I spent this weekend in one of my most favorite places on earth–rural Eastern Oregon. I worked in youth ministry this summer at an itty bitty church camp about 15 miles from La Grande, and the region has held onto my heart ever since. I worked with rodeo kids, 4H kids, young people who considered La Grande “the city”… and we came together from teensy towns scattered across several hundred miles to make *truly* safe space for one another. Safe space for gender non-conforming kids, for kids who’d been in and out of homelessness, for kids who’d been bounced around the foster care system so long that they were scared to unpack their bags for the first several days but finally DID unpack. Why? Because they eventually started to trust that we did not have an ethic of throwing people away.
The not-throwing-people-away ethic is the first thing out of my mouth when folks ask me (often patronizingly) why I love working and living in rural places in the U.S. And these questions are often preceded or followed by comments about hillbillies, rednecks, bad teeth, and trailer trash… comments which, in my experience, are made FAR more often and with much more ease by liberal/progressive folks.
Like most -isms, this anti-rural and class-biased sentiment has fully infiltrated God’s churches. And, like most -isms, it makes me sick. ESPECIALLY when I witness it in God’s church. DOUBLE ESPECIALLY when I witness it in church spaces that claim to be “new” and “anti-oppression” and “radically of the people.” I went to a big city seminary that was deeply invested in its liberal/progressive identity–where rural people were openly mocked in class and/or wholly erased from discussions about the church’s work in the world. Meanwhile, we spent many a class lifting up “non-hierarchal” models of “new worship”, i.e. emergent/emergence churches.
But you know what? There’s not a whole lot of “new” church going on in Eastern Oregon. There’s plenty of struggle. There’s plenty of intellectual prowess. There’s plenty of hunger for in-depth teaching on theology and biblical studies, grounded in real-life experience and application. There is political, racial, linguistic and class diversity. And the ministries that exist out there often do life-saving and joyful work. But so far, as far as I can tell, places like Eastern Oregon haven’t been a magnet for the emergent movement.
I have a few theories about why the emergent church appears to avoid rural places like the plague: Maybe there aren’t enough coffee shops? Maybe there aren’t enough indie shows? Maybe–God forbid–the locals will laugh at the emergent church aesthetic (newsboy cap, coke bottle glasses, and oddly-shaped facial hair)? I think most these things are probably true. More importantly though, I think the emergent church–like a lot of facets of liberal urban culture–thinks itself too good for rural people (as in too “educated”, too “progressive”, too “anti-oppression”, etc).
Before I go further, I want to lift up the work of others who’ve spent time hashing some of this out–The Covered Dish is a fun blog to read, and Rev. Chad Holtz did a recent piece about potential for emergent church-rural church convergence.
Holtz is definitely more optimistic than I am. But then, I work in the Northwest and he works in North Carolina. You don’t have to spend much time in the Washington/Oregon area before you hear the standard claim that the mountains separating the eastern and western parts of these states may as well separate Earth from Mars. And yes, of course, these two regions are culturally/physically/historically/economically/environmentally very distinct. But let’s be real, Portlandites/Olympians/Seattlites– the way y’all speak about your neighbors to the east is atrocious. My hope for Holtz and his church crew is that North Carolinians in urban/suburban places are far less hostile to their rural sisters and brothers.
And let me be clear: I have no romanticized notions about living in rural locales. I grew up the queer, gender non-conforming child of a pastor in a 15-people-per-Sunday tongue-talking church where the sweetest little old ladies tried hard as Satan to pray the gay out of me (and everyone else). I know about Church Hurt in the rural context. I also know that Church Hurt can and does happen everywhere, and that it is WRONG to place the blame for all of it on rural folks. Those same little old ladies baked cakes for my family when they scarcely had enough to feed themselves twice a day. They are also my people, they are also the body of Christ… and there also continue to be *other rural Christians in my life who stand up for me* against this precise kind of Church Hurting.
Here are the Top 10 Statements That Piss Me off When GoodUrbanLiberals (inc. the emergents) Try to Talk About Rural Folks:
10- “They’re all racist”: Effectively erases rural people of color, not to mention anti-racist coalition building in rural places.
9- “They’re all homophobic”: Effectively erases rural queer and trans people. And let me tell you, we are legion and we are fabulous.
8- “It’s not their fault, but they’re just so uneducated…”: Bite me. César Chávez didn’t finish the eighth grade and 17 years after his death he STILL continues to educate millions of people on successful strategies for social movement building.
7- “They’re so violent because [insert reference to gun culture here]”: Remarkably similar to the community-blaming fears I hear regarding “high crime rates” in urban communities of color. Actually, the access to healthy and sustainably-hunted game that rural hunters rely on to feed their families and communities acts as a crucial buffer against further impoverishment…. and the further folks are from starving, the further they generally are from inciting violent crime in their own communities (who needs to stick up the convenience store when you have 200 lbs of elk in the freezer to eat, sell, gift, or barter?).
6- “They’re all politically conservative”: Au contraire, says Oregon Rural Action.
5- “They’re all theologically conservative”: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his own theology profoundly radicalized on a visit to Marks MS– a poor rural Black community where the stories and struggles of the local people convinced him that integration and civil rights were an incomplete platform for him as a Christian. King was evangelized in Marks by the notion that the crux of human dignity depended upon a radical, structural redistribution of *economic* power. And after Marks MS got under his skin, King started preaching that truth (and within 3 years, he lost massive support from previous allies and, eventually, was murdered).
4- “They consistently vote against their own best interests”: There’s a bajillion pieces of evidence to the contrary, but here are two of my favorites: Direct Action Welfare Group West Virginia and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
3- ANY statement about the quality of rural people’s dental hygiene: No, Kentucky families are not filling their babies’ bottles with Mountain Dew. There is coal dust polluting ground water throughout much of the Appalachian watershed. It rots your body inside and out. If that upsets you, take it up with Massey Coal and STFU about folks’ teeth.
2- “They’re all misogynists”: Tough rural women kick ass and take names. ‘Nuff said.
1- Any use of the term “redneck”: You know where the phrase redneck came from? When the West Virginia United Mine Workers Association engaged in a series of armed standoffs against local law enforcement and mine owners in the 1920s, they tied red handkerchiefs around their necks in combat. Yes, it is a pro-union term. And yes, the UMWA was one of the first interracial unions in the U.S. And yes, West Virginia split from Virginia on the basis of its opposition to slavery during the Civil War. Urban liberal elitists, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
I sincerely hope that readers respond here with stories about how ANY church, including the emergent church, is currently building up rural communities. I may very well be geographically located in a more deeply divided place than the rest of you. I hope so. For now, in this particular place and time, I know that many of the people I love and trust most as Christians are wholly left out from conversations about “the future of the church” simply because they are geographically isolated and their cultures are disrespected. And if the emergent church is ready to leave them behind, then I am absolutely ready to leave the emergent church behind.