The 5th Annual Dine and Dance in October marked the first year of participants living at Benevolence Farm, a farm and residential program that seeks to cultivate leadership, promote sustainable livelihoods, and reap structural change with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system in North Carolina. LaShauna Austria, the program's interim executive director, will be on a panel discussing the role of churches in bridging historic divides along racial and economic lines.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Rural Assembly, a network of organizations and individuals focused on improving conditions in rural America, will meet May 21-23 in Durham, North Carolina. This article is one in a series of reports that preview activities at the Rural Assembly. 

Many churches have programs that meet basic community needs like feeding the hungry, educating young people and responding to health care emergencies. A panel at this month’s National Rural Assembly will feature faith community leaders asking rural churches in North Carolina to dig a little deeper to address root causes to these persistent problems.  

“The economic recovery does not look the same in rural communities as it does in urban places,” said Kristen Richardson-Frick, associate director of the Rural Church Program at The James B. Duke Endowment. “A lot of people we work with in rural places say, ‘What recovery? I haven’t seen a recovery in my town.’ ”  

Richardson-Frick is organizing and will facilitate the panel, called “Faith Communities Building a More Inclusive Nation.”

“There are many basic needs to fill,” Richardson-Frick said. “Where there are hunger and nutritional challenges, churches or other faith communities often step up and fill that need. They will say: ‘We need to support the food pantry, or we need to start a food pantry. We need to start a garden to help fill the need.’ There are also educational disparities between urban and suburban places and rural communities, but also disparities within rural communities themselves.”  

The Methodist minister said many rural places don’t have the tax base to adequately support schools or teachers.

“A lot of rural needs are about education, and churches will reach out to help, everything from serving as reading buddies or establishing summer reading camps and after-school programs,” Richardson-Frick said.  

Richardson-Frick’s role with The Duke Endowment has put her in a position to work with many faith-based leaders, as well as provide funding and support for the diverse rural communities the churches serve. The panel will showcase leaders from both church-based programs and nonprofits: 

  • Michelle Osborne, program manager of Come to the Table for Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA based in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Osborne will discuss how Come to the Table is providing hunger relief and more nutritious food for people in need while also developing markets for farmers. Osborne’s work focuses on how church members can work on how food systems operate. 
  • LaShauna Austria, interim executive director, Benevolence Farm and Pastor, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Graham, North Carolina. Austria will be discussing the churches’ role in bridging historic divides along racial and economic lines.  
  • Edgar Vergara, local church pastor, City Road United Methodist Church in Henderson, North Carolina.  Vergara pastors a congregation of Hispanics and Anglos. Vergara’s work includes reaching out to the Hispanic community, North Carolina’s fastest growing demographic group.  The pastor will be discussing how churches provide direct program like English instruction and how some are participating in the local and national Sanctuary Movement.  
  • Jason Gray, senior policy fellow at the North Carolina Rural Center. Gray will discuss the role that the North Carolina Rural Center plays in developing interconnected community and economic development projects and efforts throughout the state.   

“Faith communities often address basic needs and stop there,” explained Richardson-Frick. “While that’s a good starting point, we are inviting them to examine root causes, and to formulate and implement collaborative strategies to address those root causes. We’re seeing an openness to this approach, and the panelists will help illuminate that.”

It’s about helping churches to understand the systems that establish the patterns of need, specific to their own place, and helping them begin to ask questions, like ‘What is our role in potentially addressing this need forevermore? What can we do to change the root causes by addressing the system itself that allows these needs to fester?’” said Richardson-Frick.

Gray shared his experience and approach in a blog post, “Rural Churches Helping Rural Communities,” writing:  

“Churches, like individuals, thrive when they see their story as part of a larger story. It is a story of faith in practical action. It is also a story that testifies to the relationships between people and place. Strong, vibrant churches, like communities, are not accidental. Lay and pastoral leadership that is adaptive and wise will discover new avenues to connect what they believe to what they do. They come to learn that church is a verb, not a noun.” 

For Richardson-Frick, the faith-based approach is essential to rural development. “I’m seeing the faith community talk a lot about the social mission,” Richardson-Frick said. “I can’t be close to God without serving my neighbor. There’s no personal holiness without social and community holiness. We don’t want to only be the place where people come to pray, maybe tithe, get their Sunday school lessons.  We hope to be a place of catalyzing positive change for our community, for reclaiming the understanding of personal and social holiness.”   

(DISCLOSURE: The National Rural Assembly has received grant funding from The Duke Endowment to support the 2018 National Rural Assembly. The Assembly is coordinated by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.) 

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