One lazy afternoon when the light oozed in the air like honey, this old farmer told me that the school bus would come all the way down the gravel road to the driveway of the manse. He had stopped by to drop off Tommy Toe tomatoes from his wife’s garden. My wife and I had no children at the time. Six years later, our firstborn is getting ready to start kindergarten in the fall. But first we are moving away. I am about to begin a new call to another church.


The church I have served is but a short walk up the same gravel road. We have never canceled a service due to weather. I have shoveled the snow from the front and side walkways, a labor worth the effort as I was repaid by the appreciation in the eyes of all the old farmers who came to worship in their four-wheel drive trucks. I also joined their annual leaf raking crew even when our firstborn was only a couple of weeks old. They laughed as I all but fell asleep leaning against one of the stately oaks.

From our son’s nursery, I can see that towering trunk stretching its branches and cutting up the view of the sky like a patchwork quilt. When he was in the throes of his purple cry, my son’s gums would bare like an alien and focusing upon that supervising tree kept me sane. That and how the older farmer promised life got easier “between diapers and dating.” He had three daughters and now our first girl is due any day. But if we were going to stay, she wouldn’t have known him. He died this past winter.


Again the air is full of falling, wrote the farmer-poet Wendell Berry, a phrase more poignant this year as I prepare to leave. My favorite tree on the church grounds is giving up its leaves—the copper beech, so named for the rusty red its leaves turn every fall. When I was a boy, pennies were my favorite. I was drawn to the color, a hue I’ve noticed is similar to the skin tone of these old men who have spent their seasons in the fields. One of them mentioned recently that he liked winter the best. “Let the cold do what the Good Lord meant for it to do,” he said. “Snow’s a poor man’s fertilizer.”

I replied that he had reminded me of something that Wendell Berry wrote.

“That the guy you said don’t like no tractors?”

One Sunday, I had referenced Mr. Berry’s observation that, when a tractor’s broke, you are out of luck; but when a mule team is broke, you’re ready to work! I forget now what scripture I was attempting to illustrate. The old farmers have not forgotten. Many began farming with the ornery creatures and say it would be a cold day in hell before they write poems about ‘em!


I will have served my first call for almost eight years. “A short-timer,” they smile with a touch of sadness, I think. Except for military service, some have lived their entire lives in the house where they were born. They are rooted. Politicians, recessions, droughts, and preachers all come and go. They are rooted to sway in the storms.

Now that they know I am leaving, much has been forgiven. But there was a time in late summer when they’d feared I’d gone from preaching to meddlin’. Today’s white supremacists don’t even bother to cloak themselves, I preached, they wrench their pasty faces into grimaces and scream their throats red raw because they don’t think enough of us will do anything to stop them! That Monday morning I was told my message had been “shot through with a mean streak of guilt.” He had caught me on my morning commute to the office and we were standing under the oak. As his words turned in my mind, the school bus churned up the hill and disappeared over the horizon.


Our sons have roamed the grasses like free-range chickens and a few colleagues think the rural life is hipster—composting your table scraps and all that. We woke one Christmas morning to the sight of horse manure spread over the frozen ground of our garden, a weathered shovel sticking out of a pile of you-know-what with a red ribbon tied around it.

But, if you are a parent who values racial diversity, what are you to do?

You buy all the children’s books with black and brown faces, stories about Pedro and Jasmine, Abdul and Khadijah. You read your kids folktales from Nepal and Tokyo. You avoid all children’s Bibles with white Jesus and His cheesy smile. True, His blue eyes will stare at your offspring from framed portraits at church, but you have to pick your battles, right? Then you find yourself driving the minivan on Eco setting and the two year old in the backseat shouts “TAR-Bucks!” when passing the familiar green sign. He doesn’t want coffee, but an organic chocolate milk and a scone to go with it and, wait a minute, just how is your white, middle-class self so much holier-than-thou?


Before the old farmer died, he’d often said to me, Self-interest is most dangerous when it is denied. He’d read that in John Leith, the famed theologian at my seminary alma mater.


Our soon-to-be-kindergartener is excited about being so close to Nana’s house. Our neighborhood is full of porches and the porches unabashedly display their scooters and bikes. There is a pool down the block. We have friends from undergrad who have already settled in this college town and our children get along, well, swimmingly. “It’s all good” as the hipsters say. Truth be told, our sons are most hyped about the moving trucks—the idea that all of their books and puzzles and Legos and Brio trains could fit into a vehicle that could then be driven down the gravel road. I don’t think they understand that we are not coming back. This is the only home they have ever known.

One day—Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise—they will return, wanting to see for themselves their birthplace and homeland of Dad’s stories about priceless penny trees and Christmas gifts stinking to high heaven. Maybe they’ll even hear the sound of school bus tires on a gravel road.