on a house one day, the labour consisted of standing around exercising tongues. An African-American member revealed he went to Australia while in the Navy, but had been afraid to leave the ship. Perhaps reports about the White Australia Policy deterred him. I felt it would have been a lot more welcoming than whatever he was imagining. Places are rarely what we expect; good or bad.

I briefly met the group’s spiritual head honcho and founder: a lanky, thirty-something man, with longish hair and a large moustache, wearing jeans, looking part hippy and part porn star. He shook my hand and revealed he’d been a used car salesman, or some such thing, before discovering God, and repeated the religious pre-deterministic theme about chance having nothing to do with my attendance.

The belief in God’s will was also part of my Catholic upbringing so it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. That wasn’t preached with the same ritual enthusiasm as what I encountered here, but I wondered if, on a subconscious level at least, it was partly responsible for fatalism, including mine. What point is there doing anything if the outcome has already been determined? Could it be God’s will to do nothing waiting for God to enforce His will? Would that immobility lead to inward exploration and discovery, and an equally valid use of a life? Then again, doesn’t the Devil make use of idle hands?

Though, arguably, outcomes are predetermined by environmental fortune and biological whim. We’re evolution’s puppet as much as anything. What’s its driving force? Desire? Curiosity? Any answer simply raises another question and so on, into forever. Attributing everything to a Creator saves endless soul-searching and hurts the brain less.

One Sunday there was a group excursion to another Christian community in a nearby town for a lakeside BBQ lunch. While partaking of that, a portentous thunderstorm sent us inside the Christians’ house, which became a segue for their leader to preach scripture, rousing congregational emotions till, at the end, everyone sang with hands raised high declaring dedication to Jesus, and praising the Lord as they danced in the middle of the room.

With us was another newcomer to our group. He joined in. I stood back. I felt the pressure to conform, but I didn’t believe. I couldn’t cross that divide.

Eventually, back in Chat, feeling a pressing need to escape group confines, I announced the cheque would’ve cleared by now, and that I had to continue my journey. Ideally, I would’ve checked the cheque had completed its metamorphosis, but I wanted an excuse to check out of here.

“Maybe you’ll open a Deli in Australia”, one women proposed optimistically.

The African-American member offered different encouragement: “I hope you have a really bad time out there, Paul, because then you’ll have to come back to us.”

To them ‘out there’ was the world of Satan.

I hadn’t anticipated exit plans to be entirely awkward-free.

That evening, the younger fellow sharing my room, and an associate, acted as emissaries, sat me and the newly-arrived guy down to tea and quiche and, using the application of subtle guilt, made more effective because they were likeable people, tried to persuade us to stay.

The new guy had already committed and just confirmed it here. Perhaps he was part of the persuasion. Silence was my usual way of disagreeing without causing offence or getting into an unwinnable argument. It was also a way of coping with the dilemma – to grin and bear. It probably also made it harder for them to nail me. But I reiterated here what I’d tried to emphasise since first arriving so there would be no surprises come departure time – only needing somewhere to work for board until my money comes through, thank you.

Next morning, brimming with financial expectancy, I donned the backpack and retraced steps to the First National Bank of Tennessee. Unfortunately, the teller, in not quite the same words, revealed the cheque was still a money-change navigating the tyranny of distant hemispheres held captive by angels of fortune gearing up for Reaganomics and the rise of the Neo Cons.

I stood on the corner outside the bank contemplating next moves. At times like this the idea of a world beyond America seemed a vague concept. Returning to the Christian house was not on – it would confirm their suspicions about the outside world, which in their thinking was America too. Images flashed in my mind of their conclusions about God’s will. It would be much harder to leave the second time.

There were few options. Well, there was only one really – the Chattanooga Baptist Union Gospel Mission; a nearby hostel for homeless men I’d noticed during previous wanderings that I imagined would be like the Salvation Army in Australia. I made my way to it.

The man at reception gave me an entry card to complete.

“Tell me, Paul,” he asked with slow deliberation, looking up while processing my admission, “Have you been saved?”

For the second time I was caught off guard.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I was brought up a Catholic,” I offered, hoping that would qualify.

He took that as a ‘no’.

I had unwittingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire and brimstone.

Their lodgings of a large room crammed with rows of double bunks made the Salvos in Australia look like the Hilton. In return for a bed, an evening meal and breakfast, I would have to attend a religious service each evening at 5.00pm, but had to vacate during the day.

So, I got my bunk, settled in among the drunks, the worse for wear, the assorted down and outs, and the coughs and wheezing, and waited for the free-market love affair with my cheque to end.

Companionship wasn’t part of the Mission deal. Most people kept a low profile, establishing a routine of ‘attend service, eat meal, go to bed’, and somewhere along the line have a shower. Everyone seemed too depressed by their state of affairs to express much in the way of enthusiasm. One tried to beg money off me in the street once and became angry at my refusal, presumably not recognising me as a fellow resident.

Dotted around downtown were clinics spruiking their desire to buy my blood. I accepted the offer from one such franchise, and during the daily exile I hocked my precious plasma. Plasma is the liquid carrying the blood cells, and has many medical uses. The process was a two hour ordeal that required them extracting your blood, separating the plasma and returning the rest while you reclined in a bare vinyl chair watching daytime television. The advantage, as opposed to a normal blood donation, was that this could be done twice a week, and on the fourth visit you received a bonus (if all were completed within a fortnight). Payment was only a few dollars a time, but it provided lunch in one of the town’s characterless cafeterias.

This blood-sourcing method left something to be desired, however, because it invariably attracted the least healthy participants, some of whom, like me, came from the Mission. On the positive side, I discovered my blood type (which is negative, if you know what I mean).

Chattanooga was typical of many American cities at the time …a nondescript skyline, a run-down city centre vacated by the middle classes, numbered street names, a lack of green spaces, and footpaths invariably making way for cars and drive-in franchises, and cheap, sweet, weak beer sold in dimly lit bars devoid of decoration.

In a land preaching individuality it was surprising how much conformity resulted. There was often something communistic about the capitalism.

Though, it’s fair to stress that my method of travel influenced what I experienced. It exposed me to more of America’s worst.

Among the harshness, however, also resided an individual generosity of spirit. Like an unofficial socialism, a support mechanism. While hitchhiking, for instance, if I had to wait longer than ten minutes for a lift I was probably on the wrong side of the road. And people were often quick to share a drink or offer a place to stay. While Europe was easier to navigate, American’s were friendlier and more giving.

America’s better side would reveal itself, but economic disadvantage, along with turbulent factors pertinent to its formation as a nation gave birth to behavioural extremes and here in downtown Chattanooga I witnessed a result – people often found themselves alone with the only support having a religious catch.

To pass the time of day, I visited the local library and read the early period of Carlos Castaneda. An interesting enterprise – his books were written as anthropology but can also be variously found under fiction, non-fiction, religion, philosophy, cosmology and even travel.

His accounts probably contain kernels of truth, but if they are fictional I don’t know why Castaneda didn’t declare them as that. His writing works as enjoyable storytelling, and his primary character, Don Juan, could’ve potentially been one of the greats of fiction.

Don Juan also believed in omens and spiritual intervention. Though, his philosophy had more in common with Buddhism and existentialism than religious fundamentalism. Carlos, however, started to lose his plot by about book five.

In the travel section, though, I did stumble on an obscure book written by an American woman touring Australia who had as many prejudices about Down Under as I was acquiring about Up Here.

Outside in the summery light of day, meanwhile, I discovered the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo had been converted into a hotel permanently moored at a disused, but beautiful railway station; I ambled and dreamed about what I would do when the cheque finally had its material conversion into cold hard cash; and I left my camera on a park bench…though in retrospect it might’ve been stolen (a story about a joint-offering local).

Then I became ill …though not bedridden …it was a stomach that rumbled and groaned and fluttered like a heart with defribillation, a gastric orchestra playing a never-ending symphony with obvious crescendos. I blamed the Mission powdered eggs. But who knows? It may have been my sympathetic nervous system. Whatever, I had bitten off more than I could Chattanooga Choo Choo.

Once, while we all stood around outside the Mission waiting to be allowed back in, I discovered the new-guy from the Christian house was now a resident. He’d decided the other mob wasn’t for him after all. He was more of a lost spirit than any of them and of flighty nature, easily drawn in by emotional enticements, including those offering salvation, but like any of us a product of the evolutionary hand dealt.

The Gospel Mission sermons were delivered with evangelistic flair and varying degrees of sincerity. At the end of each service those attending were urged to reject Satan, repent, open up their hearts and come forward to accept “the Lord Jesus Christ as your one true saviour”. I sat at the rear trying to be incognito, but as the most suitable looking save-ee my presence shone like a beacon. Invariably a preacher or side-kick would sidle up and test my resolve.

Occasionally a down-and-out would go forth, but mission residents were mostly indifferent. Perhaps they had already been saved. Could you be saved more than once? I assumed you could do it as many times as you liked, but according to Union Gospel logic if you didn’t do it at least once Heaven wouldn’t help you.

“What about people in China?” I asked a youthful preacher who was particularly concerned for my soul. But ignorance offered no reprieve when it came to infinite damnation. His eyes welled red – he worried I’d spend an eternity in Hell. I tensed, caught between the devil and his deep blue sea, feeling sympathy for his concern, but trying not to be pressured by it.

On occasions I did question myself: what if these people, the Christian group, the Mission preachers, what if they were right? What if ‘outside’ was the devil’s realm? Satan’s big party trick is to make you deny his existence, apparently, and if he is real, is he more than just a very naughty boy? Then again, maybe Hell is just being poor in a world of bounty.

While being un-saved was no obstacle to Gospel Mission admission, there was a limit to the number of days anyone could stay, so ultimately I had to transfer to a smaller branch a few streets away.

Finally, eventually, after a month, the whirling wheel of foreign exchange paused and stopped to spit out a cheque reborn as crisp dollar bills. That was worth several Halleluiahs! I looked forward to the Florida Keys.

To celebrate, I spent a night of relative luxury in an unexceptional motel room.

Next morning I took a local bus to Route 75 and, with a rumble in my tummy, thrust out a thumb and soon caught a ride with a car full of young people en route to Atlanta.

We exchanged pleasantries and hadn’t travelled far when the passenger sitting beside me leaned across and inquired with casual deliberation: “Tell me, Paul …have you been saved?”



Recently, I read a Fairfax newspaper article about a couple that were caught up in a religious cult outside Sydney set up by a Christian group from Chattanooga. There was a photo of their leader who looked how I remembered; though he wasn’t a used car salesman (perhaps that was one of the mission preachers). I don’t recall mention of twelve tribes, as described in the article, but it could very well have been mentioned in the course of conversation. On the balance of probability, and other things reported, it is the same group. Though, perhaps I was there during a more moderate stage of their evolution.

I still feel the effects of ‘Tennessee Tummy’.