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Lynn Hummel: Church steeples tell the true story

Driving to a funeral recently required a two-day, 550-mile round trip through our rural heartland.

There was a lot to see and a lot to think about: the hills, the plains, the fields, the lakes, geometric designs on barns, huge grain processing and storage facilities, farm homes, small towns, churches and church steeples – the landscape of rural America.

Somehow, the church steeples caught our attention. You can see them from miles away. They signal that a community or a rural church is still alive and still in business.

Steeples come in all sizes, shapes and colors, but they are usually white (sometimes copper, sometimes slate) and usually have a cross or weathervane on top. They can have a bell or chimes inside and lights inside or out. They symbolize reaching skyward, toward the heavens and the divine.

Those church bells can have great sentimental value. I remember a case where an old church was sold for a few dollars to a buyer who would move it away to leave a buildable lot. After the sale, the congregation remembered that the church bell was still in the steeple and asked to have it returned.

The buyer said no – I got the bell with the building I bought. A lawsuit followed. I don’t remember the result, but you can bet there are folks who haven’t forgotten a single detail of that tussle.

As the number of folks in the farming business diminishes, and the number of residents in small farm communities declines steadily, what happens to the little rural churches?

These places have rich family histories: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and of course, funerals. Most of them have a well groomed cemetery just outside their doors.

Many also have a history of church dinners: potatoes and gravy, rolls, vegetables, salads, pies, cakes, meatballs, ham, beef, chicken, fish, turkey, sauerkraut with pork or lutefisk and lefse. Great traditions.

We drove past one rural church late in the morning. We had seen its steeple for miles. A big funeral was taking place for somebody loved or respected enough to draw a huge crowd.

The church inside must have been packed. As our minds wandered, we even ruminated over whether there was one of those great funeral lunches, wonderful hotdish, maybe scalloped potatoes with ham, salad, pickles, cakes, bars and coffee, just waiting to be served in the church basement, all coordinated by one well organized, experienced boss following long established guidelines.

Good church meals don’t just happen by accident, you know. Mourning is much more healing when the mourners are well fed.

All this is part of our rural heritage, our culture, and for those who have been part of it, or who have family members in those little cemeteries, it is worth preserving and making a major effort to honor and maintain the history and the traditions.

This is what the steeples tell us as we drive through the countryside: we’re still here, we’re still alive, we’re still in business, and the tradition lives on.