Urban AND Rural Churches Can Respond to Racism

The sooner we in rural America reject the assumption that racism is primarily an urban problem the sooner we can step into our calling as the church.


Over the past few weeks images of death, destruction, and anger have filled the screens of our phones and televisions. In America, this is nothing new. The sad reality is that African Americans like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, and others like them have long experienced diminished opportunities in American society and sometimes death at the hands of those tasked with upholding law and order. What we have seen play out on our streets over the past few weeks is not the first mass protest or the first time pent-up frustration has overflowed into rioting. This time, however, the pushback to the racism that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) impact the lives people of color has been impossible to ignore. Protests have been more widespread, more enduring, and at times more violent than we have seen in a long time. The heartfelt cry—“Black Lives Matter”—has been taken up by people of all races and backgrounds.

It is still easy, however, for many of us in rural and small-town communities to think of all of the recent protests and turmoil—yes, even systemic racism itself—as primarily urban problems, as if racism, like the coronavirus thus far, might hobble a city like New York but spare more bucolic areas. Seen this way, racism is a problem that those people have. A problem that doesn’t impact us, doesn’t impact me.

This is a comforting idea. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

The sooner we in rural America—and especially we in the rural and small-town church—reject the assumption that racism and the current unrest it has ignited are primarily urban problems, the sooner we can step into our calling as part of God’s church, and add Spirit-empowered action to our enduring prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Aiming for the Kingdom: Small Steps Toward a Worthy Goal

As a child your parents or someone else may have told you to “shoot for the stars” because if you miss your initial target you might at least hit the moon. Trite and cliché, yes. But it’s a good reminder that when we strive for the best and fall short we are still much further ahead than when we acquiesce to mediocrity from the beginning or fail to take up a task at all because it is too hard.

Though all our efforts to live in light of the requirement God has shown us in Micah 6:8 “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” are destined to fall short of perfection on this side of the Kingdom of God, we in the church still have a duty to carry on prayerful, Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered efforts to emphasize, and commend for wider cultural approval, kingdom values like justice, mercy, and humility.

Right now, the issue calling with bullhorn-like force for this kind response is America’s deeply entrenched forms of systemic racism. (Don’t know what I mean by systemic racism? Check out this short video.) Racism of this type appears not just in personal manifestations through racist individuals, but via the deep-seated systemic problems that have historically made it difficult for African Americans to secure bank loans and mortgages and even the benefits of the GI Bill that helped thousands of Americans move into the middle class in post-World War II America.

Systemic racism shows up in ways that most who are part of the majority culture don’t see, like when African American men like Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott get pulled over for no reason. (Let the one who has never signaled a lane change a bit late cast the first stone.)

What Can Small-Town Churches and Pastors Do?

In the face of such a daunting task, what can we do as small-town pastors and churches? Here are a few ideas, offered not as an exhaustive list but as a place to start.

1). Cultivate Attentiveness

Like many parts of rural America, the county I call home feels pretty homogeneous. At nearly ninety-seven percent white, one can easily go about the day without encountering any racial diversity. But the appearance of a lack of diversity and its reality are different.

In recent days, racism has been compared to a pandemic. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it can give us an interesting perspective. At three percent of the county’s total population of 50,668, there are over 1,500 individuals in our rural community who could theoretically be at risk for experiencing racism in some form. If our county had that many individuals suffering from COVID-19 (instead of the fifteen cases we currently have), everyone would be paying attention. Three percent seems small until you consider that three percent is a lot of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.

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Charlie Cotherman is the senior pastor of the Oil City Vineyard. After spending time in various places and pursuing various vocational avenues Charlie has a settled into confidence about his three callings —husband/father, pastor, and scholar/teacher. If Charlie isn't changing Benton's diaper or waiting for Elliana and Anneliese to be done with gymnastics, you'll probably find him with his nose in a book or enjoying coffee and a conversation with a friend at a local cafe.