WASHINGTON (RNS)--Lyle Naylor is a man in touch with the land. The deeplines in his face look as if they were carved by Mother Nature herself,and his wispy white hair bears the mark of a thousand cold wintermornings.For 50 years, Naylor woke up his seven children at 4 a.m. to milkmore than 200 cows on his Minnesota farm. But after the devastating farmcrisis of the 1980s, Naylor stopped milking cows in 1993 and turned hisattention to other ventures that might pay the bills.

The hardships of running a farm led to financial troubles for Naylorand his wife, and they divorced after 43 years of marriage. Lately, whenNaylor looks at the earth and his town of 320 people, he doesn'tlike what he sees.

Life in rural America has become so desperate, Naylor says, that hecan understand why so many just give up--on farming, their families,and even themselves.

"It's a way of life," Naylor said at a recent prayer servicehere that was part of Rally for Rural America, holding a signthat said, "No Farms, No Towns, No Future."

"If you can't do what you want to do, what you growed up to do, then what's the sense in living?" he added.

Faced with the worst farm crisis in 20 years, more than 2,000farmers joined Naylor in Washington in mid-March to rally against thefinancial and spiritual crises facing rural America. Unlike the naturaldisasters of the past, farmers say the current crisis is entirelyman-made.

In all the voices calling for help for rural America, some of theloudest belong to the religious community. Pastors and bishops say thefarm crisis has seeped into America's heartland churches, threateningthe vital sense of community, draining revenues, and casting a longshadow of despair over both pastors and parishioners.

"When farmers are forced off the land, they lose a great deal," saidJudith Bortner Heffernan, executive director of the Heartland Networkfor Town and Rural Ministries, an extension of the United MethodistChurch. "They lose their heritage, they lose their place in thecommunity, they lose their connection with God because they...feelfarming is what they are called to do."

The desperation in rural America has presented churches with a rangeof issues many say they are unprepared to address. Financial worries putadditional stresses on overworked families and threaten the localministries of many community-based churches. Suicide rates are up,depression is deepening and--perhaps most threatening, some say--once-religious people no longer see God on the family farm.

Sobering statistics underscore the economic precariousness of farming:

  • By one count, Minnesota is expected to lose 10,000 farmers thisyear.
  • In Wisconsin, five dairy farmers call it quits every day.
  • In Kansas, farmers earned an average of just $23,016 in 1998, compared with$26,995 in 1997, in the third consecutive year of decline. Farm debtalso rose to $6.9 billion in 1998.
  • A corn grower in 1975 earned $562 per acre. Today, that farmerearns just $290.
Both farmers and church officials say the blame lies with agribusiness giants that are pushing family farms out of business. Farmers say the large corporations are dictating production and squeezing competition, leaving farmers few places to sell their crops.

When Naylor quit milking cows in 1993, he could get $13 for 100pounds of milk. Now he'd be lucky to get $9.50, he said.

Heffernan has had the same problem on her family's wheat farm. In 1997, she could sell a bushel of wheat for $3.74; the price dropped to $2.12 the next year.

"What is happening now is we are seeing the destruction of most ofwhat has fed this country for years, namely the family farm system inthe United States," said Heffernan, who is from Rocheport, Mo.

Church leaders say that as families begin to feel the financial squeeze,so do churches. Families forced off their farms leave the community andtake with them offerings, time, and talent. Local businesses suffer, and,bit by bit, the tightknit fabric of community begins to fray.

Although few churches have had to close because of the crisis,pastors say their resources are stretched. People come looking to thechurches for food pantries, counseling, and general assistance.

"We already know that our counseling services are maxed out," saidBrother David Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic RuralLife Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. "We have lists and lists andlists."

In Catholic churches, Andrews said the situation is worsened by analready shrinking pool of priests who are available to minister in ruralparishes. And in Protestant churches, Andrews said, recent seminarygraduates are hesitant to take rural assignments, and many ruralchurches do not want female clergy.

One of the most difficult problems facing rural pastors is anincreasing sense of despair that is gripping Middle America. Mostpastors say it is hard for people in urban settings to understand thedeep connections farmers have to their land and to their farms.