By Rev. Sara Porter Keeling
This is God’s country, we say, beautiful and preserved, just pay no mind to the power lines. Rappahannock county boasts a view of the mountains, twisty curvy back roads, and an unyielding commitment to environmental protection. Unlike so many rural areas, our economic struggles are encased in beauty.
A closed orchard is still lovely in its own haunting way. It still produces fruit. There’s a sense of dignity in a run down farm house or a hollowed out barn that is absent in a closed down factory or barren strip mall. There’s tension here between growth and development and the way it’s always been. Tension between the native “been heres” and the arriving “come heres.” No Walmart here, no affordable housing, and please don’t complain about your cell phone not working or lack of internet service because you knew what you signed up for when you moved out here and it wasn’t to stream five episodes of “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix.
In the bustling village of Flint Hill where I reside, I’m in walking distance to the bank, the post office, one of my churches, the local fire hall, and a smattering of restaurants — all of which are essential places for community connectivity, but none so much as the humble gas station which sits directly across the street from the parsonage.
Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source. It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway. Someone over there has the answer to whatever question you might have. The solution to every craving or inquiry. Across the Street is where you go for last minute things: baking and you ran out of sugar. Having a party and you need chips. Had a hard day and you need a beer or ice cream. Nail in your tire: have Travis fix it. Motorcycle needs inspecting: Travis, once again. It’s about time for a new truck: go talk to Bubby. You go Across the Street.
It’s also the place to go for information. We found a dog sitter. A job for my teenager. A source for local, grass fed beef. The latest updates on who is in the hospital, who is getting a divorce, who is moving or going into the nursing home and of course, everyone’s exact opinions (like it or not) on the current administration.
There’s a table in the back and a bench out front for when it’s warm where the old(er) men gather. I can’t tell you here what they call themselves, other than to say it’s a little obscene and they were hesitant to tell me, but I know their secret. Everyone greets them, but some are reluctant to plop down and join them, especially the women. I’ll tell you that it helps to be a pastor who is comfortable plopping down and chatting with just about anyone anywhere, but the real trick is that it helps to have a baby on your hip, which I’ve had twice, through the six years here. Whoever said men don’t like babies never met these guys, as they compete to make fools of themselves for a little one’s attention.
You can walk into any Starbucks in any American city and speak only to the barista. If you walk into a cafe in Rappahannock, you will see at least eleven people that you know, and two of them that you’ve been meaning to call. Grabbing a latte also means getting an update about that ill neighbor and checking in on funeral arrangements.
The heart of rural life, of rural ministry, is not the land, or the preservation, or the lack of jobs, or the resistance to new technology. It’s the people.
There’s immeasurable joy in the connectivity of community. A connection that I worried might’ve been lost in our nation, in our church when I served an urban parish . . . and a connectivity that I will surely grieve when my time here has ended.
The Rev. Sara Porter Keeling serves three of the four United Methodist Churches in Rappahannock County. A native of Orange, Va., she has a deep appreciation for rural life.