Small Town USA: Conflict & Community

Here is a very interesting news story. It is about a conflict in a church over homosexuality, but not in the way you might think. It isn’t so much the congregation being divided. Rather, it is a division between the congregation and the church leadership, a power struggle between democratic self-governance and traditional hierarchical authority.

NWS - HB0111 - Alex United Methodist - 006

David Steele, my uncle

“David Steele said his family has stopped attending the church, which has been difficult. They aren’t alone either. About 80 percent of the congregation left because of the situation with Fraley.”

The Steele family mentioned in the article is that of my uncle and aunt. The church is where my grandfather was minister when my uncle and my dad were kids.

The town, Alexandria IN, is literally “Small Town USA“. It was given that title by the government during WWII and it was used as a propaganda tool in the European theater.

So, that small town was intended to represent the best of what America stood for. It was a booming factory town with a thriving downtown, until the factories closed down and employment became scarce. But like many such Midwestern towns, it maintained its farming roots and indeed is surrounded by farmland. The factories came and the factories went. The farms remain, although fewer of them are owned by families.

It’s the same story heard in many small towns, especially in the Midwest.

My uncle mostly fits a certain kind of Midwesterner. He is a small business owner running a dental office. He could’ve moved elsewhere and made a lot more money, but he loved his hometown and felt dedicated to it. He has fought some losing battles to save what once made Alexandria such a nice town, but hopefully this particular battle isn’t lost.

The type of Midwesterner he seems to be is an old school Republican, the type that was common before the Southern Strategy back when the GOP was the Northern party of Lincoln. His putting community before profit is a characteristic of this type, certainly putting civic-mindedness and public good before radical ideologies. My uncle is maybe more in the tradition of the moderate to liberal Eisenhower Republican. Eisenhower, like Lincoln, didn’t hate government and, unlike Reagan, didn’t see government as the problem. Not necessarily for big government, but for good governance and self-governance.

Americans of that type haven’t changed. They are still around fighting for the world they remember, the world they still believe in. What has changed, instead, is the world around them. Few people seem to even remember an America where a moderately liberal Republican was possible. These old school Republicans are a dying breed.

I suppose Alexandria still represents America and the direction our society is taking. What is happening in this church is happening all across the country. Still, this particular incident has a strong Midwestern quality. It is a Midwestern sensibility of inclusive community. Once you are part of the community, even gay people, you’re more likely to be treated as an equal. Midwesterners concern themselves more with character qualities such as hardworking and trustworthy than with personal orientations or lifestyle choices like sexual preferences. If you don’t make an issue of it, others probably won’t either.

This is the live-and-let-live culture that originated from the Middle Colonies/Mid-Atlantic states which was the favorite destination of immigrants escaping oppression. The Lower Midwest (AKA Midlands) is the Westward regional extension of that culture. It is what makes a small town in rural Indiana far different from a small town in rural Mississippi. It is also what makes a Northern Methodist church far different from a Southern Baptist church.

My grandfather was born in New Jersey and raised in Connecticut. He came to Indiana as an adult because that is where he was hired as to be the minister. He was more of a freethinker, more of a doubting spiritual type than an orthodox believer. He was a minister more for the simple reason that he loved people. He wouldn’t ever have done what this present minister has done. He definitely embodied a live-and-let-live attitude.

My interest is less in the conflict itself and more about the people involved. This isn’t just because the people involved include members of my family. I’m a Midwesterner at heart. All Midwestern people are my people. I understand them and I sympathize with their plights. It isn’t about homosexuality but about what sustains a small town and what destroys a small town. If this church dies as did the factories did before it, the community will become weaker for it and the people impacted will be a little more worse off.

The glimmer of hope is the fact that this conflict didn’t divide the congregation. The church and the community it stands for is greater than the clueless church leadership. Sometimes hard times destroys communities, but shared struggles can also bring people together. The past doesn’t have to be a dead weight. It can instead be the foundation for building anew.


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