When LivingStone Church held its first service at the 1930s art deco Wayne Theatre in Corydon, Iowa, it was an appropriate locale for Joe Dowdy. He is a dead ringer for actor Edward Norton. Joe even sounds like the main character from the cult hit Fight Club.
The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. In contrast, LivingStone’s goal is to spread the word.
Joe and his wife Becca are originally from the Fort Worth area, before he served as a Baptist minister for seven years in a small Texas town. But his longest tenure as pastor was not in the United States.
“Really, I think we would characterize ourselves as adventurists,” Joe said. “We’re glad to be here in Iowa, because it’s a new adventure.
“The Theatre Board has been great to work with—they’re excited to have a new tenant. The cool thing about the Theatre is it’s got a great vibe. It’s new, it’s different.”
“But there’s no popcorn,” Becca lamented.
In 2006, the spirit led the Dowdy family 5,552 miles from their home. At the time, Joe was a minister in Frost, Texas, a town about a third of the size of Corydon, population 1,500.
“We know what culture shock is,” Joe said. “We know what it’s like to move to a place where people think differently than you do.”
The move from metropolitan Fort Worth to Frost was their first experience with culture shock.
“When we went to Poland, we thought, ‘hey, we’re going to change this place,’” Joe said. “But we were changed more by the people we met and by the culture. It shaped us. Our perspective on life was deconstructed and put back together. It brought a humility, for sure.”
“When we do move to a new place, we’re all in,” Becca said. “When we went to Poland, we wanted to learn the language, the culture and the people. We didn’t go there to hang out with Americans. We hung out with Poles.
“We want to learn the culture here [in Iowa], because it is different. We want to know the people and be part of the community. That’s how we live.
“Our 20-year-old son was recently talking about cultural IQ. I feel like because of what we’ve been exposed to, our experiences have shaped our perspective—we don’t say, ‘this is wrong.’ We say, ‘this is different.’”
“A guy from the north Texas area said he thought Iowa is the hidden gem in America,” Joe said. “And Poland is the same thing in eastern Europe. Kraków is just a diamond.”
The area is certainly an odd combination of beauty and ugliness. While considered the cultural capital of Poland and a Catholic stronghold even under Communist oppression, many travelers visit the ruins of the concentration camp at Auschwitz every year, and when they do, they stay 30 miles away in Kraków.
The locals consider their home the gastronomic center of Europe, in lieu of the usual suspects such as France.
But the ugliness. For a moment in history, Poland was Hell on Earth. Hitler invaded and exterminated not only Jews, but the intelligentsia—professors, doctors, lawyers, people of influence—that opposed him, similar to Pol Pot targeting the educated during the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Afterward, freed from Fascism, Poland became the frontline between democracy and Stalin’s gulag archipelago and the mass murder of 30 million Russians.
“They love Americans,” Joe explained of Poles. Thirty-two years ago this summer, the U.S. President declared, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. “They’ve got a Ronald Reagan Square in Kraków.
“I don’t understand Polish jokes. Polish people are super smart and creative and they find ways to get things done. They would be a European leader had World War II not happened to them. And there are smart people here in Iowa.”
Most of the people speak English as a second language. On the Baltic Sea, there are beaches covered in snow. The land is similar to Iowa, though on a clear day from Kraków, the Dowdys could see the peaks of the Tatra Mountains.
The mountain people are considered more rustic than the rest of the populace, to be polite.
“The Polish people were the first to immigrate to Texas,” Becca said. “But they left because it was too hot.
“The main side effect of Communism was the lack of trust. It took a while for us to build a relationship with someone else, because they were automatically suspicious—‘What do you want from me? How do you want to use me?’ Their front wall was really high. Once you got over it, and met them, they were friends for life.”
At the same time the Dowdys were planting a church, another American couple was starting a cookie business.
“They were helping us, and we were helping them,” Joe said. “From their shop, we were distributing free, fresh cookies. They were nicely packaged. We would say in English, ‘free cookies.’ Nobody would take our cookies.
“There was this idea that anything that’s free is not worth it. There’s also this thing that anything that’s free, you’ve hooked us. If I pay for it, there’s no obligation. And these weren’t old people, these were college students. Even at that young age, so many years later [after Communism], there’s still that lack of trust for some elements of culture.
“I knew if I was in Texas giving away cookies, they’d have been gone instantly.”
The glasnost of the 1980s brought Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes and McDonald’s. As well, Pope John Paul II was a Polish native, born Karol Józef Wojtyła in nearby Wadowice.
“That was the height of American consumerism,” Becca said. “They got a banana for Christmas.
“But then we’d be talking while our kids were playing, and while they embraced free enterprise, they truly believed they had a happier childhood under Communism than their children are having in the midst of commercialism. The contentment was higher, because nobody had anything—they made dolls out of cornhusks. They played in the dirt.”
It should be noted, after the Chernobyl disaster and the fallout that swept west, the dirt would have been slightly radioactive.
In that way, southern Iowa shares a connection with southern Poland. After nuclear testing in the southwestern United States, the Midwest was hit worst by self-inflicted fallout, the result of inauspicious wind currents in the 1950s.
“We got there in January, so it was minus 20 degrees,” Joe said. “It doesn’t matter the temperature is. In their culture, when there are babies inside, you’ve got to get them outside. They made very nice strollers. But men—and old men—were often pushing these strollers outside. I thought, ‘This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.’
“The culture of family was tremendous. And it was multi-generations either in one block apartment building or different levels of a house.”
“It wasn’t a failure of housing,” Becca said.
“No, this is what you do,” Joe said. “This is who we are. We came to appreciate the sense of family we imagine was in America back in the 1950s.
“Grandma is a cultural icon. She has freedom and right—maybe even responsibility—to speak into your life whether you’re a family member or a stranger. We would be at a park. We came from Texas. We didn’t understand that you dress like an onion—in layers. All you see of kids are their eyes.
“Well, we didn’t do that, even when it was super cold. We’d go out with our kids, and these older women would say something in a very stern tone about better dressing our children. The beauty of it is, ‘we watch out for each other.’ She cared for us. She thought we were ridiculous, but she cared for us.”
“We always enunciated very clearly,” Becca said. “My sister came to visit once, and she said, ‘Becca. You. Don’t. Have. To. Talk. To. Me. So. Clearly.’ Because we always made sure if we spoke English, it was understood.”
Becca could only make the journey to Auschwitz once and stand the reality of the place. The buildings remain intentionally unchanged, physical ghosts of the Holocaust.
“Humbling,” Joe said of what it is like to walk into a gas chamber. “Horrifying.”
“Sickening,” Becca said. “I remember feeling sick the whole trip. Auschwitz is still untouched. It’s not a bright, shiny museum like Schindler’s. It’s the original buildings. This is really where those things happened.
“There are piles of shoes the Nazis took from people. The hair they cut off. Artificial limbs. Glasses. Think about it—you take someone’s glasses and that immediately dehumanizes you—it takes away one of your senses. And to know how cold it was, to not have shoes—it’s sickening.”
Joe took their older children to the iron gates when they knew they would be leaving Poland. It is not Disneyworld. One does not take little kids on this trip, though the Jewish parents of the 1930s and 1940s had no choice.
“Evil can be super powerful, and very real,” Joe said. “They have a specific dormitory building which the Nazis used for torture. What inspired me is that they now have plaques and memorials in memory of priests and religious leaders who spent the rest of their short lives in these tiny places.
“I thought about the sacrifice these men made. They could’ve made some kind of deal to get out, but they didn’t. They were martyrs. They died with their flock.”
It did not matter that their flock were members of a different religion. In 2001, at the mosque where John the Baptist is believed to be interred, Pope John Paul II—who grew up 20 miles from Auschwitz—called for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together or die apart—the only solution to recrudescence of the Holocaust.
“It spoke to me about being close to people as they suffer,” Joe said. “A lot of Americans hide their pain. But when my mom was sick, the tremendous pain she went through, and the emotional pain we went through—more people opened up about their own suffering when I was suffering. There is a tenderness to that, to meet people in their most needy place and time. I couldn’t do anything but love and listen to them. They asked me to pray, and I would.
“I took away from Auschwitz that not only does evil come in many forms and fashions, but that a wound brings us together.”
The official doctrine of Communism was there is no God. Believing in something other than what is physically manifest was considered evil. It was an overreaction to religious intolerance, yet it led to mass murder that challenged the Holocaust in scope. Some describe the modern world as God-blind and soul-blind—a natural result of personal choice—but this is different from the State removing your glasses and piling them in a corner.
“One thing unique about Poland is the Catholic Church remained strong,” Joe said. “For them, to be Polish is to be Catholic. That’s how they kept their identity [during Communist rule], especially in southern Poland—it’s kind of like the Bible Belt.”
“In the Czech Republic, churches are empty,” Becca said. “In Poland, Catholicism is as strong or stronger than in Ireland.”
After tending a Baptist Church in the Catholic Bible Belt of Europe for a decade, the Dowdys know what it is like to be a minority.
“First of all, we were appreciated because we were American,” Joe said. “Then, we were appreciated because we were English speakers—learning English was considered a way to a better life. And then, when it came to what we were doing there, that’s when it got dicey.
“We either had people say, ‘That’s it. Now that I know you’re a Baptist pastor, I don’t know what Baptist is, but this can’t be good.’
“They’d either close the door, or they’d say, ‘You know what, you seem like a nice person—if we can have a relationship in English and you’re an American, we’re okay with you being Baptist.’
“Our kids were in the public school system. We dropped our six-year-old son off the first week we were there.”
“There was one English teacher in the school,” Becca said.
“So, we tried to be a part of their culture as much as we could,” Joe continued. “And there were some close relationships.
“But there was also one woman who said, ‘Why are you here? Leave my people alone.’”
In 2016, the Dowdys returned to Texas to care for Joe’s mother, who passed away the following year. She was an English teacher. While caring for her, Joe worked in special education for the local school.
Afterward, when they were searching for a new congregation, they believed it would be Europe or somewhere else on the world map where their index finger would land.
It was certainly not a movie theatre in Corydon. A year ago this summer, they were interning at a church in England.
“God always surprises us,” Becca said.
After a decade in Kraków, upon returning to Texas, they experienced reverse culture shock.
They have four children. The youngest, Eden, will be in fourth grade. Nathan will be in sixth grade. Will is 20 and Liz is 18.
Several local Iowa residents are assisting the Dowdys in re-acclimation to life in America.
Doug Davis graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1972. While his father Bill Davis became a legend at Wayne as longtime band instructor, the younger Davis taught music 20 miles away at Seymour Community High School from 1981 to 1984.
“Seymour is a great community,” Davis said.
After retiring from the music business in the Quad Cities, Doug and wife Vivian moved back to Wayne County. They began attending Cornerstone Church in Chariton.
“There’s a contingency of folks who live in and around Corydon who attend Cornerstone,” Davis said. “Discussions began well over a year ago about the possibility of starting a church plant, and having Cornerstone Church’s support. It became reality. We have eight or nine families committed to making this work.”
“We can’t believe the amenities they have in such a small community,” Becca said. “A place to work out, a hospital, a swimming pool, a movie theatre, coffee shops and a real grocery store.”
“And two newspapers,” Joe added. “I mean, come on.”
Though Joe directed LivingStone’s first service on Aug. 11, during Old Settlers, the congregation had been meeting once a month. Aug. 18 was their official launch. Church will be held every Sunday in the Wayne Theatre at 10 a.m.
It will not be directly affiliated with any denomination.
“I’m sure we’ll find our cultural niche here as well,” Joe said. “I don’t know what that’s going to be, but we’ll introduce Christ through that. We want to be sensitive to God’s leaning. It’s always exciting to be part of a new work. It’s not going to be a polished performance—it’s set in a movie theatre. It’ll be casual, but it’ll be genuine.”