Rural realities: White, straight no more


Diversity leads to ministries of peace and unity

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Racial and gender diversity, drugs, hunger — big-city challenges have come to Main Street U.S.A. Presbyterians Today is launching a three-part series, “Rural Realities,” to explore the challenges and blessings for today’s rural churches as they navigate a new reality. In the first installment, PT talks to pastors about the racial diversity and gender identification issues in their small communities.

Defining ‘rural’

The phrase “rural America” often conjures up images of cornfields, red barns and cows. The reality, though, is that “rural” can mean many different things depending on whom you talk to and where in the country they live.

The United States Census Bureau defines rural by what is not urban. The guidelines state:

An Urbanized Area (UA) has 50,000 or more people. Urbanized Areas have a core with a total land area less than two square miles and a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile.

An Urban Cluster (UC) also has a core with a total land area of less than two square miles and a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile. It may contain adjoining territory with at minimum 500 persons per square mile and encompass a population of at least 2,500 but less than 50,000 persons.

 “Rural” consists of all territory, population and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs.

In one rural community, the Rev. Dr. Richard (Skip) Shaffer Jr. began his first day in a new call as most pastors do — unpacking many boxes of theological books and praying fervently that he had sufficient shelf space in his new office. The mundaneness of move-in day, though, was broken with a gentle tap on his door. Shaffer had his first visitor: Moses.

“I thought it was a joke when the secretary told me who was here to see me,” Shaffer said, laughing. But it wasn’t playful church hazing on behalf of the congregation. It was indeed a man named Moses, a 7-foot-tall immigrant from South Sudan, who reached out his hand to the pastor and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

It was in that moment of white and black hands joining together in a hearty shake that Shaffer’s ministry changed course even before it set sail. The predominantly all-white congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Worthington, Minnesota, would become the place of radical welcome and — finally — diversity.

“The town experienced Hispanic, Asian and African immigration in the years before I arrived, but they had not yet found their way into the church in significant numbers,” Shaffer said. Now there was a community of Sudanese immigrants looking for a place where they would be accepted. They came to the Presbyterian church, Shaffer says, because of the experience they had with Presbyterian mission workers in their own country.

That was 1995 when the doors — and hearts — of the congregation opened to their Sudanese brothers and sisters. The church soon became home to more than 100 Sudanese men, women and children. In addition to helping them find suitable housing, Shaffer and his congregation hosted a food pantry, a clothing drive and English lessons for adults, as well as a second worship service in the Nuer language, complete with drums and dancing.

“It was so unique at the time that the Wall Street Journal sent a reporter to do a page one feature on immigration in the heartland,” Shaffer said.

Today, such stories aren’t as unique as they once were, as studies show that white rural America is quickly becoming a tapestry of many colors. What is unique, though, is the growing rate of diversity in many rural communities.

 In a 2017 presentation made to Congress titled “Small Towns/Big Changes: The Shifting Demographics of Rural America,” Jennifer Van Hook, director of the Population Research Institute and professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, said that nine out of 10 rural areas are more diverse now than they were 20 years ago. Van Hook described how jobs in construction, manufacturing, agriculture and meat packing have brought immigrants to new places in rural America in recent decades. Places like Worthington, Minnesota, whose Presbyterian church was revitalized due to the influx of Sudanese immigrants in the mid-1990s, is now seeing a quickly growing Hispanic population.

The pressing story now is how aware are Presbyterian congregations of the growing diversity in their once-homogeneous communities? How aware — and how proactive — is the rural church when it comes to the changing face of rural America?

Shaffer, who has spent his career serving small-town churches and admits to loving church potlucks and riding in the cab of a combine, advises those in rural communities to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle changes that are happening, and to not be fearful of those changes. His current church, Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a larger church that straddles an agricultural community, is experiencing an influx of families from Cameroon.

“I tell my congregation we are a growing, changing community. It looks different,” he said, adding that the biggest challenge in ministry, no matter what the changing context is, is “to always share God’s love in different ways.”

“Every day you are to respond to the needs around you,” Shaffer said. Shaffer now shares his passion for the ever-changing landscape of rural ministry, leading a yearly immersion group in the Midwest for students interested in what he calls a ministry that has often gotten a bad rap.

“So many people have this idea that if you are a rural pastor you are basically providing hospice care. That is so wrong. There is vitality in rural ministry,” he said.

That vitality is coming in the way of diversity — that is, if diversity is understood and embraced, not feared and not shunned.

Election signs were repurposed into prayer signs in the rural community of Cambridge, New York. Cambridge United Presbyterian Church’s prayer lawn is one of the ways it is connecting with neighbors. Courtesy of Kate Kotfila

Connecting to a community

Driving on Route 22 — known as the “main drag” connecting the once-thriving dairy farms with once-vibrant Main Streets in upstate New York’s Washington County — one enters the village of Cambridge, which was founded in 1761. There on the corner, at the village’s only traffic light, stands Cambridge United Presbyterian Church, complete with a soaring steeple. The congregation inside is just as white (and weathered) as the white vinyl siding on the outside. And yet, on the church’s expansive front lawn are signs of protest, peace, and social and racial justice. They are all anchored by a main message — “Hear Our Prayer.”

The signs, said the Rev. Kate Kotfila, a self-described suburban girl who just happened to find her way to a completely different way of life when she came to serve the rural congregation seven years ago, were leftover political signs from the 2016 presidential election. Kotfila had wanted to put those contentious signs to better use. So new messages were slapped over campaign jargon, and a prayer lawn was created.

However, Kotfila, aware of the conservativeness of her community, made sure that the prayers were not just for controversial issues. Among the signs were prayers for veterans and elected leaders.

“Places like Saratoga (45 minutes west of Cambridge) can emphasize advocacy and organize marches. If I started that here, I would be heading out the door,” she said. The signs, though, were a subtle way for her to get a conversation going.

As in many small towns, Kotfila is in what she calls a “tomato red” community.

“I am limited in many ways,” she said. But her limitations don’t prevent her from seeing the possibilities.

While there are a handful of congregants who understand when their pastor compares the man helped by the Samaritan in the Gospel lessons to Syrian refugees — “I lost a family last year when I said that,” she says — Kotfila’s approach to helping her congregation see and embrace the growing diversity around them is to begin by cultivating what she calls the “invisible” community, the ones who don’t necessarily come to the Presbyterian church, the interested, the concerned and those tuned in to the changes all around. She reaches out to them and begins to find ways to talk to the community at large. Kotfila then finds opportunities to connect the “invisible” community to her church community — and do so gently.

“I know that I must honor the Word and live it with the compassion I have received. So instead of taking on ICE or public policy, the church and community have begun a ministry of support to our local farmworkers,” Kotfila said, speaking of the Hispanic workers that are there among them but rarely seen. “We offer translation, transportation and tutoring, but mostly we offer our time to build relationships.”

The program is called “Good Neighbors.” So far, Kotfila reports that there has been no resistance to it from those in the church. If anything, unexpected friendships with white Presbyterians and those of darker skin are “permitting church folk to question policy in unexpected ways,” she says.

Kotfila’s advice for rural pastors seeking to address the disconnect from what Sunday morning worship looks like, compared with what everyday life out in the village looks like, is to start by simply loving those in the pew.

“I believe transformational leadership means honoring where people are long enough to love them and then find ways to engage them in their own transformation,” she said.

Prineville Presbyterian Church’s peace pole “declares our intention to be people at one with God, one with neighbor, and one with ourselves,” said the Rev. Mike Wilson. It’s just one of the many ways the Prineville, Oregon, church is reaching out to bring together a changing rural community. Courtesy of Prineville Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Mike Wilson of Prineville Presbyterian in Prineville, Oregon, knows about loving people where they are. While the only changing — and growing — demographic he sees in his predominantly white congregation is retirees, Wilson is aware of the growing Latino presence outside the church walls. A community garden offering affordable plots on the church’s three-plus acres was a way the church had hoped to connect with its Latino brothers and sisters, offering “neutral” ground to meet and get to know one another, Wilson says. But it didn’t. What is promising is the new Latin Community Association that recently opened in Prineville. There, Wilson hopes for the congregation to get involved and begin to get to know those in the community. A peace pole, featuring prayers for peace in different languages, given to the church by a member and placed outside for all to see, has also become an announcement to the community that differences do not mean divisions.

“No one church can be everything to everyone. Today it’s all about working with other organizations outside of the church. It’s about the community working together,” he says, echoing Kotfila’s rural ministry philosophy that “if you start inward, the path outward very rarely happens.”

‘Citizens of the world’

In Marion, Illinois, the Rev. Wade Halva of First Presbyterian Church says that while they are “pretty white” according to the Census report, there is growing diversity.  Halva has seen an Asian population coming in to serve medical facilities and an increase in Latinos working in orchards, “who once were migrants but are now finding permanent housing.” Halva also says there is a small African-American community in southern Illinois that “often lives in compartmented areas, but that are moving around and into new communities and neighborhoods.”

To begin the conversation on racial diversity in his congregation, the church received grant money to send members to a Montreat conference called “Neighbor: Being Christian in a Multifaith World.” At the same time, a Young Adult Volunteer from Halva’s congregation was serving a year at DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection) at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, California, and learning firsthand about poverty, race and homelessness. The intersection of the two experiences led First United Presbyterian to invite DOOR representatives to talk about race and poverty, Halva says.

“People got involved because it involved our youth,” Halva said, noting, though, “Had we been spending our money and not grant money, there would have been more or louder resistance.”

Still, he says, the conversations on diversity in his rural community will continue.

“If we are raising children in faith to be citizens of the world, then we need to help make them aware and remind them that the world Jerusalem appears in is a world of many races, creeds and colors, and that is the world Jesus sends us into as well,” Halva said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today and a rural pastor in Washington County, New York.  

Transgender in rural America

When the 223rd General Assembly passed an overture affirming and celebrating the “full dignity and humanity” and gifts of all people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, Presbyterians in rural America rejoiced. One mother of a teen who is transitioning in an upstate New York farming community wrote on Facebook in response to the overture, “I am happy to hear my church is a place where my son is welcomed.”

Diversity is growing in rural communities, and it is no longer just the shade of one’s skin. Gender identity is also part of the changing landscape. For example, West Virginia is now home to the highest number of transgender teens in the nation. The Rev. Anna Pickney Straight of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Virginia, says that a faith campaign is currently underway for these teens. The project is spearheaded by a group called Fairness WV.

But long before the 223rd overture was accepted this past summer, Owen Gilbo experienced the love and acceptance of coming out in a rural Presbyterian church.

Owen Gilbo and his wife, Betsy, found acceptance and love in their rural church in Putnam Station, New York, during Owen’s transition. Courtesy of Owen Gilbo

Owen’s story

As I stood at the pulpit, peering out at the familiar faces of our small congregation, my heart full of gratitude for these people, I told them, “Thank you for walking the walk, and not just talking the talk. Several years ago, you not only voted to become a welcoming church, you, this wonderful group of people, supported me throughout my transition, perhaps without understanding you were doing so. That, dear friends, is walking the walk!”

One of my closest friends, the Rev. Bruce Tamlyn, a United Church of Christ pastor, and I were co-preaching that day at my church, Putnam United Presbyterian Church in Putnam Station, New York. Bruce, a chaplain at Silver Bay Spiritual Life Center in Silver Bay, New York, was serving as Putnam’s pastor.

Our theme was “All Are Welcome at the Table.” It was Nov. 23, 2014, two days after National Day of Transgender Remembrance. I wanted to include this act of remembrance in our worship to shed light that not all are welcome in our nation, especially transgender people who are murdered just for being “who they are,” transgender human beings, God’s children. It was such a stark contrast to the welcoming, loving community at Putnam.

I had been attending the church since 2001, and became a member in 2010, known at the time as Angie. During “Joys and Concerns” one Sunday in 2011, I stood up and stated my joy. I announced that I was happy to have legally changed my name to Owen, and I would like for everyone to call me by my new name. They called me Owen. Some struggled to figure out which pronouns to use, but there was never a question as to why I had made the change.

Fast-forward to 2015: While preaching that all are truly welcomed at God’s table, I explained to the congregation that I am a transgender man, a beloved child of God. And they, Putnam United Presbyterian, had never abandoned me as such. They know the meaning of “all are welcomed at the table.” I will never forget when one congregant, Ann, shot up out of her seat and very loudly stated, “This is why we voted to be a welcoming church. This is who we are!”

Everyone laughed when Bruce stood to deliver his part of the message and said, “Wow! How do I follow that?” He did follow my message, emphasizing that God did not discern who should and should not be at the table. God made us all, loves us all, and God most certainly wants us to include all people in our places of worship and in our lives.

Bruce’s brother’s husband, Chuck, was sitting in church that day. He said to me afterwards, “I had to keep looking around the room. I was scanning the room, looking at all the gray hair, and had to remember where I was. This wasn’t Southern California, this was Putnam. Wow, it gives me hope.”

Did I mention Putnam Station has a population of 645 people?

Owen Gilbo and his wife, Betsy, moved to the Albany, New York, area in 2017. They are currently looking for a new PC(USA) church to call home.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?