E-pistle of Aug. 20, 2008

I have been reading a book which was given to me by Bishop John Hopkins. It is titled Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth*. It is not a fun book to read, because it deals with the decline of the Midwest here in America due to the inability of the Midwest to respond to the challenges of a global marketplace. In particular, the book studies certain communities in the Midwest which have not adapted, including my hometown of Anderson, Indiana, along with many others like Muncie, Indiana and Newton, Iowa and others throughout the Midwest.

It is a hard book to read, because it lays out the statistics and sociology of the incredible decline of those automotive industry-based communities. The author deals with the farm crisis, too, along with the decline of education levels in the Midwest. Most discouraging, he talks about the "risk-aversion" which has come to characterize people in the Midwest, noting that the most significant problem of the Midwest is our lack of imagination, creativity, and hope as we face the changing face of a global economy and a global culture.

Is he right? I am afraid that in many instances the answer is "yes." The Midwest has been the true "heartland" of America but it is in decline in many ways, and the attitude of our people too often turns to discouragement, lack of vision, longing for the past, and fear of the future. I have talked with the mayors of several county-seat towns in Indiana, and most tell me about that problem. One of those mayors summarized it best when he said,

"The biggest problem I face in getting new business to come into this town is the bad attitude of the long-term residents who convey a negative picture of our town that is hard for me to overcome. More than one business was ready to move here, until they met some of the local leaders who told them what an awful place they think this is."

I believe much of that bad attitude comes from a seething anger that the once-glorious past has been lost forever. The Midwest became very comfortable with those old industries which hired our people, gave generously to local causes, and raised the standard of living for the whole area. But most of those old industries are gone, moved overseas, or simply out of business. And the Midwest has not responded well to those changes, spending far too much of our time lamenting a lost past.

Thus Longworth says that the biggest problem facing the Midwest is not the rise of a global economy, it is our own attitude about that change. Our own risk-aversion is what keeps us from adapting, changing, creating, and moving forward.

As I said, it is not a fun book to read, but it does challenge me. And it reaffirms for me how important is our effort that we call "Imagine Indiana" for our United Methodist Church here in Indiana. We must do more than simply merge two conferences into a smaller version of our old models. We must use our imagination, our creativity and our openness to a new future - however different that new future may be.

From Bishop Michael J. Coyner
Indiana Area of
The United Methodist Church

"Making a Difference ...
in Indiana and around the world"

*Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard C. Longworth can be ordered from www.cokesbury.com. Type book's title into search.