The last church I served was so rural that the pastor who followed me opened the church door one day to find a groundhog charging down the center aisle of the sanctuary. A church member not much older than I could remember her one-room schoolhouse. These days I serve a church just a few miles from the Philadelphia city line. We have more wild traffic and less wildlife. Both congregations are part of the United Church of Christ. Their cultural contexts are quite different.
My current congregation became officially Open and Affirming over 10 years ago. They have made significant progress toward being a multi-racial. They have become part of a faith based political organizing group. They resonate with the positions taken by the United Church of Christ on the environment, on immigration, on gun control, on racism. The rural congregation included people who were conservative about social and political issues. It was what we’ve been calling a “purple church.”
Perhaps it was because of these two pastoral experiences that a recent New York Times article, How the Rural Urban Division Became America’s Fault Line, caught my eye. It’s author, Emily Badge, looks at our political divisions. While it’s nothing new that rural areas are more conservative than urban areas, we have, in recent years, become more polarized and more hostile. There were two things, in particular, she said that made me wonder about their relevance for the United Church of Christ. “The urban party is also the party of gay marriage and gun control. The more rural party is also the party of stricter immigration and abortion restrictions. . .. We keep adding more reasons to double down on geography as our central fault line, and to view our policy disagreements as conflicts between fundamentally different ways of living.”
The United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of the fight for gay marriage. We’ve had plenty to say about preventing gun violence. Our positions fit Badge’s description of the “urban party.” However, according to the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Date (CARD) Facts on UCC Congregations and Their Settings less than a third of our churches are in urban areas. Sixteen percent are in rural areas, 31% are in villages or towns with a population of less than 10,000. What does that mean for our congregations who are on the other side of that urban rural divide?
The last blog post I wrote was a hopeful story about ministry in an urban setting. I was moved by a comment left by the Rev. John Tschudy and I’d like to share part of it. He said:
I wish I could feel as much hope here in remote northern Minnesota where subways don’t run. Yes, many would say this is “Trump Country”, yet many folk here voted for Obama and Bernie Sanders. I work with many LGBTQ folk that live in the area and I believe I could do a same sex marriage in any of the three congregations I serve. After prayers in one church, I noticed a first nation man, struggling with chemical dependency, still bowed in a posture of deep prayer. In another church, I watched a mixed-race preschooler fetal-alcohol boy coloring during the service. I remember a disgruntled member of one congregation coming into my office to see if I, the new pastor realized how important that church is to the community as the main progressive voice, speaking out for justice and peace. When I led worship in a recent community Lenten service a community leader from another church came up and thanked me for making the connection between biblically based morality and environmental concerns. At 70 years of age I look to the future and wonder who will be willing to drive 140 miles each week to continue to speak out on these issues for the people hungry for the alternative to the conservative church.”
The voices of our rural and smalls town congregations are more important than ever as we seek to heal the polarization in our nation. Across the urban rural divide we continue to pray that “they all may be one.”
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.