I wonâ€™t try to convince you that this new field is more deserving or better or more desperate than a hundred others.Â All mission fields are important.Â People might get competitive about missions, but how can God compete with himself?Â He calls different people to different jobs, and it could be that one of you might find your calling here.
â€œHereâ€ is in rural and small-town America.Â But donâ€™t come to do vacation Bible school or build a picnic shelter or even start a church.
Most small towns have a church and VBS, and we can build our own picnic shelter.Â What we need is a grocery store.Â A doctorâ€™s office.Â A hardware store.Â A co-op to package and sell locally grown produce.Â We need the necessities of life and meaningful employment in a place that feels like home.
My family and I live outside a town of a thousand people in western Indiana.Â A hundred years ago our town still had a thousand people, but it also had a theater, a grocery store, a general store, two hotels, a high school, an elementary school, a grain terminal, a Carnegie library, and a hardware store.Â The last four remain.Â A few years ago the state tried to shut down the little library, but our petition drive was at least temporarily effective.Â The grain terminal will stay in business, I guess, and so will the elementary school â€“ although several nearby have shut and some children now spend an hour each way on the bus.Â But our wonderful hardware store, that smells of old wood and nails and oil and paint, with the window display of 19th-century implements and the mannequin legs sticking out of the claw-footed bathtub â€“ it may close when the proprietor gets old.
Thatâ€™s what happened to the grocery store.Â It closed a few years ago when the owner needed to retire.Â No one replaced him, so the building is now sitting empty.Â I donâ€™t know whose fault it was that no one replaced him, but in any case we no longer have a grocery store.Â Now thereâ€™s a gas station convenience store.Â It has twenty shelf-feet of chips and pretzels and five of macaroni and cheese packages and canned tuna, but it doesnâ€™t have a meat counter or fresh fruits and vegetables.Â We have to drive twenty to thirty minutes to get to a real grocery store.Â Oddly, the meat and vegetables in that â€œrealâ€ grocery store travel a whole lot farther to get there than we do â€“ some from other hemispheres.Â The delivery trucks smoke through some of the most productive and fertile farmland in the world to deliver lettuces from California, grapes from Chile, and lamb from Australia.Â And the people around here who might grow lettuces or grapes or lambs are working part-time at the tanning salon or collecting food stamps.
Well, but be practical, you say.Â No one can make a living in a little town.Â Itâ€™s true that the few businesses we have are mostly run by older people who, I presume, have their mortgages paid off and a Social Security check to help out.Â The cost of living is very much cheaper out here, so long as you donâ€™t have to drive an hour to shop and work; nonetheless, it would be hard to support a family by running a store in a town of a thousand people.Â Thatâ€™s why I say itâ€™s mission work.
Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project?Â How about those city churches with lots of professionals â€“ could someone help to get grants for rural development, not just to keep open a necessary local store but to employ local people in local businesses?Â Mission work is not just church planting.Â Yes, rural people need a good church, but nowadays even good churches are filled with retirees; younger people, if they work at all, work an hour away, late shifts and early shifts, and become disconnected from their community.Â Many young people donâ€™t work; itâ€™s cheaper to live on food stamps out here than in the cities, and frankly, people can do pretty much anything they want in their old trailers in the woods â€“ meth labs are competing with farming in most Midwestern rural areas.Â So yes, if you want grittiness and drama on your mission field, you can find it here:Â drug problems, broken families, teen pregnancies, hopeless lives â€“ there is work for missionaries in these little towns and scope for active churches to get involved.
I know that running a doctorâ€™s office or grocery store in rural America isnâ€™t typically considered missions by many Christians.Â But if caring for peopleâ€™s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here?Â Many of the needs are the same, and rural Americans, like Burkinabes, will respond to people who are humbly serving as the face and hands of Christ.
Picture this example.Â You open your grocery store.Â Â (Weâ€™ve got an empty building available for a good price.)Â You provide the basic necessities, and a few extras, too.Â You begin to get a name around here for having the freshest produce and meat, because despite the labyrinth of government regulation, youâ€™ve found a way to buy from local producers and sell to local consumers.Â In fact, some city folk disillusioned with produce from the other side of the world are driving out this way to visit your store.
If you do use our old grocery building, thereâ€™s a room in the front with tables and chairs, where people used to play euchre and have community meetings.Â You line the room with display cases of local handicrafts â€“ I can introduce you to some up-and-coming spinners, knitters, basket makers, carpenters, painters, and others.Â People can buy the crafts from you or pick up the craftpersonâ€™s business card after the community guild lunch or handicraft workshop or recipe exchange for seasonal produce.Â If youâ€™re creative with your insurance you could even have a seasonal food-preserving kitchen, although maybe one of the churches would work with you on that.
You accept food stamps and WIC and have the time to chat with young parents about recipes and healthy cooking.Â You have some high school interns working at the store who carry groceries for those who canâ€™t or deliver groceries to people without cars.Â You canâ€™t pay them much, but youâ€™ll find every year that they ask you to write them recommendations for college and employment, and youâ€™re happy to help them out.Â As soon as the business is off the ground, you take on a young person as an apprentice â€“ not just a minimum-wage slave, but someone you invest in.Â Youâ€™ll have several apprentices over the years, because some will use their experience to go on to other things; but when youâ€™re old and ready to retire, there will be someone in place to keep the business going.
People will start asking you why you moved here: Â Theyâ€™ll probably say â€œway out hereâ€ or even â€œthis dump.â€Â Youâ€™ll have the perfect opportunity to start talking â€“ slowly at first, because country people take a while to warm up.Â But after five or ten years, theyâ€™ll be used to you.Â They know your family; you go to the Fourth of July Popsicle parade and the Halloween cake walk with them.Â You donâ€™t idealize or condescend to them.Â Youâ€™re their neighbor, and theyâ€™ll share their lives with you in a way that most of them wouldnâ€™t with the pastor.Â People who have never seen a stable family â€“ or a contented single person â€“ will have you to look at, and a few young people will stay and farm their grandfatherâ€™s land since they now have a market for their goods.
As gas prices get more prohibitive, these small towns will have a choice they havenâ€™t had in a hundred years:Â they could once again become true communities, with stores and schools and jobs and churches people can walk to and neighbors who know and care about each other; or their residents can give up the struggle and move to the crowded, faceless cities, shop at Seven-Eleven stores, and never know a plant or animal personally.Â You could be a part of that choice.
This mission assignment would be long-term, even life-long, not a two-year trip with most of your time spent fund-raising and at conferences.Â You would be leaving behind the culture of the cities, the museums and private schools and stimulating ethnic mix you were used to.Â You would be taking on a job seen as low-brow and dead-end.Â Youâ€™d hear a lot of â€œYou went to business school and now youâ€™re running a junky little grocery store?â€ from some of your educated city acquaintances.Â Youâ€™d hear a lot of â€œI canâ€™t wait to get away from all the losers in this place!â€ from some of your new neighbors.Â But even today, in our rich, spoiled society, there are Christians who are willing to sacrifice, to give up comforts, to go to strange places and serve alien people.Â Some Christians are even brave enough to do all that an hour down the road and forgo the glamour of newsletters filled with tropical photos and exotic stories.
And you know how it is â€“ those who are called to the work donâ€™t deem it a sacrifice, ultimately.Â You might find, after a few years on the field, that youâ€™ve never been happier.Â Sure, your rural route gets snowed in every winter, but your neighbor with the Harley and the pit bull comes at six in the morning to plow you out.Â Your children are learning patience and responsibility raising livestock, and nothing can beat harvesting your own garden every summer.Â The wood stove smells great in the winter; itâ€™s the magnet that draws your family into the living room of the big old house that cost a third of what an apartment would have cost you in Los Angeles.Â And best of all, youâ€™re a genuine Christian presence in a place that needs what you have to offer, living proof that to Christians like you community is more important than making money and getting ahead.
You may be asking why I donâ€™t do this myself.Â Iâ€™m not a businessperson; Iâ€™m no good with money.Â But I teach at two community college campuses nearby, in rural towns.Â I hope Iâ€™m providing encouragement and dignity to people who arenâ€™t much appreciated by the mainstream of American society, not to mention by American employers.Â My students and neighbors deserve a real community, with a doctor who knows them, and a grocery store, and a school, and things to do that are not contingent on the internal combustion engine.Â Â They deserve to see Godâ€™s love in action in a way that Paul the tent-maker and James the advocate of charity would approve of.
And hey, I promise you weâ€™ll all shop at your store and even come in for the euchre games if the ice tea isnâ€™t too sweet.