Just after dawn, the ribbon of road outside Laura Beach’s house is quiet. A black cow grazes in a nearby pasture. A harvested field sparkles with dew.
In the next hour on this autumn Sunday, Laura will read a devotional, make last-minute changes to her sermon, and walk the 174 steps from her front door to Longtown United Methodist Church, where she has been the pastor since 2011. With the service in the morning, a home visitation in the afternoon and adult Bible study in the evening, her day won’t end until long after the sun sets behind the white church steeple.
Laura didn’t always know she wanted to be a pastor, but she has always loved life in a rural setting. She grew up in Ferrum, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the slower pace and strong sense of community became part of her. After graduating from Davidson College, she studied sustainable agriculture and worked on a goat farm near Chapel Hill.
At Duke Divinity School, she learned about the Thriving Rural Communities initiative, funded by The Duke Endowment. In North Carolina, most United Methodist congregations are found in rural areas, and churches serve as the base of support for important outreach programs. Thriving Rural Communities helps them play that role by strengthening congregations and developing leaders for service. As a Rural Fellow in the initiative, Laura committed to serving a rural congregation for at least five years.
Longtown, in the rolling hills of central North Carolina, is her first appointment. She arrived on a sunny afternoon. A neighbor’s garden was freshly tilled. Soybeans had been planted in the field behind the church.
“I remember turning onto Longtown Road and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to fit in here. This is going to be home,’” she says.
Her congregation is small, but busy. Volunteers stuff backpacks with food for children in need at West Yadkin Elementary School. They spend one Saturday a month doing yard work for neighbors, hosting a birthday party at an assisted living center, or offering to do loads of wash at the laundromat. With the help of a member who’s serving time in prison, they’ve developed a ministry for inmates. And through another effort, called Circles, they form a community of support for families struggling to break out of poverty.
In Pastor Laura, Longtown has an energetic leader who believes serving others is part of living a grateful, joyful life. Rural ministry has unique challenges – but she celebrates its unique gifts.
“Even though it can be hectic, this is a place where people value time together, talking or working in the garden, really getting to know each other,” she says. “I get to enjoy that every day. When I walk from my house to the church, I have a sense of gratitude, and sometimes disbelief, that this is my job.”
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church