Prairie poetry

hunter_church2.jpgI love a good story, don't you? One that you can sink your teeth into by a fireplace or on your porch, with a cup of tea or a nice craft brew at your side. Financial pressures, and the general pace of 21st-century life make it more challenging for media to send reporters out to cover the narratives that oftimes help make sense of places that some of us have never seen.

That's why, (with a few caveats), I loved the recent rural churches story by David Van Biema in Time.

How many of us know that there is a crisis, a shortage of pastors, facing America's rural congregations? Caught up in the media drumbeat about (admittedly important) issues on both coasts and internationally, we aren't hearing as much as we should about the more mundane, less controversial decisions that make up the fabric of most lives.

Van Biema's lede paints a vivid image of loss:

Carol Porter, 63 and no word mincer, sits in her modest kitchen in Euclid, Minn., and recalls the day her 118-year-old church was burned to the ground. "I was baptized, confirmed and married there," she reports. Her family had moved two lots down from Euclid's First Presbyterian, so she was able to watch through the kitchen window a few years ago as fellow parishioners knocked down the church, buried its fixtures and then put a match to what remained, sending a thousand Sundays of memories up in smoke.

America's rural congregations, thinned by age and a population drain that plagues much of farm country, have gotten too small and too poor to attract pastors. No pastor means no church. And losing one's church--well, Porter has a vivid memory of that, living as she does in an area where abandoned buildings are control-burned for safety. The flames were taller than a man, she remembers. "In plain English," she says, "it looked like hell."

Here's a fascinating statistics from the Fund for Theological Education: less than half of American rural congregations have a "full-time seminary-trained pastor." But the writer doesn't rely on statistics and quotable talking heads. He gets out into the lovely Minnesota countryside, and talks to real people struggling with real problems--and trying to find creative solutions reminiscent of the old circuit-riding days.

One response to the pastor shortage is "yoking" two congregations to share a circuit-riding minister--and one salary. Along the Minnesota--North Dakota line, the yokes stretch thin. Jeff Gustafson, in the town of Warren, Minn., adds a degree of difficulty: he's Methodist, but one of his two yoked churches is Presbyterian. Another pastor travels 200 miles (about 320 km) every weekend to serve five churches. A botched three-pastor attempt to connect three already yoked churches (including Grue) with four more resulted in, among other things, shut-ins being overlooked and not receiving Communion for years.

What seems conspicuously absent here is a reference to what Roman Catholics are doing to fill prairie pulpits. Are the monks of Benedictine St. John's Abbey, Collegeville (about 70 miles from Minneapolis) filling some spiritual needs for Roman Catholics in Minnesota? Is there an organized program to supply clergy?

I bring up St. John's because of a very intriguing reference Van Biema makes to Crookston, Minn., pastor Daniel Wolpert. A Presbyterian, Wolpert started the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing, a retreat center that allows visitors to partake of and receive training in the ancient spiritual disciplines of the Christian church. That's worth another story in itself.

There is new life springing up, even in the midst of prairiescapes grappling with population loss and a shortage of clergy. Here's how one clergy quoted by Van Biema puts it at the end of the article: ""God is with you wherever you are going," he tells the youngsters. "God never says goodbye to us. Let's pray: O God, thank you for not saying goodbye. Thank you for always being with us."

Good stories engage us. We don't want them to end. I don't know about you, but I want to know what happens to these folks. Faith is not always about the spectular, but about the ordinary. I hope in another year or two Van Biema stops in the "gorgeous, wind-strafed corner of Minnesota" again, and gives urban and suburban readers another glimpse of a rural life that, to many of us, seems as distant as the Little House on the Prairie. They must get a little tired reading about us.

Postcard from Flickr: The Commons.

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