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Apr
07

Book Review: Dakota

By

I grew up in small towns. The small town that served as my home during my middle school and high school years is all but gone. Beginning in seventh grade, I was bussed some 20 miles one way for my education, but the small town still provided an elementary school. During those years there were two garages, one of which provided gasoline and a vending machine. There was an agricultural co-op that served farmers’ needs with seed and fertilizer. A small grocery made sure that any one could pick up some items without making the long trip to the county seat for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. The heart of this small town revolved around the restaurant that served plate lunches, sandwiches and gallons of thick, dark coffee. As you sat in that restaurant you could watch people walk in and out of the local post office to pick up or send mail. Two churches graced the town’s landscape, one Christian and the other Methodist, neither of which ever had large attendances and were cared for by circuit riders. Each of these establishments is now gone. Many of the buildings have been torn down, leaving empty lots across the community like a checkerboard.

This memory came back as I read Kathleen Norris’ book, Dakota. The book is not necessarily autobiographical, although it does represent a substantial subset of her life. As a writer based out of New York, she and her husband moved to South Dakota to live on an ancestor’s farm. The most interesting part of her presentation is her depiction of life in and around the small towns of the Dakotas and the observations she offers regarding them. Her theory, one that I am inclined to accept, is that many of the things that small towns do to try to hold on to life and vitality are actually the very things that destroy them. I offer below some of her observations in no particular order for your consideration.

1. The departure of the young.
Many of the community’s young people receive their high school diplomas and leave for college never to return, due to the lack of employment opportunities. These young people are rewarded for stepping into their future and simultaneously punished for moving on by being treated as outsiders. Small towns across the nation are losing their best and brightest resources every year at graduation.

2. The mythology of history.
Many small communities possess a selective memory about yesterday. Stories become legend and the legends grow beyond truth to the point that it is often difficult for citizens to come together and work for things that might benefit all. Says Norris, “Local control, a value to be cherished above all things, makes these communities more, not less, vulnerable to manipulation by outside interests.

3. The belief that a return to the past will heal all present ills.
Somehow the residents of these small towns believe that if the clock could be turned back 20 years or more that everything will be ok. Norris observes that “paradise wasn’t self-sufficient after all, and the attitude and the belief that it ever was is part of the reason it’s gone.”

4. Change is an enemy.
Norris observes that resistance to change and the ability to adapt to change is rooted in diminished points of reference. As the community shrinks, so does its willingness to look beyond its own borders into other communities to see what is working. And the lack of point of reference is devastating. “With resistance to change comes resentment toward anyone who demands change, yet this ultimately shortchanges the community.”

5. Finding refuge in conspiracy theories.
Many who cannot or are unwilling to cope with change will find refuge in the arms of conspiracy theories that provide easy targets of blame versus confronting the present realities of their situation. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories cultivate fears that cannot be overcome by even their close-knit neighborliness.

6. The reluctance to allow outsiders to benefit individuals and the community as a whole.
Ministers, teachers, librarians and physicians are often grouped as “outsiders,” and their expertise is limited because of that label. In some of these small communities, professional standards are questioned and invalidated which fosters mediocrity. Often these outsiders are made to be scapegoats by citizens that cannot resolve their own internal differences. Writes Norris, “Small towns need a degree of insularity in order to preserve themselves. But insularity becomes destructive when ministers, teachers, and librarians grow weary of pretending not to know what they know, and either leave or cease to offer themselves as resources whose knowledge could benefit the community.”

Norris has correctly observed that “it is the town’s cherished ideal of changelessness that has helped bring about the devastation, and it is the town’s true history that is lost…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.”

And I suspect what she has observed in small towns across the midwest is also, unfortunately, true of small churches as well.

Categories : Books, Church, Church Growth

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