Iowans Find New Ways of Forming Community

Dec 31, 2015

There was a time when Iowans knew their neighbors. They relied on each other to help with labor on the farm, or to keep an eye on children. And if you didn't see your neighbors during the week, you saw them on Sunday at church. But as church attendance declines and farms are fewer and farther between, Iowans are finding new ways to form community.

Author, columnist and former Radio Homemaker on KMA Radio in Shenandoah Evelyn Birkby says in the 1920s and '30s there were far more people living in the Iowa countryside and churches served as the community centers for those rural areas.

"Because I was having babies for the first time and knew nothing about being a mother when I first started being one, I depended a lot on my neighbors to give me advice and to share my problems."

She says people worked very hard in those days, and so neighboring wasn't really dropping in to share a cup of coffee, but Sunday church services were used to learn about what was happening with neighbors.

Iowa State University Rural Sociologist Paul Lasley has studied neighboring and rural life for a number of years and says the 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll of 1300 farm families shows that eight out of 10 reported that neighbors visiting each other over the past 10 years had greatly or somewhat declined. Six out of 10 families reported that neighbors helping neighbors had either greatly or somewhat declined.

But Iowans and rural churches are adapting. New technology offers ways to connect that were unimaginable in the past. Dr. Kelly Parkin's son Nolan has a rare genetic disorder called Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. With only about 500 diagnosed cases worldwide, it can be difficult to find other parents who are dealing with the same issues. Parkin has found support through a virtual neighborhood.

"My husband and I are like, 'Oh my gosh can you imagine?' Even just five years ago we would've felt like we were on this island by ourselves, and not really knowing anybody and not knowing how to get help and advocate for our son the way that we do because we have the power of this community behind us."

The Reverend Joel Sutton is pastor of three United Methodist Churches in Afton, Arispe and Lorimor. Collectively they're the United Faith Parish. As people's lives have become busier, Pastor Joel started asking why church services had to happen on Sundays? He now offers services on Sunday nights to accommodate busy schedules. He also has developed a "fifth Sunday," worship that gathers the three parishes together for community service.

"Whether that's by clearing brush for somebody that can't take care of that for themselves or painting buildings in town or in the city park, we're just doing what needs to be done in the community."

In this edition of Iowa Week, host Charity Nebbe talks with these guests and others about how neighboring and church have changed in Iowa and how we're forming community today.