Hope in Lutheran America
Angela Denker

If you’ve been searching for hope in Lutheran America, I think I found it.

I found it one hundred miles southeast of Kansas City, in a rural Missouri farm town. The region’s green rolling hills and bucolic prairie reminded some early Lutheran settlers of the Bavarian farmlands they left behind in what is today Germany, where Martin Luther first hastened the Reformation.

Cole Camp, Missouri, a town of about 1,200 people, has a disproportionately large number of Lutherans. It’s home to two large Lutheran congregations, housed by two stalwart red-brick churches less than 1,000 feet apart, down Butterfield Trail and Hickory Street. Both churches are nearly at capacity on Sunday mornings, full of young people and families and children—belying statistics about the aging and despair of small-town rural America.

My friend Kimberly Knowle-Zeller, a pastor who lives in Cole Camp, is married to another pastor, Stephen Zeller, who leads St. Paul’s, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Trinity, a congregation of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, is the home congregation of my father-in-law’s family. His older brother still lives at the family farm just outside the city limits, and we held the Denker Family Reunion in the basement of Trinity in July 2018.

I traveled to Cole Camp in 2018 not only for family, but also to conduct research for my book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump (Fortress). I spent most of 2018 traveling to red states and counties across America, meeting with Christians to talk about faith, politics, family, and grace.

In some places I found living representation of troubling national narratives. I saw pockets of despair in Appalachia and rural New Hampshire, where small towns were ravaged by the opioid epidemic and the demise of manufacturing and mining. In Cole Camp, though, I found hope, surprise, and reason to believe in America. Rural families were holding tight to the idea of an America where loving each other and worshiping a God who saves through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection still seemed possible. The people I met there and the relationships I observed helped dispel the stereotypes often perpetuated about Christians, about rural America, and about Republicans and Democrats living far from Washington, D.C.

Over sausage and drinks at Wine, Antiques and More, a new locally owned gathering place in Cole Camp, I met Eric and Emily Kullman and Emily’s sister, Erin Oelrichs. With the Zellers, we talked about the 2016 election, Lutheranism, and small-town life for thirty-somethings.

Oelrichs, thirty-two and single, joked about online dating in rural America and the ubiquitous ads for a farmer-specific online dating service. The three locals crooned the well-known slogan together: “You don’t have to be looonnnneeely at Farmer’s Only…” A longtime suburbanite and city-dweller, I’d never heard it before.

Still, we shared more in common than what separated us. Eric and Emily, parents to young kids, talked about the challenges of juggling work and childcare. A musician, Eric had given up touring with his “red-dirt-road country band,” to come home and marry his childhood friend, Emily, and have a family. The two first reunited at the regionally famous Cole Camp Fair, where the two Lutheran churches host dueling food stands serving nearly identical pies, hot dogs, brats, burgers, and local favorite “juicy burgers,” which my friend Kimberly said were similar to sloppy joes.

Unlike some churchgoers I spoke with in Texas and Florida, these Lutherans in Missouri said that their faith was not tied to partisan politics. They said they voted for Trump based on economic concerns and their belief that he would best support farmers and blue-collar workers. Eric works as a bricklayer and grows row crops, while Erin and Emily’s dad is one of the area’s prominent dairy farmers.

Because of his work in bricklaying, Eric is a union member, but he notes that few Labor Democrats exist anymore in rural Missouri, citing the widely held local belief that the unions had become corrupt. Instead, he talked about a fluidity between liberal and conservative beliefs in their area, noting a local saying that “if you’re young and you’re not a liberal you don’t have a heart, and if you’re old and you’re not conservative, you don’t have a brain.”

These young Midwesterners were willing to discuss issues like racism, immigration, and patriotism, but they were also guarded, wary of being labeled backward or racist. They were proud of their city and their history, and it seemed that extreme segments of both political parties had made it hard for them to talk about past racist incidents or underlying racism in a town with little racial diversity.

After attending church at St. Paul’s on Sunday morning, I got the chance to talk with more Cole Camp residents: this time a group of high school students from the church. They told me that
people had misconceptions about them because they were from a small town.

“They might think we are racist, but most of the time we just don’t know better,” seventeen-year-old Carter told me, demonstrating a mix of frankness and humility. His comment revealed the defensiveness and sense of shame among rural Americans when it comes to racism. They saw the sinfulness of racism, yet they felt unable to repent for their own culpability in it. Still, these young people were more earnest and willing to talk about it than the adults.

One of the students I spoke with, fifteen-year-old Delaney, is multiracial, the daughter of a white mother and an African-American father. Her parents have since separated, and she lives with her mom in Cole Camp, while her dad lives in a nearby town. She said he has struggled with drug addiction and she doesn’t see him often, though she does have a close relationship with her dad’s brother, her uncle.

Delaney said she had to choose to ignore the racially charged symbols she saw in Cole Camp, like when people used Confederate flag symbols on their vehicles, bags, or clothing. “I can’t make a big deal over things like that, because then I’d always be making a big deal of stuff, and it would never end,” she said.

I noticed a clear tension in Cole Camp between the rural Midwest’s white majority that has felt shamed by progressives for handling racial issues poorly and a black and multiracial minority who had felt the pain of being wronged, yet has felt unable to fully express that hurt. This difference is exacerbated in corners of white rural America that have faced ongoing economic hardship, which I noticed was more prominent and painful in Appalachia, for instance, than it was in Cole Camp.

The way forward for both groups, across America, though, begins with the kind of open listening and self-examination that I heard from the high school students in Cole Camp, an openness to repentance that feels right at home in churches practicing Lutheran theological traditions. At the same time, privileging African American voices in rural America to tell their own stories will go a long way toward promoting understanding and ending division.

While America is still working to heal racial wounds almost two hundred years after the end of slavery, repentance and understanding seemed possible in Cole Camp not just on racial injustice but on other painful issues that have divided America. The high school students told me about their recent trip to the ELCA Youth Gathering, where they heard stories from LGBTQ people.

The stories they heard expressed a different understanding about sexuality than was commonly held in Cole Camp, and yet the students were open to listening. They expressed a desire for more American unity, and a hope that their generation would move toward that goal by listening to one another.

“I think our country is so divided now,” Carter said. “People don’t want to open their minds to talk to both sides. [But] that’s something I want our generation to change. We all want the same things: everybody wants to be happy, and everybody wants America to be the best.”

“If we accomplish one thing,” added seventeen-year-old Camryn, “I hope that we are the understanding generation—the generation that wants to look to understand each other and not hate each other.”

As a fellow Lutheran, I was proud of what I found in Cole Camp—from the dual thriving Lutheran congregations in this tiny town, to the farm families working hard to survive, to the high school kids who wanted to listen, learn, and share with others. In an American Christianity searching for sources of hope, I point people to the Lutherans I met in Cole Camp, Missouri.


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Sojourners.

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