I live next to Lighthouse Baptist Church on the outskirts of Marion. At night, the church building projects a beam of light into the sky so bright it can be seen from miles away—I know this because I actually used the beam to navigate home after driving to who knows where to stargaze in a field. If it wasn’t already obnoxious enough by virtue of its brightness, the beam also spins constantly around like it’s searching the sky for something. In a small city of just 30,000, with little to no light pollution, the spotlight is a blight on the rich darkness of country night sky that is one of the few advantages of living in the rural Midwest.
It’s obviously a gimmick for the church, a publicity stunt of some kind, and one whose garishness immediately repels the careful sensibilities I’ve developed over my lifetime of immersion in liturgical beauty. It’s the kind of thing I mock in my head and send videos of to my friends, who mock along with me.
Grant County, the place I recently moved to, is full of things like this, things I’ve believed my whole life to be garish, things I’d prefer not to be associated with, loud demonstrations of ugliness and disrepair. A historic brick building downtown, for example, that was covered up by a massive gray Styrofoam façade with an attorney’s name in two-foot high gray Styrofoam letters. So many abandoned structures that the city doesn’t have the money to tear down that sit and sag and sometimes catch on fire or house meth labs that fuel the drug crisis. People who go to the grocery store half-clothed or in pajama pants and flip-flops. City streets that offend every sensibility of beauty and class that I’ve always chosen to surround myself with when I had the choice.
I guess this laundry list of things that have made me turn up my nose might be part of what is known as culture shock. I never expected to get culture shock moving somewhere also in the Midwest, but there’s a lot to learn about Indiana’s problems as they’re distinct from the Midwest as a whole. And Grant County, Indiana is a microcosm of the sorrow and hardship that’s hitting all of rural Indiana.
One of the fastest shrinking counties in Indiana, Grant County has lost five percent of its population over the last seven years, even while the state’s population as a whole grew by three percent. Fifty years ago, my city, Marion, was twice the size it is today.
Today, Grant is number one in the state for number of children living in poverty, number three for adults living poverty. Our homelessness situation is dire enough that we receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for our shelters.
While we aren’t the hardest hit county in the state’s opioid crisis, we are struggling with above average drug use and overdoses. Already I’ve reported on one overdose death and many close calls, including kids. Marion residents are arrested on charges of dealing meth, cocaine, and heroin every week.
I’ve also reported on multiple arsons, a fatal shooting that’s still under investigation and fatal crash in which a teenage girl was killed by a cop car mere weeks before her high school graduation. It’s the last thing anyone would call a “nice place to live.”
Marion doesn’t have any of the small-town quaintness that a tourist could fall in love with either—mom and pop stores have largely been driven out of business, but WalMarts and Dollar Generals abound, thanks to both corporate giants housing their distribution centers in the county.
There’s no way to romanticize it. This is Marion, Grant County, and it’s not pretty. This is a place that needs money and social services, and needs them badly. The wound has been open a long time, and the hurt of the political corruption and swindling in the past that drained the county of money has not healed. People don’t trust the government not to steal from them, nor do they trust each other. It’s a hard place to be, and not just because of its aesthetic and cultural offenses, but because people are unkind to one other, and the rifts seem unbridgeable.
I haven’t come this far in the post just to turn around and say, but wait! these are all the reasons it’s actually a beautiful place! What I want to say is that I care about this place and not because of some secret hidden beauty that overshadows the darkness. It exists, and it has come into my life, and for no reason beyond that it is the most important place in the world to me right now.
Its story is valuable because it’s the story of many rural communities in U.S. right now—it’s not valuable because small town America is “preserving our traditions and heritage” in some white mythological framework, or because it’s the “real America” in some similar Trumpian mythological framework, or for any other reason than that it’s another place that’s suffering and struggling and deserves not to be forgotten. It does not need any other sort of reason to be worth caring for. It can exist in its difficulty without any dressing up and still be deserving of love.
Carolyn Muyskens is a 2017 graduate of Calvin’s English department. She is working as a research assistant studying news media trends and as an assistant at a law firm. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.