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(Mary) Leita Schultes
Journalism student at the University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas
leita@ukans.edu
Leita was an elementary school student at the Rolfe Community Schools then attended the Pocahontas Area Community School and graduated in 1999.

I am the church.
You are the church. 
We are the church together.

I had to look up those verses to write this essay, but a few years ago I knew them by heart. We sang that hymn every Sunday, it seemed, I think as an attempt to convince the old diehards ≠ be they Methodist or Presbyterian ≠ that the merging of the two churches would really be okay.

I donít know if the power of song worked or not, but my guess is not completely. The two churches did communion differently, after all, and thatís a hard thing for traditionalists to get past. At 12-years-old, I hadnít been baptized, married, or buried in either building, and thus I didnít have strong ties either way. The song made sense to me. Church wasnít about a building, how the candles were lit, or where coffee was served. It was about members of the church joining together in a common belief.

Only recently did the song strike me as one that could apply to small towns like Rolfe.

Too often, I think, those of us who live in small towns look at our communities and see everything that they lack. We look at abandoned buildings, and miss the people who are living their lives in quiet but valuable ways.

Iím as guilty as anyone. I drove into Rolfe a few months ago with a friend from Pocahontas.

"Rolfe depresses the hell out of me," he said. "This is exactly what Poky is going to look like in a few years."

I looked down Main Street from our parking spot in front of the video store, and had to agree. Like everything else, small towns go through an evolution. They spring up due to a railroad, as in Rolfeís case, and grow during times of prosperity. They reach their peak with a movie theater and newspaper, several gas stations and a few restaurants.

Then something happens like a farm crisis or more efficient ways to raise livestock, and pretty soon itís no oneís fault when the population decreases as people move to the city and new jobs. Schools and churches merge. The library hours get more irregular, and when the owners of the hardware store retire, no one takes over, and the doors remain closed. The town newspaper all but disappears, and pretty soon you canít buy milk on Sunday unless you drive 15 miles.

The shortcomings of small towns can especially stand out after you get away for a while. I graduated in 1999 and went to school six hours away from my childhood home. While I was there I took journalism classes, and learned more than I ever wanted to know about microeconomics. I also learned what itís like to ride a bike to Target. For the first time in 18 years, I spent time in a library that was open until midnight. Hymns at church were led by a bass guitar and tambourine, and an automatic carwash was a block away. Conveniences such as fast food, clothing stores, and public transportation were taken for granted.

Coming back to Rolfe after a year of "sophistication," the absence of such creature comforts was at times painfully obvious.

Other times, coming home reminded me of what "home" really means. The summer after my freshman year I lived in Rolfe and came to some realizations. I like a grocery store where you can charge things. I like to get my oil changed at CO-OP where I can leave the keys in a car they recognize as mine. I like being on foot in town, and waving to everyone I meet.

I liked my job that summer as well. I worked 40 miles away, as an intern at the Fort Dodge Messenger. I was skeptical when I applied for the position. I had plans - and still do - of working at a major newspaper someday, as a beat reporter, and the Messenger seemed little more than hokey. But that job was the best thing that could have happened to me. I learned that newspaper stories and small towns ≠ for that matter, lives ≠ are not made up of big events or flashy headlines. They are made up of little people who do little things every single day of their lives.

While I was working at the Messenger I met an 80-year-old doctor who runs a free clinic in Clarion. I interviewed a Palmer couple who run a corn maze and donate the proceeds to a scholarship fund. I talked to a woman who runs a day care, half a dozen veterans of World War II, an 85-year-old man who played fast pitch softball in the 1930s. I saw communities come together for dragon boat races and county fairs. I talked to toothless demolition derby drivers and dignified accountants.

Those people all came from little towns like Rolfe, and their stories never ceased to amaze me. They changed my viewpoint of small, sleepy places, and the hymn echoes in my head again as I think of the people I met.

The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people.

And so it is with small towns. Their success while existing, and legacy while fading, is not found in the traffic on their streets or the business in their buildings. If we judge where we live by such things, our homes will always fall short of glory.

Instead we should judge our hometowns by the people who live in them. People like those I met while working as an inexperienced 19-year-old reporter.

There is no doubt in my mind that such people exist in all corners of the earth. You donít have to come to Rolfe to find them. But in Rolfe, you donít have to look because without ever knowing it, you will meet and know the kind of people who make the world turn.

 

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