Social Justice

Rural Communities Are Not Mayberry Tales

In a statement from Bishop Laurie Haller of the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church I read this paragraph:

“In Iowa, we’ve been pretty evenly split around human sexuality, but the landscape is changing. Do you know what I’ve learned? Our rural farming communities tend to be more theologically conservative than our bigger cities. However, in smaller churches, there is usually someone who is either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Or they know someone who is. And our LGBTQ friends are accepted for who they are because, after all, they’re part of the church family. They belong. In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then we will have recovered our heart—that we are all connected with one another in love.”


Dear Bishop Haller,

It makes me feel sad to read in your blog the stereotype that people who live in rural communities are more backward than their enlightened neighbors in bigger cities. Embedded in these dismissive sentences is

a) Surprise to find open-minded, well-read, caring, compassionate people with sophisticated Scriptural critique and life-giving practices of faith in rural farming communities. It seems from what you write that you believe members of those communities are blank-slate Christians whose perspectives and theologies are merely imprints of black-and-white fundamentalism and aphoristic repetitions of “what the Pastor says.”


b) Revelation of the unconscious assumption that identifying as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer is some sort of culture-driven fad that has simply failed to reach the hinterlands. Obviously, rural communities and small churches have people who identify as LGBTQIA+-because our “LGBTQ friends” are people. That means people across an entire spectrum of gender and relational identity are born, raised, live and die everywhere there are people. Your sentence shows that you, like those more conservative siblings you keep referencing, believe that LGBTQIA+ identities are learned “from the culture.”

People who live in rural farming communities are not more un- or undereducated, isolationist, inflexible, close-minded or literalistic than their big city neighbors. Your flippant dismissal of the Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience resources that any United Methodist can bring to their theological task stings. Me and my leftist, eco-feminist, sex-positive, Social Gospel perspectives on God, the Bible, and human relationships were fostered and nurtured in one of those small, rural churches you assure me will catch up to our fine city cathedrals by 2032.  To suggest that rural, farming communities do not have the capacity for higher criticism, social progressivism, inclusion, diversity, and grace is demeaning and trivializing.

Perpetuating the myth that violence against people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Black, Female, Muslim, Iranian, Disabled, Different, or Other is somehow more socially located in rural communities puts a mask on the violence that forms us all-city and country dweller alike. Violence stalks our pews, pounds on our pulpits, dominates our workplaces, and makes life in most American schools unbearable. Violence is the unquestioned rule for order in national policy, business organization, and family structure. What’s more, violence is the way almost all of us have been taught to discipline our inner selves. Tying a ribbon named HOMOPHOBIA onto the neck of a goat and setting it loose to roam in the countryside doesn’t make it a country problem. The capacity to brutalize other people has a seat in every human heart, and is enacted in every social setting.

It is January 2020, and the United Methodist Church is a mess. The Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is a mess. Highly-placed people are scrambling to salvage some semblance of an institution out of the changes in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that were voted into being last February. They write essays, like the one I am critiquing here, insisting on the future by trying to proclaim a hope they cannot possibly feel. Yet I contend that all the plans and protocols in the world won’t make much difference to what is failing in Iowa.

What is failing in Iowa is the Church itself.

It has failed and continues to fail its people and its communities by refusing to do its heart work. It refuses to question its assumptions about the sacredness, value, worth, and salvage-ability of naked human beings; people as they come without labels, stereotypes, or socially constructed viability for citizenship. In an effort to avoid responsibility for the hates and harms it has perpetuated, the Church insists on promoting social norms over Gospel inquiry and social order over moral integrity. And over and over and over again, it opts for platitudes and Mayberry tales over any kind of truth that might possibly set us all free.