In My Little Town…

In my little town
I grew up believ–ing
God keeps His eye on us all
And He used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord I recall
My little town

Coming home after school
Flying my bike past the gates
Of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging our shirts
In the dirty breeze

And after it rains
There’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagin-ation they lack
Everything’s the same
Back in my little town

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town
Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

In my little town
I never meant nothin’
I was just my fathers son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun
Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

Lyrics by Paul Simon

I lived for 7 years in a small town in the southwest corner of Kansas. Elkhart, Kansas, to be specific. We moved there when I was in fourth grade and moved to heaven, Longmont, Colorado, after my sophmore year in high school. Its been my experience that living in a small town brings out strong feelings in people. You either love it or you hate it. If you love it, more that likely it is because of the strong sense of community. Everybody knows everybody else. Families aren’t small nuclear units: Mom, Dad, and 2.2 kids. They are, instead, generational clans with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. So they know not only you, but “who your daddy is and what he does.” When somebody does something, everybody knows it, which is one reason people hate small town life. Not the family part, the everybody-knows-your-binness-part. And they don’t just know your binness, they want to talk about it.

The fact that everyone knows who you are and what your daddy does, was driven home to me while a fourth grader, early in our life in Elkhart. It was recess and we were all outside playing on the playground equiptment. A particular girl, one I thought was cute I suppose, was swinging. For some reason, I still haven’t completely figured it out, I decided to give her a boost, no doubt to help her go faster and higher. The trouble was, I decided to use my foot to do so….stupid…really, really stupid. Mrs. Flynn, fifth-grade-old-school-still-spanks-kids-conservative-teacher had recess duty that day. She saw me. She knew who my dad was and what he did for a living: a preacher. She lived by the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child and she was the chief villager in sight, so she strode quickly towards me and said, “Larry, I’m surprized at you! I didn’t think you were that kind of boy. I’m surprized a boy whose dad does what yours does would do what you just did!”

“Huh?” I thought, “How does she know me, I’m not in her class. And how does she know what my dad does?”

Because you live in a small town, that’s how! Mrs. Flynn was nosey. She believed she knew how I should or should not act and she wasn’t going to let me get away with it. She also knew that my actions reflected upon my father. Dad was a preacher, so I should know better! I didn’t understand at the time, but I begin to appreciate her intentions with every year I’m alive. (Although I’m a little surprized she didn’t understand that all boys…heck, men for that matter…often do stupid things they think will impress a girl of their interest.)She saw someone doing an unwise thing, and she got involved. I’m not exactly sure of her intentions regarding me, but I suspect she intended to protect the girl and maybe my father’s reputation. She may even have wanted to impress upon me that my actions affect how people regard my heritage. Ok, that part worked, I still remember it, 36 years later. The point is she didn’t stay hidden in the background due to politeness. She got involved.

The value of nosey neighbors was also modelled for me in tragedy. One summer afternoon, a huge thunderhead rolled in, turning the sky menacingly black . If you’ve ever been on the flatlands of western Kansas and observed one of these clouds pass through, you have to admit that they are terrifyingly beautiful. However, they can also bring destructive tornadoes, an accepted hazard of life in that area. This particular storm carried with it a particularly large tornado, one whose mouth was a half mile in diameter. We had heard the town’s tornado siren go off, tuned in the radio, and learned the monster had struck parts of a town about 20 miles away, close proximity for rural Kansas. We stood outside and watched the storm as it bypassed our town, but realized it was heading in the general direction of a farm owned by one of the families that attended the church my dad pastored. Concerned for their safety, my cousin got on the phone to call them and warn them of the approaching storm.

Frank had already seen the storm heading his direction. He had been working in a field, driving a tractor. He saw the giant tornado as it bounced off the earth’s surface and raced towards his pick-up, thinking he could beat the storm to the relative safety of his house. It quickly became apparent he would never beat the storm, so he stopped the pick-up and lay down in a ditch for protection. After the storm passed, Frank got into the vehicle and continued the short trip to the farm.

Upon reaching his home, he found complete destruction. The barn was completely gone, along with a combine, heavy army-surplus trailer and all contents. Animals were dead, the corral fence was a twisted metal puzzle. The outside walls of his house were completely gone and the only thing standing was an inside wall surrounded with debris. Suddenly, he heard a telephone ringing. There on the inner wall of his house was a wall-mounted phone, still in working order. Carefully making his way through the brokenness of his life, Frank picked up the receiver and tentatively said, “Hello?”

“Are you all blown away out there?” My cousin jokingly asked.

Frank responded, “Yes! Its all gone.”

My cousin started laughing. She thought he was joking. He quickly became angry. “I’m serious!” He shouted, “Its all gone!”

My cousin immediately questioned Frank about his condition and the condition of any family members. Thankfully, all were gone for the afternoon. After hanging up, we began to quickly contact people in our church and local community. Although the farm was over 20 miles from town, within 30 minutes, there were scores of people at the farm. They brought cutting torches, trucks, food, veteranarians, and strong arms and backs. The community became a small army of aid workers cleaning up the numerous farms caught in the storm’s path.

To this day I have never seen such a display of cohesive, community caring and practical action on the behalf of another. They were the ultimate nosey neighbors who came not only to see, but also to do. They cared, even though not all helpers knew the family being helped.

The close quarters of community definitely can be a mixed bag. Since it can be a source of irritation and disappointment, it is easy to stay back from forming relationships with people. The trite statement is that we can’t live without other people and that love certainly brings the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but… we want the highs, and want to forget the lows. Community, however, is most beautiful when we learn to live with both. Giving and receiving grace while living close has incredible value and is witness to God’s grace…

…in the storm, or in the calm.


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