United in Papertown
Last July, I moved to Canton, North Carolina - a town nestled between the mountains just west of Asheville and well known in the region for the paper mill that is the largest employer in the county. Numbering just over 4,000 souls, Canton is a small town.
Because of the paper mill, Canton doesn't attract the same number of seasonal tourists that flock to the quaint mountain towns of Waynesville, Black Mountain, or Brevard.
Instead, many of the people who call Canton home are folks who grew up here, who have family members who work at or have retired from the mill, who root for the high school football team and march in the Labor Day parade, who see their childhood teachers in the Ingles grocery store, and who run into their neighbors at Sid's on Main restaurant. Since everybody pretty much knows everybody else in Canton, news travels fast and prayer requests travel even faster.
As the Yankee-kid-pastor appointed to serve Central United Methodist Church, you could say that I am a guest in this town. Having grown up in New Jersey - the land of bumper to bumper traffic where your neighbors might wave at you (but it's a different kind of wave!) - I'm still learning a lot about small town Southern life.
But after spending almost a year sharing life with these deeply loyal and big hearted folks that I call my friends, I'm convinced that Canton has something to teach the rest of us.
Since I was raised a Baptist, went to school with the Presbyterians, and finally, was ordained by the Methodists, I have a passion for unity in the Church. We are constantly being told that our differences are bigger than the things that unite us, a lie from our national politics that has seeped into America's churches.
At a time when more of our neighbors are without a spiritual home than ever before, Christians have an opportunity to rally around a common mission to spread the good news of God's love in Jesus through our words and actions. Instead, the evangelical and progressive wings in the Church seem intent on demonizing each other, preferring a political agenda over the Gospel and a church where everyone agrees with them over Jesus's call for us to be one "so that the world will believe."
Not so in Canton. In a place where you know your neighbors, it's hard to demonize those who disagree with you. In a place where you know your neighbors, it's hard to argue about differences while there are school children waiting to be fed. Since moving here in July, I have seen God break down artificial barriers by uniting a loose coalition of churches in prayer and mission.
More than ever, I am convinced that this is how God will reconcile his quarreling children. Not with words at the top levels of denominational agencies, but with actions at the grassroots level of local communities. We are not all the same. We are evangelicals and progressives. We are United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, and Wesleyans.
But we pray together. We gather for worship on Thanksgiving and Good Friday. On Ash Wednesday, we carry ashes into the streets of the town, offering and receiving prayers for our neighbors. When the United States teetered on the brink of another war in Syria, we gathered to pray.
And we work together. We share turns at the Community Kitchen, serving the hungry in our town with a hot meal each day. We donate coats to keep our neighbors warm.
When we found out that there were over 15 homeless children at our middle school who go hungry over the weekends, we sprung into action, filling backpacks with food and toiletries for the most vulnerable members of our community.
In a place where you pray and work with your neighbors, it's hard to see them as enemies. This is the gift that the small town has to teach the rest of us. This is the "more excellent way." This is what unity looks like in Papertown, U.S.A.
"I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all." Ephesians 4:1-6
The Rev. Paul Brown is the pastor at Canton Central United Methodist Church.