Decades of my life passed by before I had any awareness of what rural meant. I used to think a small town consisted of around 10,000 people.
Then I moved to Kansas for college. Mile after mile of grain fields passed by my windshield. Abandoned houses, farm implements and rusted vehicles dotted the landscape--some remnants of the farm crisis of the 1980s. I guessed that people moved to the cities. As a college student, I merely passed through, hoping to learn something about a sharply contrasted life from the middle and upper middle class homes along the shores of the Puget Sound and Lake Washington at some point, but my eyes were fixed on Lawrence. I inquired about rural areas, and my friends from the small towns couldn't understand my curiosity.
Years later, my family moved to South Dakota. Very similar landscape to Kansas, butI learned more exploring the smaller paved arteries many miles off the well-traveled thoroughfares of the Interstate. I traveled to Hudson, South Dakota, site of my first interim congregation. I became accustomed to the abandoned buildings, closed schools, and stares weighing upon me that might as well been a painted sign on plywood that said, "you don't belong here." It actually didn't take long before I was welcomed, sharing in unfamiliar cuisine, chatting at the local garage, and getting my haircut at the local hairdresser and learning more from her about local culture than I ever would as a pastor. The hospitality of neighbors taught me the questions I could ask, and sometimes I received an earful merely standing somewhere, curious, without asking anything.
One day a local resident dished out matter-of-factly that some people get high by placing hubcaps over cow pies. They bake the cow pies under the hubcaps in the hot sun, drill a hole in the hubcap, and suck the gas through a garden hose. I try not to waste my time with disgust, I continue to ask...why?
That story of the resourceful high and the why behind it still haunts me as I watched a deeper story of Ozark rural blight in the film "Winter's Bone." Though rural blight in the film is hard to ignore, the relational variables of secrets, adversity, and courage carry the plot.
Ree is a 17-year-old young woman patching together a family in tatters while negotiating the terror plots and lies of her local kin branded in a meth ring. Ree is the clear hero of the story, but the question I asked throughout the film is, will anyone take courage with her? Some of those closest to Ree are enemies of positive changes, illuminating the human condition. I think about people in my life and the places where I serve and their prospects of making positive changes in their lives. Whether the story I observe is addiction recovery, congregational change, or personal achievement, the resentment associated with moving to a better place in life brings destruction from people who are supposed to be supportive and wise. Ree is learning the ways of the world and wise beyond her years. But in many ways she is a child, and she meets allies when she least expects it--Ree is a local hero who also learns the importance of interdependence.
I continue to think about this film. After serving 10 congregations, what was affirmed in this story is that both poverty and secrets kill. There is no clear path to wholeness in the stories of poverty and secrets, but the church would go a long way to put its energy into being generous and present as opposed to shaking its head. Easier said than done. God, have mercy.