From farm to city and back again: Listening and loving on the margins

(Jason Leem, via and used under Creative Commons zero)

Decades ago, as a child growing up in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa, I would daydream of simpler times, of the days when people were pioneers and steadily establishing their families and homes and building communities upon frontiers.

My younger sisters and I would gather in groves of cedar trees tucked into the hills and pastures and play "Little House," inspired by the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I would thumb through books tucked into my parents' shelves, books like Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills and 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, and ponder what it would have been like to live in the "olden days."

On steamy, sunny days in July, my younger sisters, cousins and I would put on pants and long-sleeved shirts and carry buckets half our body size into the deep woods. We'd crawl underneath berry bushes, pluck juicy deep purple blackcaps off thorny branches, rapidly fill our buckets, and scratch up our arms. Later we'd sit in a picnic shelter on Center Street in our small town with our berry boxes in front of us, smiling each time an adult came and exchanged two or so dollars with us for the ripe fruit.

Ultimately, I experienced a peaceful childhood in a strong community. I was rooted to Earth. We were not rich but we did not suffer. And I was not naïve about how blessed I was and the need to contribute to the coming of a better day; I knew that other children did not have proper food nor shoes, that my Christian duty was to care for them, to reach out. I was well aware that Earth was in need of our tender loving care.

Changed eyes

I left the small town in the late 1990s shortly after my high school graduation. I began to develop friendships with people who didn't look like me, whose complexion was darker than my pale skin, whose brown eyes sparkled in contrast to my blue, curious, near-sighted ones. I began to listen to their stories, to hear that they were afraid of the woods that had been my playground, to learn how discrimination and prejudice had hurt them. I admitted that I was afraid of the places that they called home, neighborhoods in giant cities; I had no idea that my racism came out sideways.

Eventually, by the grace of God, I conquered some of my fears and moved into inner-city neighborhoods, enlivened by a newfound passion that I must be near those who had no choice but to live where violence and poverty was thick. I wanted to walk with those who were not known nor understood by the people in my hometown.

Each time I returned to my hometown from living elsewhere, things looked different. My forehead furrowed with question marks as I noticed big corporations coming into the community; there was less local control of the economy, as franchises like Godfather's Pizza popped up on Center Street, for example. I didn't recognize the farm machinery anymore as it got bigger and was designed to distribute more chemicals, to reap greater crop yields, to rely less on farm laborers. I shuddered with disappointment when the local farmers' co-op merged with others in the region; the signs on the grain elevators and corn bins began to don a name less reflective of the local community. Meanwhile, school districts and churches merged, and more houses stood empty, glaring indicators of population decline.

Plus, nothing looked the same each time I went back to my hometown because my eyes were growing new lenses, a wider view. I cringed when good-intending people would ask, "Aren't you afraid all the time?" upon learning that I spent most of my days in a classroom full of boys who are black. I tried to respond calmly, "I think my students would be afraid here — we are all afraid of what we don't know."

Much in common

I started to sense the split between rural and urban America, and I felt caught right in the middle. I could empathize with my relatives when they would complain that city folks don't know how to grow their own food, or that the policies that impact them most are made far away within skyscrapers. I would listen with an apologetic expression as the urban youth I worked with told me how hurt they were by stereotypes that boxed them into categories such as gangsters and drug dealers.

Gradually I realized that the urban people of color and the rural whites that I knew had a lot in common, but neither knew it. Those with power in every major political party were ignoring the problems plaguing rural America. Neither side was coming up with adequate solutions for the problems of the inner city either. Each setting was dealing with an increase of violence, inequality and drug-addiction; both communities were dotted with "Out of Business" signs in front of chipping storefronts.

Back to the basics: listen and love

Seventeen years after I moved away from rural America, I returned. Although I now live in a different state and the landscape is dotted with tall pines instead of rows of corn and soybeans, the culture is much the same. People are eager for deer season to begin, folks are concerned the urban elites having all the power and wealth.

Last week, the day after the Election Day, I sat in a waiting room in a small-town tire shop. A flat screen TV buzzed with the chatter of Fox News pundits reacting to Donald Trump's election. At one point, two of the tire shop employees began to speak in hushed voices about the president-elect. I felt a rise of compassionate curiosity, a desire to connect and understand. I stood in a listening posture and said, "I'd really like to hear what you think."

They exchanged glances but then continued their conversation at a volume that let me listen-in. One worker said that Donald Trump was the first politician that ever paid them any attention, who ever cared about them. They voiced their concerns about late-term abortions and the stagnant economy. After a while the conversation turned to, "I sure hope he is able to follow through on his promises." At that point I chimed in: "I can't say I do. I am worried about my friends who are people of color; they are really afraid right now."

With my statement, the facial expression of the woman in front of me changed. She seemed to me to be concerned, sad, disturbed, ashamed and surprised all at once. I saw in her a mirror of my former self, a young woman who was genuinely caring and compassionate, but who hadn't yet had the experiences that would build a bridge for her to the unfamiliar.

Later I left the tire shop with a deeper conviction that those of us who are called to serve must take up a certain demeanor during these fragmented times. We are called to lean in and listen, to grow in understanding and not isolate from one another. Each time we open our ears and our eyes to the other we shall be tending to the wounded body of Christ.

[Julia Walsh FSPA is a retreat presenter and blogger found online at]