Missionaries to rural America
That’s Cowan’s takeaway after an internship with Rural America Ministries, or RAM, a nonprofit that strives to share God’s love with the 50 million souls who live far from subways, skyscrapers and shopping malls.
And, too often, far from hope.
Cowan grew up in a rural community north of Houston. Though she loves her home congregation, she was discouraged that the church didn’t seem to radiate love to others — only strict rules of conduct. It drove away her friends, she said.
IN SMALL-TOWN AMERICA, Churches of Christ struggle to remain alive and vibrant in shrinking, rural communities. Find more Rural Redemption features.
When she left to study at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla., she was done with small-town life.
Then Jim Weaver showed up at her campus ministry to talk about RAM and its mission to reach the lost and revitalize churches in rural communities.
Though skeptical, Cowan volunteered and soon found herself in Cordell, Okla., population 2,650. She was a counselor at a Christian camp, served at nursing homes, studied the Bible with adolescent girls and shared her life with members of the 4th and College Church of Christ.
“I’ve never seen so much hospitality,” she said. “They didn’t ask you to follow the rules. I became part of a church that gave me nothing but a home.”
BUILDING UP SMALL, STRUGGLING CHURCHES
Atop Mount Scott in southwestern Oklahoma, Cowan shared her stories with fellow RAM students who worked with churches in Mangum, Okla., and Seymour, Texas.
Atop Mount Scott in southwestern Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Jim Weaver listens to a group of interns talk about their experiences as they served small communities with Rural America Ministries. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Weaver encouraged them to remember and use those experiences — no matter where God leads them.
Like Cowan, he didn’t see rural America as his mission field — or even America, for that matter.
As a student at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City, Weaver gained a love for international missions. He traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, with former missionary Howard Norton. He worked as a probation officer and counseled juvenile offenders before moving with his family to serve as missionaries in Portugal.
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Health problems forced the family to return to the U.S., and Weaver found himself in western Oklahoma, serving as evangelist for the 4th and College church.
Among the cotton fields he saw big problems — alcoholism, methamphetamine abuse, depression and small Churches of Christ struggling to keep their doors open. He also saw loving, caring people living without the distractions of big cities.
“We’re always looking over the next hill. ‘What’s out there?’” Weaver said. “And God is saying, ‘I’ve got something right here in front of you.’” With support from his congregation, he launched RAM in 2012.
Luke Nance, youth minister for the 4th and College church, compared Weaver’s ministry to the apostle Paul, who moved throughout Asia Minor spreading the Gospel.
Instead of planting churches in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, Weaver encourages churches in Cordell, Carnegie and Mangum, to name a few, often helping them establish small-group ministries and serve their communities, Nance said. Weaver also recruits interns to get out of big cities and into the lives of small-town Christians.
‘We’re always looking over the next hill. “What’s out there?” And God is saying,”I’ve got something right here for you.”’
Jim Weaver, Rural America Ministries
Members of the Seymour Church of Christ were a bit skeptical about the four college students who invaded their community this summer, said Lee Skelton, the church’s minister and a former missionary to Romania.
The interns helped with the church’s food distribution, visitation and an after-school program for kids.
The church had about 200 members in the 1950s and now has 110 “on a good Sunday,” Skelton said. The minister has seen a change in the congregation since RAM’s visit, though. Members want to reach out — and are eager to host the students again.
“They don’t just come and ‘do ministry.’ They partner with you,” Skelton said. When they serve, “they don’t say, ‘We’re with RAM.’ They just say, ‘We’re members of the Church of Christ.’”
FACE-TO-FACE WITH CATTLE AND CHRIST
During the wrap-up session, the students shared stories of people they met who had been hurt or driven away by their past experiences with church. Some had not been back to worship since before the interns were born.
“What they’re desperate for is relationships,” Cowan said. In her short time in Cordell, she helped establish new relationships and saw the beginnings of healing — for others and herself. Now, “God’s calling me to seriously consider going back to a small town,” she said.
Josue Rodriguez had no rural experience when he joined RAM.
He grew up in Miami (the big one in Florida, not the town in northeast Oklahoma) and just graduated from Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va.
In Mangum, “I was face-to-face with cattle,” Rodriguez said. He also found a sense of community and family he didn’t expect.
Away from big-city distractions, he focused on spiritual disciplines — including discipleship, service and just being still.
Those practices will serve him anywhere, said Rodriguez, who next plans to serve as an intern for a church in Belpre, Ohio.
Demi Lorey, a student at Lubbock Christian University in Texas, said the experience helped her realize that “mission isn’t something you do ‘over there’ or something you do some of the time.”
“It doesn’t matter how big the city or how small the village,” she said, “there are people there who need to know God.”