Rural Soul – guest blogger: Sara Porter Keeling


Sara Porter Keeling can tell you about many things, but today she goes Across the Street to shed light on how community is built in a small town.  Sara is the pastor of three United Methodist Churches in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  She’s also got some truly excellent preacher boots:

This is God’s country, we say, beautiful and preserved, just pay no mind to the power lines.  Rappahannock County boasts a view of the mountains, twisty curvy back roads, and an unyielding commitment to environmental protection.  Unlike so many rural areas, our economic struggles are encased in beauty.

A closed orchard is still lovely in its own haunting way.  It still produces fruit.  There’s a sense of dignity in a run down farm house or a hollowed out barn that is absent in a closed down factory or barren strip mall.  There’s tension here between growth and development and the way it’s always been.  Tension between the native “been heres” and the arriving “come heres.”  No Walmart here, no affordable housing, and please don’t complain about your cell phone not working or lack of internet service because you knew what you signed up for when you moved out here and it wasn’t to stream 5 episodes of Friday Night Lights on Netflix.

In the bustling village of Flint Hill where I reside, I’m in walking distance to the bank, the post office, one of my churches, the local firehall, and a smattering of restaurants—all of which are essential places for community connectivity, but none so much as the humble gas station which sits directly across the street from the parsonage.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.  Someone over there has the answer to whatever question you might have.  The solution to every craving or inquiry.  Across the Street is where you go for last minute things: Baking and you ran out of sugar.  Having a party and you need chips.  Had a hard day and you need a beer or ice cream.  Nail in your tire: have Travis fix it.  Motorcycle needs inspecting: Travis, once again.  It’s about time for a new truck: go talk to Bubby.  You go Across the Street.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.

It’s also the place to go for information.  We found a dog sitter.  A job for my teenager.  A source for local, grass fed beef.  The latest updates on who is in the hospital, who is getting a divorce, who is moving or going into the nursing home and of course, everyone’s exact opinions (like it or not) on the Current Administration.

There’a table in the back and a bench out front for when it’s warm where the old(er) men gather.  I can’t tell you here what they call themselves, other than to say it’s a little obscene and they were hesitant to tell me, but I know their secret.


Sara Porter Keeling in her preacher boots

Everyone greets them, but some are reluctant to plop down and join them, especially the women.  I’ll tell you that it helps to be a pastor who is comfortable plopping down and chatting with just about anyone anywhere, but the real trick is that it helps to have a baby on your hip, which I’ve had twice, through the six years here.  Whoever said men don’t like babies never met these guys, as they compete to make fools over themselves for a little one’s attention.

You can walk into any Starbucks in any American city and speak only to the barista.  If you walk into a cafe in Rappahannock, you will see at least eleven people that you know, and two of them that you’ve been meaning to call.  Grabbing a latte also means getting an update about that ill neighbor and checking in on funeral arrangements.

The heart of rural life, of rural ministry, is not the land, or the preservation, or the lack of jobs, or the resistance to new technology.  It’s the people.

There’s immeasurable joy in the connectivity of community.  A connection that I worried might’ve been lost in our nation, in our church when I served an urban parish . . . and a connectivity that I will surely grieve when my time here has ended.

Can we see a little less clearly, Lord? – Prayers for a Way Forward


unsplash, Andrew Neel


WITH my glasses off

the thing I think I know

becomes indistinct and fresh.

A deer’s tail becomes a great white feather.

A distant tree, a man by the roadside hailing me.

When I run without my lenses

the world slips out of bounds

and newness emerges

like angels in our midst.

Since we are surrounded, cloud-like, by such witnesses,

can we see a little less clearly, Lord?

Can we lay aside our sharpened judgments

for some new appraisal of the scene?

And could the thing we think we know and want

emerge as something unimagined

but vivid clear to fuzzy sight?

–Alex Joyner

“S-Town” and the sordid underbelly of this American life

C8YQXjUXgAEstjNThis week I finished listening to “S-Town,” the latest buzzy podcast from the folks who brought us “This American Life,” and “Serial.”  Like a trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet, it was great while it lasted but made me feel various degrees of queasy when it was all over, and least of all because of all the profanity.  Released all at once in 7 episodes, the series took a deep dive into the secretive goings-on of a small town in Alabama and one of its most eccentric residents, John B. McLemore.

“S-Town” shows the sordid underbelly of the style of storytelling that “This American Life” pioneered.  Journalist and host Brian Reed, along with his production crew, is a beguiling stylist of tales, weaving together red herrings, affecting detail, and superb audio.  The crew creates credible, discrete chapters and compelling narrative arcs.  They know the elemental power of human lives.  And they feed upon them like vampires.

They know the elemental power of human lives.  And they feed upon them like vampires.

When it seemed, in early episodes, like “S-Town” was going to be a true crime story or an expose of corruption in a small, Southern town or a treasure hunt or tales of the tragedies of people who find no outlet for their true selves or a deep exploration of the dying trade of clock-making, I admired the craft.  But it gradually became clear that the central conceit of the series was to show off its technique at the expense of its content-rich subject.


Brian Reed

Which is a shame, because the man and his town deserve better, even if the title of the podcast, with its dash representing a familiar 4-letter word, hints at John B. McLemore’s disdain for his hometown.  Reed shows an admirable level of transparency and vulnerability as he comes to know John and his familiars.  But he explores the real-life Southern Gothic environment with a hipster’s remove and sensibility, complete with an occasional grating upspeak. (There.  I’ve shown my bias?)

This piece didn’t begin as a review of “S-Town.”  It began as an appreciation for some of the detail that Reed mines and how it reflects some of the dislocation I see in the small town where I live and in many others.  The most evocative detail comes in an aside, when Reed is talking with McLemore’s cousin, who shares the deprivations that McLemore’s mother has endured while her son was her caretaker.  Among them – the windows to her bedroom were boarded up.

In that visual, I find a resonance with all the dark, sweltering Southern homes and trailers I have been in through the years.  Why do we block out the light?  In a land of brightness and green, we are in darkness.  “In the midst of life, we are in death; from whom can we seek help?” as the old funeral liturgy says.

 We have honed the shape of stories and have tapped into the click-bait ways that they work in us.

I had hoped that this series might delve more deeply into the distortions that afflict so much of American life these days — the ways that our disconnection from the land and from each other produce such ugliness in places of such incredible beauty.  To help us appreciate the deep currents shaping our misperception of the world around us.  To indicate a longing for something beyond us.

But what “S-Town” does well is what we do well these days.  We have honed the shape of stories and have tapped into the click-bait ways that they work in us.  But we are not shaped by them.  Our stories are too thin.

Your Giddy Desire — Prayers for a Way Forward


photo: Unsplash, Tiko giorgadze

HOW good and pleasant it is

for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!

So the psalmist says

and we believe it could be so,

though our glimpses of such goodness and pleasantness

are scant and near mythical.

Yet we long to live together –

to see as you see

and love as you love –

until our funhouse mirror of a creation

reflects your giddy desire

that we should all be one.

–Alex Joyner

Why don’t country people just get out?

rich-brown-219577It’s subtly phrased, but I’m hearing it more in recent days – Why don’t people who live in the country just get out of there?  Rural America has gotten a lot of attention in recent months in the wake of the unexpected presidential election results.  The problems of the heartlands — and particularly the white, working-class residents of the heartlands —  are being probed and pondered.  Heck, I just finished writing an article for the United Methodist Publishing House’s FaithLink curriculum on the topic.  And there are some folks who are looking at the problems and saying, “Why do they stay?”

Recently two Princeton researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a follow-up to their disturbing 2015 report that showed that mortality rates for certain classes of middle-aged white Americans, in contrast to their counterparts around the world and to other Americans, were rising sharply.  In their previous report they identified three major culprits — drugs, alcohol, and suicide — for the rising number of deaths among 50-something white adults.  In the follow-up they went deeper and concluded that the problem was something harder to define, something “spiritual.”  Perhaps, having suffered a long period of economic stagnation and decline, these folks are suffering from “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Having named something as nebulous as “cumulative distress,” the media quickly picked a new phrase for the phenomenon: White working-class Americans, who disproportionately inhabit rural America, are suffering from “deaths of despair.”

David Brooks, in a New York Times editorial on addressing opioid abuse, drew the logical conclusion, “These addictions and deaths are happening in the most socially and economically barren parts of the country. An anti-opioid effort won’t be effective unless it’s part of a broader effort at social and economic reweaving, a set of efforts to either help people move out of rural, blighted communities or to find jobs and social networks while there.”  It’s the place!  If  we can’t fix it, we’ve got to get them out.

The Atlantic painted a similarly grim picture of rural life in an article last summer called “The Graying of America”:  “Those who live there tend to like it, but they’re aging, and there aren’t enough jobs to keep younger people around. So kids and grandkids move to the cities, coming back on holidays, inheriting their parents’ homes and leaving them empty, wondering what will happen to the towns their parents say used to thrive. This is how rural America dies: not with a bang but a whimper.”  Worse than this, the article says, old folks are trapped in the countryside because the property value of their homes has dropped so much that they can’t even sell.

Something has happened to America’s relationship with its heartlands.  Where they used to be the place we would go to remember who we are, now they are a problem to be fixed or a prison to be escaped.

I want to be clear-eyed about the challenges, but I also believe that part of the “spiritual” renewal that will combat the epidemic of despair will come from this very land.  What ails rural America is what ails all America – a failure to truly inhabit the place where we are, to attend to the land, and to deepen our connection with transcendence.  Israel’s God always talked about a covenant with the land as well as the people.  And in the land is promise.

There’s work to be done here, no doubt.  But I don’t think we’re any more blighted or benighted here than elsewhere.  And I also believe that there is still healing to be had here.  So thanks, David Brooks et al, but I think I’ll stay.  Come visit sometime.

Ghosts and Land – My interview with Alix Hawley continues – part 2 of 2

In the first part of my interview with author Alix Hawley, we talked Daniel Boone, pop culture, and the challenges of writing your way into the mind of a legend.  In this post, my interview with the author of All True Not a Lie in It concludes…
You handle the Shawnee culture with a great deal of respect, helping bring it alive so that we glimpse a culture that was still vital in this period.  In fact, the second half of the book takes place almost entirely among the Shawnee.  How did you come to this structure for the book?

An image of Boone’s adoption by the Shawnee

Writing this book took many drafts and a lot of muddling, but I always pictured it in two halves, with the murder of Daniel’s son James as the break between them. The Shawnee half was more difficult, partly because there are a lot of captivity narratives from that time and afterwards, there are virtually no first-person accounts from the Indigenous side. So I was coming at the culture as a white writer, through white settler accounts, a problem of which I was very aware. I had to invent personalities based on slight hints (Black Fish being seen as a commanding speaker, for instance). But it began to take its own shape. The sense of family really helped here; Daniel’s adoption gave me a mirror, a foil, for his white family in part one. It’s the foundation in both sections.

Nothing in this book went the way I expected it to, and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the book.  You could have used a more traditional heroic narrative, but you gave Boone an element of tragedy.  Is this more a story of disillusionment or perhaps reorientation of perspective?
Most of the accounts even since he was alive made him into a capital-H hero. I suppose you could look at him alternatively as the classical tragic hero, a powerful man whose flaws bring him down, but instead, I wanted to know what it felt like to be *seen* as that hero. What does that do to you as a human? That’s the perspective I’m always interested in.
The land plays an important role in this book, especially when Boone initially goes into Kentucky and thinks it is heaven.  How did you approach writing about the land?
jordan-whitt-53061With a little trepidation, given that I never made it to Kentucky! (I was too pregnant to get travel insurance when I was initially researching.) I loved looking at paintings and photographs, though. In a way, I think not seeing the real place helped. It couldn’t be the same as it was in the eighteenth century, of course. That let me have my own vision (and I apologize if I have a few tree varieties wrong . . . I did look them up!). And the fact that the historical record has so many gaps and differing versions gave me the freedom to do that.
I’m reminded that my copy-editor informed me there were no magpies in eastern North America at that time, but I fought to keep a reference to one, as it seemed an important image. It’s easy in fiction, historical fiction especially, to get pinned down in seeking extreme accuracy, but if your own drive and story-shaping aren’t present, the book has no engine.
Ghosts play a big role in this story.  Boone is haunted by his brother and his son.  The Shawnee culture struggles to overcome the loss of sons through the adoption of Boone and his men.  Are the ghosts empowering or debilitating or something else?
Daniel’s ghosts are a pull on him, sometimes physically, but they’re also reminders of his past and the fact that he exists at all. And though they bring enormous guilt, he doesn’t want to let go; they form his private story, apart from the tales his friends and others are always telling about him. The Shawnee adoption makes him into the ghost of a lost son, which is a kind of empowerment for both sides. I think I also just like ghost stories.
The relationship between Boone and Rebecca is both tender and distant.  How did you try to get inside a relationship that was marked by so much separation and loss?
I had to imagine myself into that situation, which was really hard. Daniel and Rebecca react differently to their loss, and I could see both sides–the desire to forget and carry on, and the opposite desire to never let the lost person go.
Of course we are seeing her through his eyes, given the first-person narration. I tried to portray her as a realistic person, with all the attendant frustrations and mixed feelings, when she’s present, and to make her into part of Daniel’s dreaming tendencies when he’s not with her. There’s more about their relationship in the sequel, which I’m working on now. Rebecca’s voice comes out there too.

Alix Hawley

I think of your book as adding a lot of texture back to an old, worn bit of Americana.  What is the virtue of complicating old stories or re-wilding old landscapes for contemporary people?

I hope it’s a reminder that life is complicated. Like landscape, stories aren’t static. There’s always another way in.

For a Way Beyond Our Walls – Prayers for a Way Forward Continue

william-white-34988The Virginia Conference leadership in the global prayer cycle for the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and for unity continues…

Prayer for April 3 Conference Day of Prayer

In a season of discernment,

as your Church, in which we have met you,

meets across divides,

as a Commission confers on A Way Forward,

as we hunger for a way beyond our walls,

Pour out your Spirit, as we say,

on us gathered here.

By your Spirit, we say,

make us one with Christ,

one with each other,

and one in ministry to all the world.

Until, in your Spirit,

the blurred and blinding chaos

of this broken world and Church

resolves into a feast

and you are host and Lord.  Amen.