Author note: written by Dr. Marvin Lee Anderson
Rural Routes Through the Holy: Thrive Where You Are
Rev. Dr. Catherine Smith, in her article Somewhere, United Church Rural Ministry Network, Fall#11, quotes the geographer Tim Cresswell: “Place, at a basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power.” Catherine asks: “Who defines power? Is the power and gift of rural recognized within the place that it exists? Or, is rural power only regarded to the extent that those in rural places succeed in becoming more proficient in ways not their own?”
Our first Rural Routes Through the Holy event was held in 2019. It was a lot of fun and a robust time of storytelling and fellowship in rural fashion. We postponed it each year until this June because of Covid-19. The Postcard Project, came out of our World Café discussions and the awareness of isolation exacerbated by our need to care for one another through physical distancing. This series of 6 cards has been mailed out to small congregations within a specific radius and made available to everyone on Facebook and through Regional Newsletters.
The colourful postcards offer both encouragement and pertinent questions for small and rural congregations. Those questions resulted from our first meeting and warrant further discussion in the wake of the pandemic and the challenges going forward for our rural churches and their local communities. Like Catherine’s questions above, they’re good questions. Each postcard names an element of rural life: Rural Hope, Rural Fear, Rural Stories, Rural Neighbours, Rural Lament and Rural Joy. You can follow the antics of the fictitious Dave and Della from Rural United Church as they engage their postcards here.
Throughout my professional and academic career, I have researched, consulted, written and taught about the tragic demise of the small family farm, rural communities and small rural churches across North America, which I have personally witnessed and experienced firsthand. It’s broken my heart and stretched it at the same time.
Restor(y)ing Rural Places Faces, Graces and Spaces
Sadly enough, I sometimes feel like mainline and conservative Christian denominations can’t wait to close down or amalgamate small and often remote rural congregations and churches. I’ve had to close one myself as a lay minister. They are valued more for the property proceeds from selling their buildings and acreages than for the immense contributions those rural places and churches have made to their respective local communities and national denominations over the years.
Full disclosure: I’m also tired of attending and seeing one church-sponsored workshop after another blame and shame rural and small membership churches for what they’re doing wrong. This shaming narrative reflects the power dynamic to which Catherine alludes, in which the mad pursuit of success driven by denominational and cultural agendas is laced with condescending messages and innuendoes that rural and small churches are not good enough and will never succeed, because it is not in their DNA. They’re rural after all, and all the usual denigrating stereotypes associated with it.
To the contrary, the strong resistance and mixed reception by rural people to this messaging coming from distant metropolitan offices is worth reflecting on, understanding better, and talking about—together. For those of us who are proud of being rural, and who know rural culture has undeniably been the historical context and cultural seedbed in which music, arts, conservation and environmental stewardship, humour and comedy, entertainment, intergenerational community, and contemplative spirituality have flourished in the Atlantic region, we know better.
Jesus was all about honouring ‘little’ and marginalized people in his peasant culture, not shaming and stoning them. His parabolic wisdom is taken directly from those ordinary rural lives and how God was seen and experienced in them. This is the Jesus I follow and the God I love.
Please join me and Catherine, Kerry, and Martin, The Rural Routes Team, for this rare opportunity to honour, learn from, and truly celebrate our familial ancestors, rural values, culture, and communities. We look forward to listening to your own stories and wisdom through the World (Rural) Café. Instead of looking back with nostalgia, we will draw on those conversations in our time together in prayerfully and proudly Restor(y)ing Rural Places, Faces, Graces and Spaces—in going forward with renewed faith and hope in the future.
Thanks be to God.
Marvin Lee Anderson