“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” so goes the famous quote from the classic film The Wizard of Oz. The quote represents the feeling of disorientation we experience when we are away from home. After all, there is no place like home and being “at home” provides a sense of security and predictability that many of us crave. While the book and movie use Kansas to represent home and the safety of staying put, Kansas has represented the opposite in my life. When I moved to Kansas, it was leaving home, taking a leap of faith, and beginning a journey of transformation. (Of course, the ill-fitting symbolism didn’t stop people from quoting variations of the Oz line to me before, during, and long after I lived in Kansas; it seems to be the only association people have with the poor state.)
The Recovering Abundance blog is focused on the challenges and gifts of rural communities and I live in a rural community. However, when I think about my hometown compared to Western Kansas, it feels like a big city. When I think about “rural” in Ohio and my part of the Midwest, I imagine small towns surrounded by gently rolling green hills of pasture for milk cows and fields full of freshly cut hay or tall corn stalks. “Rural” in Kansas, however, bears little resemblance to this pastoral scene. There is little green and very few trees. The cows are for meat of a manly variety and the climate is unforgiving; it’s so hot and the houses are like pins in a bowling lane called “tornado alley.” I may be exaggerating, but only a little! It’s a good reminder that terms like “rural” can mean many things to many people, and manifest differently in different parts of the country.
My reason for moving to the remote town of Haviland, Kansas in 2008 was a strange sense of divine leading that resulted in a transfer to a small Quaker college I had not heard of until soon before making the decision. I had never been to Kansas, only through it. I literally did not know another soul there. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I may well have turned back. In fact, my parents recall how they almost did turn back on the return trip, terrified at how they had just dropped off their beloved son to live in the unfinished basement of the “man house” of a tiny town in the middle of a “dry and thirsty land.” Through the tears and fears, I stayed. And my parents stayed on the road back to Ohio.
I was recently able to visit Barclay College. It was good to see old friends and observe how the school has grown and developed. Many memories resurfaced during my time there, most of them good. And I was once again reminded of how important those three years were to my own spiritual formation and vocational discernment. I decided to reflect on that time by sharing five insights I first learned in Kansas that I continue to carry with me. These five insights have relevance for rural renewal because they provide a window into the unique capacity of rural places to provide spaces in which personal and spiritual growth take place at a deep level. The potential of such places hearkens back to the last blog, in which we were reminded to see and seek the hidden abundance within rural places and people. Here’s the list:
1.) Geography and spirituality are intimately connected.
Most of us are aware that different environments are more conducive to prayer and reflection than others. But we are programmed to focus on how we impact and alter our environment rather than how it impacts and alters us. It often takes experiencing a particularly different or dramatic ecosystem to awaken us to this connection. I’ll never forget the first time I traveled to western Kansas. There was a point at which the whole landscape opened up and it was almost as if the whole cosmos was opened to me. I could see for many miles in every direction: watch towering thunderclouds make their approach, and encounter a stunning sunset as it spreads across the sky like a wildly painted canvas, not to mention looking up into the heavenly spread in the sky without the hindrance of light pollution. Kansas has its own beauty that is often missed by those who speed by or fly over on the way to somewhere more interesting. The beauty can be in the colorful sunset but it is often in the hard-earned beauty of the open, rugged, and seemingly barren landscape. Paradoxically, this unusual beauty draws attention to the immense vision while also inspiring us to turn inward. We shape our place and impact the land by how we move upon them. We are shaped by our place and impacted by the land according to how they move upon us.
2.) The desert has a rich religious and spiritual history.
When I first started at Barclay College, I had lunch with a professor named Dave Williams. He made a point to meet with new students and check in with them as they made the transition. I shared with Dave about some of my struggles adjusting to a new place with new people and in a dramatically different environment. As I described my experiences, it was as if I was describing the elements of a picture but didn’t know what to call the picture when the parts were put together into a larger landscape. Dave gave me the word: desert. Kansas isn’t quite a desert, technically, but it sure feels like it. And the remoteness and ruggedness of the land was working on me in such a way that I sensed its Creator was working in me. Dave introduced me to the desert fathers and mothers from church history. They had learned, internalized, and shared the wisdom of the desert. He also helped me noticed the role of the desert or wilderness in the biblical narratives. Dave summarized the stories by offering a biblically-inspired and time-tested truth: whenever God wants to do a new and great work among God’s people, God takes them into the desert. With this insight in mind, I purchased an Eastern Orthodox icon of St. Anthony in the desert and placed at my bedside to keep me centered on this message during troubling times. I would later discover how important the desert has been for other religious groups and their founders. Moses and Muhammad both received their revelations in the desert and many Native American spiritualities are grounded in desert places.
3.) Trust the “slow work of God.”
Time and space feel different in Western Kansas. The landscape is so vast and wide that what is immediately in front of a person usually doesn’t feel particularly significant. The sky is expansive and the Earth is large; this view puts our problems and possessions into perspective. Space was wider and time was slower when I lived in Kansas. It taught me to surrender to the divine order and diving timing. I slowly learned to trust in the Presence and Process that worked at a different speed than I prefer; it was amazing how even a short walk with eyes toward the sky or across the countryside could help me regain perspective and reconnect in prayer. The Catholic priest and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin beautifully describes this dynamic in a letter to his cousin in 1915:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progressthat it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
4.) People, like plants, need the right ecosystem to thrive.
It wasn’t long after I started at Barclay that I needed money and was able to get a job with the campus’ maintenance department. They learned that I had experience working in landscaping and soon assigned me to plan and install some flower beds. I saw this as an opportunity to enlighten the backward Kansans about professional landscaping. I substituted the boring evergreen shrubs for a variety of plants that beautified the lawns and landscaping of central Ohio homes. And I refused to use the ugly, generic cedar chips that were used to mulch around the plants. Instead, I was able to find a lovely dark black mulch that would accentuate the colors of the new and improved plants. I had some great ideas and had the opportunity to realize the vision. Some parts of this vision went well…most did not. Most of my new plants did not survive. The hot and dry climate was not conducive to their thriving, even with lots of watering and TLC. The black mulch only made it worse, soaking up the heat and assisting in the death-dealing scorch. My problem was not that I was unskilled in planting or mulching or that I chose inferior plants. The problem was that I didn’t have an adequate respect for the particularities of the place and the land. For that matter, I didn’t adequately respect the people who knew how to live in that land and what kinds of life would wither or thrive upon it. This is a common mistake in life, service, and ministry as well. We try to impose our views of what others need to survive and thrive or what is just in a particular situation. We do this to individuals, to cultures, to countries, and even to ourselves. People are complex and thrive in different environments; we should be careful lest we try to transplant someone to a place where they cannot live fruitfully. It is also important that we respect places and the people who inhabit them, listening and learning before we impose our ideas upon them.
5.) Love and justice manifest in many forms.
Politically speaking, Kansas is a very conservative state. Haviland, Kansas is a pretty conservative community. When nitrate levels made the water undrinkable, I suggested to a mayoral candidate that clean drinking water should be a priority. His reply was emphatic: “That’s what the socialists want you to think.” I admit to being a bit dumbfounded by this response; I also admit to using that line as an ongoing, go-to joke for several years. My personal political views often conflicted with others in the community and even in the school. However, I often became defensive when outsiders would poke fun at Kansas and talk about how ignorant and backwards they were. To this day, I get frustrated when others, particularly those who are unfamiliar with life in rural places, criticize and generalize people from the Midwest. I may have policy disagreements with many people in my region, which I believe are important. But those same people are some of the most kind, generous, and faithful people I’ve ever met; they are salt of the Earth folks. They put many liberals to shame with their hospitality and generosity and they don’t deserve denigration. The truth is that justice and love manifest in many ways, both practical and political, and we owe it to one another to recognize and affirm those manifestations however (and from whomever) they come.
The author that probably helped me understand the spirituality of the heartland more than anyone else was the author Kathleen Norris through her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. She weaves together the stories and experiences of Dakota farmers, Benedictine monks, and Native Americans to uncover the “spiritual geography” of the region. No stranger to urban places, living previously in New York City, Norris reflects on the vocation of rural communities and how they have the capacity to teach others in surprising ways. Many of her descriptions proved true in my life, through my time in Kansas.
“Maybe we’re all anachronisms in Dakota, a bunch of hicks, and the fact that the images in many old hymns, images of seed and wheat, planting and reaping, images as old as the human race and as new as the harvest in the fields around Hope Church, really aren’t relevant anymore. Twenty-five Presbyterian farmers, or a handful of monks for that matter, don’t have much to say to the world.
And yet I wonder. I wonder if a church like Hope doesn’t teach the world in the way a monastery does, not by loudly voicing its views but by existing quietly in its own place…I wonder if roles are now reversed, and America’s urban majority, native born or not, might be seen as immigrants to a world of asphalt and cement, and what they need more than anything is access to the old ways of being. Access to the spirits of land and of place…
The sense of place is unavoidable in western Dakota, and maybe that’s our gift to the world.”