The car stereo shorted out repeatedly during our move to the country, defaulting from quiet public radio to a station transmitting evangelical hellfire at top volume.
I guess that was the first sign.
Though my husband, Mark, and I had long dreamed of raising our children in the country, we’d come to love the benefits of our busy suburban community. Along with a group of neighbors we’d established traditions including full moon walks, bike parades, Halloween get-togethers, even pig pen parties. But difficult circumstances — everything from a bully next door to a gun-toting gang harassing our oldest son at school — motivated us to leave. And because Mark had a home business without a commute, we were free to move farther away.
We scrounged the means to buy a rural place and found one we could afford. As we carried our belongings into our new home we savored the pastoral refuge we’d found – a pond, fields, forest, and a low hill where we envisioned building a barn. We couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors.
The next day one of them walked over carrying a towel-covered dish. I’d always greeted new people on our old street with homemade bread so I was heartened to see her.
“This is my husband’s favorite,” she said. “It’s cherry pie.”
Her hair was sprayed into stiff curls, her face thick with make-up. Her expression seemed deeply unhappy. Three silent girls accompanied her. None of them wanted to meet my children when I offered to call them in from the woods. She stayed only long enough to ask if I’d found a nearby house of worship. I said we were still attending our former church. She asked its denomination, twice. I realized it was better to change the subject than tell her we attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.
On the way out her youngest child noticed a painting from India on our wall. The girl looked at me and spoke for the first time since she’d arrived. “Pagan idols!” she said in horror.
A few days later another neighbor walked over. She brought cookies and promptly asked about our church affiliation. While her toddler rampaged through the house she suggested we remove the sign on our lawn promoting the library levy. “No one around here supports the library,” she said softly. “It’s an agent of Satan.”
I was confused.
She explained that the library had “that Internet thing,” exposing children to “evil and filth on the screen.” I nodded at her concerns but gave examples of greater good brought about by the net. Words like “awareness” caused her nostrils to flare. She informed me that worldwide violence was a preordained sign of the End Times. Just then her tiny child ran into the room, assumed a firing stance and yelled, “I kill you.”
As this first month in our bucolic country home continued, more neighbors stopped by, usually in an advisory capacity. A minivan pulled in while I was putting up our Halloween decorations. The driver cautioned me that such décor would mark me as a devil worshiper.
“It’s not worth the effort anyway,” she said, “no one trick or treats around here.”
We commiserated about the reduction of household chocolate this represented. She leaned an elbow out the van window and went on about the holiday boycott. As we laughed I experienced a surge of hope, thinking I might have found a kindred spirit. She said there was a movement underway to halt even the October 31 “harvest parties” at school to which children wore costumes. I let out an ill-advised laugh and said something sarcastic. The relaxed expression on her face changed. She retorted that her pastor did not support anything which pleased “the desires of the devil and his minions” and backed out of the drive.
A brief conversation with neighbor who lived a few doors down revealed that our families had attended the same Presbyterian church when we were growing up. She invited me over. This seemed promising. When I brought muffins she nodded as she took them, saying that God had told her not to bake. As she ranged around the kitchen smacking insects with a fly swatter, she gave me a who’s who of the area.
“Don’t talk to the lady in the yellow house, she has a hyphenated name, probably a feminist. And next door, they’re Catholic, you know, so-called Christians.” She went on to list those in her own family who were going to hell because they were still Presbyterians rather than members of her non-denominational church. Finally she noticed I had gently protested each of her denunciations. The fly swatter stopped. I tried again.
“Aren’t Christians meant to see Christ in each person?” I asked gently.
She kicked me out of her house.
We’ve been here nine years now. We cherish the simple pleasures of raising cows, chickens, and bees on our land. And yes, we’ve found friends nearby with whom we can discuss politics and religion openly (even though our views don’t necessarily align). We’ve developed new traditions including potlucks to which we invite friends from urban and farm community together.
All the while our most fundamentalist neighbors have served as amazing teachers. They’ve truly given us lessons on finding that spark of divinity in everyone.
But sometimes I have to admit to myself, “Christ, good disguise.”
Originally published a decade ago by Geez Magazine: Contemplative Cultural Resistance. Our early months living in this community were actually much more harrowing as well as more strangely amusing. Here’s more on that. We’re still here on the same little farm and can truly say we appreciate all of our neighbors. (I don’t ask if the feeling is mutual…)