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It’s Lent, and like everyone else, I’m wondering how much I should worry about COVID-19, aka the novel coronavirus. More than that, though, this season there is a slow, dark, and persistent understanding that I live in a ghetto, and this is a sobering thought.

Yes, that statement is an exaggeration, and it may be the worst kind of white privilege and cultural appropriation, but it is also true. We are isolated, and isolation is one indicator of living in a ghetto. In a material sense, we are isolated from basic goods and services. There is no grocery store in town, although the county seat is only six miles away. Folks living in other small towns in the county must travel much farther. My father-in-law requires specialized medical care, which means that they must travel over an hour to Sioux City or Fort Dodge or cross into South Dakota. For people who are no longer able to drive long distances, they prevail upon friends or family. Some people have no such connections.

People here work hard for low wages, and they struggle to get by. Median household income in our county is the second lowest among counties in our quadrant of the state. We comprise a share of flyover country, and this makes us easy targets for put-downs.

Folks who live here are largely descended from Scandinavian and German immigrants. They carry long prairie memory of hardship and loss. Their ancestors tended to gut it out by sheer force of will, and their descendants wear a stubborn pride that looks upon government help with envy and suspicion.

I want to say that Jesus is here, especially when my husband drives his aging parents and a widow-friend to their many medical appointments. But there are lots of times when Christ seems to have lit out for the city, and I want to follow Him.

This is not a town that pulls together well. Town celebrations haven’t been held in years because no one wants to organize the events. Why bother? People criticize too much and help too little. Instead of banding together, we’re more like the proverbial bucket of crabs—dragging down anyone who wants to rise a little higher than the rest.

For years, I slogged off to one of the churches in town. It was a beautiful building, but that seemed the chief focus of their mission. When asked to host the Women, Infant, Children (WIC) clinic, the church agreed. After some sloppy winter months, however, the women complained when “those people” tracked mud on the basement carpet. When asked to open the church to a budding Latino ministry on Sunday afternoons, the congregation voted a resounding no, with comments that “those people” would bring nothing except wear-and-tear on said carpet, the pew cushions, and the building in general. No way, they said. No one helped us. We had to start our own church; they had better do the same.

Here is the prairie memory, stirring to life in yet another generation, but it’s also more than that. Jesus must have surely wept on both occasions, because this is the worst kind of ghetto isolation: spiritual isolation from each other. The inability to see Christ in each other. Even the mini-mega-church in town doesn’t allow divorced men to hold positions of leadership, so they don’t always practice a comprehensive theology of love and welcome, either.

Churches fail. I fail. You fail. We fail each other daily. In an existential sense, no matter where we live, we’re all in a ghetto.

It’s Lent, and the poverty of my charity is clear. The poverty of my spirit is greater than the fact that I live in a place that often depresses me. Forgive my unbelief and my doubt. If the ghetto is a tomb, roll the stone of my hard heart away, and let Jesus rise again in me.

Joan Curbow

Joan Curbow lives and works in northwest Iowa.


  • mstair says:

    “No way, they said. No one helped us. We had to start our own church; ”
    Now … there’s the mission field…
    “The poverty of my spirit is greater than the fact that I live in a place that often depresses me. Forgive my unbelief and my doubt.”

    … as you forgive mine …

    In the 21st. Century, the “white with harvest” field is sitting in the pews.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Joan: I hope for that resurrection in your heart, my heart, all of our hearts.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Honest lament and prayer, Joan. Thanks.

  • Jim says:

    Powerful stuff, powerfully written. Sometimes the gems have to be rough; thx for cutting this one.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I too live in Northwest Iowa. I hope our church would not do the same thing. Yes, it has been a ghetto but it is becoming more diverse and I welcome that diversity. I hope and pray that others feel that way too. The local Christian college is becoming more diverse also and I love to see the variety of students where I used to see sameness. I embrace the variety of experiences that students bring and hope that it continues.

  • Don Griffioen says:

    Your story sounds very similar to the self imposed ghetto mentality that finally resulted in the closing of the Archer Avenue CRC while sitting in the middle of Chicago mission field. Protection of their building and property was their priority.

  • Al says:

    Having grown up in NW Iowa and now living in a city, my discomfort with the ‘ghetto’ comparison is that in the country one generally can find a chicken to eat, water to drink, and wood to burn; often not so in the city. However, poverty of spirit can isolate everywhere. Thanks for your reflections. Praying for resurrection.

  • RLG says:

    A pretty depressing article. You end by saying, “churches fail, you fail, I fail.” And you might as well admit that God has seemingly failed, as well, as this pandemic is hitting all people. No favoritism here. These aren’t Bible times for God’s chosen people. There’s a prayer slogan that says, pray as though it all depends on God and act as though it all depends on you. That God is involved is the pretense, so let’s do all we can to get through this and pretend that God is mightily at work. This too, shall pass.

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