Winn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church. In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure. Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.
Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.
Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore? It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry. So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church. It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.
Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.
What has the response been like so far?
It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,
I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it. And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.
Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not. So I’m thankful for all that.
This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it? Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?
No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.
This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs. So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting. It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that. There’s something about that that resonates with me.
Is it the second person voice?
I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people. It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now. Nobody writes letters anymore.
I do wonder: How is that changing us? How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts? There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.
Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.
Yeah, that’s right.
So why a small town?
A couple different reasons. It wasn’t a conscious choice. Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message. The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out. It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).
This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community. I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.
So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.
Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way? There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers. Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping. A ‘no!’
But it’s inevitable. It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station. But it’s not the whole story. There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.
I also don’t want to in any way idealize it. There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way. I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.
But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.
The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.