by Harold W. McSwain
From abuse of children, spouses and the elderly to defiance of the government as took place in Oklahoma City, Okla., five years ago, violence and hate in town and rural places has multiple causes. On the personal and family level, violence stems from stress related to poverty, crowded housing, hunger, inadequate medical care, poor education and training for work, loss of property, and marginalization.
On the community/societal level, violence stems from dissatisfaction with government policies and actions. In rural areas, it relates to the loss of farms, ranches and other properties that have been owned by the families for generations. In towns and smaller cities, violence has roots in the loss of family businesses and loss of participation in local decision-making around farming, livestock production and marketing, mining, timbering, fishing, and other aspects of community life.
Hate groups have moved into this maelstrom of change in town and rural communities. These groups preach that non-white, racial-ethnic groups are taking over local jobs and are gaining control of national and international corporations.
Others say today's government is usurping rights and privileges guaranteed to citizens and local communities by the U.S. Constitution. Hate groups call for civil disobedience, and in some places have set up militia-type governments and courts. They hold anti-government rallies where they distribute materials, recruit members and stir unrest.
Responding to violence
Rural chaplains respond to personal and family violence and to community-level violence and hate. A speaker at a recent event for rural chaplains explained the challenge:
"We are witnessing profound and disturbing changes in rural America. Land ownership is being restructured. Agricultural production is becoming more heavily industrialized. The earth is being subjected to harmful environmental practices and mining and developmental activities.
"Such changes adversely affect rural people, their way of life and their land. There are increases in suicides, family violence and individual breakdowns. This level of human suffering is incompatible with our commitment to social and economic justice."
Rural chaplains must develop skills for identifying and responding to family and personal violence including knowing when and how to refer people for professional treatment. Such referrals can be difficult in rural areas where family and community ties and attitudes do not include experience with such services and where treatment facilities are far away.
Rural women and children find it hard to leave their homes. Many rural families simply do not have ready access to safe homes or to treatment facilities. Rural chaplains often must help women and children leave tragic home situations by helping them get to distant treatment centers.
Confronting hate in rural areas often begins with education. Hate groups can gain a hold on rural communities because residents, who would be outraged by hate-group teachings, tend to have no idea that they exist. Rural chaplains must understand and then teach such things as:
Educating communities and the larger society about the existence, dogmas and tactics of local and national hate groups is a primary goal of the Rural Chaplains Association. Members of the association have examined the constitutional protections hate groups use and have considered how these groups can be prevented from using public facilities to promote their activities. They’ve learned about laws that safeguard the public from hate activities, and they advocate for new laws to protect people from hate crimes.
A basic resource used at Rural Chaplain Association events has been, When Hate Groups Come to Town: A Handbook for Effective Community Responses, published by the Center for Democratic Renewal and available from the Service Center. (Order #1412/$10.00. See page 47 for ordering instructions.)
Rural chaplains across the United States have been proactive in seeking ways to prevent hate and violence. For example, a rural chaplain in Pennsylvania developed a puppet show that delights and educates children and law-enforcement agencies while it reveals hate-and-violence-prevention techniques. Other activities include:
Rural chaplains continue to focus on rural conditions stemming from the ongoing loss of family farms and from the changing economic base of rural communities as they provide strategic leadership in designing and coordinating events that focus on ministry in the midst of hate and violence.
The Rev. Harold W. McSwain is of the Rural Chaplains Association.