Social Issues and the Rural Church
This story is the final installment of a four-part series exploring ways the University of Missouri-Columbia Rural Sociology Department has been and continues to be engaged with United Methodist Churches in rural Missouri. This month the Mark Twain District is inviting all of the Missouri Conference to join in a gathering focused specifically on challenges and opportunities in rural ministry called Rural Ministry Now.
In 1984 Dr. William Heffernan, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, received a call from the U.S. House agricultural committee wanting to know what the government could do to help farm families who were losing their farms. Soon Bill’s wife and cohort Judy was interviewing two farm families a day, and Bill was processing data. They consulted with people in social work to use a scale of 12 stressors to ask people about. Typically, if someone was experiencing two or more of these events, they may need professional counseling.
“Some of the people I was talking to had eight,” Judy said.
It was the height of what was known as The Farm Crisis. The interviews were planned to take 45 minutes, but most took about two hours because people wanted to share what they had experienced. The Heffernans focused their research on Chariton County, one of the top agricultural counties in Missouri. In a few years time, about 40 families had lost their farms.
“I interviewed people who had been named outstanding farm family of the year just a year or two before,” Judy said.
When asked if they would participate in the study, most replied that they didn’t think it would help them, but if it might help others they were willing to participate.
“Some people called them land speculators (due to the debt they carried on their acreage), but they were just doing what they had been told they needed to do in farming: go big or go home,” Judy said.
Whether or not a farmer made it through the farm crisis wasn’t so much dependent on how hard they worked or even how good of decisions they made in their farming practice.
“It mostly came down to when they were born,” Bill said. If they were mature enough in their operation that most of their debt was paid off, they could weather through low farm prices and high interest rates. Those with some money in the bank during the farm crisis probably weren’t in crisis.
The Heffernans research wasn’t just for historical record, or academia. The result of it was an additional several million dollars being added to the farm bill for several states.
“It had an impact. It really made a difference,” Bill said. One of the initial studies resulted in one discovery that the Heffernans, both of whom are United Methodists, found quite disturbing. People who had lost their farms were asked to rank others in their life on a scale, with one end being something that made them feel very supportive and comforted and the other extreme being something that left them feeling abandoned and disregarded. The person’s home church ranked near the bottom of the scale.
“On average, people had better feelings about the bankers who foreclosed on them than they did about their own church,” Bill said. “They didn’t feel their church was there for them during this time of crisis.”
The Heffernans ended up taking their findings on the road, speaking at community meetings all over Missouri, many of which were hosted by United Methodist Churches as well as other denominations. They developed resources for churches so they would know how to better minister to their own families who were struggling with the farm crisis.
The more they met with communities, the more the need for such meetings was apparent. The Heffernans took their talks to 32 states.
Moments from those times still stand out clearly to the Heffernans. Once Bill was speaking at a United Methodist Church in southeast Missouri, and after his presentation, a professional-looking man in a suit pulled him aside in the hallway. He was the local banker.
“With tears in his eyes, he told me how the day before he had received a call telling him he had to deliver a foreclosure notice to a local farmer,” Bill recalled. “The farmer was his brother. He had lost the family farm.”
In another church meeting in the opposite corner of the state, one older man in bib-overalls hung around after the meeting to speak to Bill.
“He told me how he had missed his daughter’s baptism because he was working on the farm, and now he had lost it all and had nothing,” Bill recalled.
Judy made a presentation to a District United Methodist Women’s meeting, and after her presentation one elderly lady approached her and said that she would pray for her and her ministry.
“I was taken aback,” Judy said. “I was working for a university, and she called it ministry.”
But the church turned around, and ended up becoming very active in the issues relating to rural America. Within a few years most churches were on board.
“In those days, every mainline denomination had someone on staff with a folder pertaining to rural ministry,” Bill said.
General Conference last year was the first one that Judy had missed in 20 years. Three of the four United Methodist related rural centers that used to focus on rural ministry have closed, with the Heartland Network that Judy worked with ceasing operation about 10 years ago. The Hinton Rural Life Center is still going, supported by the Southeast Jurisdictional Conference.
The Heffernans live on the John Harris farm north of Columbia. This farm was originally 1,200 acres and was recognized as being a model progressive farm back in 1872. They own 500 acres and rent most of it, keeping about 25 to themselves for their own projects.
“I like to experiment with things,” Bill said. “Sometimes things don’t work out, and the neighbors laugh at me.”
Judy says the farm’s name is Boonslick Gateway Farm, but she also refers to it as the Heffernan Experimentation Station.
On the ground that they rent, they require no-till farming to preserve the soil.
“We need to go back to farming with nature,” Bill said. “There’s never a reason to sow seed on bare ground.”
The original house burned from a lightning strike, but stones from the foundations of some of the original structures were used to construct part of the present house. Its stone walls are 14 inches thick. The Heffernans have lived there 23 years.
During the depression, Bill’s father worked two jobs – one building John Deere tractors, the other rolling over eggs in a hatchery. Now retired, most of the Bill’s career was focused on ownership and control of American farms, and the consolidation in the food systems. They are glad to see others in the area of rural sociology taking up that cause now. Bill’s hope for the future is that we will see a resurgence of interest in local food, giving small farmers direct access to consumers rather than depending on large commodity brokers.