Church reaches out to farmers

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 13, 2000

BALTIMORE (April 13, 2000) -- The outlook for hundreds of Mid-Atlantic

farmers this spring looks stark. After-effects of last summer's severe

drought -- hay and feed shortages, financial strain, emotional

upheaval -- are overwhelming farm families despite ongoing federal and

state disaster aid.

With rainfall still below normal, and forecasters still predicting dry

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,


"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


"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


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.

Posted April 13, 2000

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