People have asked me if I grew up in the country or in town. Well, kinda. I technically lived within the city limits of Goessel but I could see a wheat field from my back yard. In addition, while Goessel was an official town (signified by it’s own telephone prefix and a post office) the booming Mennonite metropolis of roughly 500 people isn’t exactly what I’d call “urban”. Being the biggest football player, not only in my high school but my entire league, I followed the natural progression and went to Bethel College in North Newton, Ks to play ball. Eventually I wound up with a Bible and Religion degree. After college I worked for Buhler Mennonite Church as a youth pastor as I began studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary Great Plains Extension (AMBS). After four years at Buhler I finished up my degree at the AMBS main campus in Elkhart, In. This last spring my wonderful, and patient, wife and I moved to Harper, Ks where I now work at Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church as the solo pastor. Even though Harper is three times the size of my hometown (1,500 people) living here would still place us firmly in the rural category. My wife works as a nurse at the local hospital which has a whopping 25 beds and an emergency room that is literally has a sign “ring bell for service”. We’re not quite in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from where we live.
That being said, if you have never been to the prairies to witness the great expansive and dynamic sky, then you are really missing out. One can hardly question the awesome power of God watching a massive thunderhead develop in the hot summer evening. With beauty comes power. These storms that give life through their rain and are so beautiful to watch from a distance are also the same ones that have been known to destroy entire towns.
Despite the mass exodus that small towns like ours have experience in the last 50 to 100 years, life out here poses many of the same questions that many in urban faith renewal movements have also begun to deal with. Among the 12 marks of New monasticism there is a call to relocation to places that are abandoned by empire. Harper shares a high school with a neighboring town. Out of 250 students this last year, 56 students dropped out. There are more rotting buildings in our downtown than there are businesses. I was amazed to watch the wheat harvest a few weeks ago and to talk with the farmers, some of who attend my church, that farm massive amounts of land simply in order to make any kind of a living at all. Small family farms no longer exist for a variety of reasons with no real organization to blame other than the shifting market. The Emergent Church has pushed many to rethink what it means to live out our faith in such a way that is authentic and particular to our physical location and the people that surround it. They have tapped into a sentiment that many traditional churches are broken and irrelevant. Currently in Harper there are about 10 different churches and that represent about 8 different denominations. The average church attendance, however, is about 25-30. I am the only full time paid minister in town, because I happen to be at the only church large enough to support one. Although I would consider myself strongly rooted in the Anabaptist tradition (I own a tongue screw after all) to truly be faithful in our context means first and foremost that we must be ecumenical. Not homogeneous, but ecumenical. More importantly, it is a true challenge to live out the Gospel in a community where the vast majority of the people in town either see Christianity as completely irrelevant or deeply problematic.
Because of the disconnection that many in rural settings feel, or often aren’t aware of, there is a critical need to find ways to be connected to those who live in different settings than we do. In many past experiences that I’ve had it has struck me that while it is a difficult thing for me, a white, rural Menno kid to interact with someone different than I am, say, an urban, non-religious, person of color, sometimes the hardest part of the relationship isn’t always the differences in skin color or faith but rather the urban/rural divide. That is not to minimize or discount any real issues involving race, of which there are many, but rather to say that since moving back to rural Kansas, I’m amazed when I hear people who share the same race, economic level, political affiliation, and denomination have a very hard time understanding each other, simply because of the setting that they live in. The need for those in rural communities to engage with people in other settings is large, but I also find that those in urban settings have the same need. Just like some rural settings, those who live in urban settings can also be blinded to their own need for relationship across cultures and need to be pushed outside of their known world. It is a good and happy day when the rural wheat farmer comes to know the person who winds up buying their loaf of bread and when the urbanite comes to know that milk comes not from the store but from a cow.
So that’s a little bit about me, and hopefully a little something to chew on. I’m really looking forward to getting to know you all more and to see where the journey leads us all.