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Saving the rural culture

Pastor Matt Day
St. Paul Ė Mt. Joy Lutheran Parish

(1/1/2013) For those of you who do not know me, my name is Matt Day. I am the fairly new pastor at the Mt. Joy - St. Paulís Lutheran Parish. I began my ministry back in July, and was ordained in August. I graduated from Towson University in 2007 and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg this past May. I am from Owings Mills, MD, and have pretty much been an urban guy most of my life. I was born in Philadelphia and moved to Maryland when I was eight.

My dad was the pastor of a congregation in Randallstown, which has become a pretty tough area. Crime mostly existed because the socio-economic levels were so different. On one side of the Liberty Road, where my fatherís congregation was located, there was section 8 housing and on the other side, there were half-million dollar homes. So when I went to college, I decided this was something I wanted to study and I majored in Sociology. I studied things like race relations, demography, and criminology to learn why these problems existed and if they could be solved. Unfortunately, I graduated college with more questions than answers but that was not all that bad. These questions were one of the things that pushed me to go to seminary.

When I applied to seminary, my intent was to attend the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia so that I could study urban ministry. I applied to Gettysburg as a back-up with no real intent of attending. However, after much prayer and deliberation, I decided Gettysburg was the place for me, but I never gave up my dream of being an urban pastor.

Well, God apparently had different plans for me and my ministry. I worked with Elias Lutheran my first year in seminary. I preached at multiple of rural parishes my second year. Then I served two parishes in Rural Retreat, VA my third year in seminary, and I really fell in love with the rural lifestyle.

I spent my final year of seminary learning as much as I could about rural ministry and the rural life. It was like reliving my college experience studying a way of life that ignited my passion for learning. I was able to ask all of those old questions I once had and ask some new ones. My passion for rural ministry lies with learning about the people who make up the community. Because without the people, there is no community or story.

In class at Gettysburg, the professor stressed the importance of making sure there was a space for people to tell their story and their familyís story. When I travel around to the homes of members, I make it a point to ask them about their life, their family, what brought them to the parish and what brings them back because it is in hearing these stories, we are able to see where God is working in their life. Usually, we do not even notice the hand of God guiding us, but when these simple questions are asked such as, "Why did you start coming to St. Paul?" or "What brings you back to Mt. Joy?" you and the person sharing their story witness Godís work.

However, there are still difficulties in both rural ministry and the rural community. Both of my congregations are small and are aging rapidly, funds are getting tighter, and there are less people to fill leadership roles. How is the church going to not only survive but thrive? And what about changes in farming - those issues are becoming very much a reality in the rural community. For example, how can these smaller farms exists when other larger farms are able to produce more product cheaper. Will small farms exist in ten, fifteen or twenty years from now? Will the quality of food on the market improve or become worse as we lose more of these smaller farms? I personally do not like to think about a world where small farms are not sustainable. Think of all of the stories we would lose with these farms. We would not only lose these stories, but we would also lose a large part of our culture.

So what can we do? How can we save the rural culture? How can we save the small, rural church? I do not really know if there are any answers to these questions. However, I am an optimist and I do believe in the power of hope. I personally see the answer to most of our social issues involving the uplifting and upholding of the people.

St. Paul was one theologian who knew about the importance of fellowship. Throughout Paul's letters, Paul stressed how important it was to worship and live as a community and not just as individuals. When the church comes together, nothing is impossible. There is a reason why Christianity did not just die off with the disciples. It was because of people working together that the message of the gospel exists some 2,000 years after Jesus. The Christian story is able to live on through the lives of the faithful through not only biblical narrative, but through the stories of our faithful people.

It is in our community that we share the stories of the saints who have lived and died. Without the community, these stories, both the biblical and communal stories, would have a hard time being heard. It is through coming together, sticking together through the difficult times, that we can hear these stories and preserve them for future generations.

And sticking together we are trying to do! On December 16th, the people of Harney, MD came together to light a Christmas tree in the town square. Harney has long been seen as a "dead town" by many outsiders passing through on their way to Gettysburg. But on that December night, the town came alive. There had to have been over 80 people in attendance at the ceremony. It was so neat seeing so many people come out and drink hot chocolate, sing Christmas carols and watch as we lit a tree; a reminder of Christ's light within our community. But the really neat thing about the event, for me anyway, was meeting people who I yet to have met and learn about them and the community. I learned more about the history of Harney during that hour and a half than I had in the past six months. Harney certainly proved that the community is not a dead community, but is alive and working on coming back.

The people of Harney and of Mt. Joy know it will not be easy, but coming back cannot be done alone. I look forward to the next few months and years to see what will happen in the community. I really do not know what the future will hold for Harney, Mt. Joy, for rural community life, or for rural ministry, for I am just a humble pastor. I do however, look forward to the future because I know God has a plan.