Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Small town vitality: No community without economy

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo, Iowa - "Remembering our past, looking toward the future..."
Evangelical blogger, Jake Meador, had a piece put up on Christianity Today just over a month ago that I had been meaning to read:

Why We Need Small Towns

Having just moved to a small town last fall, the title caught my eye, and being somewhat familiar with Meador's postings, I wasn't surprised to see him talk positively about Wendell Berry, who has been an inspiration to us both. Indeed, Berry's work has helped inspire me to persevere through what has been a hard transition back into small town life, after leaving my own small hometown 15 years ago.

It was all college towns and suburbs in those intervening years, and it's been this difficult transition back that prompts me to wonder about the title. Need? We need small towns? What, precisely, is here that's needed elsewhere? - In what follows (and it's a lot) I don't so much respond to Meador directly, as much as I reflect on my own small town context and current struggles with it, in light of his little piece on small towns...

Sticking it out in Small Town America

One of Meador's regular interlocutors is conservative commentator, Rod Dreher, whose recent book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Meador summarizes as...
Part memoir, part biography, part meditation, Little Way is the story of journalist Rod Dreher's younger sister, Ruthie, who at age 40 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Watching her community rally around her, Dreher awakens to the beauty of life in a small town. More than that, it alerts him to his fixation on big cities and their big dreams and big projects, and how he has disdained the ordinary pleasures of life in his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Indeed, despite a sense that his leaving was right and good, Dreher was so grieved by what he had lost in becoming a city slicker that he has since moved back to his hometown and continues to reflect periodically in his column at The American Conservative on the virtues of small town life.

One metaphor of Berry's that both have cited is that of "stickers and boomers," which Berry picked up from his teacher, novelist Wallace Stegner. In his stunning 2012 Jefferson Lecture, "It All Turns on Affection," Berry summarizes...
The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power... Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. [Note: I do resonate w/ Alan Jacob's criticisms of potentially too-easy dichotomies.]
Berry is a sticker, and Meador, Dreher, Jacobs, and I have all been inspired by that stubborn old farmer-genius. We rightly don't want to be greedy, ambitious "boomers," and it's in small towns that we see the potential to reclaim a sense of community and character that many are starting to realize we've lost as a society. (Sometimes I feel like this sense of loss is peculiar to the plight of the white middle class, and is therefore a crisis of privilege, but that's another topic...)

In Berry's thought, you can't have strong community without a certain (now countercultural) conception and practice of economy, and this is where I think Dreher and Meador run into trouble: They seem to want the former without seriously wrestling with the latter.

Pastor/professor Rolf Bouma recently visited Berry at his farm near Port Royal, Ky., and summarizes Berry's thoughts on the overlapping/interlocking concepts of community and economy:
  • Community: "that rich interplay of independence and interdependence that allows people to live out their own lives before the face of God while offering themselves, their gifts and their goods to serve the commons. In turn, they receive the offerings of others as an integral part of their own lives."
  • Economy: "for (Berry), is not finances or GNP or means of production or supply and demand. He harkens back to the old Greek notion that economy (oikos) is housekeeping and homecoming. It’s living harmoniously on the land in concert with others while keeping faith with generations past and generations future."
People, land, and work - community and economy - that's what makes for good "stickerhood." But part of the trouble with even Small Town America these days is that...

We're all boomers now

My main worry with Dreher's and Meador's optimism (romanticism?) for small towns is best summed up by a later quote in Berry's Jefferson lecture...
Virtually all of us now share with the most powerful industrialists their remoteness from actual experience of the actual world. Like them, we participate in an absentee economy, which makes us effectively absent even from our own dwelling places. Though most of us have little wealth and perhaps no power, we consumer–citizens are more like James B. Duke [his boomer par excellence] than we are like my grandfather [his sticker par excellence]. By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers.
Small towns all across the Midwest and Plains states - Meador's Nebraska and my Iowa - are drying up and blowing away, and with them go the sticker virtues. A significant factor in this withering has to do with the emergence of large-scale agriculture, the food system it props up (among other systems), and the economic system that makes it all tick. These have had a devastating effect on small-scale farmers and the rural communities they clustered around.

Drive around rural Iowa and you can see this plain as day: Farm fields, equipment, and buildings are bigger; but houses in the country are fewer. The downtowns of both Toledo and neighboring Tama are in sad shape. Houses in town regularly fall into disrepair. Service industry jobs are the norm here, and professional work is hard to come by. Labor for material production happens at large-scale companies that make products that go into products that go into products, and these jobs often entail a commute to larger surrounding cities and towns. Some even commute to Des Moines, an hour away.

These economic shifts have contributed to an unraveling of the moral fabric of our community. My wife has said the difference between her hometown of 15 years ago and now is staggering, and we were already starting to see fabric fraying when we were in high school in the early and mid-90s. She's now a mental health worker in our community and the needs are great - substance abuse, domestic violence, self injury, depression, etc. - and the workers few, with prescription meds often the only recourse in the absence of a community of care, support, and nurture.

Families of means and relatively good character raise their children, they go off to college, and usually don't come back (like we almost did). We've even seen some in our parents' generation leave town with a sense that there's nothing left to stick around for. Those families that do stick around tend to be ones that have severe challenges on a number of fronts: economically, educationally, morally - and exhibit patterns of generation-spanning dysfunction. So the "stickers" in struggling communities often aren't exactly the moral paragons that Meador and Dreher are looking for, and they are in desperate need.

From the embers

My struggling neighborhood church,
seen from my office window
So what small towns like mine need is the very same thing that Meador says they have, or at least are (somehow) more capable of having: the sticker virtue of affection, having "such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it," to quote Berry again.

So while I have joined Meador and Dreher in their quest to locate, participate, and nurture such affection in small towns, I want to be realistic about the state of affairs - and around here, they are not good. It's my contention that the economic system of "bigness" has helped rob small town life - at least in the Midwest that I know and love - of many things, including part of its capacity to love people and place.

For my money, as a Christian radical of sorts, the necessary step toward reconstructing communities of affection in such hard circumstances is an attempt to envision, build, and practice alternatives to the increasingly unstable status quo. Here's one way I see this possibility emerging in our local community (there are others, happily)...

Meador cites "ecclesial deserts" in small towns, and that's certainly a term that resonates. Heck, I've even used the word "desert" to describe our church life over the past year. But I started participating in the local ministers association early this year, which includes clergy from Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist congregations (no surprise there), but also the local Catholic priest and the husband and wife co-pastors of the local Assembly of God congregation. (And now me, a church-planting Brethren representing...myself.)

The primary ministry of this group for a number of years has been one of material assistance to those in need: gas vouchers, housing/rent assistance, paying some bills, getting some groceries, etc. Money for this ministry is generated by the charity of participating congregations via periodic special offerings in worship and fundraising events. Our treasurer, a 94 year-old retired (but still inspiringly active) Presbyterian minister, brings a printed income/expense report to each meeting, and I'm starting to see a pattern:
  • Requests for assistance are consistently going up
  • The cost of material goods (gas, food, utilities) is consistently going up
  • Our income-via-charitable-giving is holding fairly steady
  • Our balance is currently below $100
This is, in other words, an unsustainable ministry in its current form. At our meeting last week we started to wonder out loud what we were going to do about this. Out of the simple fact we don't have any money at the moment, we decided that we have to turn down requests for assistance. But we'll have some checks rolling in from the more wealthy congregations soon, so that will get us going again...but for how long?

Then the local Lutheran minister, a young guy a few years into his ministry, said "What about a community garden?"

My eyes lit up; he read my mind!

We went on to have a constructive discussion about how a project like this could 1) elicit more embodied participation from folks in our established congregations (some of whom are good gardeners), and 2) be worked into the already-established food pantry and community meal ministry the Assembly of God congregation conducts.

So even in the midst of this "ecclesial desert," there appear glimmers of imagination and hope that might - God willing - ignite the smoldering embers of neighborly love that could lead to holistic healing and renewal in these struggling small towns.

My prayers are weighted heavily on such renewal. God help us, in Jesus' name...

[Update: Rod Dreher was gracious enough to read and seriously respond to this post at his column on TAC: No Economy, No Community - Thanks, Rod; this is blogging at its best!]

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