"How big is our God?"

In rural Minnesota, the Rev. Bonnie Lomen helps “A Little Town on the Prairie” open up to new immigrants.

Editor’s note: This article previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website.

When the Rev. Bonnie Lomen arrived in Walnut Grove, Minn., in 2003 to pastor two small Lutheran churches, she found a community in muted grief, struggling to cope both with deep loss and unexpected, dramatic change.

Like most small farming towns throughout the Midwest, Walnut Grove -- a childhood home to Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” series of autobiographical novels -- had seen better days. Young people went off to college and never came back, moving elsewhere in search of more promising opportunities. Long-time farmers, fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of the original Norwegians, Swedes, and Germans who settled the land a century ago, were retiring and getting out of farming altogether. Family farming as a way of life seemed to be coming to an end. Jobs in town were scarce, and most of the few merchants closed. The town’s three grocery stores eventually dwindled down to one.

But even as they grieved for their town, Walnut Grove residents were also in a state of mild culture shock. Beginning in 2001, a growing number of Hmong immigrants moved into town, literally changing the face of Walnut Grove. While the sign at the edge of town said “Population 599,” the real count grew to more than 825 almost overnight as dozens of Hmong families -- 200 to 250 people in all -- arrived in just a few years. Coming from the Hmong community in Minneapolis-St. Paul -- at 30,000 members, the largest urban Hmong population in the world -- they were moving to Walnut Grove in search of a better place to raise their children, a safer and quieter place where they could try to preserve their Hmong culture and shield their offspring from gang activity.

In a town with virtually no ethnic minorities, local reaction to the Hmong ranged from puzzlement to indifference to fear and hostility. A tight, close-knit community in which few spoke English, the Hmong kept largely to themselves. For the most part, the two communities existed side by side with little interaction.

But today that is slowly changing, thanks to a broad-based community effort spearheaded by Lomen. Local women are teaching Hmong women how to bake brownies and cakes, and the Hmong are teaching them how make egg rolls and stir fry. Long-time residents and Hmong are quilting together. The members of a men’s Bible study group are building bunk beds for a nearby Hmong family and teaching their carpentry skills to a couple of local Hmong. For two years, the town has held a “neighborhood night out,” which brings community members together for a giant potluck. Community task forces are addressing communication and economic development goals.

A third-career pastor serving in her first call, Lomen, 54, knew shortly after arriving in Walnut Grove that the town’s churches needed to play a greater role in addressing the inter-cultural and other issues facing the town, but was uncertain how to proceed. After a small group of Hmong teen-agers committed a string of car break-ins and other petty crimes, the locals felt victimized and afraid. Seeing the need for better communications in the town, Lomen and two other local pastors went to the city council and offered to help bring the community together, but were rebuffed by the mayor.

About that same time, Lomen heard about the Rural Pastors Institute, a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project sponsored by the Center for New Community in Chicago. Enrolling in the program, she attended peer group meetings with other pastors from throughout the Midwest and, in the summer of 2005, a week-long summer intensive for all the RPI participants, held at Creighton University.

There, Lomen learned about a process of church and community revitalization that used broad-based listening and relationship-building techniques, grounded in biblical and theological reflection. Taught by the Rev. David L. Ostendorf, director of the Center for New Community, and Mark Nagasawa, director of RPI, the process is basically an adapted community-organizing initiative that uses trained listeners to fan out in the church and community to conduct an in-depth, one-on-one survey.

Elegantly simple, the process asks only four questions: What do you like best about our church? What concerns do you have about our church? What do you like best about our community? What concerns do you have about our community?

The listeners, though, do not merely accept the respondents’ initial answers, but plumb deeper and deeper with clarifying questions, ultimately identifying the most critical issues people see in their church and community. Eventually, from hundreds of such interviews, two or three issues emerge as the most pressing, around which people can work together. Throughout the process, organizers and others meet together for Bible study and reflection, engaging the lectionary text and asking how it speaks to them and to their community.

“The most important aspect is that this is not just about gathering information, but also about building relationships,” says Ostendorf. “The heart of the process is that, as people are listened to face to face, it deepens the relationships among people and churches and the community. It builds trust and enables people to be able to work more closely together to address the most important issues they face.”

To Lomen, the Center’s revitalization process was exactly what Walnut Grove needed.

“I realized we needed new information to work off of,” she says. “People were stuck, telling stories about the past and working off that. But this offered us a way to get new information to bring us together in new conversations.”

Returning to Walnut Grove from the RPI summer intensive, Lomen quickly enlisted other pastors in town and together they began an ecumenical Bible study, and from that launched the one-on-one listening effort. By November 2005, five congregations were on board, with 33 members from those churches committed to serve as listeners who would help uncover the ministry needs of their congregations and community.

After training from Ostendorf, they set out interviewing church members and the broader community. By February, they had interviewed 325 residents of Walnut Grove -- 38.2 percent of the entire population -- including 80 Hmong, who were interviewed by four Hmong listeners.

As an 18-member Leadership Team reviewed the responses, the community’s most pressing needs began to emerge in three broad categories: improved communications, particularly regarding matters before the town council; the need for inter-cultural relationships between locals and the Hmong, and economic development. From those , a variety of concrete proposals were drawn up, including more organized participation by residents in city council meetings, a community picnic, and other efforts. Talks began about pooling resources to establish new businesses and new employment. A diversity task force launched the cross-cultural cooking and quilting lessons and other programs.

Individual churches also now had a better grasp of the issues of concern to members. The survey, Lomen says, empowered pastors and members to say “Here’s what we’ve identified as our most pressing problems, and here’s what we can do about them.”

Greg Hansen, a lifelong Walnut Grove resident who was elected this fall as the town’s new mayor, says the community has made tremendous progress in a short time and credits Lomen for prompting the town to move forward.

“She really jumped on it and looked at this as a real opportunity,” he says. The community listening process brought to the forefront several issues that people knew about at some level, but had avoided acting upon.

“The biggest change is that this has given people a chance to bring up issues and talk about them,” says Hansen. “We found out that people did want to get to know their neighbors better, but they didn’t want to step out of their circle to do it.”

Lomen agrees that changes are happening in Walnut Grove. Gradually, a change of heart is taking place among long-time residents. The survey process created a new base of information to move forward upon and it help form a whole new body of leaders who are invested in making changes happen. But more than just a “technique” or “process,” the community listening effort and the ongoing changes have been a gateway to deep theological reflection, she says.

“This entire process is forcing us to ask ourselves as church, ‘Can God make a difference in this?,’” says Lomen. “It’s forcing us to ask ‘How big is our God?’”

Rather than telling God how big their problems are, Walnut Grove residents are learning to tell their problems how big their God is, says Lomen. While the broader culture tells them small towns are dying, they are learning to be a resurrection people, she says.

The Hmong came to Walnut Grove because they saw potential for a better life, says Lomen.

“Can we be a people of hope too, or do you have to be an immigrant to see that?” she asks. “Our goal is to keep the conversation going so that the people who see hope are talking to the people who are despairing over their losses.”

Again and again, the people of Walnut Grove keep asking themselves the same question, says Lomen: Can God make a difference?

“I know God can,” she says. “Do I have people with me who believe that? We’re answering that a little at a time. We’re taking baby steps and we’re asking ‘How is God in the middle of this?’ and then we take another step and ask ‘How is God in the middle of this next step?’”