Churches are, and always have been, the backbone of rural North Carolina. Places of hope, fellowship, spiritual comfort, they are also often heartbeats of a community, providing food, clothing and other direct aid to their neighbors.

With support from The Duke Endowment, the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative works with rural United Methodist churches across our state. These are congregations seeking new and different ways to make a lasting difference in their local communities.

One example is a little church with a big vision in Harmony.

The congregation of Harmony United Methodist Church understood that the town of Harmony was, in fact, hungry. The church’s two largest service projects are a food and clothing ministry called Matthew 25 and a weekend backpack program that sends elementary school children home on Fridays with enough food to make it through the weekend.

The congregation’s successful programs abated hunger in a meaningful way — but it wasn’t enough. The root problem of the hunger wasn’t being addressed.

Partnering with our Faith in Rural Communities initiative, Harmony UMC looked inward to identify its own unique gifts and assets, strengths it could use to help address the town’s food insecurity. The church members sought to tackle the root problem of the larger issue, rather than staying in the proverbial “box.”

To do this they had to answer two questions: Why are these families hungry? And what are the systemic forces at play?

The answer: Most families whom Harmony UMC serve have limited English proficiency, often prohibiting them from receiving promotions at work or even getting the jobs needed to adequately provide for their families.

From there, Harmony took action. Partnering with nearby Mitchell Community College, the church now offers English as a second language classes, housing the program in church facilities. And today, the program is up and running, working to improve the quality of life for these families. The aim is to equip participants with the skills they need to provide food for their families without charitable assistance.

There is nothing “business as usual” about Faith in Rural Communities; it’s about people with hearts filled with God’s love who are taking existing gifts and talents — be they a human, structural, fiscal or other resource — and applying those gifts in new ways to address systemic change, rather than perpetuating problems with meaningful but superficial remedies.

This leadership role is a natural fit for our state’s faith communities. Harvesting the untapped — perhaps even unlimited — strengths within rural churches can make sustainable, real systemic change to address social issues like hunger and persistent poverty.

North Carolina’s towns and rural places share much with the larger regional and national rural landscape: a common set of values, a commitment to the common good, and, ultimately, a shared fate.

Fate is the key. As a community thrives, churches have a greater opportunity to thrive. As a community declines, often its faith communities decline as well. And as rural America works to build a more vibrant future, these churches standing along Main Streets and country roads can, when digging deeper and looking within, reignite hope — shaping their shared future and fate.

As in Harmony, where a church got “out of the box” and looked inward to create transformative change, when a community can solve its own problems using its own strengths, that community has rediscovered hope.

Let’s start working together to help more rural faith communities get out of the box and start thinking about innovative ways to build more resilient and inclusive rural places.

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Patrick Woodie is the president of the NC Rural Center. For more information, visit www.ncruralcenter.org or follow the Rural Center on Twitter at @NCRuralCenter

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