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Rural Communities Experience Natural, Cultural Springtime

For many rural communities, this is a kind of springtime. The old has died. Something new is coming.

The early flowers brighten our landscape. Fruit trees are now in glorious bloom. Newborn calves cavort across green pastures. Lawns are getting their first trim. Bluebirds, wrens and martins dart about, looking for a home. Soon a new bird family will come to life in their nests. Gardens have been plowed and planted. Rows of lettuce and radishes have sprung up. Redbuds are in bloom. Dogwoods and azaleas are budding out. New vistas of life and beauty await us each successive day. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Mothers with children in strollers parade up and down the streets of our town. Old men have retaken their customary stations on the park benches across the courthouse lawn. They talk about local, state and world events with great confidence. Men and boys gather in the town diner to recount their exploits of the past few mornings as they hunted and harvested tom turkeys. Some even display turkey fans and beards, trophies of the hunt. 
Perhaps God has blessed us with such a beautiful spring to deflect us from the horrid violence of war in Iraq. It seems as though we have been spared from the reality TV shows and their promotion of recreational sex by the continued presentation of the reality of war and death. 
Driving down isolated country roads, my eyes are drawn to clumps of daffodils and jonquils blooming with no house nearby. I realize that once this was the homeplace of a family, or a series of families. They had tilled the land. They had found time to beautify the yard of their homeplace and care for it. 
But times changed. Disaster struck, or slowly the way of making a living changed and this place became obsolete. The family died or moved away. The house disappeared. Nature reclaimed the place. All that remains is a clump of domesticated flowers and perhaps some aging, neglected fruit trees.  
Sometimes, I am accompanied on these adventures by an older man who knew the family that once lived on that very place. He may launch into reminiscing about the people who once called it home. Some stories are funny, others exciting, and still others tragic. Many are a mixture of all three. Gene is proud of this area and the people who have lived here across the years. Other times, he doesn’t know the story of a place with its clump of flowers and old fruit trees. Then we may make up a story, what might have been. 
In the 1970s, Wendell Berry wrote about the “Unsettling of Rural America.” He told about how national policy had been to move people from the farms into the cities to work in factories. Agriculture was industrialized as well. Fewer and fewer people were needed to produce food and fiber for our nation. Berry raised serious questions about the goodness and rightness of this for people, land and other natural resources, for community and for the nation. 
Berry was right in all that he said, but he missed a counter-trend. Rural America is being “resettled.” In the 1990s, rural population grew by about 10 percent from a little over 51 million to over 56 million. Generally, these new residents are not farmers. Rather, they are a mix of people opting to live in non-metropolitan communities. 
In many parts of America, new homeplaces are springing up along country roads. Flowers and fruit trees are being planted in order to make them beautiful and productive. Families are being established and nourished.  
Who are these new ruralites? Some are returnees. After a career in the city, they are coming home. Some are retirees who may be new to both this place and to rural living altogether. They are trying to find a quieter, freer life out of the fast lane. Some are still in mid-career, with children, seeking a safer place to raise their families. Some are new immigrants from other lands, working in the new agriculture and forestry industries of rural America. Some are the urban poor seeking more affordable housing. 
These new ruralites provide both challenge and opportunity to the old settlers. How do we integrate the new people into community life? How do we neighbor them and let them neighbor us? How do we evangelize them and include them in the worship and work of our churches? 
New forms of community will need to be birthed. New congregations will need to be planted. Some congregations will need to experience significant change. We will be stretched. We will be discouraged. We will be changed. I hope it will be for the better. 
For many rural communities, this is a kind of springtime. The old has died. Something new is coming.  
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.