WASHINGTON (RNS)--Lyle Naylor is a man in touch with the land. The deep lines 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 winter mornings. For 50 years, Naylor woke up his seven children at 4 a.m. to milk more than 200 cows on his Minnesota farm. But after the devastating farm crisis of the 1980s, Naylor stopped milking cows in 1993 and turned his attention to other ventures that might pay the bills.

The hardships of running a farm led to financial troubles for Naylor and his wife, and they divorced after 43 years of marriage. Lately, when Naylor looks at the earth and his town of 320 people, he doesn't like what he sees.

Life in rural America has become so desperate, Naylor says, that he can 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 service here that was part of Rally for Rural America, holding a sign that 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 2,000 farmers joined Naylor in Washington in mid-March to rally against the financial and spiritual crises facing rural America. Unlike the natural disasters of the past, farmers say the current crisis is entirely man-made.

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

"When farmers are forced off the land, they lose a great deal," said Judith Bortner Heffernan, executive director of the Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries, an extension of the United Methodist Church. "They lose their heritage, they lose their place in the community, they lose their connection with God because they...feel farming is what they are called to do."

The desperation in rural America has presented churches with a range of issues many say they are unprepared to address. Financial worries put additional stresses on overworked families and threaten the local ministries 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 this year.
  • 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 debt also rose to $6.9 billion in 1998.
  • A corn grower in 1975 earned $562 per acre. Today, that farmer earns 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 100 pounds 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 of what has fed this country for years, namely the family farm system in the 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 and take 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 the churches for food pantries, counseling, and general assistance.

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

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

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

Many of the farms were passed down from generation to generation. Farming is ingrained as a way of life and, in many senses, a divine calling.

"'We feed the world.' That's what we've been told for years," said the Rev. Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl, the bishop of South Dakota for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), whose family farm was settled by her grandfather. "It's hard to have that taken away."

With failure come deep emotional scars that sometimes never heal.

"It's not just a livelihood, it's an identity," said Shannon Jung, the director of the Center for Theology and the Land, an Iowa program funded by the ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (USA). "They feel as though they've failed their parents and their grandparents, sort of failed their ancestry."

What's more, many in rural America feel betrayed not only by giant multinational corporations but by their government. Many say the sweeping 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation, which removed many agricultural subsidies, left farmers with no choice but to abandon the family farm.

"There's a sense that people don't care," Heffernan said. "Bureaucrats and board rooms have no vested interest in us. They don't live here, they don't care about anybody here as long as their profits are made. They have no concern, period."

Often, when farmers are forced off the land, they get mad at God and withdraw from their churches and communities, experts say. That feeling of isolation--both emotional and spiritual--has led to increased suicide rates, declining church attendance, and domestic violence for families hit hard by the farm crisis.

Pastors and counselors have teamed together to try to find ways of identifying and addressing the spiritual needs brought on by hard times. Catholic churches have received grants to train parish priests in rural counseling, and church-based support groups have been formed to help troubled farmers.

Andrews said his organization is working with other groups to educate farmers on alternative outlets for their crops, targeting niche markets and community farm markets. The Internet is also helping farmers with long-distance learning and education, he said.

Seminaries are tailoring their courses to help students learn how to minister to rural congregations, and denominational relief agencies are helping where they can--through training and funding--to ease the pain.

"A lot of churches in rural agricultural towns are being called on to discover what it means to be faithful when their standard of living is going down, and they're going to learn some things that will be helpful for a lot of us," Jung said.

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