Presbyterians Today

OCT 2018

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OCTOBER Pr e s by te r i a n s To d ay of diversity — that is, if diversity is understood and embraced, not feared and not shunned. Connecting to a community Driving on Route 22 — known as the "main drag" connecting the once-thriving dairy farms with once-vibrant Main Streets in upstate New York's Washington County — one enters the village of Cambridge, which was founded in 1761. There on the corner, at the village's only traf…c light, stands Cambridge United Presbyterian Church, complete with a soaring steeple. The congregation inside is just as white (and weathered) as the white vinyl siding on the outside. And yet, on the church's expansive front lawn are signs of protest, peace, and social and racial justice. They are all anchored by a main message — "Hear Our Prayer." The signs, said the Rev. Kate Kot…la, a self-described suburban girl who just happened to …nd her way to a completely different way of life when she came to serve the rural congregation seven years ago, were leftover political signs from the 2016 presidential election. Kot…la had wanted to put those contentious signs to better use. So new messages were slapped over campaign jargon, and a prayer lawn was created. However, Kot…la, aware of the conservativeness of her community, made sure that the prayers were not just for controversial issues. Among the signs were prayers for veterans and elected leaders. "Places like Saratoga (45 minutes west of Cambridge) can emphasize advocacy and organize marches. If I started that here, I would be heading out the door," she said. The signs, though, were a subtle way for her to get a conversation going. As in many small towns, Kot…la is in what she calls a "tomato red" community. "I am limited in many ways," "The town experienced Hispanic, Asian and African immigration in the years before I arrived, but they had not yet found their way into the church in signi…cant numbers," Shaffer said. Now there was a com- munity of Sudanese immigrants looking for a place where they would be accepted. They came to the Presbyterian church, Shaffer says, because of the experience they had with Presbyterian mission workers in their own country. That was 1995 when the doors — and hearts — of the congrega- tion opened to their Sudanese brothers and sisters. The church soon became home to more than 100 Sudanese men, women and children. In addition to helping them …nd suitable housing, Shaffer and his congregation hosted a food pantry, a clothing drive and English lessons for adults, as well as a second worship service in the Nuer language, complete with drums and dancing. "It was so unique at the time that the Wall Street Journal sent a reporter to do a page one feature on immigration in the heartland," Shaffer said. Today, such stories aren't as unique as they once were, as studies show that white rural America is quickly becoming a tapestry of many colors. What is unique, though, is the growing rate of diversity in many rural communities. In a 2017 presentation made to Congress titled "Small Towns/ Big Changes: The Shifting Demographics of Rural America," Jennifer Van Hook, director of the Population Research Institute and professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, said that nine out of 10 rural areas are more diverse now than they were 20 years ago. Van Hook described how jobs in construc- tion, manufacturing, agriculture and meat packing have brought immigrants to new places in rural America in recent decades. Places like Worthington, Minnesota, whose Presbyterian church was revital- ized due to the in¢ux of Sudanese immigrants in the mid-1990s, is now seeing a quickly growing Hispanic population. The pressing story now is how aware are Presbyterian congrega- tions of the growing diversity in their once-homogeneous communi- ties? How aware — and how proac- tive — is the rural church when it comes to the changing face of rural America? Shaffer, who has spent his career serving small-town churches and admits to loving church potlucks and riding in the cab of a combine, advises those in rural communi- ties to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle changes that are happening, and to not be fearful of those changes. His current church, Oswego Presbyterian Church in Oswego, Illinois, a larger church that straddles an agricultural com- munity, is experiencing an in¢ux of families from Cameroon. "I tell my congregation we are a growing, changing community. It looks different," he said, adding that the biggest challenge in ministry, no matter what the changing context is, is "to always share God's love in different ways." "Every day you are to respond to the needs around you," Shaffer said. Shaffer now shares his passion for the ever-changing landscape of rural ministry, leading a yearly immersion group in the Midwest for students interested in what he calls a ministry that has often gotten a bad rap. "So many people have this idea that if you are a rural pastor you are basically providing hospice care. That is so wrong. There is vitality in rural ministry," he said. That vitality is coming in the way

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