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Congregations dwindle in rural Kansas towns

WAKEENEY — On the prairie, a dozen miles from town, a stiff winter wind whips across fields frozen and striped with snow. A car rolls up a two-lane road.

It's the Sunday morning before Christmas.

Wheels crunch gravel as Ginger Fabrizius, 73, slows her car and stops in front of a tiny church made of tawny stone: Emanuel Lutheran. This is the one her great-grandfather — a farmer buried behind the church in the cemetery where her grandparents, parents and two of her children now lie — helped build 108 years ago. He quarried the limestone blocks. He hauled them by horse and wagon.

"I was baptized here," said Fabrizius, the church organist, lean, vital and with a tuft of snow-white hair.

A speck on the edge of the western Kansas sky, the church is the only edifice visible other than a grain elevator 18 miles off. Fabrizius knows that in a few years it could easily follow hundreds of other rural houses of worship nationwide and lose its presence as a living church.

Congregants grow old. Young people, lured to bigger cities, move away.

"If we have a good Sunday, we have six old people," Fabrizius laughs.

The story of the rural churches near WaKeeney — a mile-wide town of once-grand ambitions, which for 60 years has decked out its little downtown in lights, declaring itself "The Christmas City of the High Plains" — is about more than how its places of worship are fading.

It is about how they, like others in rural niches nationwide, are doing whatever they must, finding novel ways to stay alight like single candles in a dark expanse.

In the northwest corner of Kansas, near the Nebraska and Colorado state lines, a Catholic priest from Nigeria travels from Atwood, population 1,060, to say Mass at three tiny churches in communities such as Herndon, population 120.

Ministers in many rural Methodist or Presbyterian churches, he said, have become like the circuit-riding preachers of the past, traveling from church to church.

In Colby, 50 miles from the Colorado state line, Episcopal Rev. Don Martin, 63, not only works full time as a school janitor to make ends meet, but also drives 120 miles round trip every Sunday to preach to congregations in Colby, Scott City and Russell Springs, population 28.

"In Russell Springs, I have been down there when there was one other person," he said. "But I think that church will outlast me. There is a lot of determination among the members to keep it going."

Few in attendance

Fabrizius unlocks the Emanuel church door to a waft of warm air.

"The furnace is on," she said, removing her coat and draping it across a pew.

The sanctuary is petite, more a chapel than a church — white, full of light through arched windows. Eight wooden pews line the left, six on the right. The church has no plumbing. A two-seat outhouse remains open outside for those brave enough to use it.

The altar is wood, also white. A simple wooden cross sits beneath the church's pride — a large rectangular oil painting in pale blues ,yellows and reds. Jesus, eyes cast upward, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The congregants drift in, retired farmers in suit jackets, ties and ironed shirts: Larry Pearson, 69. Carl Pinney, 84. Bill Harvey, 87, and his wife, Mary Lou.

Four people. That's all.

Fabrizius is glad to see them. There have been times when only one has shown. On Christmas morning last year, the preacher assigned to lead the service overslept. Mary Lou Harvey, who had been to the Christmas Eve service the night before, remembered the sermon and recited it.

"She's Methodist!" Fabrizius said, laughing . "The pastor got here in time for 'Joy to the World' at the end."

Keys to sustaining

The Rev. Bill Rose-Heim, who oversees the northeast area of Missouri for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Mid-America, said a key to keeping small congregations alive is fostering and building on what is already strong: deep personal relationships and an understanding of the ties and needs that bind a community.

It also requires a change in focus, jettisoning the notion that a successful congregation is one that is growing or can compete with food courts, play areas or large book groups found in suburban or urban mega-churches.

"They can't," Rose-Heim said. "Populations are not increasing in rural areas. Congregations that are going to survive have to ask, 'How can we offer something to this community that they can 't live without?' "

For some, that is a sense of mission. One rural Missouri church he knows of grows row crops and vegetables to feed the poor and raise money.

For others, it is outreach. Once attracting more than 100, WaKeeney's Bethany Baptist Church now seats an average of eight to 10 people at its Sunday services.

"I don't have any children in the church. All the young people have grown up and left," said the Rev. Harold Demoret.

So on Tuesdays, the minister, 62 — who not only devotes his time to the Baptist church in nearby Hoxie but also works full time in a youth detention center because the churches can't afford to pay him a salary — drives to the local nursing home to preach to the ill and elderly.

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