EDITOR’S NOTE: Churches matter in rural communities and small towns. Besides their central role in religious life, the rural church is the most common social institution in rural areas, according to one observer. So we’re delighted to introduce a new columnist, Steve Willis, who will write about the role of churches in rural America. Steve is a Presbyterian (USA) minister. He’s served numerous rural parishes and currently is pastor of Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley.
The poorest way to enhance the neighborliness of a community is from a Facebook or Twitter account.
Let me assure you that this is not another rant against technology. I use it every day, awkwardly, but regularly. But I inherited from my western North Carolina mountain family the notion that human communication is less about the content of one’s words and more about what a person does. Tweeting is not doing.
Where my family lives today in the mountains of Virginia, I see this same value of action over words. People communicate something important to one another through the practice of neighborliness. Let me tell you a story about it.
Charlie actually spoke in Sunday school one morning, which was a surprise to everyone, perhaps even himself. He is a pleasant family man who simply does things for people but rarely has anything to say about abstract concepts like the topic that day , which was love of neighbor. Charlie inherited the family furniture store on Main Street, and you can see him outside on the sidewalk talking to folks as part of his daily routine. The day after speaking in Sunday school, Charlie stood up at the town council meeting to respond to the plans to build a new post office on the highway, almost a mile outside of town. He said he understood why people were excited about the prospect of a shiny new building that the state was willing to build as an effort to get mail carriers more easily to their rural deliveries. But he knew too many people who walked everywhere they went, and a mile was just too far. He knew their names, the neighbors without transportation, and he reminded the crowd of them. “We just can’t do that to our neighbors,” he finished. Charlie’s appeal was personal and genuine and it worked. The new post office was never built.
Living in a small Appalachian town, I am grateful for Charlie and a host of kindred spirits who quietly attend not only to their own business but who also care for the people they have known well for most if not all of their life. Loyal Jones, the great chronicler of the southern mountains and founding director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, described this quality in his characteristic unflourished way in his collection of essays, Appalachian Values: “We usually relate on a personal basis rather than on how people dress or the credentials or accomplishments they claim.” He called it personalism. This slow, careful attention to individual persons and neighbors may seem like a relic from another world gone by. Yet, as I witness people practice neighborliness, it still seems to me to be a powerful force.
Sociologists have shown us that trust levels among neighbors are almost two times greater in small town and rural settings than in urban environments. The reason for this is not because we town and country folks are more naturally trustworthy. Rather, human relationships come through face to face, unhurried contact with others here, which changes the dynamic of how this kind of community relates. Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University, said it like this:
“… [S]cale matters. It isn’t just that people in small towns are inherently friendlier, easier to get along with, or more civically oriented. The difference is that smallness shapes social networks, behavior, and civic commitments.”
Small scale presents the opportunity for very human, face-to-face, careful interaction with neighbors.
An appeal for local neighborliness may seem like small comfort amidst very troubling political and economic crises. The level of national political discourse has not only dropped to a new low but has become frightening and threatening. The resulting anxiety is tremendous. Let me say that it is impossible to love your neighbor while maligning or bearing false witness against immigrants. Let me also say that it is impossible to love your neighbor while being indifferent to working class Americans who have had their lives and families wrecked by the new ruthless global economy. But that being said – what can a person do about these big issues? Because even my most clever Facebook post seems to have no effect upon the situation.
I suppose a person could go back to school; maybe get a degree in government from Georgetown and work on federal policy for important issues like agriculture and environment. I have been blessed to know a couple of people like that. They do great and important work, and I pray for more of them to do this work with wisdom and mercy.
Yet I know that my place and people are in the Appalachian Mountains. I make my home here, raise my family and do my work. One of the most important things that I can do in these anxious times is simply be a good neighbor. If it is scary or overwhelming to consider how to go about such a task, just make a pot of soup and take it next door. The next step afterwards will present itself. I have witnessed how neighborliness has good effect on people’s lives. Maybe our social sciences are catching up with how to measure this personal quality. When I see neighbors practice neighborliness, they remind me of something at the heart of being a human being.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in fifteen minutes.