Rural communities remain in crisis

8/15/2006

By Doyce W. Gunter
Guest Columnist

Rural America is a prized possession. Even if we do not live in a rural area, we want these areas preserved to give us a place to go where we can once again experience the tranquil, serene setting that calms our soul. 

One of the joys of living in Mississippi is that most of it is rural, and if we live in a city or large town, we do not have to go far to be in a rural setting where life seems to slow down and bring us relief from the frenzied pace in which we live. 

There is, however, another side to this picture. We who live and work in these rural areas know that all is not well. As a matter of fact, these rural areas are endangered in many ways. 

A farm crisis has existed for many years now. Other crises are destroying the rural areas as well. If you drive through the little villages that used to be thriving communities, you discover what look like ghost towns. The blacksmith shop, most of the stores, the garage and the gristmill are all closed. In most of them, the school is also gone. There may be a small factory building in that community that is also empty. 

The only remaining community institutions are the churches. If you attend one of the churches on Sunday, you will discover that most of the members are above 55 years of age. 

The crisis in rural America is more than a farm crisis; it is a rural community crisis. Since Mississippi is 85 percent rural, this rural crisis is very real in our state. 

This rural crisis is the reason the Mississippi Annual Conference voted in 2001 to organize a standing Rural Life Ministries Committee, and that committee was formed in the spring of 2002.     

Much work has taken place during the last four years as we have struggled to find handles that would enable us to effectively do our work. The first fact that became obvious to us was that we must start by working with the local churches. 

Two reasons make this our only way to start the work. First, we are the church and must work through the channels that are natural for us. Second, local churches are the only institutions remaining in many of these communities. 

We made our first big move to find ways to help these rural communities in 2005 when a “probe staff” was named to Itawamba County in the Tupelo District. Probe staff may be a new term for many of you. A probe staff is a group of professional church leaders who are sent into a given geographical area to find ways for the churches to work together to improve the lives of the people in the community. (See Book of Discipline paragraph 206.3(h).)  

The Itawamba County Probe Staff has been working for about a year now. We have been working on building our team and finding the best place to start our work. Several programs that are taking shape:

  • We are strengthening the Wesley Foundation work at Itawamba Community College.
  • We are starting a parish nurse program.
  • We have taken the initial steps toward starting a “Gardens of Plenty” program in the county, which will help families have a more adequate supply of food.

We do not know exactly what our next steps are, but we feel that it is now time to form some alliances with other church groups as well as county-wide secular and government groups who have similar goals to ours.

We plan to share with you stories of our work that will help you “dream God’s dream for your rural community” and prompt you to let the Rural Life Ministries Committee help you find a way to lead your community to that dream.   

If you are interested or need help thinking through a dream for your rural community, contact Doyce W. Gunter, 2800 West Main St. No. 201-B, Tupelo, MS 38801; phone 662-844-5166; e-mail: dagunter@wojonet.com.