This weekend our nation celebrates Memorial Day. In the UCC this weekend also marks “Rural Life Sunday.” Though I grew up working on my grandfather’s dairy farm, much of my ministry has been in cities and suburbs. Up until now. As a town, Granby has a distinct rural flavor that connects to my memories of childhood and my love of the natural world. So we’re celebrating both this Sunday: Memorial Day and Rural Life Sunday. This is a fortunate convergence. It creates an opportunity for important conversations around the role that military service plays in the life of rural communities.
In particular I’m remembering a conversation I had with a student at Narraguagus High School while I was substitute teaching there during the winter of 2008-2009. Here’s the context. It was the Great Recession. My wife, Nicole, and I had taken a call to do a church start in Indiana. Starting with no one, we had managed to gather 25 people in a town hall for weekly worship when the denomination told us that our funding had disappeared in the stock market crash. We suddenly found ourselves without income. Many people don’t realize that there is no unemployment insurance for clergy. The saving grace was that we managed to sell the house we had purchased a year earlier.
We packed everything we could fit into a station wagon and a Pontiac Vibe, put the rest in a storage locker, and drove with our two young children to Milbridge, Maine. Nicole’s grandmother owned a house in Milbridge. She had recently passed away. The house had been emptied of some its contents, but it hadn’t been sold, so we slept on the floor of the master bedroom under a pile of blankets that cold, cold winter while the girls slept in a couple of twin beds. As a part of our church start strategy, we had worked as substitute teachers in Indiana. As a part of our survival strategy, we now worked as substitute teachers in rural Maine.
Not enough people know this, but Maine is the second poorest state in the U.S., it’s poverty rate just below that of Louisiana. And Washington County, Maine, where we spent that winter, is the poorest county in Maine. Like most poverty in the U.S., Maine’s poverty is rural and, therefore, mostly invisible to the wider world. Nicole was already aware of Maine’s rural poverty. Her father grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He escaped poverty by joining the Air Force. He served in Vietnam and returned with PTSD the effects of which ended his life at the age of 52. Grandpa Philip never had the chance to meet any of his grandchildren. Nevertheless, upon returning from Vietnam my future father-in-law earned a college degree and created life for his children in which they would not have to experience the poverty he had as a child.
Generations later, this continues to be the path for poor young people in rural Maine. I’ll never forget the day I was teaching and one of my students came to class with an excitement I hadn’t seen in him before. Usually quiet and sullen in class, words spilled out of his mouth. The other students looked up from their desks to hear the news. He had been accepted into the Air Force. He was getting out of what he and the other boys in class considered a dead-end town. This class had the reputation for being the worst in the school. It was a class consisting only of boys with serious emotional and behavioral problems. There were very limited social services for them. No other teachers would take the class, so I was put in the class as a long term substitute. Celebrating the news of a classmate’s acceptance into the Air Force was a very brief respite from what otherwise was an extremely grim situation.
So this Memorial Day weekend/Rural Life Sunday I want to celebrate the slim ray of hope that military service provides to young people locked in cycles of poverty, particularly the invisible poor people of rural areas who continue to have too few options and little support. And I would like us as Christians to reflect on whether it is just to ask poor people to shoulder a disproportionate burden of sacrifice for freedoms all of us enjoy.