The Ozarks – A Missionary Field for Catholics

A Eucharistic Procession in Springfield, Missouri — Photo Credit: J.B. Kelly

The Ozarks are a small mountain outcropping that extends west of the Mississippi River. They are, in actuality, a westward extension of the southern Appalachian Mountain chain, though much smaller, and the last mountains one will see before entering the Great Plains of North America. The majority of these mountains can be found in Southern Missouri, with a small band stretching over into Northern Arkansas and the foothills extended into Eastern Oklahoma. The area is mostly wooded with oak, hickory, pines, cedar and walnut trees. Many rivers and streams flow through the Ozarks, with more than a few lakes, both natural and man-made. Human settlements are generally small, with just a handful of midsize cities (such as Joplin, Springfield, Springdale and Fayetteville). Most of the settlements in this region are small towns, with populations well under twenty-thousand and most under ten-thousand.

Personally, I liken this area to “The Shire” from the J.R. Tolkein’s epic mythology of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” The land is beautiful, quaint and wholesome. The people are simple and locally minded. And please don’t take this in an offensive way, because it’s not meant to be derogatory, but some of them even look a little like hobbits. Picture a short man, with rolled up bluejeans, bare feet, long-sleeve shirt and smoking a pipe while rocking a chair on his front porch. That scene could appear anywhere in The Shire of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or in the Ozarks.

The culture of the Ozarks is a mix of Midwestern and Southern, and this is reflected in the area’s heavy emphasis on religion, patriotism and local community. It’s the religion that I want to focus on here, because most of the religion in the area is Evangelical Protestant, consisting primarily of Baptist, Methodist and the Assemblies of God (which is Trinitarian Pentecostalism). While there are Catholics in the region, they amount to under 6% of the total population. As for the overwhelming vast majority of Evangelical Protestants in the region, it’s not that they harbor any latent anti-Catholicism. They don’t. Rather, they see Catholics as a curiosity and an oddity they really have no knowledge of. That’s the result of overwhelming Evangelicalism which has existed here for so long. The culture itself is overwhelmingly Evangelical. It’s so profoundly Evangelical that popular knowledge of anything outside Evangelicalism is scarce.

Ozarkians are much more likely to see Catholics like the Amish (there is a fairly large community of Amish in this region). They see us as strange and different. This might lead some Catholics to suspect a strong anti-Catholic bias in the region. Not so! Just as the local Evangelicals seem to harbor no feelings of resentment or fear toward the Amish (anti-Amishism), so they don’t seem to have any resentment or fear toward Catholics either (anti-Catholicism). Catholics, like the Amish, are just viewed as “different” and “a little weird.” That’s about it. They don’t see us as a threat. I guess what I’m saying is this. Ozarkians have been Evangelical for so long, with almost no outside influence, that they’ve literally forgotten the latent anti-Catholic tendencies of historic and fundamental Protestantism. Not only are they unaware of their anti-Catholic heritage, but they couldn’t care less. It’s generally irrelevant to them, and of little interest. Oh sure, if you search long and hard enough, you will find some good ol’ fashioned anti-Catholics in the region, but they are the exception to the norm now. Truth be told, I encountered far more anti-Catholicism when I lived in Southern California than I ever have in the Ozarks. Upon telling the locals that I am Catholic, I’m more likely to be greeted with questions of curiosity, rather than false accusations of idolatry.

That’s what leads me to the title of this essay. The Ozarks are a prime missionary field for Catholics. By that I mean the locals have already been primed with basic Christianity, the kernel of the gospel message. As Catholics, we only need to fill in the blanks, and give them the missing pieces to their Christian faith. I’m not talking about “coming on strong” and ramming our faith down their throats. Heaven forbid! I’m talking about just coming to live here, among them, and let our faith shine forth in a visible way, for them to look into, if interested. I find that whenever a traditional and conservative expression of Catholicism avails itself to the locals, the locals immediately become more interested. Every time there is a traditional Eucharistic procession in Springfield (which doesn’t happen that often), it’s followed by a glut of new converts to RCIA. Traditional expressions of Catholicism work well here; the locals are profoundly attracted to it. Even if just to gawk, their curiosity usually gets the best of them eventually. Thus, the area in and around Springfield, Missouri, is probably one of the most primed and ready for Catholic evangelization. That means if you want to give your Catholic faith some fresh, new vigor, a move to the Springfield area of Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains, just might be exactly what you need.

Moving into missionary territory is not for those looking to receive. It’s for those looking to give. By that I don’t mean giving in the sense of sitting on parish councils and directing church affairs. Though these things might be part of that, they should not be one’s primary interest or concern. Rather, the primary interest and concern, of any Catholic missionary, should be one of living the Catholic faith as a witness to his neighbors, co-workers and community. Being Catholic, profoundly Catholic, and sharing the joy of that with others, in a joyful way, is what Catholic missionary work is all about. If that sounds like something right for you, then God may be calling you to the Ozarks.

As I said above, the culture is already primed to receive the full gospel from the Catholic Church. Everywhere one goes in the Ozarks, one will see billboards with Scripture passages, large cross monuments, and sometimes even statues of Jesus Christ and Biblical Saints. Even the local theme park, Silver Dollar City, has Scripture passages scattered in every corner, along with beautiful Christian pageantry at Christmas time. Local entertainment shows, in Branson, often include short tributes to God and country as the epilogue to every performance. What I’m saying here is this. If you move to the Ozarks, and you raise a family here, your children will constantly be exposed to basic Christian culture throughout their entire childhood. It’s not full Catholic culture. It’s basic and incomplete, but can you honestly tell me where they would get a culture any better in the United States? Moving to the Ozarks, as a missionary Catholic family, will ensure your children get plenty of Bible basics in the culture around them, while giving both them (and you) an opportunity to offer the locals a more “Complete Christianity” than anything they currently have — the full and complete Catholic Faith. Are you ready to share your Catholicism?

For Catholics who are not too particular about liturgical form or reverence, one can easily find a Catholic parish just about anywhere in the Ozarks. Any town of reasonable size will have one. The four midsize cities will have a small handful. Springfield, Missouri, probably has the most. Also in Springfield, one can easily find two traditional and reverent Catholic parishes just outside of Springfield city limits, in the suburbs of Ozark and Republic. So if reverent Catholic worship is important to you, there are two solid places that are well within 30 minutes of the entire Springfield metro area. These can both be found on the Reverent Catholic Mass Website and Map. They are St Joseph the Worker in the City of Ozark, which features a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) using the 1962 Missal, and St George in the City of Republic, which uses the Divine Worship Mass. Both parishes utilize ad orientem liturgical orientation and serve communion on the tongue while kneeling. St Joseph the Worker, a local diocesan parish, offers both the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) and the regular Mass (Novus Ordo Mass or NOM). St George offers the Divine Worship Mass (DWM) exclusively, and is part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. Both parishes are the only parishes in their respective towns, and they will remain the only Catholic presence there. So the entire town, and surrounding area, are their exclusive missionary domain. Think about that! We’re talking about a huge missionary field here.

There is another factor to consider, which I have witnessed over the near 30 years since moving into this region from Southern California back in 1993. While Evangelical religion plays a huge role here, both in the lives and culture of local Ozarkians, it doesn’t change the fact that Evangelicalism is woefully inept at dealing with the problems of the modern world. It’s a religion that runs a mile wide, but only about an inch deep. The locals are primed with basic Christianity, but many of them do not have the tools they need to cope as the region grows and modernizes. More times than I can count, I have witnessed what I’ve come to call “Baptist Burnout” which is not just limited to Baptists. Any Evangelical is susceptible to it. It comes from a simple faith, that is incomplete, and doesn’t have much in the way of personal devotion outside of Bible study. Christian music and Bible study will only get you so far in dealing with the evils of this modern world and the problems associated with modernization. We Catholics have much more at our disposal, most principally the Eucharist, as well as the other sacraments, the liturgy and deep private devotions, such as the Rosary. All of these give us a much deeper pool of grace to draw upon in the despairs of our modern world, and it is something foreign to most Ozarkians. Thus, they burnout easily when put under these trials, and in recent years, I’ve been seeing more and more of it.

What does Baptist Burnout look like? Think of an Evangelical Christian (like a Baptist for example) who no longer goes to church. He may read his Bible at home. He may pray a little at home. He may even sing a hymn or two, at home, but that’s it. He doesn’t go to church anymore. He doesn’t practice his faith publicly. He basically hides it in his home, only occasionally declaring himself a Christian to others, and in many cases having lost the joy of his Christian faith. That’s Baptist Burnout. These are the people who need the full gospel of Complete Christianity — the Catholic Faith. They need it more than anyone else, lest their burnout eventually leads them into Secularism, Agnosticism or worse. They need a strong Catholic witness. Are you one who can help?

As I said above, I moved to the Ozarks in 1993. Having been born and raised in Los Angeles County, this was a massive change of life for me. It’s one I have come to appreciate. Living in the Ozarks is glorious! I don’t say that because it’s perfect. It’s not. I say that because I am far away from any major city, and all the problems that come with that. When major American cities were burning during the BLM riots of 2020, my family was safe and comfortable in The Shire of the Ozarks. We don’t worry about riots here, or civil unrest, or rampant crime. We don’t have COVID lockdowns here, and businesses pretty much carry on as normal during a pandemic. I am able to homeschool my children, without state interference, and conceal a gun in public without a permit. All of this is legal and constitutional in Missouri. It’s a way of life that most Americans have forgotten about. When most major cities were in lockdown, my family and I were hiking nature trails and kayaking rivers. When most major cities were in the throes of rioting, my family was shopping and carrying on as usual in our local town. If yours is a practical Catholic family that takes the faith seriously, and you want to share that faith with other Christians who need it, then moving to the Ozarks might be a solution. The only advice I’ll give you is this. Practice your faith seriously, share it joyfully, and take the time to learn the local culture before doing anything that might change it (that includes voting). Remember, the Catholic Church teaches inculturation not colonization. We inculturate (adapt to and absorb from) the local culture. We don’t steamroll it to replace it with our own. I kind of like my little piece of The Shire. I wouldn’t want to see it disappear. If you join me here, I think you might feel the same way.