June 25, 2011 by Steven Worden
Rural America ain’t what it used to be. For example, sociologists from the University of Missouri have uncovered two interesting findings about living in the country: (1) that over the past 30 years people have been moving from urban areas to rural communities (“the Turnaround”) and (2) over the past same 30 years the number of working family farms has fallen drastically. So, what does this mean? It means that although fewer people who live in rural America now wrest a living from the land, a large number of in-migrants have flooded into rural communities largely in pursuit of “quality of life” concerns. These people may be retired returnees seeking to revisit the haunts of their youth, retired military seeking natural beauty while escaping burdensome taxes, exurbanites commuting into well-paying urban jobs while living the life of a weekend “countryman,” or Internet entrepreneurs buying and selling while sitting in their living rooms, drinking a latte in their bedroom slippers.
Regardless, of the varied motives, these migration trends have led to the reality of two different ways of life existing cheek by jowl. As sociologist Mary Jo Deitz described it, in “post-rural” America, we now have newcomers who like “nature,” buy their coffee over the Internet from roasters in San Francisco, shop for window treatments at a Santa Fe, N.M. website, and watch the most recent offerings of their favorite auteur via Netflix. Such people may reside in a much different “mental landscape” than their geographical neighbors. Friction may result from the actual contact between local community values, mores, and norms and those of the wider pluralistic society. Oddly enough, it could be some newcomers who might have the most trouble with other newcomers. After all, as some may argue, “Didn’t we just move from Detroit to get away from that?”
Such friction may take place along what Gloria Anzualda called, “the borderlands.” Anzualda saw the “borderlands” as what separates cultures and value systems. She sees the situation as similar to people standing on opposite banks of a river shouting stances and counter-stances at each other. You have to actually try to cross over the borderland and encounter the other, moving past reaction and counter-reaction. The borderlands might be more fluid and changing than you believe.
As the commercial sinews of rural communities such as grocery stores and garages wither and die, many times the only living organisms left are the small rural churches. Contrary to myth, the Missouri social scientists discovered that not all small rural churches are disappearing. Some continue even in communities of declining populations. Often they have held tightly onto their fiercely loyal congregations as church members have accompanied each other on the long march through births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But the ties forged over the stages of life can be difficult for newcomers to break into. As Daniel Olson discovered, it was those congregations that had the tightest friendship networks that newcomers reported being the least welcoming. Both long-timers and newcomers viewed the other as “not like me.”
But, perhaps it is the small rural church who actually offers the best staging-area from which to make forays across the borderlands. As an example, Deitz suggests the possibility of the “encounter.” The encounter might be brief and it need not be a feigned acceptance of others’ beliefs. It could be just an acknowledgment. It might even trigger anger and dislike, but perhaps it might also lead to an odd connection which would buy the interactants a little more time to work on what is held in common, holding off on raising what is not agreed upon. Perhaps the African tribesmen did have a point when they explained their long survival by looking to neighboring tribes and saying, “They are the enemy. We marry them.”