On April 23 and 24, the twelve clergy members in the Collegeville Institute’s Rural Minnesota Fellows Program met with program director Bernie Evans at Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse for two days of meetings on issues related to agriculture. The Fellows program brings together an ecumenical group of pastors from rural Minnesota with professionals from other sectors of rural Minnesota society in order to strengthen these religious leaders’ as civic leaders and public theologians.
On the first day of their meeting, the Fellows heard from local farmers, both organic and conventional, about their work and challenges. On the second day, they engaged in conversations based on what they heard from the speakers, readings, and visits they’d done with farmers in their home congregations. The Fellows also discussed their own projects, undertaken as part of the two-year program. Project topics ranged from education and advocacy around hunger and a living wage, to cultural education around welcoming immigrants, and outreach to immigrant communities.
The discussions drew attention to what it means to serve in rural ministry contexts where communities tend to be far more conservative than urban areas, as well as in a country with such polarized politics. Participants reported feeling a strong “us vs. them” mentality among farmers, expressing the sense, for instance, that they are singled out as insensitive to environmental challenges. Regarding immigrants, participants also noted that farmers they spoke with tended to reflect a “zero sum” mentality where one person’s gain is always seen as another person’s loss. If immigrants gain from government assistance, it must be at the expense of a deserving American worker. Such perceptions can cause conflict in communities—but it’s conflict that churches are called to address. While reluctant to wade into partisan politics, the pastors recognized that access to food and advocating for a living wage are unavoidably ethical and political issues. They repeatedly came back to the importance of neighbor love for forming closer and and more just communities.
Young pastors coming from urban areas or other states can also be perceived by rural communities as outsiders with little or no knowledge of local conditions or their history. It’s clear that the Fellows serve their congregations first by listening. They shared an understanding of farmers as “overwhelmed”— by the business of farming, being part of a global market, and in a large number of cases, having to work an additional full-time job off the farm just to make ends meet. As they articulated their responses to the material and speakers, what came through most strongly was their passion for serving their communities, and their empathy for farmers and other members of their communities who are trying to make good choices as they’re faced with competing demands.
The next Rural Minnesota Fellows meeting will be in July, when the topic will center on the changed, and changing rural economy as a whole.