Church reaches out to farmers

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | February 4, 2000


The outlook for hundreds of Mid-Atlantic farmers this year looks stark as their bare winter fields. After-effects of the summer's severe

drought -- hay and feed shortages, financial strain, emotional upheaval -- are overwhelming farm families despite ongoing federal and state

disaster aid.

And spring may not bring new hope. With rainfall still lagging far below normal, and forecasters predicting even harsher drought

conditions next summer, farmers could face even worse.

The church community -- even while still struggling to define how it can best help -- has opened its doors for farmers in crisis. Past lessons learned and broader education may help churches respond better to farmers' needs -- needs that are invisible to much of the public but

growing quietly more urgent.

Churches could play two important roles, said the Rev. Dr. Brien McGarvey, a chaplain speaking at a Rural Unity Day in Chillocothe, Ohio.

"The first is pastoral and we as ministers, chaplains, and laity are to manifest the presence of Christ and to assure those who are in the midst of a crisis that ultimately everything will be all right," he said.

"The church also has a secondary role in times like these, and that is to be prophetic, which means to speak openly and honestly about the

corporate sins of the nation, its leaders, and others in economic power."

Whatever role a church may choose, its members must learn from the past, said Mel West, a field representative for the United Methodist

Rural Fellowship.

"Some years ago, when the farm crisis hit in Missouri, people were asked what organization helped them the most and the least. The church

was at the bottom," he said. "And I do mean at the bottom -- farm families rated the banks that foreclosed on their farms as more helpful

than the church!"

But West and others believe that churches have the potential to coordinate a compassionate and long-term response to farmers. Farm

families report that they aren't asking for their lives to be easy -- they just want to be able to farm in the face of the drought disaster,

ongoing low crop prices, and the public's insatiable demand for the rapidly-grown food of factory farms.

A farmer in need may feel more comfortable approaching a church over another relief agency. Like many disaster survivors, farmers may

be reticent about asking for help, said Joanne Dvorak, director of the Lutheran Rural Institute. "A church can be an ideal location to offer

help since people don't worry about having their car parked in front of the church," the way they may feel self-conscious about being seen at

a county social services facility or a relief center.

The same rugged individualism that makes people successful farmers can also lead to "a hesitancy on the part of farmers to share their needs," said Paul Unruh, a licensed specialist clinical social worker who has responded to past farm disasters.

"Rural people tend to be very private and keep financial troubles to themselves," agreed West, and, at times, farmers may even use self-demeaning theology to explain their situation. "The feeling may be 'I bought that new pickup when I shouldn't have and look what happened.' "

But the church can combat such negative psychology by offering life-affirming spiritual support through its already-existing channels, said

Unruh. "Churches have natural networks and relationships in place already."

He recalled one of the most successful responses to farmers he's ever seen -- when members of an Iowa congregation simply had a conversation with every farmer in their community to see how they were doing.

Pastors can play a key role in identifying farm families who are in need but unwilling to say so. "When farmers in the Mississippi flood

corridor got rained on for 60 days in 1993, it was the pastors who helped us get around and meet individual farmers," he said.

But before churches can effectively provide pastoral counseling or material assistance, they have to understand rural lives and needs, said Dr. Allen Brown, a rural church consultant.

The public has little awareness of the plight of farmers, he said. "The church needs to do much more in raising awareness concerning what is

happening with our food supply. Many in rural areas know all too well, but we have a lot of educating to do in the urban and suburban

areas."

West added that "churches need to recognize there's a problem out there. Urban churches would do well to invite two or three couples from

rural churches out to the city and find out what's going on."

Likewise, rural churches could host Rural Life Sundays in which carloads of people from city or suburban churches could visit a farm. "And everything on those farms would have a price tag posted on it," he said. "The equipment, the feed, everything -- including the bushel of corn that's priced about the same as it was in 1940. Then churches could carefully select an agriculture person who could come in and talk about

it."

Such church-to-church communication would not only improve response to farmers' needs but "put us in touch with our food supply," he said. "Churches need to be writing letters to the editor. Church reporters need to go out and get the rural story."

Church leaders said they also realize there needs to be more sharing among denominations regarding farmers' needs and appropriate response.

But information and effective response can't be automatically transferred from community to community, cautioned Dvorak. "Yes, we can

share resources meaningfully but each church needs to take that information and adapt it to that local community, paying attention to

cultural subtleties."

Among current church-based efforts is Family Farm Drought Response, an ecumenical coalition that has been coordinating hay donations and a toll-free farm helpline.

While more than 200 loads of hay have been successfully distributed to mid-Atlantic farmers through Family Farm Drought Response, a few farmers didn't receive the kind of hay they needed because well intentioned donors gave the wrong type of hay -- and donation coordinators weren't notified of the difference.

But ongoing education is helping to solve such logistical glitches. And pastoral training could improve response on the counseling side,

suggested West.

"We need to get seminaries to restart training for rural ministry programs that were going great about 40 years ago," he said.


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