Confessions of an Urban Pastor
Back in 2009, I was a newly ordained pastor seeking my first full time call. In the Presbyterian system, finding a call is sort of like online dating. A church posts a profile, then a pastor posts his or her profile. In the end, they hope to make a match. One of the churches that I was matched with was in Moline, Illinois. Moline itself is a college town, but you have to drive several hours from the Springfield airport and that drive is miles and miles of rural countryside. I did my “neutral pulpit” (audition sermon) in a small country church and met with members of the congregation that was hoping to call me, many of whom had some professional connections to the local agricultural business. All of this felt absolutely foreign to me.
I was raised in and around the city of Pittsburgh. I attended the University of Pittsburgh which is right in the heart of the city and my early ministry experiences were ones that dealt with urban issues. I did internships in Portland and San Francisco and always imagined myself in an urban context. I think everyone imagined that for me as well. The unspoken reality for me and many of my colleagues was that no one wanted to serve in a rural congregation. At best they were stepping stones to something better, a place to pay your dues. My denomination even offers to help erase your seminary debt if you are willing to take a call in certain rural churches.
I grew up with a stigma about rural areas that made me question whether I would feel comfortable in a rural church. I wondered about the diversity and if people would be open minded. I imagined being in constant arguments about politics and cultural issues. I even questioned whether I might feel safe, a sentiment that people often share about living in the city.
I confess all of this because on paper I would be a very unlikely partner in the ministry of Keep & Till. Yet it is ministries like K&T that I believe are on the forefront of where the church is heading. As I have hovered around the edges of what is happening in this ministry, I have had to confront my own prejudices and biases. I have had to listen more intently. I have had to pray differently. What I have found is what Dr. King referred to in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “All (people) are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I want to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you want to be until I am what I ought to be.”
What I want to be is a person who loves God, cares for his neighbors, and takes care of God’s creation. I want to be a person who is reconnected to the wisdom of the earth. I want to be a person who feeds others in body and spirit and who lives harmoniously with the rhythms of life. I’m afraid that I can’t do that without Keep and Till. There are lessons that the stories of the K&T community have to teach me.
What hindered me back in 2009 was an illusion of separateness. What I am growing to understand is that we are connected both by the Spirit of God, the ministry of Christ, and by the soil we tread upon. I hope and pray that you will allow me to work alongside of you, exploring the many ways our lives and faiths intersect. I hope that you will forgive my preconceived notions and make space for me to learn. I hope that the vision of rural renewal can be a vision that we can share. And I hope that I have something to offer in return…
Derrick Weston is an ordained Presbyterian minister, working in Arlington, VA but living in Lutherville, Maryland. He blogs regularly at https://www.derricklweston.com and co-hosts several podcasts on faith and culture.