Don’t forget rural residents

Phillip Blackburn encourages the PC(USA) to remember the vulnerable outside of the city — and for Presbyterians in rural areas to utilize the gift of community.

Photo by John Reed on Unsplash

Earlier this month, the Surgeon General released a report, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” that addresses loneliness as a public health concern. Of course, I read it. I’m a pastor — and so not only do I care about people, but I believe the church offers a very specific, and very important, type of relationship. Scripture repeatedly and explicitly reminds us of the importance of connecting with others. This leads me to wonder: if the followers of Jesus Christ don’t develop love and social connectedness in our communities, then what we are doing? After reading Surgeon General’s report, I think this question is more important than ever.

One section in the report really grabbed my attention. “Groups at Highest Risk for Social Disconnection” identifies groups as being particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of loneliness and social isolation. These groups include: “individuals from ethnic and racial minority groups, LGBTQ+ individuals, rural residents, victims of domestic violence, and those who experience discrimination or marginalization.” Now, I don’t know about you, but one of these things does not seem like the others. I’d guess if most of us sat down to draw up a list of folks vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, we’d have named many of these groups. But would we have conjured “rural residents?” I’m thinking not.

Why are rural residents on this list? There is little data in this report. The word “may” in the quote above is illustrative of this information gap. So, I’ll speculate based on my experience of rural areas as the director of the Thriving in Rural Ministry Program at the University of the Ozarks.

Looking at the risk factors for social disconnection outlined in the report can help us: “Although risk may differ across indicators of social disconnection, currently, studies find the highest prevalence for loneliness and isolation among people with poor physical or mental health, disabilities, financial insecurity, those who live alone, single parents, as well as younger and older populations.”

If you have been to a rural place lately you will recognize a few things. First: a lack of access to mental health support and medical care in general. Do you think therapists are overwhelmed in the city? Try speaking with the only therapist in an entire county. Financial insecurity is also a disproportionate problem in rural places. If you look at a heat map of the percentage of residents who receive government support, you will find those to be the brightest in rural America. Finally, we see that there is a particular problem for older people, and we know rural places skew older.

Keep in mind that this is anecdotal, but it certainly seems that when we carefully consider the risk factors for social disconnection, we find many of them present in a disproportionate percentage of our rural communities. Typically when we in the PC(USA) think of vulnerable groups, we don’t think of rural residents. Our minds may go to the urban houseless population, people of color, immigrants, the incarcerated, and so on — and these groups are vulnerable. We, as the church, should invest in them and walk alongside them. But rural areas deserve time and attention too.

Bringing rural people into our conversation with other vulnerable groups around the topic of loneliness and social disconnection might create new pathways for engagement, conversation and distribution of resources.

My goal here is not to skew the denominational conversation. Instead, it is to encourage us to think about the vast need in our rural places and the ways in which we can uniquely support our rural congregations to engage their neighbors. Bringing rural people into our conversation with other vulnerable groups around the topic of loneliness and social disconnection might create new pathways for engagement, conversation and distribution of resources.

As Presbyterians, we understand the importance of engaging our communities with our unique witness and testimony to the person and work of Jesus. If you are a rural parishioner or leader in a PC(USA) congregation, now is a good time to consider the ways your worshiping community can engage the lonely and isolated in your town.

If you are a leader in a presbytery with any rural communities, perhaps this could be discussed at a presbytery meeting, or a dialogue group might be established. How can we foster social connection? How can we build relationships amidst the lonely? The church is a community. We already have a powerful tool for addressing the specific problems of loneliness and social isolation. We simply need to use it.