There were a dozen of us in that small beige room in Morton, Illinois. We were in a stone building, which sat just beyond the Walmart, where the town diffuses into farmland. The building is now the home of the Rural Home Missionary Association, a non-profit dedicated to training and equipping pastors to work and live in rural areas.
Ron Klassen stands at the front of the room, PowerPoint at the ready, and recites the statistics that inform RHMA's mission. Three out of four seminary graduates will pastor a church in a town of 5,000 people or fewer. Most of the seminaries are in the cities. His lecture isn't news to us. It's June 25th, 2017, and Donald Trump has been president for just over five months. We know America is divided. We can feel it, even in this room.
Out of the 12 of us, there are four women and eight men. Only one is a person of color. Two of the women are there in their role as pastor's wife. Another woman, Roberta, is in her mid-fifties and preparing for a second career as a pastor after a lengthy service in the military. I count as the fourth woman—I'm a journalist. During our class, Klassen and his teaching partner, Barney Wells, often comment how they've never had a group with so many women. The person of color is a male seminary student from Korea. For the entirety of the course, we never talk about race.
The goal of the class is necessary but fraught. Wells and Klassen want to link the urban-rural divide using Evangelical pastors as the trestle. To that end, they have developed an entire curriculum to help the men in their classes understand rural America, including reading three different books on rural America and rural ministry, trips to a hog confinement and a dairy farm, a picnic with trap shooting, and a particularly unnerving exercise where we walk around a small town and try to talk to people.
This place and this curriculum are male-centric. RHMA is Evangelical, and the majority of Evangelical churches in the Midwest do not ordain women. The bulk of the seminary students in the room come from Dallas Theological Seminary, an Evangelical seminary whose chancellor is Chuck Swindoll. Swindoll is a conservative heavy-hitter who is publicly against gay marriage, female pastors, and female elders. RHMA supports rural missionaries, and the application states that these missionaries must be men in heterosexual relationships. In order to attend the class, I had to sign a covenant stating that I wouldn't smoke or drink while I was there. I signed it, but I brought whiskey.
I knew what I was doing. My entire 34 years of life up to that point had been spent in the middle of America attending Evangelical churches. These spaces and beliefs were not foreign to me. I knew how to operate. I knew the coded language of words like "blessing" and "equipped" and "Biblical foundation." I had already attended National Rifle Association gun-safety training and was (and am, fight me) a crack shot. I'd been to hog confinements, and for many years my family bought our milk straight from a dairy farmer in Texas. I wasn't acting out of some sort of cultural ignorance. I knew exactly the world I was going into, and I knew, as well, that for the whole week, I was a woman alone in rural Illinois, with a group of conservative Christians, surrounded by cornfields and shoddy Internet connection. That's exactly why I brought the whiskey and a sturdy pair of running shoes.
I was supposed to stay with a host couple, but at the last minute, at a gas station on the Iowa border, I decided to book a hotel room. I'm glad I did; it was a tough week. Bridging the rural-urban divide, as it turns out, requires emotional excavation.
On the first day of class, we begin with statistics. They were in our required reading, a textbook titled Rural People and Communities in the Twenty-First Century. It's clear pretty early on that I'm the only person who read the textbook. For those who haven't, we go over the highlights with some PowerPoint slides for our aid.
The first problem is defining "rural," and this is a real problem. The United States government defines rural as anything "not urban." It's a definition already in the negative, a delineation inside of an absence. "Urban" is any incorporated town with a population of more than "2,500 and less than 50,000 people." Given that definition, only 15 to 30 percent of the population resides in a rural area.
But Klassen and Wells define "rural" a little differently. Their definition of rural includes any place with low population volume, low population density, extractive industry, and removal from goods and services. They show us a map of metro and non-metro areas that show the parts of America removed from a large metropolitan area. Within that definition, the territory of rural America increases.
The reality is more complicated. Rural is not just a census definition, it's a way of life. It's a mindset that arises from the land. It's a way of thinking that is catalyzed by isolation and open spaces, by want, scarcity, nature, and family. By this definition, I am rural. But I don't say that out loud. No one would believe it from a journalist who has Jack Daniels in her bag and a keychain that reads "Feminist as Fuck."
The rural mindset, according to Klassen, is one that arises from land and place, but supersedes them. Therefore, he explains as he flips through slides, it makes sense that a pastor would preach while carrying a gun.
I visibly blanch. "Wait, explain that...."
Klassen smiles. Wells begins to tell a story about a pastor in rural Ohio who carried a gun at his hip every Sunday at the pulpit. Everyone in the room, except me, nods.
"Out here," Wells adds, "a gun isn't a weapon, it's a tool. You need it to hunt. You need it for your job. A gun is a pastoral aide."
Everyone is already on board with this logic. No other explanations are needed. It's almost as if Evangelicalism already has a predisposition to a rural buy-in. The language of this class is coded for political realities. For example, if I were to admit to everyone I voted for Hillary Clinton, I would immediately be cast as urban. And if this is the case, perhaps this class ought to be taught in reverse.
During a break, I ask Klassen and Wells: "Can you teach this class in reverse? Can you teach rural people to understand urban life?" Klassen shakes his head and says he'll need to think about it. Wells frowns and explains that urbanism has been pushed on American culture for so long. What we need is ruralism. But he promises to think about the question and give me a better answer. I get that answer at the end of the week, when one of the pastors' wives calls me a sinner. But for now, we are strangers, sitting around a table, furiously trying to understand one another in a beige room that smells of stale Folgers and homemade shortbread.
The class is designed to be a mix of classroom and immersive experiences. So on our first night, we head out to the hobby farm of a local family, John and Jane Sadler. Three generations of the Sadlers live on this sprawling acreage that has a pond, dug by the Sadler's son, Sam. The main house looks like a large toolshed, with an expansive awning over a slab of concrete. Wells tells us that John Sadler began his welding business in his garage. In order to skirt property taxes and a whole bunch of other coding and zoning rules, he built up that garage as his house. He sold the business 11 years ago and has dedicated his retirement to serving the Lord. He donates his time and money to the church and opens his home to RHMA students every year. He also conducts life flights in his twin-engine airplane with Sam.
As we mill about eating plates of lasagna and salad, the Sadlers' grandchildren, all in their late teens and early 20s, hover around, eager to help grab drinks, clean up the trash, and make sure their grandma is sitting down. In many ways, John Sadler is an archetypal Midwestern grandfather; a self-made jack-of-all-trades, he's vocal on politics and his theories about the apocalypse. I don't ask, but I know that if a TV is on inside the house, it's tuned to Fox News. There is a prayer before every meal. I know without being told that every single one of the people on this farm would give me clothes or money if I was in need. No one here has ever voted Democrat.
Without going inside, I know the golden oak trim of the doorways, the worn La-Z-Boy chairs next to dated end tables that are overstuffed with pens, medicine, eye drops, and a half-finished crossword puzzle. I know these things because this is the home of every grandparent I've met in the 20 years I've lived in the Midwest—the comfortable, unpretentious hospitality, the pink carpet in the bathroom, and the cracked bars of soap that are probably older than you. I know it like I know cheesy potato casserole, and the way the goo of cheddar and cream of chicken soup radiates warmth from my stomach. It's a knowledge born of sensations rather than words, few of which are spoken. It's a memory of fading photographs on a yellowing fridge (no need to get a new fridge, they don't make them like they use to), homemade potato rolls, and powdered ice tea.
By any objective standards, the Sadlers are upper-middle-class, but they don't see it that way. They save, wash, and reuse tin foil.
I feel both at home and wildly out of place. I'm the journalist, not a pastor, not even married to one and, at this point, not married for much longer. No one knows what to say to me. But I have kids, so I talk about them. The funny bons mots about my children are the safest conversational currency I have. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have them to help set people at ease and bridge the divide that they already feel just by knowing that I'm a woman alone with an occupation. There is welcome, but there is also an unspoken reserve, and I spend a lot of time trying to put people at ease with my presence.
After we eat, Sam and his kids take us out trap shooting. I've been trap shooting since I was 10, but I keep this information to myself. It's early in the week, and already I need a win. I am the last in the line-up and spend my first turn warming up—miss three and hit two. Their expectations are low, so I get a lot of hearty congratulations. The second time I go up, I know the feel of the rifle and how it will kick into my shoulder. I know the glide of the action. I hit the first one. Reload. Yell, "Pull." Hit the second. Then the third. Then the fourth.
They see me now.
Sam is a big man—all muscle and white skin—who looks like he could be a cop on The Shield. "You say you are a pastor?" he asks as I eject the last cartridge, reload, and take aim.
"No, just a writer," I say. I hit the fifth clay pigeon. It's the end of the first day. The next morning, we return to the topic of guns. William, a pastor in rural Illinois who has six kids, tells us, laughing, about the pastor he knows who preaches with a gun at his side. He must see me balk, because he turns to me and explains, "It's for safety—think about it, if someone were to run into the church with a gun, the pastor has the best line of fire."
I ask if this pastor is white and the room silences and William's eyes narrow in irritation. Of course he's white, "but it doesn't matter, does it?" he asks.
It does matter, but I say nothing. I still have four more days left. The conversation rights itself and they all tell stories of pastors with weapons. There is an unspoken danger in these tales, something lurking right outside of the walls of their faith. This danger goes by many names throughout the discussions—liberalism, atheism, bad moral character, immigrants, welfare, people who just don't understand. I'll meet this fear many times throughout the week, but even with all its names this fear never takes full shape. It's a faceless doom that feels tied to the land. Even though less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers, occupations here come from the land: mechanics who fix and build tractors, ag loan officers, feed store clerks. And the land is faithless—an ill-timed rain, a flood, a dry summer, or an early frost can spell disaster. All of those things make life here uneven. Doom. Apocalypse. Dread. It's all felt like a catch in the breath.
So there are guns. Wells takes over our conversation and now it's time to learn. We all take out our pens and write down his words. He says: "Guns are a way of life born of necessity from a time when guns were necessary for protecting livestock and oneself from predators. It would take the police over 15 minutes to get to some of these farms. Guns are for protection. Now, they are like basketball, a recreational sport." Wells continues. "In the city, guns are used in crimes. That's why cosmopolitan people object to them. But here guns are just a normal way of life. If you are going to minister to a rural congregation, you have to get over your gun hang-ups."
There is a couple in this group. They are from Canada and, like me, they stink of liberalism. They are vegetarians and interested in sustainable farming practices. Wells and Klassen have already told them that they might need to get over their vegetarianism because being a vegetarian in a place where people's occupation is focused on livestock could be offensive. Give it up. Go underground. Maybe just practice that lifestyle in your own home. Don't push it on other people. Right now, like me, they shift in their seats uncomfortably during the gun conversation. But we say nothing. The message has always been clear: To bridge this divide, you must die to yourself. Become other than yourself. But how much of a person's difference is a choice they can hide, and how much of it is who they are, and what is the cost of hiding? We don't talk about it.
That night I go for a four-mile run along the road that goes straight by the Walmart and into the soybean fields and back. This is a place built around the land, but there are no jogging paths. All pedestrian sidewalks end in the empty lots behind car dealerships or run into the parking lot of fast food restaurants and never come out again. I run on the side of the road and the whole time, I feel like I am going to die. I don't belong on this side of the road. I am not from this town. People driving by must wonder who I am. Whose daughter is visiting? Whose cousin from out of town? Trucks driven by boys with square jaws run by me a little too close. When I get back to the hotel, I have some whiskey and go straight to bed.
An excerpt from God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, by Lyz Lenz, © 2019, Lyz Lenz. Reprinted with permission of Indiana University Press.
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