In Rural Arkansas, a Pastor Speaks on Caring Amid the Pandemic and Unrest

by Ari Pinkus August 19, 2020
Pastor John Hodges

Along the foothills of the Ozarks in Fulton County, Arkansas, John Hodges has been serving as pastor of First Baptist Church, Salem, Arkansas, since 1996. Hodges grew up in Salem, the county seat, and graduated from Salem High School in 1980, then headed off to the Air Force, college, and graduate school. When he returned home in the mid-1990s, he was sad to see more residents struggling.

Hodges and his church have been meeting a myriad of daily needs before and during the pandemic. Fulton County’s median household income is $35,700, with 29% of children in poverty, and 30% living in single-parent homes. In the American Communities Project, Fulton County is part of Working Class Country, a group of mostly white, rural counties in Appalachia, the Ozarks, and the upper Midwest, where the median income is $43,800 and the child poverty rate is 24%.

Recently, I caught up with Hodges, first featured in our September 2019 report on rural America, about how he and his community have adapted in the past few months, his views on the racial justice protests and the political climate, and what makes him hopeful. Our exchange below has been edited and condensed.

Listen to our full 16-minute interview here: John Hodges Audio

Pinkus: How are you and your community doing during this difficult time?

Hodges: Pretty well. I mean, in our community, we’ve seen some unemployment; it’s not as widespread as it is other areas with lots of industry. I spoke with a local plant manager of a small company here in Salem, and he informed me that monies from the CARES Act helped them retain their workers and stay afloat during this time. But overall, I think most of the community is doing pretty well.

Pinkus: How is your church doing?

Hodges: We’re doing OK. Financially, doing very well. We cut all nonessential purchases to maximize our efficiency during this time; we’ve been able to help church members and local citizens in areas where they are experiencing financial stress. And some of those areas are paying their water bills, their electricity bills, helping with food and gas, etc. Obviously being shut for a quarter of the year was pretty detrimental to us and very difficult because we’re social creatures, and we haven’t been able to be together.

Pinkus: How have your services changed since the pandemic?

Hodges: Total transformation. From mid-March through May, we had no in-house church services. We had only online services using Facebook and YouTube and, starting in June, we began having services on Sunday morning worship, but still we are offering online services. Our attendance is about a third of what it was before the pandemic. We have a lot of people that are fearful to get out still and, of course, we’re challenging people to stay in and be safe and social distance and all the things the CDC is putting out for us to do.

Pinkus: Are you working with other churches as well?

Hodges: We are, but it’s kind of a limited basis. We have a number of churches in town, and everyone’s doing a different type of ministry, but we stay in contact. We communicate with one another and see how we can help each other.

Pinkus: Do you feel that your overall ministry has changed?

Hodges: Yes, when the pandemic started, and things began to shut down, hospitals and nursing homes, of course, closed to visitors. Therefore, I hadn’t been able to make visits to the hospital patients or nursing home residents, and that’s been difficult since I’ve visited the Fulton County hospital on a daily basis. I’m not the chaplain there; I’m kind of the acting chaplain. They don’t have a chaplain. So I try to visit with every patient in the hospital, and then I went to the nursing home at least weekly or biweekly. With a shelter-in-place order, I haven’t visited those that are homebound. So my ministry has primarily been by phone and doing counseling through FaceTime. So it’s changed dramatically.

Pinkus: How are your congregation and the wider community responding?

Hodges: There has been good support from the congregation and the community. Some church members that receive stimulus monies donated part or all of it to help community residents with food and bills and basic needs. The emotional support has really been remarkable, and the prayer groups have formed to support one another and take food to each other and those that are sick or those who’ve had some type of surgical procedure.

And our local cooperative, the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, they’re not really shutting off power to any members who can’t afford to pay, and several churches have had tractor trailers filled with food to give away to the needy. So I think our community’s responded well to what’s transpired in the last three to four months.

Pinkus: What needs do you foresee in the coming months?

Hodges: Some of the things that I foresee that are going to transpire in the coming months are, of course, for our community, the school is one big thing. I mean, we have pushed the reset button two weeks later than normal this year. We’ve already had an outbreak of Covid with the football team, or basketball team; I think just one member has it at this time. Our local community also has had difficulty with the county workers, the road crews. I think we’ve had seven Covid cases there.

But I think probably the biggest challenge is the schools restarting. I think it’s important that we are able to be in school and the classroom setting. We do have a lot of impoverished people, and some of our people don’t have internet, and others probably wouldn’t be diligent to make their children do their schoolwork. And you know, it’s just a difficult time.

Probably the other big issue is nutrition. The school has a plan in place to meet those needs as best they can, but there’s nothing like being able to go to school and getting a breakfast and a lunch. So hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to do those things, but that’s probably the biggest obstacle I see for our community.

Pinkus: Are you seeing more drug use now?

Hodges: I don’t think so. I think probably alcohol is a bigger issue. In fact, I read an article just the other day that alcohol sales were up 25%. So that’s one thing that we have in our community. I think like any small community in the South, maybe elsewhere, we have a meth problem, but I haven’t talked to the local law enforcement to find out about that.

Pinkus: Talk about the political conversation in the community and how engaged residents are.

Hodges: I would say pretty engaged. You have those that are Republicans, those that are Democrats, and some who are pretty vocal. I would say, the state of Arkansas will probably vote Trump, and I really don’t want to go into that.

But I think the unfortunate thing is the political climate here is probably as divisive as it is elsewhere. We just don’t see the results that we see in larger cities where there’s a lot of anger and a lot of diversity. We don’t have a lot of diverse people groups here. But I’m pretty disappointed in the whole political climate actually.

Pinkus: What are your thoughts on the protests that have been taking place this summer? And have you seen any around where you are?

Hodges: Well, we haven’t seen any here. Obviously, we try to stay abreast of what’s going on in larger cities, Minneapolis and Seattle and other places. I believe there’s a place for that. I think the criminal activity obviously needs to be stopped.

But I think it’s very important that we have the conversations that we’re trying to have, and I don’t think violence is the answer. I’m more in the line of Martin Luther King Jr. That these are things that need to be talked about, and hopefully this will be a turning point in our nation’s history, where we can once again get back to just loving people, not seeing color, but just seeing us as people and as Americans, and loving each other, regardless of whether we’re black or white or yellow or whatever color we may be. It’s important that we just love each other and see past that concept of color.

Pinkus: Are you addressing this in your sermons?

Hodges: Yes, yes. Actually after the George Floyd event, I directed my next sermon on that topic.

Pinkus: And how has your congregation been responding?

Hodges: For a rural community, I mean, we do have some prejudices as every area does. But primarily, we have responded well.

I think that most of the people here really just love one another and love people. We do have some African Americans in our church, and we respect and love them, just as we respect and love every other member. But I think pretty well, overall. Again, you have some people that are probably prejudiced to the core. You could never change that, but primarily, that’s not the case.

Pinkus: Have you seen mindsets shifting?

Hodges: I think so. In fact, in yesterday’s sermon I talked about being unified and that we’re not enemies. We are fellow Americans and we’re to love one another. And we need to learn to listen to each other. We have a tendency to try to formulate our thoughts when someone else is speaking with us. And what we really need to do is just listen to them and try to feel what they’re feeling. Because you come from a background, Caucasian background like I do, and then you come from a Black background like someone else does, and it’s hard to know what challenges that they’ve experienced. And I think that we have a tendency to presume that we know, and we simply need to listen and try to learn and feel what they’re experiencing, and then simply love them and experience trust and forgiveness, and we need repentance and healing. I think those things can take place if we’re willing to truly listen to one another.

Pinkus: What are you most worried about?

Hodges: Probably the unrest in our country. I mean, as I said, we’re a bit sheltered here. But I do feel the undercurrent of the present situation, concerning the virus and the social unrest. I simply pray that we learn, as I said, to listen to others without formulating a rebuttal. And this could start the process of reconciliation. And I believe we need to lament, to feel what they feel.

I guess I would explain it this way. For me being a pastor for 30-plus years, when there’s been a sudden tragedy or death, the family that I go to comfort doesn’t need me to try to answer the unanswerable why. They just need me to love them and be there and cry with them. And when that transpires, then there’s this emotional connection, and later on, people will say I really appreciated you being there and the things you said. I didn’t say anything, but I felt what they felt. And I think that’s what needs to transpire.

So the unrest in our country [worries me], and it saddens me that you have people that won’t wear a mask, and you have those that do wear a mask, which I’m one that wears a mask. And people think that that’s a political statement, rather than a health statement, that I’m trying to protect someone else. So that bothers me.

Pinkus: Are people in the congregation required to wear masks?

Hodges: We provide masks, and we have masks. Most, probably 95% of the people that enter the building wear a mask, and then they social distance and most take it off.

I wear mine until I go to speak, and I’m a big advocate of it. I believe that the CDC is on top of things, and we need to pay attention to what they’re telling us. I mean, I’m not a scientist, I’m a pastor. So I probably need to listen to those who have a scientific background.

Pinkus: What gives you the most hope for your community and the country?

Hodges: Well, I thought a lot about that, and as a nation, we have endured a Civil War, we’ve endured world wars, the 1918 Spanish flu, the Depression, and civil and social unrest before, and I believe we’ll be able to overcome it again. Americans are resilient.

But what gives me the greatest hope for our country and our community is the love that Christ demands we show to others. And because being a Christian isn’t keeping rules, it’s about relationships and love always wins. So we need to begin living like Christians again, and others will take notice, not judging one another, just loving one another as Christ loves us. And I think as a Christian community as we do that, we’re going to see the advancement of our community once again, and also we’re going to see healing. And I would really, really like to see less tweets come out of high places, and more love and understanding toward one another.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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