By Mark Smith
A couple of weeks ago I was at a workshop in Sacramento. I was trying to describe to a colleague the location of the two churches I serve in Lindsay and Exeter. Somewhere along the way I said, “we’re kind of in the middle of everything”. Someone overheard and said that they had never heard the Central Valley described in such a way. Most people would say places like Lindsay and Exeter are in the middle of nowhere.
I like my description better. We are, after all, near the geographic center of the nation’s most populous state. Nestled alongside the foothills, we are relatively close to both L.A. and San Francisco, and not that far from the beaches or grand Sierra Nevadas. Saying that we are in the middle of everything just has a more positive sound to it.
I hear people often complain about the valley. I have had colleagues say things like “eventually you’ll be able to move up and get out of there,” as if serving in rural ministry was the bottom rung of the denomination’s career ladder. When I tell people that I feel called to serve in the valley, and that I was raised right here in Tulare County in a little town nobody has ever heard of, and that I actually love serving in the valley I am most often met with surprise.
And I get it, there are more affluent communities out there, places that are more connected to the latest advancements, that move at a more rapid pace. But I didn’t get into ministry to be comfortable. I did not answer my call to serve in the church with the hopes of upward mobility. I answered the call to ministry because I have seen how the people in rural communities need to hear the good news and truth that even when industries abandon them God does not.
The truth is, there is so much to be hopeful about in small towns out here in the middle of everything. In small towns your children have a chance to be connected to their community. Young people, if given the opportunity and space, can connect and affect change much more rapidly in small towns. We need to teach our children that God is present among the poor, the forgotten, and the hurt. God walks on those streets where businesses are boarded up. In places where we see emptiness, God provides in abundance.
Even though I may sound crazy to some people, I have to say that it is a joy that I get to serve in the valley. This is my home, it is where my family lives, and until God calls me to move on, it is where I hope to remain. I want people to know that despite the difficulties and the harshness that we have lived through, this is still a good place to call home. Be grateful for what we have here in these small communities. Be happy that you know your neighbor, take joy in the fresh fruit, and the beautiful view, and the real people. Above all else, always remember God is still here in the middle of everything.
Mark Smith is pastor at the United Methodist Church in Exeter. He may be reached by calling 559-592-3861.
Prays Together is a rotating column between the pastors of the First Presbyterian Church of Exeter, Church of Christ of Exeter, Nazarene Church of Exeter, Church of God of Exeter, the New Life Assembly of God and Rocky Hill Community Church as well as the Lemon Cove Presbyterian Church.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.