By Margaret M. Treadwell
Did you grow up in a small town you left to pursue careers and adventures as an urban dweller? My hometown is on the banks of the Tennessee River in the northwest corner of Alabama, where back in the day we children could play anywhere fancy free and without worry for our safety. “It takes a village” was an unknown phrase, but our actions seemed always to be known by a plethora of kind, intelligent adults who loved and cared for us as if our families all belonged to each other. Sheffield, Ala., gave me a sense of place and basic trust in a good world.
Named for Sheffield, England, our town was incorporated in 1885. It was created to be an iron and steel center, using locally available iron ore and shipping products to market via river transportation. Boom and bust years followed until 1933, when the newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The TVA’s programs, along with those of the National Recovery Act, helped bring the area out of the severe economic depression during the 30s. Pictures of our town from WWII through the 1980s show a bustling main street filled with a variety of shops to meet every need.
Today, this street is boarded up and closed down, a victim of poor planning by town fathers who refused to merge with the nearby town of Muscle Shoals, where the strip including Wall Mart attracts business unfortunately bypassing Sheffield. Even before the current economic crisis, Sheffield looked dead and decaying. It has become a bedroom community and settling place for senior citizens living in several retirement facilities.
But Sheffield still has a heart if you bother to look beneath sad appearances. The town may be boarded up, but the spirits of good people abound in three abiding institutions: The art association brings the community together with lively theater and museum exhibits; the library provides a center where residents gather and poverty-stricken kids receive warm adult attention with story hours, computer use and help with homework and book selections; the churches continue to draw spiritual seekers who give back to the town.
Grace Episcopal Church is a good example. Five years ago, rector Rick Oberheide was called to help the congregation grow or perish. He focused on a mission of hope for transformation and is overjoyed that young families are flocking to services, joining the parish and committing themselves to the vision. Meanwhile, he is a pastoral presence to his aging parishioners, including my homebound mother (98) who adores the visits that Rick calls “Tuesdays with Flo.”
Rick says he’s an unlikely priest, describing himself as directionally challenged (he gets lost no matter where he’s driving around town), but spiritually directed. His family’s dysfunction left him a spiritual orphan at a very young age, so as a child he began to seek mentors and a church to call home. Finding the right wife and psychoanalysis helped him form an identity and then a love for other people that flows to his parishioners and to others, no matter what their religious beliefs. Remarkably, he has welcomed two retired Grace church rectors back as parishioners as well as several other former priests from other dioceses. He appreciates their assistance at services and with shared leadership. Encouraging his predecessors to participate brings a presence of the past that has helped foster healing and growth.
One of Rick’s greatest gifts is his ability to be vulnerable and to laugh at himself. His stories abound, like the time he rose to leave an important interview, opened the wrong door and walked into a closet. Or the time his microphone was turned on before a service and he went to the men’s room where he says, “I opened my own Niagara Falls amplified throughout the church. The congregation cracked up.” His latest story has become a Sheffield legend:
When a church patriarch named Frank died, Rick drove immediately to his widow Mary’s home, which in his directional confusion, he mistook for the house next door. He knocked, entered and found a group of people he’d never seen. Believing they were out-of-town relatives, he began to converse and minister to them. After a while, he said, “Where is Mary?” Said an elderly woman, “Mary? Why Mary died!” Rick said, “No, it was Frank who died. I spoke to Mary this morning!” A silence filled the room. For a few minutes everyone was speechless. Finally someone said, “Mary is not here because she died. Could you have the wrong house? Frank lived next door but we didn’t know he died.”
Rick sums this one up, “Grace is the space between how you want to react and when you speak.”
As more small towns struggle during these current hard times, we can support the heart of town in people who dream of a positive outcome and continue to give back to the community with love, optimism, humor and commitment to future generations.
Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.