Global mission has come to rural America
In the winter of 1992, I awoke to the reality that our southwestern Minnesota community was changing. Sitting in the parsonage listening to school closing announcements to determine whether my children would be snowbound for the day, I realized that the Worthington announcement was given in five languages.
Obviously, the school administration of our rural county seat town was adapting to a changing face of the community, a face that many in the smaller satellite towns around Worthington were either blind to or denying.
This transformation soon garnered national attention. Worthington was the subject of a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal which stated, "...virtually all white a decade ago," five years later the community included "...20 percent immigrants, mostly Mexicans, Laotians, Vietnamese, Sudanese, and Ethiopians." Noting the trend in several rural towns, a U.S. Department of Agriculture senior demographer predicted the result would be "a permanent change in the ethnic composition of many small communities."1
Rural Migration News indicates that from 1980 to 1992, just the Hispanic population alone of 10 Midwestern states grew by 1.3 million while the white population declined by 400,000.2
Multicultural ministry was once considered the exclusive realm of urban ministry or overseas missions. Now it is a significant part of rural ministry in many places. In 1992, my spouse, Margaret, and I founded a special ministry called Shalom Hill Farm. "The Farm" works closely with Luther Seminary, St. Paul and the Southwestern Minnesota Synod, ELCA to provide educational opportunities and consultations in rural ministry, rural culture, and environmental concerns for seminarians, clergy, and congregational leaders.
Since 1995, the issues surrounding new multicultural realities have been a part of every rural ministry program we have conducted. This new reality is ripe with possibilities. In a very real way global mission has come to rural America causing us to hear Jesus' challenge in a new way, "...look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting" (John 4:35).
The Challenge of Change
Yet this rapid change is challenging for rural congregations and their leaders. Seminary-trained leadership may be surprised by the many facets of cross-cultural ministry in a rural area. Most clergy come from metropolitan backgrounds. Small rural communities and congregations function differently than the context these leaders know.
So just living and serving in a rural area is a cross-cultural experience. Mix in the challenge of understanding various immigrant cultures and the sensitive task of facilitating interaction between established rural communities and the newer cultures, and you have a very complex cross-cultural nexus.
Cross-cultural education is key. Seminary education programs at The Farm help students understand the dominant rural culture and reflect on how to empower that culture to reach out to new immigrants.
Equally important are the continuing education programs we offer to leaders already in the rural setting. We recommend Tex Sample's, Ministry in an Oral Culture,3 as a helpful beginning resource.
Cultural stereotyping can interfere with mission. Joseph Amato says, "...however much we label them (immigrants) as one, there are great differences between and among them. They have different ways, distinct lives, separate pasts, and unique futures."4 These folks come from Southeast Asia, Mexico and various other Latin American countries, the Caribbean, and several west African countries. Many are not immigrants but Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens from the border areas of Texas.
There are subtle yet significant differences even within these groups. Says Juan Valencia of Worthington, "Sometimes we in the Hispanic community have a hard time getting along with each other — Mexican, Chicanos, and Latinos." He adds, "Don't assume that all Hispanics are Catholic. Many of us are Protestant. Don't be afraid to invite us to church!"
|Cross-cultural ministry is carrying out the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations," realizing the nations have come to rural America.|
We frequently consult with rural congregations concerned about their future in the face of declining numbers. We help congregations explore their history, current demographics, and possibilities for the future.
Congregations often discover that while the Caucasian population is declining, the population of other groups is increasing. Frequently we hear, "We can't talk to them because they won't learn English," which is another stereotype. We highlight the immigrant history of their own congregation and the reality that their ancestors used their native language in church (in some cases 40 years before switching to English). Thus our past can shed light on mission possibilities in the present.
In one such consultation with a small congregation in a town of 500 people, now six percent Hispanic, a church council member shared with the group her sudden realization that her role as an English as a Second Language teacher in the community had made her a missionary. She had built a relationship with many Hispanic community members, could speak some of their language, but only then had she envisioned herself bringing them to church.
Outreach comes in different forms. In Willmar, Minnesota, the ELCA and several area congregations are supporting the Rev. Pablo Obregon's efforts to establish a Hispanic congregation, Paz Y Esperanza Lutheran Church.
In Mountain Lake, Minnesota, population 2,000, 20 percent of which is Laotian and soon to have its own Buddhist Temple, the Christian Reformed Church has taken a more integrated approach. Once on the verge of closing, their congregation is now half Laotian.
Their worship includes sermons, Scripture readings, and hymns in both English and Lao. They help their Laotian brothers and sisters with the legalities and language barriers of life in America. And potlucks include Swedish meatballs and spring rolls, hot dish and sticky rice. Their achievement shows that small rural congregations with limited resources can do significant multicultural mission.
Ultimately, it boils down to building relationships, something we do well in rural community. As one pastor said, "There is no magic bullet for cross-cultural ministry, no miracle program. It's taking time and energy to get to know people, help them when you can, and invite them to be a part of your faith community."
Cross-cultural ministry is fulfilling God's command to "love our neighbor as ourselves," even though our new neighbors are very different from us. It is carrying out the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations," realizing the nations have come to rural America.
1. From "America's Heartland Turns to Hot Location For the Melting Pot," The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 1995.
2. From "Immigrants Transform Midwest Towns," Rural Migration News, vol.2, no. 1, January 1996.
3. Tex Sample, Ministry in an Oral Culture: Living with Will Rogers, Uncle Remus & Minnie Pearl, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
4. Joseph A. Amato, To Call It Home: The New Immigrants of Southwestern Minnesota, (Marshall, Minnesota: Crossings Press, 1996), p. 13.