Civic Saturday in the author's hometown of Athens, Tennessee, is a gathering of friends and neighbors who visit, hear readings from classic American texts, sing some patriotic songs, and hear a short "civic sermon" from Whitney Kimball Coe. (Photo by Emma Trew)

Sitting on a conference panel not long ago, I was asked (again) about how we bridge the divide between rural and urban America.

I both relish and dislike this question. More accurately, I relish explaining why I dislike this question:

Whitney Kimball Coe

It is most often an invitation to enter the false arena where “rural” and “urban” become stand-ins for the polarities of our nation’s politics: urban, liberal elites vs. rural, white conservatives.

Our news feeds and channels are full of single stories that reinforce this frame, even revel in it, and candidates for public office rely on it to garner votes: Democrats focus on cities and Republicans take rural fidelity for granted.

Most distressing is the way it informs our relationships, reinforcing zero-sum games on social media and within our own echo chambers, where we declare ourselves in one camp or the other — rural, urban, Republican, Democrat, for or against the topic of the moment — and then there is no room for nuance, for layers and complexities, for paradox, for historical perspective.

There is certainly no room for real growth and understanding.

While I relish the opportunity to speak about bridge-building, I grow weary of dealing in stereotypes and dualistic frames.

How do we bridge our divides and why does it matter? Those are the questions my Lenten-self wants to wrestle with and I don’t expect we’ll find the answers within the realm of making better, more persuasive arguments for one side or the other.

Civic Saturday in Athens, Tennessee. (Photo by Emma Trew)

My best guess is that the answer to both the how and the why is revealed in the daily practice of being in relationship with the people around us. This is where our mettle is tested, with real consequences and with real rewards.

Growing up in this small town taught me that realm of relationship is a laboratory and a proving ground for building bridges. Vulnerability, curiosity and forgiveness are just some of the things we cultivate in this space.

History is something else we cultivate. A history of shared experiences, disagreements and understandings.

These are things that are difficult to replicate quickly and in virtual spaces. Yet we live in an age that encourages rigorous participation in those virtual spaces and in mostly hypothetical or contrived scenarios. I, myself, am guilty of feeding this cycle almost every day.

Facebook and Twitter practically beg us to weigh in with declarations of assent or dissent, but there is very little opportunity to practice an exchange that is based on years and seasons of shared experiences. Those online interactions diminish the impact our more proximate relationships have on the world.

The implications of feeding our proximate relationships may not be grand enough to recast the role of politics in our news feeds, but it may be enough to bring us a measure of peace in our little corner of the world. Enough peace to extend to the rest of the world.

It’s Lent in our small town. We have extra permission to relinquish the false urgency these so-called divides stir within us. The real work and the real reward are right in front of us.

If we believe in the sacredness of watered gardens and restored streets and real justice, we have to practice it now, here, at home, with the people around us.

Whitney Kimball Coe wrote this column for her hometown newspaper, the Daily Post-Athenian. We’re republishing the column with permission. Whitney is coordinator of the National Rural Assembly and director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies. 

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