I visited with Pastor Anita Bane in the office of the Rockwell City United Methodist Church. It was a blustery, yet beautiful day to drive West of I-35 on Hwy. 20. The sky was robin’s egg blue, and there was still a little bit of green in the gold of harvested fields.
Coming in to Rockwell City, I saw grain elevators against the horizon, and I noticed a sign for the North Central Correctional Facility. I passed the Rockwell City welcome sign and the St. Francis Cemetery. Almost immediately, I turned south to get to the Rockwell City church.
The Rockwell City UMC is a modern church. There are no steps to navigate to get in the front door, and there is a wide and well-lit walkway which leads directly to a large foyer and lobby area with tile and carpet. The bathrooms are set up to conserve energy and water resources, as well as being well-lit and family and wheelchair or walker friendly. Right across the street from the church is a newer elementary school. I stopped to take a couple of pictures. I could not capture both the cross and flame and the bell in a single frame. I imagine that these two pieces of sculpture are ties to the church’s history.
A small agribusiness community with people employed by the Iowa State Correctional System as well as the families of both prison employees and those incarcerated, I get a sense that Rockwell City has a long memory and a changing demographic structure. It seems like it could be a town where identity is a bit dislocated: those whose families are rooted here, and those who are new to town; long-held traditions of governance and behavior encountering new rhythms of life and community activity.
Pastor Bane serves two churches: the Rockwell City UMC and Jolley UMC, which is a country church. She sees poverty as the biggest mission and justice issue in Calhoun County.
She shares stories from the Jolley UMC where the people, according to Pastor Bane, take Jesus seriously when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). She says that the church has decided that they are going to love one another and this is evidenced by the fact that they include one another across stereotypes.
-A young, single mother finds aunts, uncles, moms, dads and cousins there who are willing to overlook a checkered past and current economic difficulties.
-A musician, losing her way in a hymn, receives encouragement and applause.
-When Pastor Bane lifts up Imagine No Malaria after Annual Conference and suggests “a hundred” [dollars] as a modest offering the church could make, they misunderstand her to mean “a hundred nets,” and give $1000 to the campaign.
Pastor Bane says she just sits back and watches this church go. Both she and her office assistant describe the Jolley UMC as a little blooming flower. Both their spirits visibly rise at the simple mention of that church. They light up a little as though reflecting the love, joy, peace, faithfulness and hope clearly present there.
Though both Jolley and Rockwell City act to meet direct needs through food and clothing drives, Pastor Bane would like to see her churches respond with something more. As we talked, I kept getting a sense that time and relationship are the greatest barriers to that deeper engagement with issues related to poverty.
The circles of relationship in local churches can be closed at times. Differences in socio-economic class are highlighted by worship language and structures that presume an upper middle-class background. Invisible barriers are erected out of fear that the problems people see in the community may invade the church. Church becomes something scheduled on a calendar, and people simply show up, rather than living Christ.
Pastor Bane sees in both the local church and in the wider Annual Conference an exhaustion born of doing. She wonders what it might mean if we started sitting down with one another to ask, “How did you get to believe what you believe?”
What if each of us were to spend more time sharing ourselves with those we meet?
What if we invite the children in the elementary school across the street to tell us their story?
What if our goal in getting to know the people whose lives are entwined with the local correctional facility were ultimately to get to a place of identity and honoring our differences?
Would we be able to forge better alliances for facing the chaos we fear?
Would we be able to move past our stances of defense and open the circle of our embrace to those we distrust?
Would we, in fact, stop drowning in a sea of needs and start encountering greater gifts than we imagined possible?
I think these are great questions. I know Pastor Bane is not alone in wondering these things. I know she is not alone in wondering how to help her churches make the shift. If you have stories or would like to connect with Pastor Bane in order to share ideas that work, please leave a comment or share resources here. You can also reach out to Pastor Anita Bane via her profile at iaumc.org.