In 2001, my wife, Melanie and I moved to South Dakota from the Milwaukee metro in Wisconsin. It was a great opportunity for Melanie to serve in a large, thriving congregation in Sioux Falls. She was thrilled to serve in the city where she did her undergraduate studies at Augustana College. I was not sure whether it was a great opportunity for me, but I trusted in Melanie's call to take the lead.
Traveling 50 minutes southeast of our home, I began my rural education on the Northern Great Plains in Hudson, South Dakota (pop. 401). Hudson is a stone's throw from the Iowa border. It tends to be known in the area for its large ethanol plant, and a local watering hole where college students from nearby towns can hang out in relative anonymity. The residents of Hudson are close to agriculture, and others commute to Sioux Falls or some of the larger towns in Iowa for their work.
Hudson and the people of Hudson Lutheran Church (above) gave me perspective on life that was completely new to me, and they hosted me for a relatively short period of time (15 months) with great hospitality and a willingness to be my teachers. They shared with me in the joys of rural prairie life, along with some of their pain. Together we attempted to recognize where God was in the midst of the places and stories.
One thing pastors have to learn on the job is that every so often, a letter, email, or phone call will come with an invitation to celebrate a significant congregational anniversary from a congregation previously served. This can involve a personal appearance, preaching, or sending a letter of greeting with a life update. I recently sent a greeting to Hudson Lutheran Church for their 125th anniversary.
I am including in this post a few excerpts of my greeting, I think of them as excerpts from a rural novice. I grew up in the Seattle metro; I enjoy pondering the contrasts of place from my time in South Dakota.
"The memory that comes to me often is when we had a youth party near Christmas. Youth parties in Hudson were great because it wasn't only the kids from church involved, but kids from all over town came. These gatherings were good opportunities for kids to get together, regardless of whether they were church members. I recall at this particular party, we hadn't been together long that evening, when the ever present fire walkie-talkie informed us that there was a fire at a pig barn a few miles away. Several town fire departments were called in to help. Before I knew it, all the food and beverages that we had for the party were loaded up into cars, trucks, and vans, and we headed to the scene of the fire to encourage the firefighters and offer them some refreshment after their hard work. The kids and adults didn't think twice about abandoning their party to do this. It was a wonderful expression of community."
* * *
"Because I didn't know much about rural life, I would often share my discoveries about farming, crops, and the land itself in my sermons. Some people would tell me that they had not thought about these things in the way that I had, and how God was working in the midst of them. Others would be more than willing to help me, the novice, understand something about agriculture in basic ways, and bring me along so that I could learn more."
* * *
"It was always interesting and fun attempting to learn each other's languages. Directions often confounded me. I was accustomed to street signs, house numbers, and directions for right and left turns. I still am not sure about the different kinds of roads I found in Hudson. On Confirmation Sunday, I made the rounds to the several receptions, and at one house I received directions to another, "Go west on the oil road, then head north by the house that used to be blue..." That took us awhile to translate. That was a fun day, because the people of the congregation all appreciated the rite of passage and celebrated Confirmation with joy."
Some people may call places like South Dakota "fly over states." I am thankful I had the opportunity to not to merely fly over, but see what God is doing among my neighbors.