Following World War II, Pickens County, Ala., like many other counties in the rural South, “chased smoke stacks” with good success.
A major electronics company built a plant near Reform and at its peak employed 800 persons. Four textile plants also moved to the county and employed another 700. For the 60 percent of the 21,000 people of this county who are of European heritage, the 1970s were the Golden Years. An adequate family income and the advantages of rural life were blended.
Old cotton fields were planted in pine trees and converted to forests. Deer, turkey and other wild game flourished. New brick homes went up along the country roads. Churches added facilities. Life was good.
Beginning in 1984 one by one the factories closed. All of them are now gone. Many of the jobs went across the border or overseas.
Christians were faced with a dilemma. While we recognized that other folk needed jobs, we lamented the loss of jobs that once provided for our fiscal needs. In domino-like fashion the closing of the plants contributed to the closing of home-owned businesses along the main streets of our four little towns. Now we do most of our shopping elsewhere. Consequently, sales tax revenue is dropping.
Today, most of the land in our county is owned by absentee timber interests. It is to the advantage of the timber industry to keep property taxes low. A low-income county also struggles to provide good educational opportunities. In turn, the work force may not be very attractive to potential employers.
The Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway cuts across our county. When it was completed in 1985 an explosion of new industry was promised to the folk in Pickens County.
This has not happened. Jobs are scarce here. Many of them are government-related. Many of our citizens commute daily to Tuscaloosa or Columbus, Miss., for work. Our small hospital struggles to stay open.
We find some hope in the fact that some of our sons and daughters left are returning to retire here.
What about the thousands who are perpetually poor, products of the “culture of poverty” and ill-equipped to make a living in our new economy?
Pickens County is similar to many other communities in the rural South.
These places are peopled by Baptists, for this is the heartland of the Baptist movement. What are the responsibilities of the Baptist churches, agencies and institutions to poor Baptists of the rural South who suffer from these economic and social developments?
First, we must provide for the basic physical needs of the people: food, clothing, and shelter. Our Baptist association operates a thrift store and our men’s ministries rehabilitate homes. But it seems like little more than a good start.
Second, we need to preach and practice a Gospel which calls people to salvation and transformation. We need to help children and youth see that God has gifted them with talents which they must develop and use for their support, the support of their family and the betterment of humanity.
Third, we must notice the impact of our economy and culture on family life. More than half of our children here are not being raised by their biological parents. Too many of us are selfish and self-serving. We place our pleasure ahead of our responsibilities. We need to learn and practice true Christian love in our relationships. Churches must address this.
Fourth, we need to demand from the federal government a comprehensive rural policy. Such will go far beyond our current efforts at farm or agricultural policy. A vision of what a good rural community could be must be developed. We must be good stewards of the natural environment. And we must develop resources to under gird these efforts. This will probably not be the “re-industrialization” of the rural South. Hopefully, it will be something better, more godly.
Rural America is broken. It needs repairing. This calls for a mixture of helpful public policy, Christian charity and the presentation of the Gospel with evangelical zeal and compassion.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership in Carrollton, Ala. From 1984 to 1997 he led the rural church program of the Southern Baptist Convention. He maintains a website on rural church and community matters at www.pickens.net/~pba. He is co-author of Rural Ministry with Shannon Jung and others (Abingdon, 1998). He is currently working on the report of the replication of the Missouri rural church study, The Rechurching of Rural America.