PC: Summer Phillips

Last month, I attended a Freedom Rally organized by Patriot Prayer in Mossyrock—a small, rural town in an unincorporated region of southwest Washington. It was essentially a protest against the state’s newest COVID restrictions. I went there mostly with the intent to observe and learn—so as best I could, I tucked my sizable judgement in my back pocket and stood at a safe social distance from the packed and largely unmasked crowd. I tried to suppress my scorn as I watched people greeting one another with hugs or handshakes, watched them talking and laughing in tight groups—or just standing together, swaying to the country music coming from the long bed trailer which served as a stage for the band. All around were flags, shirts, hats, and signs proclaiming things like:
          “Jesus is My Savior—Trump is My President”
          “God, Guns & Freedom”
          “I Stand for the Flag—I Kneel for the Cross!”
I took notes and the occasional photo—but mostly felt compelled to pray, and to ask God to help me better understand these people. My people.

As alienating as this situation felt, it was also intimately familiar, for this place was home for me. I’d grown up in the woods and fields of this region. My parents were independent, proud, hard-working, and poor. My mother was a homemaker, caring for my sister and me, and tending to the animals and gardens that sustained us. My father was a self-employed welder, an entrepreneur, and an artist who owned his own business called the Moonlight Welding Company.

We ate fresh from the garden, canned surplus for the winter, and raised chickens for eggs and meat. From the Pacific to the Cascades we hunted, fished, and foraged. It was a lot of work for a little kid, and I didn’t always like what lay on the plate before me. I longed for boxed mac-n-cheese, sugar cereals, Pepsi, and Doritos—things I saw other children enjoying. Even my cousins got to eat what my parents called “government cheese” and other treats from the food bank in town—a resource that my father forbade us to use. As a child, I cursed our poverty, not realizing how rich—in other ways—we really were.

My father was often away, working in the oil fields around Mist, Oregon. Yet when he was home, the radio was always tuned to loud rock music, and the party was always on. Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends dropped by unannounced—and always walked right in, of course—no knock needed. My dad’s buddies were men named “Rat,” “Happy,” and “Golo.” Like my dad, they were big, rough men—bikers with long beards and lots of tattoos. My earliest memories of those days feature pin-ups of naked women on the walls, lots of foul language, and laughter from the adults when they could persuade my sister and I to take sips of beer.

This all changed when I was five and my mother “cold-turkeyed” her old life in exchange for a new life in Christ. My father did not like that one bit, and did his best at first to dissuade her, and then outright forbid her from going to church. My mother, who usually submitted to my father in most things, rebelled in this one matter. He could rant and rave and even get physical with her, but she was going to follow Jesus and she was taking her girls with her.

And so we attended Shoestring Valley Community Church every Sunday thereafter for the rest of my childhood. The people we met there were decidedly different from the family and friends who frequented our house. In contrast to the unpredictable, substance-fueled chaos of my homelife, my five-year-old mind wondered at how calm and gentle these church people were. Like most in the community they were poor, yet they were also generous with what they did have. Our pastor, who worked as a logger to supplement his family’s income, sometimes dropped by to visit, often with a load of split firewood for us. The women in the church shared vegetables from their gardens, recipes, scripture, and prayer with my mother, and put together cookbooks to raise funds to support those in need. They seemed to me to be quietly joyful people.

Though the people in our church were kind and always made efforts to ensure that we felt welcomed, the trauma of living in a dysfunctional and sometimes violent home had made me wary. For a long time, I never felt that I truly belonged. I can remember watching others carefully, mimicking their public faith practices—but it did not come naturally to me. One day, our beloved pastor took to the pulpit for what would be the last time. On that day he explained how he had sustained an injury and had become addicted to painkillers that the doctors would no longer prescribe for him. It was with a broken heart that he apologized to the congregation for stealing drugs from our medicine cabinets and bedside tables—places he had accessed when “using the bathroom” after delivering gifts of firewood. As church members drew together in shared grief, I suddenly realized how dear Shoestring Church had become to me. Even so, I could not have guessed that relationships with these people—whom I did not yet recognize as my tribe—would eventually sustain me when I most needed the support.

My pastor’s family would be one of the first of many in our community, including my own, to experience the ravages of opioid addiction. Things were made worse by a decline in the logging industry (in part due to protective measures to save the spotted owl) that had once employed so many of us. With little to no government support, with our livelihoods threatened by environmental sanctions, and with no help from charity organizations, folks did as they had always done and simply took care of one another. Churches, the volunteer fire department, and even the local bar worked to support their community—sometimes holding fundraisers to cover funeral costs, paying unexpected hospital bills, or rebuilding a home lost to fire. The critical work of haying was always cause for collaboration, and flood season brought people shoulder to shoulder as they stacked long rows of sandbags in the rain.

Nevertheless, at that time I couldn’t always see what was beautiful about my community; instead, I saw the world through the experiences of poverty and trauma that had marked my childhood. I couldn’t appreciate the solidarity of the people, the natural beauty of the land, or the peace in a simpler lifestyle. At eighteen I was just eager to leave this place where my great-grandparents had homesteaded. To make a long story short, I did move away to escape to more urban and global contexts. Initially, I took many wrong turns and caused myself new traumas to augment the old. Yet in my twenty years away from home, I also found a great deal of the healing I needed when it came time for me to reconnect with my faith roots. I eventually lived abroad to do nonprofit work, and even started my own school for at-risk youth.

I was well into pursuing a master’s degree in community development when my life was interrupted, and circumstances forced me to return home. My grandmother, who was entering the later stages of dementia, was in need of round-the-clock care. My mother, legally blind and nearly immobile, wasn’t far behind her. With no doctors, government support services, or public transportation available in that remote context, they needed a level of care that the community could not provide. So I knew it was time for me to go home.

Though it turned out that I could continue my graduate studies online, the idea of returning home was completely deflating. Even as a child I’d been a cultural black sheep: Born a tree-hugger amongst loggers, a bleeding heart amongst bootstrap-pullers, and a lover of diversity in a community that had only really ever known ethnic and cultural sameness. Two decades of living in the wider world had given me a theological perspective that was sometimes at odds with my conservative upbringing. But home I went, feet dragging.

Once again, Shoestring Valley Community Church became my place of belonging and a gateway to a world that, during my twenty-year absence, had become somewhat foreign. That first Sunday home, I parked in the lot of the new church building with some trepidation. I knew I was not the same person I had once been, and I was keenly aware of the dissonance between my cultural upbringing and my subsequent life experiences in the wider world. Yet as I entered the building, I was warmly greeted with genuine delight by those I had known my whole life, as well as by some I had never met before; I realized in a moment that my fears were overblown. Over time I saw that when I was among these people, there was no shame for my years of early adulthood lived in debauchery—and there was no fame for the years after that I spent in the mission field. With these people, there was only the here and the now, and with it a sense of acceptance that was so gracious I could do nothing but respond in kind.

Four years later, as I sat observing the Patriot Prayer Freedom Rally in Mossyrock, I realized that—with a little intentionality—I was able to see and understand my birth community from multiple, even discordant perspectives. At the particular event, I was in deep disagreement with those in my community who would be so foolish as to protest against basic pandemic mitigation measures, especially when wearing a mask shows respect for the law of the land, enacts good basic science, and most importantly signifies a love and respect for others.

But then I remembered where I was, and who I am—and how profoundly I’ve been shaped by this place. Though we don’t always see eye to eye, I am actually very proud of the people in my community. Where I have been weak—in my struggles for acceptance and my fears of not belonging—their grace has healed me. They have taught me a lot about sticking together, especially in hard times, and instilled in me the deep value of caring for the weakest among us.

This more sympathetic part of me even understands the protestors’ defiance of the state mandate for mask-wearing. There have been times when I’ve felt along with them the seeming oppression of a government that is often not representative of—nor responsive to—the needs of rural American communities. I get their generational mistrust of those in power—especially when that power seems totalizing and blind to rural realities. To offer just one example, those of us in the poor, rural east end of Lewis County see the Walmart flourishing in the more urbanized west end—while our small businesses struggle with regulations and requirements that make no sense in a small-town context. To see the results of that disconnect, you need only drive through any one of our towns in rural southwest Washington to witness the increasing number of boarded-up storefronts and foreclosure signs. Our frustration is exacerbated by more and more government decrees that come with no resources for implementing them—edicts that seem blind to the pre-pandemic social and economic struggles that communities across rural America have been facing for a long time. For outside observers, it is not easy to see (much less begin to understand) the always-present currents of rage, impotence, and even shame beneath so many aspects of life among the rural poor.

If you are anything like me, you might be nurturing the small, crazy hope that as we leave 2020 behind, things are just going to get better somehow. We’ve all become deeply weary, these past few years, of turmoil and the division. Among other things, we’ve become painfully aware of the deep chasm between rural and urban Americans. And that’s a rift that is not going to get better on its own any time soon. It is also a problem that is not likely to be solved by government intervention at any level. While there are many important things that can be accomplished by the state, this sort of deep socio-cultural healing, I think, can only happen at the level of the common person, through our interactions with one another.

As overwhelming as it is to consider, perhaps our stark new 2020 vision of the urban-rural divide has brought us to the edge of opportunity. As for me, my experience of grace and acceptance in both urban and rural communities of faith have led me to think that reconciliation between the two could—just maybe—start first among Christ-followers. To be sure, the demonization of the socio-economic “Other” is commonplace, but it is particularly prevalent in the American church—which we should all find ironically horrifying, in light of the example set by the One whom we all claim to love and emulate.

Yet I have to wonder: What if we could choose humility, to step back from our positions of moral certitude and righteous indignation? What if we could set aside our anger (completely justifiable of course!) long enough to consider an entirely different way of being—one demonstrated in the very life of Christ? Because really, while Christians disagree on many things, one thing we can all agree on is that there must be a better way. A higher, nobler, Jesus way. A way that calls each one of us out of ourselves, to find the courage to cross terrifying cultural boundaries—and to seek to understand and be understood by the very ones for whom we feel contempt. It seems to me—from where I stand, somewhere in between these two worlds so seemingly far apart—that there is no way forward toward crossing this divide except for this way of Love.