[I was a North Carolina travel writer and restaurant critic in 2005 when the well-intentioned “Hearts on Fire” conference came to our local Methodist conference center, and my quaint mountain community was inundated with nutjobs and TV news crews–not always distinguishable. I submitted this rant instead of my usual pieces, and a columnist was born. How far have we come since then? Sigh.]
Like many Haywood County residents, I’ve been amazed by all the hubbub surrounding the “Hearts on Fire” conference to be held at Lake Junaluska this Labor Day Weekend. For those of you who have been vacationing outside of the English-speaking world, let’s recap:
There’s a group called the Reconciling Ministries Network, whose goal is “to enable full participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the life of the United Methodist Church.” I don’t know that much about it. (I’m also not sure what a “gender identity” is except that, if it involves a Gender Identification Card, that would have to be the most embarrassing card in anyone’s wallet. Particularly if it is a photo ID.)
I guess this group figures that God’s love is available to everybody. And so they’re going to have a conference–with the unimaginative and dorky name “Hearts on Fire”–to share ideas and plans and whatnot.
As a sometime journalist, I am not at all interested this conference. After all, I doubt they’ll be getting intimate in the rose garden or anything. Quite to the contrary, I expect it will be like the same old boring conferences that everybody else attends, where nearly-comatose participants watch Power Point presentations and play distractedly with their free, cheapo pen embossed with the logo of the conference.
No, what I find fascinating is all the fuss and rumor-mongering that have happened since the announcement of this conference. From what I’ve heard, a group of neo-conservative Baptists is going to have some kind of “God Hates Homos” tent revival. My mom’s Sunday school class swears that Jerry Falwell is coming to town. (There’s nothing like a televagelist to get the party started!) Apparently the KKK is coming, too. Look for them under the “God Loves Only White Protestant Heterosexuals” sign.
If the Klan is coming, we can also expect the ACLU to make a showing. (Their original sign was going to read: “God Loves Whomever You Think God Loves, Unless You Don’t Believe In God, In Which Case Never Mind.” However, that was too long and also unfair to agnostics, pantheists and deists, so instead they decided to go with: “Whatever! And We Mean That Very Strongly!!”)
I know what you’re thinking: Traffic is going to be horrible. And you’re right. But let’s not dwell on the negatives, here. This could be a real tourism cash cow. Consider it.
- We are in the downtime between summer vacation and leaf season.
- There are a lot of empty Bed & Breakfasts around.
- National news exposure boosts tourism.
- Tourism equals revenue.
It’s been a while since we made Good Morning America. (First because a local church declared Jesus a member of the GOP, and then because three ambitious do-it-yourselfers opened up a human castration business. I swear, America, most of the time our idea of excitement tops out around “Blue Grass and Wild Onion Festival.”) I had hoped that this area’s beauty, history, and vibrant arts scene would be the sources of any national attention. But no. So, if media coverage is going to belong only to all of these highly-excitable, spittle-emitting factions—who are going to surround the site of an otherwise nondescript conference—let’s ban together as a community and milk the situation for all its worth.
First, I think we should notify as many radical groups as we can that there’s going to be a major publicity op just waiting for them here. PETA could come sling red paint during the tent revival’s Fiery Pit Barbecue Lunch (featuring sauces ranging from “Meek & Mild” to “Sodom & Gomorra Hellfire”). The NAACP could shout Maya Angelou quotes at the KKK through megaphones. Greenpeace volunteers could teach everybody how to compost those rotten tomatoes once they’ve finished lobbing them at each other. Maybe Pat Robertson could bring a Holy Sniper Squad and try to “take out” the leaders of each of the factions.
Clearly, this type of circus is going to bring in all sorts of spectators.
Next, we organize our amenities. We could draw up a brochure for local lodging. The trick here is to make sure that members of warring factions don’t end up at the same hotel, otherwise they’ll be slinging croissants at each other across the dining area, and that will just get messy. So for the sake of harmony, we could designate lodging for each group. We will use a series of slogans appealing to separate group. Something like: “A Restful Spot for the Anarchist on a Tight Budget,” or “Ask about our Snake Handlers’ Special!”
And after a hard day of yelling hate slogans, nothing soothes the throat like a good hot meal. Granny’s Chicken Palace (adjacent to the conference grounds) is, of course, in a prime location, but they have limited seating and, besides, the PETA people will boycott, so that opens the field to some other eateries. Again, it’s all in the marketing:
“Voted Best Free-Range Falafel in Maggie Valley!”
“Our Breadsticks are ALWAYS Straight!”
“Goose-Step in for Savings! 10% off when you show your swastika tattoo!”
Finally, we issue a series of souvenirs to try to capture the moment. Plastic ponchos are a given, what with all the paint and rotten tomatoes and organic lentils that everyone will be throwing. Bobble-head televagelists that attach to the dashboard would be neat, and we could expand the line to include statuettes of Barbra Streisand, Rush Limbaugh and Louis Farrakhan. Put me down for one RuPaul.
We might also consider having some T-shirts printed up: “WNC: Wackos Name-Calling.” Or “I Went to Lake Junaluska and all I got was a Black Eye, a Tract on Avoiding Eternal Damnation (illustrated), and a Cheap Pen with a Stupid Slogan on It. However, the Bed & Breakfast was Excellent.”
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Angela Dove is an award-winning humor columnist and author of the true crime memoir No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin 2009, available in print and electronic formats). She’s almost done with her second book, so of course you can find her procrastinating on Twitter and Facebook.