Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Perimeteritis blinds many to suffering of rural population

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Like many other Winnipeggers, I have a unique affliction called perimeteritis. It's a disease that keeps me from thinking much about, or showing much interest in, things that happen outside of the city.

Thankfully, it's not fatal. It's also easily treatable. All I have to do is pay even just a little bit of attention to the issues that concern people who live in rural areas of the province -- issues like the amount of rain we've had this summer.

For most city dwellers, the rainy spring and summer meant cancelled barbeques and ball games. But for those who earn their living off of the land, it's much more serious than that: Wet fields don't tend to produce much in the way of crops.

As Free Press columnist Laura Rance wrote in this newspaper a few months ago, heavy rains in May and June produced an "unfolding disaster" as waterlogged fields turned crops from a rich, bright green to yellow and then dead brown.

Many farmers, she said, saw "this year's investment in seed, fertilizer and labour on thousands of acres wash away... it is one of the unfortunate realities farmers are facing after a spring that started out with so much promise."

Things looked more promising in July and August. But then, just as harvest time rolled around, more rain came and prevented farmers from getting on their fields.

"We've got some of our crop off, but we are still struggling to get the rest off," one farmer told the Portage la Prairie Daily Graphic. "There has been a lot of rain and showers, and there hasn't been a lot of harvesting days."

But all of this pretty much escaped me until I bumped into Melissa Miller, pastor of the Springstein Mennonite Church, and asked how things were going in her congregation. That's when my perimeteritis was once again exposed -- I really wasn't aware of how challenging things are outside the city.

The mood at her church is one "of disappointment," she said, noting that things were especially difficult in spring when many fields were under water. Back then, "it wasn't clear if there would be a harvest at all," she said.

Today, people are more optimistic, but many crops "are not good quality, with some completely wiped out by water."

During times like these, I asked her, what's the church's role? "Our role is to be a place where friends will understand and support you in hard times, and you can hear a biblical message of God's hope and sustaining presence," she said.

In her sermons and prayers this summer, she has been acknowledging "that life has hard times, but we can bring our concerns to God, and place ourselves in God's will."

Looking ahead, she thinks her church's Thanksgiving will "include the sense that our lives don't work out the way we hope. But even in times of disappointment, we will still give thanks to God for the privilege of having land, life and work."

After talking to Miller, I called Laurel Seyfert, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Friedenstahl and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Emerson, to see how things are going in her congregations.

A tough crop year like this tests "our whole understanding of God in our lives," she said, but added that "you really discover a depth of faith, how people depend on God and their faith community, and how they support each other at a time like this."

Seyfert sees her role as a pastor to give hope.

"My message is that God is with us through times of good and bad, of want and plenty," she said, noting that despite the challenges, her congregations will still give thanks when Thanksgiving rolls around.

"It's easier to give thanks when the bounty is full," she noted, "but we'll still give thanks, no matter what happens."

The poor harvest will also affect people way beyond the Perimeter; this summer's rains will mean hard times for poor people half a world away.

"The weather will mean a significant reduction in donations of grain," said Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

In an average year the Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church-based agencies, receives between $4 million and $4.5 million worth of grain from farmers. "That will be down 20 to 30 per cent this year," Cornelius said, noting that "less resources means we do less."

"My heart goes out to farmers," he says. "Some lost almost their entire crop. It's been a really tough year for them."

Rural people, and rural churches, face some unique challenges. One of the biggest is depopulation; as rural populations decline, pews begin to empty and churches can get discouraged. But people who live outside the city aren't looking for our sympathy. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, however, if those of us who live in the city -- the people who eat the food they grow -- took some time now and then to understand and appreciate the problems they face.

In the process, we might even begin to cure our perimeteritis.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2010 H13

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