The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

In the last part of my interview with Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, we talked about rural churches.  In this segment we pull back the lens and look at shame, among other things…

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Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

You say in the book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, that part of your effort is to explain to other liberal elites that rural America is not crazy; why are we not crazy?

Well, what I have argued and what I found from people I talked to is that there’s a tremendous amount of pragmatic realism in rural America, just as there is elsewhere in suburban and urban America. So, everything is so politicized these days, (I mean how can we not help to say that on today of all days [the day of the Kavanaugh hearings]?), and then that impression of rural America is reinforced, and has been since the 2016 election, by, on the one hand, polls. (We’ve had less than 10% difference in voting in political alignment and make a huge deal out of it and say, “Well, rural America votes this way and urban America votes the other way,” which is only true relatively speaking.)

Then, on the other hand, it’s also reinforced by journalists. The best journalists, the best newspapers, venture out there to Iowa or Mississippi or wherever it might be and talk to people. They give a human dimension to the story, but it’s all about the politics still. So the impression any reader comes away with is that people just spend all their time thinking about politics, which, of course, is not the case for any of us. Sure, politics is important and, since we have campaigns that seem to start as soon as the last election is over, it’s hard not to focus on politics and then it just filters down into divisions within the church.

But on a day-to-day basis, people in rural America are thinking about their jobs, their families, whether their kids are getting a good education or not, whether someone is getting medical care that needs it or not, whether, if they’re in an agricultural area, the crop prices are good or not and what the yields are going to be—all these practical issues.

On top of that, (and this is my argument about moral communities which you captured well in your book review), is the reality that community matters too. People in rural America aren’t just totally self-interested, self-serving narcissists by any means. It matters to them how the community is faring.

So even if they happen to be doing ok individually, if the community’s struggling, if the grocery store that’s been there for years is going out of business, and if the people are having to travel 30 miles to get to work or their job at Walmart or whatever, and then, especially, if the school is closing or the school is doing bad and the kids aren’t able to get as good an education as they want, or the church that has been there for generations and they’ve supported it and their ancestors are buried in the cemetery and all of a sudden the church doesn’t stay open anymore, that bothers people.

That’s not necessarily, in a lot of cases, because of anything going on politically, and it’s usually not something that can be rectified politically, but it does make people angry. And if they feel that politics are making things worse, or politicians are supposed to be doing some things that would help and aren’t, or if they feel that politics is entirely governed by people in  big cities who don’t care about them and understand them, then it’s easy for them to vent political frustration on the politicians that they don’t like.

Right. I think you also captured really well in the book how often that it’s sometimes turned on themselves. You talk about teen pregnancy and saying that, far from being moral wags, a lot of folks will blame themselves for not shielding their children from the culture outside or for not raising them the right way. I don’t think the word comes up too much in the book, but is shame a part of this story, too?

Shame is used, and guilt is, and those are exacerbated by living in a small town where everybody is visible to everybody else, or at least they feel that way. So if it’s their son or daughter who’s gotten into trouble because of sex or alcohol or drugs or whatever they feel that everybody knows and everybody’s talking about it. In larger research we certainly found examples of people who quit going to church because they felt that the church was going to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed and either they quit going to church entirely or they started going to church 50 miles away so they didn’t have to face the family that they thought were critical of them.

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Robert Wuthnow

That’s an indication on the one hand of the moral responsibility that people feel. They want their kids to grow up and to be good citizens and, if they’re Christians, to be good Christians, do the right thing, be honest, take care of their families. But they know it’s difficult and sometimes that’s a reason why they want to stay in a small town because they feel the temptations are actually quite a bit less there than would be the case in bigger cities. In other instances they know that there are all of those temptations, especially drugs or pornography or whatever it may be, in small towns, too. That worries them and they sometimes try to shore up their own sense of what is right by then talking about the problems that they see in the wider culture because of the internet and television and all those things.

What About the Methodists?: Robert Wuthnow talks churches, 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of America’s premier sociologists, we talked about the current face of the Heartland. Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, talks about the changing dynamics of many rural institutions, including churches.  I enlisted him to help me think about churches in small towns and, of course, we ended up talking about Adam Hamilton…

You have the story in the book about the pastor who was discouraged. She said she had given up the family farm in order to pursue ministry and felt she was going to be part of some great awakening but instead felt like she was just keeping her finger in the dike. Obviously, one of the challenges churches face is population decline in these communities, but how do you interpret that kind of frustration? Did you encounter a whole lot of disillusionment as part of your research with churches in particular? 

Well, among the clergy, that example would be illustrative of some of that disillusionment. I would say though that, overall, (and in every single town we tried to talk to at least one clergy person in that town), there’s a lot of pragmatic realism—a real effort, I’d have to say a gospel-based effort, to bring hope to the community and to keep hope as alive as it can be. 

They would talk, not so much about the grand vision that wasn’t being realized, but just the frustrations—that people in the congregation were busy. It was hard, especially in smaller congregations, to get enough people out for a meeting or events, hard to schedule things, just because the complicated schedules that everybody, rural and urban, lives. It was difficult sometimes to cultivate lay leadership because, again, people were busy or people felt that the pastors should be doing all of that and they shouldn’t or because they felt they didn’t have the right kind of education or the right kind of leadership skills that they felt would be important to be an elder or deacon or trustee.

The flip side of that, which I think is really worth emphasizing, too, is that one of the things that small communities have going for them is that people who do have things going well for them in terms of having better jobs and maybe better education or better income, whatever it might be, are very willing, by and large, to pitch in.  The statistics show that that happens much more in small towns, by and large, than it does in cities. 

People feel a responsibility to help out with the church or the hospital board or the library committee or be involved in Rotary, Kiwanis, Masons, or whatever it might be. Again [this happens] because they’re visible and it’s just part of the culture to feel that, in addition to whatever work you may be doing as a teacher or doctor or nurse or whatever it might be, [you should] also be involved in the community. So if the community’s a town of any size, 5,000 and above, 10,000 and above–even better, then that’s going be a real benefit to the community. The pastors we talked to certainly recognized that as one of the resources they can draw on.

Have you been able to quantify that? That, in comparison to an urban area, there’s a larger percentage of people involved in civic and other activities?

In the longer book I wrote, Small Town America, there’s a bunch of stats. There’s a whole chapter on faith in that book and some discussion of leadership and civic engagement. Just broadly speaking, you can divide the US population who have responded to a survey into people living in small rural towns, people who live in suburbs, and people living in cities. Then you can take out the differences in education or whatever it might be and that does come through. 

On some of the measures, it’s not a huge difference in suburbs. Suburbs do pretty well. It kind of depends on what volunteer activity you ask about. Suburbs have more families with small kids than the rural areas do and they’re one of the biggest drivers of voluntary participation—having kids and getting involved in school activities and sports and that kind of thing

In the section on homosexuality, where you’re talking about how that gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about in rural areas, you credit the mainline denominations with provoking the conversation. You said that, in a sense, there were folks who might appreciate the fact that they were being offered this space to have conversations about something that they might not talk about otherwise and yet at the same time they felt the same sort of resentment that they feel about Washington—that it’s requiring them to do something that they really don’t want to do. If one of the long-term trends is the retreat of mainline denominations in rural areas, is there any other institution that is going to pick up the slack? What does that portend for rural communities?

It depends on what part of the country. Being from the Midwest, I have a little bit of a better sense of changes there. I’ve written a book about Kansas. I’ve written a book about Texas so those are the ones that I can point to the best. So, what’s filled the gap, as mainline churches in a lot of areas have declined, have been fundamentalist churches or evangelical churches or Pentecostal churches.

Or cowboy churches in Texas, right?

Yeah. It’s not necessarily a real recent development. It kind of depended on population shifts. For instance, in Kansas this was a shift that started shortly after World War Two, because of the aircraft industry–Boeing being in Wichita. You suddenly had jobs there. So you had a big influx of population from Oklahoma and Arkansas and southern Missouri. You had a lot of Southern Baptists in Kansas that you never had before. You also had a lot of new churches, like Assemblies of God or Pentecostal churches.

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Robert Wuthnow

Historically, Kansas had been overwhelmingly dominated by Methodists and Catholics. Now you had an influx of people who weren’t Methodist and Catholic. So that started changing the local composition of a lot of towns where those new churches were growing.

That’s happening in some other places. The broader trend is that people who used to go to church locally in a town of 5-10,000 are now traveling 30 or 40 miles to a larger town and maybe, if there is one, to a megachurch, or something that’s close to a megachurch. 

Why are they doing that? Well, for good reason. If they have kids and their kids are the only kids in the Sunday school locally, well, sure, they want to go to a larger place where there are some other kids for their kids to hang out. Secondly, it may be that the school has closed and the kids are already going to a consolidated district school some place else and so if there’s church over there then their kids can hang out with kids from school. 

If they’re young adults, especially if they’re single young adults, they’re not going to find anybody to date or to marry at the local church that doesn’t have anybody else their age. They’re going to gravitate away as well.

That is something that certainly doesn’t affect a lot of small towns because they’re just too far away. One Methodist example that I’ve looked at closely and written about some, (again it happens to be in Kansas), is Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. It is a megachurch and every time I’ve gone there it’s gotten bigger and it’s put up an even bigger building. Even though they’re located in Johnson County, which has about 500,000 people, they draw people you know from maybe 50 miles away from some of the smaller towns. 

That changes the dynamic, which is certainly something which small town pastors worry about a lot. Sometimes you kind of regret it, in the same way people sometimes regret the fact that there’s a Walmart that’s drawing away business. But I do think it’s one of the realities that you have to attract people with young families, single people, some empty-nesters. 

At the same time the megachurch is never going to replace the boutique church that’s just one that people feel really committed to and like it because it is small. They know people. They’ve been there for a long time and they’re comfortable there. Those churches are likely to be around, I think, for quite a long time.

The Heartlands interview with Robert Wuthnow concludes here.

Still Kinda In Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow, Part 1 of 3

Robert Wuthnow is that rare academic who still keeps a foot in the heartlands.  Wuthnow is a respected Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University but he’s as apt to talk to you about his native Kansas as he is the cultural capitals of DC and New York.

I caught up with Wuthnow a few weeks ago after reading his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He didn’t disappoint…

You say in the book that people in small communities still “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Does the rest of America still believe that?

No. If you think about the population that lives in big cities and suburbs–no. They think about rural America, if they ever think about it, as part of flyover country. You can easily find columns online or even sometimes in The New York Times or The Washington Post that basically say, “Those areas ought to just depopulate and turn the prairie back to prairie and let the buffalo take over.”

Yeah, David Brooks has said similar things.

I was doing a podcast a couple of weeks ago and the woman who was hosting it only half jokingly said, “Isn’t it true that in 20 years there just aren’t going to be any people in rural America because all the tractors will be driving themselves?” So, yeah, there is that  impression out there.

One of the things that’s spurred me to do this blog is this sense that what the heartlands mean is really different than it used to be. It used to be that, even if people lived in urban areas, they would look to the rural areas as being an inspiration or holding the essence of what it means to be America. I agree; I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

I’d like to ask about your subtitle: Decline and Rage in Rural America. It’s a catchy phrase, but do you think that those are the predominant dynamics that you run into in talking with folks or are there some other more nuanced words that maybe are better?

The sense of decline is pretty widespread, despite the fact that the total number of US citizens living in rural areas is not declining, and has actually increased. It is a relative decline because the suburbs have grown in population or held their own. So there is that sense of relative decline as people talk about population or as they talk about where the jobs are or where their kids have moved to. 

Also there is that sense of a declining cultural influence related to what we were just talking about. You don’t feel that rural America is regarded as the heartland anymore of whatever values they hold dear in terms of small, local community or traditional values. They feel the nation has moved away from all that. So, in that sense, decline is pretty widespread.

My publisher said they wanted a short book that would answer some of the questions that people have about the 2016 election. It’s harder in a smaller book like that, than it was in longer books I wrote out of the same research, to capture the diversity. 

What I always try to do, in interviews and podcasts and so forth, is to emphasize diversity, because there’s the regional diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and then a huge amount of difference between what’s happening in a town of 5,000 people versus a town of 25,000 people, which is still within the definition of the small town.  But a town of 25,000 people has a lot going for it that a smaller town doesn’t. Then certainly the differences between a town that is out in the boonies about 100 miles from the city versus a town that’s within easy commuting distance of a city. Especially in my book called Small Town America, I try to get into all of those differences and try to point out to people who haven’t thought much about small towns that there’s is a huge amount of diversity. 

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Robert Wuthnow

The rage part of it really only pertains to the views towards Washington and toward politics. They’re not going around just seething all the time. They’re not really mad at their neighbors. That not really that mad at urban people either. Occasionally they are because they feel urban people don’t understand them or disparage them. But most rural people have friends and family that live in the city that they’d like to go visit .

They are mad at politics. On the political side, it is true that some of the time there is anger toward gay people or racial or ethnic minorities or toward immigrants or toward Muslims. So some of that conversation that happens all the time on Fox News and is coming out of the Trump administration does filter out and it gives people ways to vent some of their anger on groups that they might not have thought about. They may be perfectly ok with the Muslim family that happens to live in the town or the Hispanic family that is working on their farm but then still they get incensed and say, “We need stronger borders. We need to restrict  immigration.” and all of that. It’s in that sense that the wider political culture gets refracted in interesting ways at the local level.

You’re making me think, as you describe it that way, whether some of that emotion is related to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold together things that seem so opposed. To put it in the simplest sense, “Immigrants—bad. But my neighbors, who happen to be immigrants, they are excellent and they’re helping our community survive.” Or “Washington neglects us but Washington interferes too much.” You know, just the kind of the things that we’re trying to hold in our heads.

Our interview with Robert Wuthnow continues here.

Read the Heartlands review of The Left Behind by clicking here.

Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island

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A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.

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Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

There’s Something Still the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank and a Sinking Society

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Thomas Frank is the kind of writer who gets trotted out when the national media wants to cast its distracted gaze on the hinterlands.  It helped that he wrote a book a decade and more back about his home state titled What’s the Matter with Kansas? After the 2016 election a whole lot of pundits wanted to know the answer to that question.  Why would so many people in the heartland vote for a candidate with big city, Acela Corridor brashness and a class profile so different from the majority of his voters?

When he wrote that book in 2004, Frank was pointing to the populism to come, noting the many working class folks who have been growing ever more distanced from the elite who, unlike them, have benefitted from the cosmopolitan world that global economic trading and technological innovation have created.  Frank himself may have wandered from his thesis in the Obama years, if the essays collected in his latest book are any indication.  Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society shows a writer searching for a master narrative that only snaps into focus with the presidential election.

To crib from Samuel Johnson, there’s nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind.

Catastrophe.  Oblivion.  A sinking ship.  That’s what Frank sees when he looks at America.  (The ship also graces the cover of the book.)  In early essays dating from 2011-2014, his targets are diffuse.  As in Sarah Kendzior’s essays in her recent collection, The View from Flyover Country, Frank’s preoccupations in this period are with the academic world, journalism, inequality, and even the empty sloganeering of civic boosters.  (Don’t get him started on ‘vibrancy’!)

As the apocalypse…er…election approaches, however, you can see him returning to Kansas, and Missouri, and all the places that were enthralled with the Trump candidacy, trying to figure out what is going on. He recognizes that the ever-present populist impulse in rural America has no voice on the left today.  Democratic leaders, who used to champion the interests of unions and the working class against Wall St. have now thrown their lot with money.  Insurgent voices were actively marginalized and the professional class has developed a ‘softly, softly’ approach to change.  Big ideas couldn’t succeed, this group felt, so they had to be smothered.

At the same time, as prosperous, two-coast America divorced itself from the deindustralized, depopulating, despairing countryside, “the Trump movement [was characterized] as a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred.  Its partisans not only are incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.” (173)

Rural America picked up on the condescension, and Frank sees it as an indication of one of the key challenges facing those who would turn the country a different way.  “It is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened—a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.” (218)  Without some introspection and reconnection with its traditional base, Frank feels, the Democratic Party is condemned to a future in which the only satisfaction it can expect is “a finger wagging in some vulgar proletarian’s face, forever.” (222)

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Thomas Frank

I was glad that Frank eventually found his groove in this book.  Before he returned, late in the book, to Marceline, Missouri to see what had happened to Walt Disney’s hometown Main Street, (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.), I worried that he had was leaving the Midwest behind for shinier objects elsewhere.  But the crisis of the current moment brought him back to his roots.  

The title bespeaks a gloomy outlook.  “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve,” he says on the opening page. (1)  But for all his alarm bells about “the golden age of corruption,” (2) “the casual dishonesty of politics” spilling over into everyday life (4), and the con game the economy has become for so many Americans, Frank still believes in the essential wisdom of where he came from.  Even if he doesn’t think we’re in that Kansas anymore.

Metropolitan Books provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here! – Part 2

In Part One of Ben Rigsby’s post on reviving a church in a small town he talked about life-changing worship and reaching new people.  In this post he discusses 4 more steps to growing a rural church…

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Ben Rigsby (2nd from right) gathers with a small group at Murn’s Cafe in Archer City, TX

  1. It takes critical mass to launch a church, it takes the same to revive

This is a tough one to look in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve learned this lesson a couple times. When a new person visits your church, it needs to look like something is happening. The energy of worship must be present as soon as they enter the doors. You wouldn’t go back to a restaurant that never had cars in the parking lot and maybe one other couple in the whole building. Especially if that place only had mediocre food.

But a place that has a full parking lot and a buzz of energy as soon as the doors open tells you something is happening here. You’ll even put up with lower quality food if everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Why should church be any different?

If your congregation isn’t big enough to fill your sanctuary to this level of energy, maybe you need more small groups. Small groups are an entry way into the church. Once, you’ve got enough people attending those, then put them together for worship. Why should Methodists be afraid of Small Groups? It’s what started this whole thing anyway! Small groups also give the church sustainability that will endure whoever the person sitting in the pastor’s office might be.

  1. Take an Honest look at WHO you’re trying to reach
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First United Methodist, Archer City

I’ve seen too many of our peers set off to reach their community of low income Hispanic families with a bunch of wealthy, white-haired, old ladies. The results are mostly the same. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but is it a battle you really want to fight?

If you’re in a traditional, rural, older town that loves piano and organ music, do not cram guitars and drop-down screens down their throats because you read about it in a magazine! It’s much easier to start an additional worship service than to dilute the one they love. Take a serious inventory of what you honestly have, and who you would honestly like to reach. Remember the first 200 people will determine what the next 200 look and act like.

  1. Find a mentor or coach

As much as we know after seminary, we all have a few weak spots. I needed a coach to encourage me and challenge me. This doesn’t have to be a paid relationship either. Henry Cloud wrote The Power of the Other, and in it I learned how all great leaders have a person who challenges them to go beyond their limits. Find a person who can do that for you. Then, be that person for your church leaders. You should be their greatest cheerleader.

In between sessions with your coach there are millions of coaches available to you through books. I enjoy Audible.com audiobooks because rural pastors spend a lot of time on the road—might as well make it count! I try to read as much as I can.

  1. “Pray like everything depends on God, and work like everything depends on you”

IMG_6724I don’t know where I picked up that saying, but if fits…it fits. Do not neglect the Spirit. Never neglect your own soul in the process. I know that pastors are told this at every conference we ever go to, but the ability to pray and meditate is not only necessary but establishes a good example for your congregation. Also, be open in sharing your spiritual practices with your congregation. Many of them don’t have a spiritual practice because they have never seen it demonstrated and wouldn’t know the first thing about meditating. They want to be taught.

Start Creating Your Slice of Heaven

There are plenty of reasons why you can’t build a church in a rural community. There are lists of problems, from money to facilities. There are people who will tell you the best you can do is to hold their hand while they (the church) dies. I don’t think Jesus would have ever said those words. I seem to remember him to say something more like, “Lazarus, come out!” and he did, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Now, it’s time for us to get to it!

fumc-headshots-archer-city-uvrphotography-2-240x300Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist Pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

 

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6 Steps to a Growing Church. Yes, Even Here!: Guest Blogger Ben Rigsby

Anybody who’s spent more than a minute with me since last summer has heard me yammer on about the people l met in Archer City, Texas on my leave. One of those folks is the dynamic pastor of First UMC, the Rev. Ben RIgsby.  You don’t often find church planters on the rural frontier but Ben proved to me that the things he learned about church planting in the big city can work in the countryside, too. Ben blogs over on Leaving the Herd and he agreed to share a little of what he’s learned. (By the way, I second his recommendation of El Diablo at Murn’s!) – Alex

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Ben Rigsby mid-baptism at First UMC, Archer City, TX

For the last two years I’ve been in heaven. Well, it’s a little slice of Texas that feels like heaven. The town is outside of Wichita Falls and has big skies and more mesquite trees than Dallas has people. The town has two water towers for a skyline, and except for a couple movie appearances and a famous book store, there’s not much reason you’d “just stop by.” But this town is full of life and passionate about their task of transforming the world.

The rural church ministry of Archer City, TX is alive and growing. That’s right, I said growing. And I don’t mean in some southern charm, “the people are only growing in their faith” kind of way. I mean double the number of people in worship in under 2 years.  Along with double-digit professions of faith and more baptisms than I can count. (I’m sure the office manager could give me a number if I asked.)

In the meantime, they have led the community in fundraising for “missions” (though we wouldn’t call them that). They have raised more money in two year’s time than they are able to pay the preacher full time.

It all happened because they began to see their little old church as a new church start. 

Here’s how they applied New Church Start tactics to a “declining congregation” and reaped the benefits:

  1. fullsizeoutput_1874Ask yourself if your church REALLY has something “life changing” to offer in worship.

Would a new person experience God there on any given Sunday? How sure are we? Is there a dynamic and passionate sermon delivered every Sunday? Can we count on the choir (which has tripled at First UMC, Archer City) to bring a volume to the music that’s inspiring?

I once heard it said, “To change a person’s life, you’ve got to first change their day.” Sunday is the day we will change their lives, every Sunday. After all, it could be the last worship service they ever make it to. (No, we do not do weekly Altar Calls and ask if they know where they are going when they die!) The congregation comes with the expectation they will receive a warm welcome, a good message that engages their minds and hearts, and inspirational music.

Is each worship service built around the gospel message? Does your service come with good news or is it full of “you should do…”? How does it relate to the average person?

Additionally, as Pastor, I make a point of stepping out of the pulpit and handing it over at least once a quarter. However, I am confident the guest speakers (even on Youth Sunday) will deliver a sermon as good or better than I could. I look for speakers who can deliver and they are told “we need a phenomenal sermon, so bring your best.”

  1. “Reaching new people is a contact sport” – Jim Griffith

In The Misfit Mission, Scott Crostek talks about putting a handful of pennies in his pocket and moving one over to the other side each time he talks to someone about the church. If he hadn’t moved all the pennies, he wasn’t done for the day. While I never went that far, it certainly is necessary that you are highly visible. Your whole congregation must be in the community & talking about your church. Both parts must be there. It’s not enough to just be in the community or to just be talking about your church in your office.

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Ben with El Diablo at Murn’s

There is a little café called Murn’s here in Archer City. Almost the whole town shows up every day for lunch. (If you’re ever there, you MUST try the El Diablo. Preachers eating The Devil just makes me chuckle!) I try to be there as much as possible. Before long the entire waitstaff was going to the church on Sunday, unless they had to work. Even then, they wanted to know what they missed! In the process, I’ve had more than a few conversations with other people about coming to the church. Make the time to get out of the office and be with people, there is NOTHING more important.

Jim Griffith of New Church Leadership Institute says, “Most Methodist ministers rarely encounter 100 people outside the church. Ministers give excuses like, ‘all my friends are church people’.”

Jim replies, “That’s pathetic. You need to make new friends.” We have a fantastic opportunity to model our expectations for our members with the way we reach the community.

89% of new church members attended church on the arm of a friend. Will you be that friend?

In the next post, Ben talks about 4 more steps to reviving a church in a small town

Ben Rigsby is a United Methodist pastor who lives in rural Texas. He has a passion for inspiring people to go beyond their limits and accomplish the impossible. A single father of two boys, he is excited to marry this June and move to the Baltimore area. Ben blogs at Leaving the Herd.

The Tale the Blowflies Tell: A Review of The Dry by Jane Harper

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photo by Dominik Martin via Unsplash

It begins with the blowflies, as good a symbol as any for what happens to rural areas when the weather turns stagnant, hot, and deadly.  They know the smell of death and where to find it.  So it’s an ominous sign when these end-time harbingers descend upon a small farm in the Australian bush outside the town of Kiewarra and find three bodies.  The town is in trouble.

Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry, is not in my usual reading wheelhouse.  I generally don’t like books where I can feel the mechanics of the plot whirring beneath the page heading for an inevitable tidy resolution.  And sure enough, The Dry heads inexorably toward such a conclusion in which red herrings are exposed and surprise twists revealed.  It’s all very cinematic, (Reese Witherspoon has the production rights), and I was suitably caught off guard by the way it all wound up.

But then again, I never guess these things.

51MFa84Sb9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me in literature is the untidy and unfinished.  The ways we find ourselves in the grip of unseen forces like history, race, and desire.  The ways the land speaks in our stories and shapes our souls.  The ways we find ourselves stripped of pretension, bared to the bone, and utterly dependent on an elusive, assured God.

I could see enough of that in The Dry to pick it up.  As readers of Heartlands will know, tales of rural places always catch my eye, and Harper does a wonderful job of bringing the Australian backcountry to life.

Kiewarra suffers from many of the same ailments as many an American small town.  Empty stores line the town street.  The schools are underfunded and dependent on charitable foundations that might release a few thousands.  The police force is a skeleton crew.

Aaron Falk, who returns to Kiewarra from Melbourne when a childhood friend and two members of his family turn up dead, also knows how things can curdle when the town turns against you.  In Melbourne, at least, “he wasn’t watched by curious eyes that knew every last thing about him.  His neighbors didn’t judge him, or harass him and spread rumors about his family….They left him alone.” (144).

Falk left as a teenager, run out of town with his father after Ellie, one of his classmates, drowned in the river (now a dried-up bed because of the drought).  The name ‘Falk’ was on a note in her pocket and the town began to believe that maybe the drowning wasn’t accidental and that either of the male Falks might be the culprit.

His dad died and Falk eventually became an agent of the Australian finance intelligence unit.  Now he is back in a town that didn’t want him, paying respects to his friend, Luke, who seemingly had taken a shotgun to his wife and 6-year-old son and then turned it on himself.  Of course, there’s more to that story, as there is to the mystery of what happened to Ellie twenty years before.  Falk gets drawn into the investigation and sticks around until both mysteries are solved.

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Jane Harper

Harper uses an unusual technique of doling out another omniscient narrator’s voice as the mystery unspools.  The other voice narrates what happened in the past with rich detail.  I think it works.

What really makes the book, however, is the setting and the determination to present characters that become real people.  And the blowflies, who hover over everything.  There’s a tale of whodunit to be told, but there are much larger stories, too.  Where do you find life when everything around you becomes tinder for an inevitable fire?  Where’s the river to quench the dry?