The Politics of Loving Your Neighbor in Rural America

Reflections of a Lutheran pastor in Dunn County, Wisconsin

Rev. Dr. Judy Kincaid December 9, 2022

The day after Election Day 2022, I taught confirmation class. My class is made up of ten 12- and 13-year-olds. They are a wonderful bunch of young people—kind, faithful, rambunctious. And very opinionated. I told them I was writing an article about the church and politics.

I asked the kids how they felt about the election and current events. One student said, “I don’t care! My dad doesn’t vote. My mom votes, but we don’t ask her who she votes for.” He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, as if acting out his indifference.

A second lowered her eyes and spoke quietly, “Sometimes I’m afraid everything will come crashing down. I just hope they take care of our country.” Another said, “I just want them to take care of the schools. I want my school to be good.”

The kids started talking about different political commercials they had seen. It was clear that they believed most of what they heard. They decided they could be friends with someone with different politics but maybe it would be best not to talk about it. One girl said, “You could talk about it, but not be mean. Don’t make fun of my ideas or the candidates I like.” They all agreed that a little teasing was fine, but once you start being mean, it’s hard to stay friends.

Elections put me on edge. I get nervous, but not because I’m worried my candidates won’t win. As a pastor for New Hope Church and Little Elk Creek Church, two Lutheran congregations in Dunn County, Wis., I worry how the election results will sit with the people of my parish.

Dunn County is a rural area. The biggest city is Menomonie, population 17,000. We’re an hour drive away from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. In the 2022 midterms, Dunn County voted 57 to 43 to re-elect Sen. Ron Johnson. I suspect my churches are divided along those same political lines. (Interestingly, in 2008, Dunn County voted for Barack Obama over John McCain, 57 to 42.)

The Bible lesson for confirmation class that night was Luke 10:27. Jesus was preaching in public when a lawyer stood up to test him. He asked Jesus how he could achieve eternal life. The answer was, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the famous story of the Good Samaritan. A man was robbed, beaten and left for dead. His own religious leaders walked right by him. The only one who was willing to help him was a stranger from a land that was the enemy of his people. Jesus said we achieve eternal life by loving our neighbors, even the ones we think of as enemies.

Twenty women of Little Elk Creek Church get together weekly to make quilts for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s overseas mission. Together they make 200 quilts a year. (<i>Rev. Dr. Judy Kincaid</i>)

In March of 2020 we closed our church buildings and worshiped online to reduce the spread of Covid. We were frightened but we were all on the same side—we didn’t want to get sick or make each other sick. We pulled together to get through something we thought was going to be a short disruption. We sewed homemade masks and we checked on each other. We dropped off groceries to our elderly neighbors so they wouldn’t have to risk going to the store.

Things changed on May 13, 2020, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Governor Evers “Safer at Home” orders. Tensions flared. Some people wanted to worship as usual. Others didn’t feel safe doing so. Like the nation, the church was divided along political lines. This was a bigger problem at Little Elk Creek, which is my more rural church. The church council tried to strike a balance and take measures to keep people safe while still allowing in-person worship. It was impossible to please everyone—tempers flared, and feelings were hurt. Forgiveness is a central tenant of our faith and we had to practice it a lot during the pandemic.

I am connected to some of my congregants on social media. This is where their unfiltered opinions surface. This is where the opposing political party is dehumanized and vilified. This is where half-truths and gross exaggerations are spread. This is where we see how deep the divide is between Republicans and Democrats. It is clear that we don’t always think of the other side as our neighbors. Sometimes we forget that they are human beings,  children of the same loving God.

My church people know how to love their neighbors. One member of Little Elk Creek is busy right now helping his neighbor bring in the harvest because he doesn’t have family around and can’t afford to hire help. A member of New Hope is bringing a casserole to someone who is sick. Not a week goes by without someone telling me about someone who needs prayer and a little extra help. They are not just concerned about each other. They reach out to the people beyond our church walls and throw benefits when a neighbor can’t pay their medical bills. They bring quilts to fire victims.

We have the same concerns as the rest of rural America. We are worried about inflation. We feel a deep sadness that so many of our family farms are disappearing. Our local hospital won’t be delivering babies anymore and that is a concern. We are not immune from the drug and crime problems that plague the bigger cities. There is a feeling of hopelessness and sometimes anger that seeps into these conversations. Many have lost trust that our elected officials can lead us out of our current problems. Many are angry and blame the opposing political party for things that are wrong in our community and in the county.

Can the church help to heal this divide? Is it possible for these communities to overcome their differences and see each other as children of the same loving God, worthy of the utmost care and respect? Once, before the 2020 election, I tried to talk to one of my church councils about this idea. One member of council became angry that I even broached the subject. He was disappointed that I let people know which political party I belonged to. The situation was awkward and hurtful. If I had it to do over, I would do things differently. I would start with a prayer for unity and read some scripture that deals with God’s love for all people. I would remind them of the things we have in common before talking about how we should deal with our political differences.

It’s tempting as a church leader to stay away from the subject of reconciliation, because before we can talk about reconciliation, we must acknowledge how divided we’ve become. We have to confess that we have sinned and dehumanized our opponents. It’s a hard thing, but in this time of great division, the country needs an example of love and unity. We can’t be the church if we can’t preach love in all circumstances. We can’t be the body of Christ if we refuse to be Christlike and love our political enemies.

Rev. Dr. Judy Kincaid

Rev. Dr. Judy Kincaid serves as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. A featured preacher on the website, “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” Judy received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Temple University and her Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary. She earned her doctorate in Biblical Preaching in 2016. She lives in a church parsonage with her college professor husband, two beautiful daughters, two dogs, three cats, two little birds, a turtle and a snake.

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