Magazine article The Christian Century

Lonely in Dakota

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lonely in Dakota

Article excerpt

Baltimore, our declining but still 12th-largest city, has a larger population than the entire state of North Dakota, which has 634,366 people. The state's Divide County takes up a lot of space on the map, but its population declined from 9,636 in 1930 to 2,208 (down 77 percent) today. You could fit those people into any urban block.

That change has to do with growth, prosperity and success. You can make the front page if you entertain and attract young urbanites to churches--and why not? but it's harder to summon attention to chaplaincies among seniors in their dwindling years, when they need spiritual counsel most. You can get the business section to write of the boom among the newly planted congregations in exurbia, but who pays attention to those who stick around and pour imagination and faith and hope into small congregations that have been buffeted by neighborhood changes?

I looked up North Dakota's Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations listed in the 2004 Yearbook. There are a valiant 55 communicants at pastorless Ambrose, 784 in town and 69 in country at Crosby. Fortuna has 117 members, Grenora 159, Noonan 172. All of them have made contributions to "benevolences," and my hunch is that the bishop and staff scramble to supply pastoral help. It's unlikely that any of these places get featured unless in occasional photography exhibits of ghost church buildings in ghost towns.

All this is on my mind because of Richard Rubin's article in the April 9 New York Times Magazine. "Can the loneliest corner of North Dakota attract anyone to go live there?" Leaders try. At Crosby--with those two Lutheran churches--they give away lots and houses to newcomers who promise to stay. Nothing will help Hanks, however, which is down to a population of one, Debra Quarne, who says she likes the seclusion but acids: "It's sad. …

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