A Drop of Ink
By Reed Anfinson
There is a feeling among many in our rural communities today that something is missing. Not in a physical sense, not in an economic sense, but in the very fabric of what gives life meaning. And what is missing, they feel, is leading to our growing division, anger, and incivility toward one another.
In recent years, social media has fragmented society into tribes that see each other with contempt and adversaries with no common ground. We too often become isolated in our homes rather than gathering in common places where we get to know and respect one another. Instead of working on projects together that bind us in common purpose, we build walls.
For many, today’s internet and media culture have created a lonely world, leaving a void. “Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit,” Sebastian Junger writes in his book “Tribe.”
At the same time that people need a spiritual connection, attendance in churches is falling, as is participation in community organizations. Today, fewer than half of the people in America say they are a member of a congregation. Many who say they belong practice their religion on the margins without great devotion. As recently as 1997, a Gallup poll showed 70% of Americans claiming they were members of a congregation.
With all our connectedness through our technological marvels, nothing replaces our gathering within reach of one another. This separateness increases with each new generation.
For many, spirituality means a deep need for something beyond oneself that gives life greater meaning. It creates the foundation upon which we build a sense of purpose. It builds meaningful connections with others that lead us to collaborate to accomplish not just personal goals but community goals.
“There is a part of each of us that centers around spirituality,” friend and long-time pastor Don Berheim told us. It centers on our sense of meaning and purpose, and how we imagine this world is put together. Who put this world together? It is when people think, ‘What is this really all about? What is life about?” People are looking for answers, he said. The emptiness many feel today seeks to be filled. What fills that void may uplift the spirit or corrupt it.
“Right now, for many, especially the younger generation, the void is filled by the internet and cell phones, Facebook and all the other…” angry and false information out there, the Rev. Gary Mills, who spent much of his ministry in the cities of Chicago and New York but has returned to his rural Minnesota roots, said.
“Most of what is needed now centers around spirituality, but the core to me of what the gospel is about is love and compassion,” Berheim said. “I think they are desperately needed at this time. That can be reflected in listening to people, not judging people, not trying to say, ‘this is wrong or ‘that is stupid.’ Being that kind of a presence that cares, that listens and values every human being and every voice…” is what is needed.
“We all have needs. We all have points where we may be desperate, and when we are, we need someone who can stand with us and care about us,” Berheim said. “For me, it is trying to be the best person you can be. Listening and caring for people. Valuing every human being. That is what I think it is about, and that is what I think we are losing.”
“How do we get to get to the point of caring about our fellow man?” Berheim asked. “I think it is when we are loved, and we have some sense of love. I am not so sure that it is too universal these days.”
Too many people today are cut off from their spirituality, either because it was never nurtured, or it wasted away for lack of attention. We need to reach out to these people and include them in our communities. We can’t afford to have people sit on the sidelines in small-town America. They are people who are important to the future of our communities, their resilience, their civility, and appeal to those looking for a new place to call home. If we don’t reach out to them, they will make accomplishing these goals more difficult.
Our churches have been and will continue to be an essential part of the fabric of our communities. Our challenge today is creating places for spiritual connection for those not a part of a congregation. Nearly all communities provide a list of their churches to newcomers but how many have developed and promote assets that nurture the spirit of those not a member of a church?
“A healthy community is a place where all people can meet their economic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual needs, work together for the common good, and participate in creating their future,” Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation, says.
Though spirituality and wellness are indispensable components of a healthy community, often they receive little or no time on any agenda where people meet to discuss how to create a better and more attractive place to live. When too many citizens in a community are devoid of spirt, in a deep way it makes them and their communities sick. People fail to see the need for participation to make their community thrive. But worse, they degrade their communities through acts of disregard – flying obscene political flags or letting their properties become eyesores.
We are entering a time of potentially great transition in America, both in our urban and rural areas. A spiritual community that is deeply connected will be better positioned to help its residents adapt and grow. We need places where people “can learn to strengthen the muscle of the heart,” to build a more compassionate, charitable, inclusive, and welcoming community.