Hidden Poverty: Ministry with the Rural Poor

January 7th, 2011

Hazel Burrow had lived in Bremer County, Iowa, all of her life. With seven children of her own and a home that welcomed foreign exchange students and numerous guests, her life was deeply woven into the community fabric through her involvement in the numerous activities of schools, 4-H clubs, assorted organizations, and the Fredericka United Methodist Church. Yet after helping take the Census of 1990, she expressed astonishment that so many poor people lived almost invisibly in the county she knew so well.

While most of the poor live in urban areas, the percentage of people living in poverty is higher in rural areas. Poverty in urban areas is often geographically concentrated and, therefore, more visible. In many rural areas, the poor live scattered on the landscape, often down unpaved roads or in isolated villages and hamlets where incomes historically are based on the precarious economies of agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, and manufacturing, or the notoriously low wages paid by the tourism, meat packing, and service industries.

To open the church doors for ministry with the poor, congregations have to first open their own eyes to seek and find them; open their own hearts to respond with compassion and love; and open their minds to confront the injustices of poverty that have been structured into our economy and that provide the benefit of cheaper goods and services to the more financially privileged among us.

Appalachia to some is synonymous with poverty. Located in the heart of Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky, the Red Bird Missionary Conference is both economically poor and very rural. Ruth Wiertzema, director of Connectional Ministries, observes that poverty goes beyond income level. She sees poverty as the lack of opportunity to have physical needs met; to have access to learning; to develop one's abilities; even to know God through Jesus Christ. It bothers her that some equate poverty with ignorance.

Acknowledging that she has learned much from the people of the region, Ruth's counsel for ministry with the poor can be summarized as follows: First, always maintain the dignity of the poor. Second, really listen to their stories and their dreams. Third, listen for the places where needs and ministry resources come together. Fourth, avoid we-versus-them thinking by affirming that all of us have something to offer each other as teachers and as learners. Fifth, ministry with the poor is all about relationship. As the saying goes, “People don't care what you know until they know that you care.”

Don Ford is a local pastor in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, a scenic community of about 1,600 permanent residents, more than half of whom are employed at minimum wage in service jobs. Each summer the wealthy return for a brief stay in their million dollar vacation homes. In the gulf between these two groups stands The United Methodist Church. Don remembers that the training for healthy churches urged congregations to go to the folks who need you.

He shares four important learnings from this approach. First, identify and locate those in need. Knowing that hardworking parents in minimum wage jobs lacked adequate grocery budgets, his congregation in 2005 prepared over four hundred crisis food boxes with enough food to feed a family of four for three days and made them available without questions to those who sought help. This year they anticipate the need will exceed five hundred. Second, recognize your own strengths and then share. Don came to realize that his calling was to be in ministry with the community outside the doors of the church. His congregation agreed and hired a part-time person to nurture the congregation while Don has been freed for more community outreach. Third, seek out others who work with the poor and offer your assistance. Part of Don's ministry now includes working with law enforcement, the court system, and others in this county of fewer than ten thousand residents to develop a response to the scourge of methamphetamine. He even serves on the alternative sentencing “drug court.” Fourth, creatively develop organizational teams that can better address communitywide challenges. The Pagosa Outreach Connection includes five churches, four community-based organizations, and three government agencies working together to improve the lives of the poor. Don and Pagosa United Methodist Church are partners in this effort.

Tucked back in a bend of the Tennessee River in the north Alabama cotton farming community of Talucah is the home church of Mollie Stewart, the coordinator of Local Church Ministries for the Hinton Rural Life Center. After Mt. Mariah UMC and the few other churches in this tiny hamlet had suffered a series of break-ins, the church decided to try to organize the community for action. The success of their response led the predominately African American congregation to identify other challenges and seek to meet them. Recognizing the need for fire protection and emergency response services, the congregation helped organize the Volunteer Fire Department. Church members gave offerings for scholarships to train local people to become Emergency Medical Technicians, and five EMTs now serve their neighbors. A Food Share project developed multiracially and ecumenically helps this community to feed its hungry.

After completing DISCIPLE Bible Study, Peg Egbert of rural south central Iowa felt God was calling her from her business and ministry in her hair salon to a ministry of pastoral leadership in a congregation. The district superintendent offered her a small congregation of about twelve folks in a community still reeling from the ongoing farm crisis. With God's guidance Peg knocked on every door in that rural community. She introduced herself, visited with them, and invited them to church. Only later did she learn that folks had peeked out from behind curtains to see if she stopped at every home. Things began to happen. Peg also noticed several children in the community. She organized Sunday school classes and later Vacation Bible School. Some of the kids left dirt-floored homes to come to learn that God and Peg and others in the church loved and cared for them just the way they were. Peg sees herself as “God's social worker.” Ironically, that is the profession she had hoped to enter had she been financially able to afford college.

Two rural churches, both in Oklahoma, opened doors to the poor with their imaginative ministries. One of them, near a major chicken processing plant that employed many immigrants, built a soccer field on their lawn to welcome Latino children and youth into the community. The other church, in a tiny community without a public library, enlisted others in the area to renovate an empty building and then collected books to lend.

Opening our doors for ministry with the poor almost always begins with our intention to alleviate some of their suffering. This is one side of the gospel's understanding of Christian service, the charity side. Gil Dawes served as a United Methodist missionary with Argentina's poor and now serves with the immigrant communities in Iowa. Gil observes that charity may impede justice. Offering direct assistance to the poor may alleviate suffering but may also perpetuate an unjust system. Charity that supplements the low wages of workers and allows them to barely survive makes it possible for the economic status quo to continue its exploitation of the most vulnerable. Establishing a more just economic and social system requires changing the systems and structures that create injustices for the poor and privilege for the affluent.

Carol Windrum, the Peace with Justice coordinator of the Nebraska Conference, uses the image of charity and justice being the “two feet of Christian Service.” Trying to walk on just one foot, either one, would be both difficult and ultimately self-defeating. But walking on both feet— being in ministry with the poor while actively working to eliminate poverty—is to live more fully the gospel. □

JUDITH BORTNER HEFFERNAN is executive director of Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries, The United Methodist Church. She lives on a farm near Columbia, Missouri.

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