There were these two mice, cousins, who decided to visit each other.  One was a country mouse and one a city mouse.  Neither visit went well.  The hip city mouse found the country to be too hick.  He was bored and irritated at the meager opportunities and resources.  The country mouse, on the other hand, found the city to be too hectic and hostile. The fable, told by Aesop 500 years before the birth of Christ, reminds us that tensions between city people and country folks have been around for a long time, as have our myths of rural and urban.

My dad was a city mouse.  He grew up on the industrial east side of St. Louis. But when he became a pastor, bishops sent him to care only for country mice… for over twenty years.  That meant I grew up in the countryside and small towns… which made me a country mouse.  When I became a pastor bishops sent me to work with city mice, my whole ministry. Eventually my dad ended up in the suburbs, where all the mice are sort of citified.  And I have now ended up in Geneseo:  not exactly a hick town, but the church I serve is laced with the same rural ethos and myth that influenced me as a youth.  My time in Geneseo is bringing into relief a part of who I’ve been from the very beginning.  

There’s always been a rural-urban tension in our nation.  In the 1790s, the country was rural by a ratio of 95-5.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison represented those rural interests, including the continuation of slavery on behalf of plantation owners.  Our country have an urban majority until 1920, when the divide became 51-49.  By 2020, the split was 86-14 urban.  

According to the census bureau, an urban area is defined as any town with a population of more than 2,500.  But there are gray areas.  Even though classified as urban, places in Illinois like Morrison, Paxton, Galva, Georgetown, Carthage, Pittsfield, Sullivan, Jerseyville, Flora, Arcola, Eldorado, and Newton are hardly known as thriving metropolises, chock full of urban variety.  But when I lived in Dalton City (population 400 at the time) all those towns seemed huge to me.  When I was in seminary in Washington D.C., however, those same places seemed as remote and barren as the moon.  

A place can be classified as urban, yet possess “the rural myth.”  The Springfield, Missouri, metropolitan area has half a million people and is the fastest growing urban area in the state.  But there is something deeply rural about its culture and politics.  Many suburbs and small towns, even though they are officially classified as urban, also have a rural “feel” about them.  How then do we define rural.  The Census Bureau doesn’t help.  In their definition, rural is simply what’s left over after all the city people are counted. 

The “rural myth” can cut both ways, giving us positive and negative images. I call it a myth because it is partly true, partly not.  The parts of the myth that aren’t factual can be either aspirational or cautionary.  In my own experience, there is the good myth:  rural life in northern Illinois (where I grew up); and the other myth:  rural life in southern Illinois.  Remember, these are memories and constructs of my mind, not something I have sufficient evidence to entirely support.   

The northern rural counties of Illinois were settled mostly by German and Scandinavian immigrants.  They came to work the land and settle into small villages.  They were stubborn and independent, but with a bent toward community, conservation, and continuity.  They clustered with others from the old country, often spoke the old language instead of English, honored the ways of their grandparents, and made sacrifices for their grandchildren. They were frugal and accumulated wealth, but they also invested liberally in the future. 

Southern Illinois, on the other hand, while initially settled by Germans, was more influenced by migrations from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri.  Folks tricked out of the hills, away from poverty and bleak futures toward farmlands, mines, and industries (across the river from St. Louis.)  My own relatives were a part of this migration.  They redefined the southern half of the state.  It was (generally speaking) a culture oriented more to clan than community.  It was a culture that embraced change but was so suspicious of elites that it often eschewed progress. The vast majority accumulated little wealth, ambitious children grew up and left the area, standards of well-being declined, and opportunities evaporated in many areas.  

Southern Illinois rural churches were influenced by the old confederacy, the highly moralistic Methodist Church South, and Southern Baptists.  Northern Illinois rural churches were more influenced by New England, New York, and Lutherans. In both places the churches were both repositories of the culture… and propagators of it. 

But beware of all I’ve written:  while there is truth in it, it is also mythic.  I have found individuals in the southern part of the state to be “northern rural,” and it isn’t that hard to find hillbillies in the north these days.  

After spending my entire ministry engaged with southern and central Illinois, I am for the first time in 50 years serving a church in the north, in Geneseo.  It feels like home to me, as I went to high school less than 40 miles from Geneseo.  The truths of the myth are coming back into relief for me. 

Here’s the rural ethos I’m remembering, a culture that extends into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  We weren’t hung up on conservative or liberal labels; we hardly ever used the words, as they were only for the politicians to kick around and abuse.  The Christians I grew up around were liberal at the dinner table and stingy with their pocketbooks. They were liberal with building schools and roads and conservative with their land management.  They were hospitable with outsiders and hard line about obeying rules.  They were forward thinking about the environment and intolerant of slackers, whether in school or the workplace.  Farmers never worked on a Sunday, except to milk the cows or fix a big Sunday dinner. They disliked change intensely, but they did what they had to do to make the world a better place than they found it:  something they called ‘progress,’ long before the politicians made it a dirty word. 

Not everyone was perfect.  There was quarrelling and gossip and haughtiness, as well as cowardice and silence in the face of injustice. There should be no sense of “the good old days,” as there were problems back then too, as well as wonderful progresses we enjoy today. What I value is a heritage, that lives on, a well of wisdom and strength for churches and cultures to draw on today.

Throughout Illinois, our rural areas are ailing.  Of our 102 counties, 87 lost population between 2010 and 2020.  Our small towns and rural areas (on the whole) lost health care, social services, businesses, and jobs.  Most rural areas became more homogeneous, older, and depressed.  And the United Methodist congregations in many of those areas lost their spark and became victims of a greater geographical decline. 

But I’m not willing to write off rural and small town churches, nor their villages and counties.  My time at Geneseo has revived my interest and fired some passion that we can do better.  We can start with the myth, dig out the facts, revive the aspirations, and try some experiments.  In Aesop’s fable, the country mice have something good… not only for themselves, but for the city mice as well.