Loss and Change in Rural America

May 7th, 2013

Fluttering in the Wind

Mary Lucier wants you to feel life on the Great Plains. In her mixed-media art installation entitled Plains of Sweet Regret, she uses five screens in a darkened room to present video fragments of things like rodeo cowboys and farmers. When I visited the exhibit in a Fort Worth museum a few years ago, however, it was not the people that struck me. It was the lack of them. The most haunting image in the 18-minute video loop is of a weather-worn book with pages fluttering in the wind. At that moment, the screens are synchronized so that you feel you are standing in the abandoned North Dakota schoolhouse where it was filmed. It’s clear that the “sweet regret” in the title is for all that has been lost.

These are interesting times on the Great Plains and in many other parts of rural America. US Census figures show that the United States continues to grow, adding 27.3 million people from 2000 to 2010, a growth rate of 9.7 percent. But that growth is not spread evenly around the country. In fact, 46 percent of rural counties lost population in the same decade. According to the Census report, “The counties that lost population were mostly regionally clustered and mirrored decades of population loss for those areas; for example, many Appalachian counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia; many Great Plains counties in the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas; and a group of counties in and around the Mississippi Delta saw population declines.”

What is happening in areas that face dramatic population losses? What are the challenges and even opportunities that these conditions pose? And how do churches proclaim a message of hope when so many of our notions of success are built on the value of growth?

Boom and Rust

If you talk to Joel Kotkin of the Praxis Strategy Group and Kevin Mulligan of Texas Tech University, you will get an entirely different view of the prospects of the Great Plains. Kotkin and Mulligan released a report on the future of the region hailing its revival, stating, “Our research shows that the Great Plains, far from dying, is in the midst of a historic recovery.” The researchers point to growth in many economic sectors, most especially in energy production. New (and controversial) methods for extracting natural gas have fueled an energy boom in areas like western North Dakota and Texas.

The new boom has given the Great Plains the lowest unemployment of any region in the country. It has also attracted young people back after generations of out-migration. Cities in the region such as Omaha, Oklahoma City, Sioux Falls, Lubbock, and Dallas/Fort Worth are drawing many new residents through domestic migration.

So what explains the discrepancy in perspective? Even Kotkin and Mulligan note that there is a lot of rust among the boom. “Large areas have been left behind—rural small towns, deserted mining settlements, Native American reservations—and continue to suffer widespread poverty, low wages and, in many cases, demographic decline.” In fact, more than one in three US counties had more deaths than births in 2012. In those counties, there are far more abandoned buildings than new big-box stores.

Immigrant Impact

In cities large and small, the presence or absence of immigrants from other countries makes a difference, too. Some large metropolitan areas like Detroit and St. Louis would have had a net loss of population last year if it weren’t for new immigrants. As reported by Yahoo! News, demographer Randy Capps says that rural areas feel the impact even more. Immigrants include many risk-takers who are willing to move into areas that are in decline. Michigan governor Rick Snyder says, “Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs,” according to an Associated Press report. “They’re making things happen.”

Snyder is ready to hang out the welcome sign for foreign-born immigrants. “They create jobs,” he says. A Washington Times article noted that immigration may be particularly attractive to leaders in the Midwest and Northeast since young adults in those regions have been migrating to growing job markets in the South and West. In my own declining community, specialty stores stocking Latin American and Haitian foods have been popping up in old general stores. Even without growth, there is change.

Adjustment and Adaptation

The development of the Great Plains has been “the largest, longestrunning agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” This dramatic statement by Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, two New Jersey academics, has attracted a lot of attention in the region, especially since the Poppers also suggested two decades ago that depopulation would lead to the establishment of a huge “Buffalo Commons.” They envisioned a new national park covering large swathes of the Plains, returning the land to its natural state with buffalo roaming freely through the area.

The Buffalo Commons has not materialized (though there are many more buffalo these days). Agriculture still reigns supreme in the region, with Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Montana adding 7.2 million acres to production of corn, soybean, and wheat since 1950, according to a 2007 USA Today article. Despite the population decline in many of the producing counties, this does not mean there hasn’t been innovation in land use.

Run by the federal government, the Conservation Reserve Program took 36 million acres of farmland out of production in 2006 and converted it into grass, trees, and other habitat for wildlife. Other groups are at work to create a huge bison reserve. Duane Lammers is a consultant for bison management programs. Quoted in the same USA Today article, Lammers is encouraging the marketing of buffalo by “getting people to use all the parts of the buffalo in products.” The growth of Internet availability has also made it possible for people to create a hybrid lifestyle that combines life on the land with work on the Web.

Small Towns and Small Churches

Churches in rural areas facing population decline have their own adaptation challenges. Congregations, like communities, hear a cultural message that tells them, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” This can lead to a sense of failure and loss. Rural congregations are “dealing with grief issues,” according to John Young, director of the Rural Ministry Program at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ontario.

An article on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website quotes Young on the mindset of these churches: “They say, ‘We don’t have the numbers that we used to have. We’re older. We don’t have as many young people.’ Churches wonder, ‘Are we going to be able to keep going? Will the congregation be able to sustain itself financially, and will it continue to be a force in the local community?’ ”

Churches are adapting, however. Quoted in the same article, the Reverend Jack Gray, pastor of Sully Christian Reformed Church in Sully, Iowa, says he has pulled together with other pastors in similar settings to form a peer group looking at ways to revitalize their ministries. “The rural church needs a sense of purpose and accomplishment to keep going and keep improving,” according to Gray. While they may not be growing numerically, these congregations can thrive by serving their neighbors and supporting mission opportunities. These congregations can also support young people, offering them leadership opportunities that will prepare them for service in the larger church.

When the prophet Jeremiah sent a message to the exiles who had been carried off to Babylon, he told them to “promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). The church is at its most faithful when it sees and responds to the community in which it finds itself. An incarnational ministry shares the struggles of the people and offers the gospel message that God often does the greatest work from the margins.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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