Rural America: Challenges and opportunities

April 25th, 2017

A tale of two novels

The rural county where I live made international headlines last fall when a concerned mother asked the school board to review two books being taught in the school system. The books contained many racial slurs, and the parent, whose child is biracial, asked, “Right now, we are a nation divided . . . so what are we teaching our children? We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

The books, however, are classics of modern literature — To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Both are lauded for the way they tackle questions of race in the United States. The books were pulled for a short time before eventually being returned to the shelf, but not before Accomack County, Virginia, became a flash point for debates about rural America. Was the county a stand-in for censorship and a willful ignorance of culture? The stereotypes of rural America dominated the conversation. The rally for literature on the courthouse lawn didn’t make many papers, nor did the reading of To Kill a Mockingbird at the local community theater.

Quickly, the storm blew over, and we were forgotten. But the issues and potential of rural communities like mine are worthy of real attention in this season of change. Communities of faith, which have always had strong roots in rural areas, may have a particularly useful word to say.

“My Home Is a Hub of Misery”

Even before the presidential election, people were curious about what was happening in the heartland. Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance’s book about life in the Appalachian region, easily became a best seller in the run-up to the election. Vance’s story tells of his escape from the dim situation he shared with so many of the young people in his southern Ohio hometown. “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery,” he observes bleakly.

Vance feels that rural communities like the one he grew up in suffer from far more than economic dislocation. The most troubling issue he notes is “a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” This sense of helplessness also affected the kind of faith questions Vance asked. “When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.”

Vance recently announced in a New York Times editorial that, after finding success in Silicon Valley, he’s returning to Ohio to found an organization to address opioid abuse, something that’s plaguing many rural areas. “It’s jarring to live in a world where every person feels his life will only get better when you came from a world where many rightfully believe that things have become worse,” Vance says. “And I’ve suspected that this optimism blinds many in Silicon Valley to the real struggles in other parts of the country. So I decided to move home.”

A rural-urban disparity

“A hub of misery” doesn’t describe all of rural America. Vance notes some troubling realities for many regions, but there are encouraging signs as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2016 report on rural America shows that after declining for several years following the Great Recession of 2008, the population of rural areas steadied. “Median annual earnings rose in rural areas and poverty fell markedly in 2015,” according to the report.

But even with these modest improvements, rural counties still lag far behind their urban counterparts in most categories. Urban employment has risen at double the rate of rural areas, and “median earnings are substantially lower in rural areas than in urban areas,” according to the USDA. Rural poverty also remains higher.

This disparity between the two regions has continued to grow, adding to a sense that vast areas of the country are being left behind in the slow recovery. Another contributing factor is something The Atlantic magazine titled “The Graying of Rural America” in a recent article, which says, “Today, just 19 percent of Americans live in areas the Census department classifies as rural, down from 44 percent in 1930. But roughly one-quarter of seniors live in rural communities, and 21 of the 25 oldest counties in the United States are rural.” The magazine quotes Mickey Dodd, a 61-year-old resident of the small town of Fossil, Oregon, saying, “The young people have no chance whatsoever of making it here. . . . That’s why the smart ones, when they finish high school, they leave.”

Is the heartland still home?

The heartland of the United States used to be where the country looked for the values and identity that bound the nation together. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are interesting points of controversy because they’re part of a widely held canon that defines American literature. They also share a rural setting with other classics such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. With all the challenges facing rural areas, has the heartland lost its place as our communal home?

Maybe this isn’t new. Book critic Mark Athitakis feels we may have always overlooked the diversity of experience in rural America. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, he remarked, “I think it would be helpful if we got past this conversation . . . that everybody in the Midwest is all this one way.” To confront the challenges facing rural America, we’ll need to find ways to recognize and respect differences. As Athitakis says, “All of us need to develop our reflex for trying to understand where other people come from, or people who are different from our experiences, our economic backgrounds, our geographical backgrounds, our understanding of what politics means, our idea of what place means.”

Churches adapting

Churches are also adapting to this changing landscape. Particularly in mainline Protestant churches, decreasing budgets and diminished worship attendance are pushing congregations to explore new models of rural ministry.

An article from Duke Divinity School highlights how churches are moving to part-time clergy and innovating for a new season of ministry. “Three models have emerged that illustrate how vital churches are making the adjustment: the pastor as equipper of laypeople, the pastor as ambassador and the pastor as team member,” the article notes. With nearly 40 percent of mainline churches having no full-time paid clergy in 2012, churches are adjusting expectations of pastors. “She or he becomes less a provider of religious services and more an equipper of laypeople to perform duties that had previously fallen to clergy.”

For Reverend Joe Smith, the part-time pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran in Lakewood, Washington, empowering laypeople to take on some traditional clerical roles frees him to be an ambassador for the church. “There was no playbook at all,” Smith says in the Duke article. “Without it being a circus or too much of a publicity stunt, you do whatever you can to have people in the church, because the critical mass is important. If people come into what feels like an empty space, they won’t come back.”

It started in a garden

The original intentions of God, as seen in the opening chapters of Genesis, are embodied in the story of a garden. In Eden, human beings found their purpose in relationship with one another, with God, and with the land. The idealized vision of human community is given a rural setting.

Hopefully, unearthing the challenges of rural life in contemporary America will lead us to a deeper exploration of our relationships with the land and with one another. Mark Twain certainly used the bucolic landscape he knew as a setting to explore the society he lived in. Those of us who live in and love rural places know how unique they are. God speaks through them still.

The challenge for people of faith is to allow God’s vision of a flourishing people in a flourishing land to inform our communities. When rural life is reduced to stereotypes or defined only by what it lacks, we begin to believe the narratives of despair that feed the maladies of both the heartland and the heart.

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