Baptizing the Rural World

GoAndBaptizeThe theme for the 2017 Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church was “Go & Baptize the World.” The worship, fellowship, and atmosphere were great, some of the voting was not as great. However, on the first day, I was struck by something on the cover of the worship bulletin. The hands are pouring water over an entire globe.

Clearly, the symbolism is meant to be call to evangelism and mission on a global scale. However, the image and phrasing struck me as something useful for my work. While obviously as United Methodists we baptize human persons, the idea of baptizing the world, or a specific place allows for an interesting way of describing transformation. The idea of baptizing a rural place or space, of transforming it, of pulling it outside of the commodification values of the world, is an interesting way of thinking of rural ministry.

The idea of baptizing a place and community, of acknowledging it as part of God’s creation and kingdom, allows for a lifting of the rural community into a space for transformation. So often we talk about transforming lives, but in rural communities there is a strong connection to the natural and communal world along with a deep place sensitive knowledge. If we formally and spiritually lift this part of the world up through a sacramental act, not necessarily of baptism, but of consecration, of something baptismal, we bring it into a space of spiritual and theological exploration.

When a rural space is baptized, the empty factories, the schools, the natural areas, the poor and the rich, and all that is present is brought, in a Wesleyan sense, into a place of regeneration, of moving toward a renewal of God’s image. The sanctification of place allows for a spiritual and physical restoration.  It also creates a responsibility, as baptized Christians in the church are called to nurture and support those baptized.

Again, I am not calling for a formal baptism of a place, but some sort of act of consecration that also brings in the sacramental aspects of baptism which allow for justification. This justification says of this space, it is valuable and claimed by God and God’s family and is in the process of the renewing of God’s image and God’s Kingdom.

Thus, my posts about hunger are not simply about meeting the needs of individuals or families, but of furthering the Kingdom of God in this place. One might say I should use a body of Christ metaphor (Paul) and others might say a body of God metaphor (MacFague) and both would be good ways of looking at this movement. However, I like the notion of baptism, something which Christians regularly speak of, and living into all that comes with the justifying and sanctifying grace.

In feeding the hungry (and all the other aspects which I wrote about in terms of feeding the hungry) I am not only helping children of God and living into a means of Grace, I am revealing and re-imaging the Kingdom of God in Oak Hill, Earl, and every rural space.


Rural Hunger: Community Cooperation

VeggiesBeyond handouts, even the food boxes I suggest in a previous post, the opportunity for community cooperation and connection is a valuable option. I list a few below.

  1. Community Gardens
    Instead of simply handing out free food in any form, why not set up a quid pro quo style relationship in which persons are expected to participate in a farm cooperative and receive a crop share for their work. Many churches have large unused fields which could easily become a large tract of garden space. Some churches might even choose to invest in livestock such as chickens, goats, cows, etc. for dairy, eggs, and meat. Along with this, as many people are disconnected from agriculture in their communities, there is an educational opportunity. Teaching basic gardening, livestock, and harvesting skills provides people with a sense of accomplishment along with food. If someone is unable to work, a volunteer might work for the share to give to them. This is particularly important for the elderly and disabled.

    If you have people who are unable to commit the time or unknowledgeable about gardening, the Agriculture Extension office, local 4-H Chapter, local Master Gardener Program, and local FFA chapter may be able to help, and will often do it for free or a small  donation to their program.

  2. School and Community Partnership
    Going with the community garden idea, the church or community could partner with the local school (getting both school and Extension or USDA approval if needed) to provide the fresh vegetables for meals and snacks at school. The cafeteria workers are often great cooks, they are simply given very basic frozen and processed foods to work with.
  3. Canning and Cooking Classes
    Similar to the gardening problem, people often do not know how to cook fresh food and are afraid to learn from YouTube videos, or prefer guided learning from teachers. Many churches have large fellowship halls and some newer churches have large institutional kitchens. Basic knife skills, food prep skills, simple recipes with hot plates, and what to keep in your kitchen. Many people in local churches have these skills, but if they do not, the groups I mention earlier, plus local Home Economics teachers and restaurant chefs might be willing to teach.

These are three options. There are many more including hunters for the hungry, hunter safety courses, food exchange, fishing trips, and even mushroom gathering trips. The goal of all this is community, learning, and nourishment in an interconnected fashion.

Rural Hunger: Advocacy and Political Action

Rural hunger cannot be solved solely based on interactions with individuals. Advocacy must take place. Beyond providing food and food education, action must be taken on a communal, systemic, and economic level.
Jobs, wages, school food programs, and access to fresh, healthy food are all key issues to engaging hunger in schools and communities.

Regular conversation with local school and community officials around issues and budgets are key to local movement. Further conversation and action around state and national issues are also crucial to working toward fair and living wages, improved school lunches, supporting of locally grown, fresh foods in all local stores, and continued improvements in the quality of life for individuals and communities.

One piece of legislation is very interesting to me, and is currently working its way through the NC House and NC Senate in two forms. The NC Rural Center’s bill tracker provides descriptions of each bill on their bill tracker.

H387 – Corner Store Initiative

Purpose: To assist healthy food small retailers by providing a
source of funding & assistance for the retailers in
both urban & rural areas to increase availability &
sales of fresh fruits & vegetables at affordable prices
to local residents.

House: Holley, Lambeth, McElraft, Quick

S498 Healthy Food Small Retailer Program
Assists Corner Store Initiative to aid healthy food small retailers (substantially similar to H 387).
Senate: Davis, Pate

These bills are working to providing resources and funding to local community stores to provide locally grown, fresh, affordable vegetables and fruits. This can be a country grocery store or gas station. I hope it also points to Dollar General stores which dot the rural landscape. Otherwise, these local communities often exist as fresh food deserts, where the only fruit and veggies are canned, maybe frozen, and often processed. This also provides resources to minority and marginalized communities in urban and rural to improve their fresh food access.

What I have learned over the years, is that while I grew up in a family with a garden and we often had fresh fruits and veggies throughout the year (along with canned and frozen), many others did not. Where my church sits, in the small town of Oak Hill, there is little grocery store. Less than 2.5 miles down the road are two full sized grocery stores with large produce sections (Food Lion and a Walmart Neighborhood Market). Yet, often people in Oak Hill don’t like to leave Oak Hill. Less than 2.5 miles away are two grocery stores, and within 5 miles are many more including an organic grocery (Food Matters), and a discount grocery store which is offers many organic, all natural, and fresh options.

I encourage you, especially if you live in NC, to communicate with your representatives to support this. You can write, call, post on the social media, and get others to do the same. If you are not in North Carolina, see if your local and state governments have similar policies and opportunities.



The Tastes and Smells of Nature

BlackberryI spent about an hour today walking around my parents’ land. I was taken by surprise when I grabbed the leaves of a sumac tree and inhaled. I guess I’ve never really stopped to smell a sumac tree. It smelled like a warm lightly salted tortilla chip. It was a pleasant smell, one which struck me as familiar but took me a few seconds to identify.

On my walks, I often take time to smell and taste the various leaves and fruits throughout nature. I tend to only do it in places I know are not sprayed for pesticides for obvious reasons. Today I tasted warm early blackberries. Just as the flavor of wine or beer is muted with refrigeration, so is the taste of a ripe blackberry picked from the bramble. My parents have what seems like acres of blackberries which are beginning to ripen.

As I began to recall smells of my past and value of familiar tastes and smells, I searched out these flora on the land. The floral smell of my grandmother’s southern magnolia, the the sweet smell of honeysuckle growing on the fence, and the candy-like taste of sourwood leaves always connect with me on a nostalgic level.

Once, I was at a beer festival and tasted a very hoppy beer named the Herculean. I cannot tell you the brewery or the IBUs, but I can tell you I was immediately transported back to the smell of green pecans in early fall on the edge the yard. The bitter and nutty smell of this tree was pleasant in that small taste of beer. Another taste which brought back a memory was a red wine at Grassy Creek Vineyards on a rainy day. The small taste of what I believe was a Chambourcin brought me back to fireworks, black powder, sulfur, and the fourth of July.

So many memories and experiences are tied up in the smell and taste of the plants around us. Recently, in the nature club I lead at church, I taught children to chew sourwood leaf and pull the sap from a honeysuckle. I recently showed my niece and nephew how to chew on sassafras leaves that have a light root beer taste.

There are many more tastes and smells in nature we can bring up. We can speak of the memories and experiences we tie to those experiences. We can speak about why these experiences are important. We can teach others to appreciate the tastes and smells of the natural world (obviously in a safe way, we will not be tasting poison ivy).

Using the smells and tastes of nature, particularly in Christian education can be transformative if we don’t simplify the experience, but allow for imagination and creation. Smell and taste are strong tools for memory recall. Bringing memories forward allows for an engaging of these memories with new people. What does it mean that I tasted pecans in a beer, am reminded of the fourth of July in a wine, shared an experience of honeysuckle with children who want to learn about nature?

In working out these experiences, sharing them with a group, we allow for people to communal share memories and connections to place. In doing so, it allows for a reconnection to a place and the imagination to creatively engage place and each other. While this may seem nostalgic at first, the rekindling of connection and experience allows for a pulling forward of those experiences into a new space and perhaps into the creation of a new future. Fireworks are celebratory, pecans remind us of the holidays of the fall, blackberries in the hot summer lead to ideas of refreshment, and honeysuckle opens up the rethinking of a flower into simple joy.

These are not well written lesson plans and pedagogical masterpieces, but I see within these pedagogical glimpses, something which leads us beyond a nature education which teaches us that we use trees for paper and that Jesus talked about grapes. Sure, we need to talk about both of these things, and many more, but we must go deeper. Tying sycamore and cedar into the spiritual and the creative is our goal. A simple factual lesson without a goal is as helpful as the stirring of the senses and the experience of new life.


Rural Hunger:Beyond Canned Food Drives

IMG_20170510_161114Following up on a previous post about issues in rural education, this is the beginning of posts on food insecurity and a response.

Canned food drives and food pantries are often the response of churches and other groups to address issues of hunger and food insecurity. Another approach is the school back pack program. This is a program where local groups provide non-perishable small serving, easy open food for the weekends to kids with the highest need so they have food for the weekend. Both are honorable programs. The thing about both programs is that neither involve relationships with people and neither look past meeting the base physical and or emergent need.

Currently, my church is working with other churches in the community to move beyond boxes. We are beginning  short term pilot program which provides a meal for a local group (in this case grandparents raising grandchildren), and then provides them with the materials and the instruction to prepare the meal at home (think Blue Apron). Our goal is to provide the fresh local vegetables and fruit for the meals. The recipes include stir fry and quiche, both of which are versatile and can use any vegetables available frozen or fresh.

We hope this program will grow, and we will seek out greater funding for expanding this program to more people and even into cooking classes. This provides education, community, and meets the basic food need. It also provides us a chance to talk to people and know what they really need and want for their families’ to be successful. We don’t want to presume anything about the people we work with, and know that providing a meal and a recipe to prepare at home is not invasive.

Beyond this, we also want to work on providing fresh food in the community and collecting a list of people’s needs and desires. This will involve education and advocacy as we work to change certain systems and situations to improve life for all people.

Why Rural Matters – Education Report

Kids on TrailWith a total of almost 570,000 students enrolled in rural school districts—four out of every ten students in the state—North Carolina ranks as one of the top ten most rural states. This rural student population is poorer and more diverse both racially and linguistically than that of most other states. The educational policy context is one of extremes: Funding is extremely equitable and relatively little money needs to be spent on transportation costs, but schools and districts are large, rural teachers are paid below the national average,and less money is spent instructing each rural student than in most other states. NAEP scores are low across the board, and about one in six rural students who start high school in North Carolina do not graduate.

Why Rural Matters, 2015-2016, p. 137.

A few days ago, The Rural School and Community Trust published their newest edition of Why Rural Matters, a 164 page document which points out the needs and priorites in rural education. I share the introduction to the North Carolina statistics above.

North Carolina is one the top ten rural states in the country. Most crucial are the poverty levels and issues of diversity. 60% of students in rural communities in North Carolina are eligible for free and reduced lunch. 40% of rural students in North Carolina are minority students. However, student mobility is low, with only 10% of students changing residence within the year. There is an 85% high school graduation rate for rural students. The report labels North Carolina as number 11 in terms of rural priority.

From a theological and ecclesial perspective, the church can do much to use this knowledge to improve the world. I see the chief concern is issues of poverty and income inequality, followed second by issues of diversity within a rural state with issues of embedded racism and xenophobia. Third, I see school funding as an issue for many rural counties.

Churches can and should partner together, with local schools, and other local agencies to begin to address these issues. In terms of income inequality, first, making sure base needs are met for students in cluding healthy and accessible meals is key. This might include providing meals, food boxes, cooking lessons, in terms of emergent and charitable care. This also involves advocacy, policy changes, and means of providing affordable, healthy, and fresh foods in abundance through the community. Advocacy around the quality and quantity of school foods. This includes school lunch programs and increasing funding and salaries for school cafeteria workers.

Another struggle is that while many rural areas offer food programs, people are unable or unwilling to come and pick up the food. This is a major struggle for many feeding programs in which I have participated.

Of course food insecurity is linked to income and issues of employment. Another issues for churches to take up in terms of job training, providing transportation to jobs, and encouraging and empowering people to seek employment. This could also involve free or pays as you go child care. There is much to learn here.

In the next few blog posts, I will write about possible options for churches in terms of food insecurity, some of employment, and a some on diversity in local communities. I will deal more openly with issues of theology and ecclesiology.

Rural Space as Teaching Tool

ReservoirOne of the key identifiers a rural area the space. Just as cities are identifiable by their buildings–height, proximity, style, etc., rural areas are identifiable by their landscapes, farmlands, and manufacturing plants.

The image is of the Clear Creek Access to South Mountains State Park. It’s a little hard to find and often empty when I visit. However, it is worth the trip. Orginally it was the reservoir for Broughton Hospital, the state psychiatric hospital, located in Morganton. The presence of the dam, various small buildings, and the old water line pipes add to the history of the place. I often go there for short hikes with my dogs. We walk up the dam, sit for a few minutes (well I sit, the dogs sniff everything) and then head up the one trail. It is currently the only trail, as this is a new acquisition for the state parks system. My hope is that more trails appear in the future.

This space is full of teachable ideas. First, I call up Michael Corbett’s three rural virtues found in Dynamics of Social Class, Race, and Place in Rural Education.[1] The virtues are stewardship, making do as one sees fit on known land and sea, and a deep place sensitive knowledge. Learning about both the natural aspects and the historical aspects of this place provides a sense of how the space is experienced within these values. Learning the connection to the greater history of Morganton creates historic and place based connections. Learning the native plants and animals which live and thrive there provide an understanding of the natural world. Questions such as why this dam was built on Clear Creek, why it is preserved by the state, and even learning who are the primary groups which use this space now, provide the opportunity for lifting up the history and present of this space.

Then, a dreaming about the potential for this space within the historical and natural realities of Burke County creates new futures connected to the realities of the present world. Perhaps, since this was a space for nourishment for the state psychiatric hospital, a program for natural and environmental immersion could become a reality. Food security is an issue for parts of the county, and while there are state regulations on fishing, fishing clinics and cooking classes for fishing might be a possibility.

Finally, as a rural theologian and educator, I would want to consider theological and spiritual possibilities, including environmental interpretation and the spiritual realities of this space. Asking the ethics questions of who has knowledge and access to this place as well as what this space could be used for in the future. Environmental education and Christian Formation allow for connection with the place to deepen connections with the divine and the local.

These are some ideas about this small place, this could be used in cities, but the rural virtues I list are for many, distinctly rural ways of encountering the world. Rural exploration can occur in any rural space, including empty or still functioning factories, farm land, historic sites, and more. This is just a small exploration.

[1] Michael Corbett, “Social Class, The Commodification of Education, and Space Through a Rural Lens,” in Dynamics of Social Class, Race, and Place in Rural Education, eds. Craig B. Howley, Aimee Howley, and Jerry D. Johnson (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2014) 35.


Rural Complaints


This summer I am diligently writing and editing my dissertation so that I might complete it and begin work on other scholarly and ecclesial projects. My hope is that the pedagogy I develop can be formed into many different tools and methods for remembering the values and heritage of rural communities in new ways.

I am writing from and about rural Burke and Cleveland Counties.

What I continue to find is the complaints by those who believe the past was better than the present that the new generation is immoral, lazy, lacking in work ethic, and failing to live the life they should be living. Various racisms, stereotypes, and prejudiced remarks are often knowingly and sometimes unknowingly included.

From the people who believe the outside is better than the inside, I hear that there are no jobs here. I hear that its not worth trying. I hear that when they do have jobs they are treated poorly by those who cling to the past. I hear they aren’t paid well by their jobs. I hear that old people are keeping the town in the past and not looking to the future.

Both of these are strong opinions which intersect and conflict. My writing looks at these and hopes to be able to reorient both opinions toward a more constructive rethinking of the future.