Aulander, North Carolina, is a one-traffic-light town in rural Bertie County, located in the state’s northeast corner. Most of the storefronts along its main street are empty. There are no movie theaters or grocery stores; residents drive to nearby Ahoskie to catch the latest Spider-Man movie or pick up supplies at Walmart.
It takes all of five minutes to drive through Aulander, and there’s really no reason to stop unless you need to refuel at the town’s only gas station. The formerly selfsufficient farming town now struggles with the ills that plague countless other communities in decline: a dwindling economic base, unemployment, illiteracy, drug addiction, and crime.
On a muggy Sunday morning in mid- July, Jason Villegas stands in front of the congregation of All God’s Children United Methodist Church, a block from Aulander’s main intersection of Highway 11 and Commerce Street. A royal blue stole is draped over his navy blazer, and his sturdy brown cowboy boots peek out from under his khakis. Villegas is a second-year master’s student at the Duke Divinity School, and he’s spending his summer in Aulander as a Rural Ministry Fellow. Although he has already completed the two field education placements required for the M.Div. degree, he’s opted for a third placement as part of his commitment to serving rural congregations.
The theme of today’s service is dance, with music and readings selected around the idea of joyful movement. The first hymn, “Lord of the Dance,” has congregants swaying from side to side while singing “Dance, then, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said he.” A fourpiece combo keeps a lively pace while children sit in their parents’ laps or switch pews to be closer to a friend.
Villegas opens his Bible and reads from the second book of Samuel, chapter six, where David brings the ark of God to Jerusalem. Overcome with joy, David “dances before the Lord with all of his might.” Putting the Bible aside, Villegas launches into a sermon that he has titled “When the Lord Comes Into Sight… Dance With All Your Might.”
"I'm always amazed by the joy I find here. You can tell God really wants to do something with the people here."
“When does God come into our sight?” he asks the several dozen Aulander residents in the congregation. “God comes into our sight any time we are around other people. If I am the Energizer bunny, the Lord is my battery—he keeps me going and going and going.” Murmurs of “yes” and “amen” and “that’s right” from the congregants punctuate his talk, which he delivers without notes. He’s clearly in his element, smiling and making eye contact, his voice rising and falling as he nimbly holds the congregation rapt.
“Dancing is any kind of worship we do with our whole body and with all of our might,” he continues. “Dancing may be mowing someone’s yard, or bringing them food, or just listening. When we are dancing, we are close to God; we can hear his heart. Be kind and loving in all you do, so that no matter where you are or what you are doing, you are dancing before God.”
After Villegas concludes his sermon, the congregation launches into a spirited rendition of “When the Spirit of the Lord.” The Rev. Dr. Laura Early, known to the community as Miss Laura, leads the congregation in a blessing of friendship. She then invites a young man near the back of the church to join Villegas at the front of the sanctuary for the closing number. The young man had gone off to college, dropped out, and is back in Aulander. He looks uncertain and nervous at first, but as soon as the first few chords of “The Cha Cha Slide” begin, he breaks into a smile.
Soon, everyone in the church is following along to the interactive lyrics, clapping hands, stomping feet, sliding from side to side. When the song calls for listeners to get low, Villegas, his beaming face moist with perspiration, bends his knees deep enough to win a limbo contest.
Villegas’ work with All God’s Children is part of a legacy that reaches back to James B. Duke. “My old daddy [Washington Duke] always said that if he amounted to anything in life it was due to the Methodist circuit riders who frequently visited his home and whose preaching and counsel brought out the best in him,” Duke told associates. “If I amount to anything in this world, I owe it to my daddy and the Methodist Church.”
In 1915, J.B. Duke and his brother, Ben, began making contributions to the state’s Methodist churches. With the establishment of The Duke Endowment (TDE) in 1924, Duke formalized his commitment, stipulating that a certain portion of the endowment be directed to building and supporting rural North Carolina Methodist churches.
Villegas’ field placement with All God’s Children is funded through TDE’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative. Roughly two-thirds of North Carolina’s United Methodist churches are considered rural, meaning they serve populations of fewer than 1,500 people within a one-mile radius. The five-year, $3.8 million endeavor helps places like Aulander attract and keep United Methodist clergy. Without dedicated and committed ministers such as Early—and aspiring ministers such as Villegas— rural congregations are unlikely to sustain themselves. If that happens, the church’s community outreach services, from literacy and job training to child care, also will disappear, threatening the social, economic, and spiritual vitality of the entire community.
Divinity school field placements aren’t limited to rural congregations, domestic sites, or Methodist churches. Villegas’ fellow students are serving the homeless in Houston, retirement communities in the Triangle, and orphans in Kenya. But Villegas, who has conducted mission trips to Haiti and South Africa, is convinced that rural ministry is his calling. He first met Early during a church youth group the summer between high school and his freshman year at Chowan University, and began attending All God’s Children while in college.
“I’m always amazed by the joy I find here,” he says after the service. “You can tell God really wants to do something with the people here. The community is unified around the least of these, as Jesus would say. By the least I mean those who are the poorest, or who have mental handicaps, or problems with addiction. Whenever you see a group of people who are unified for the purpose of helping someone else, it takes your ego out of it. It brings a degree of peace and opens the door for God’s joy to come in.”
Assisting with Sunday services is only a small part of what Villegas does during his field placement. He helps with every facet of the church’s operation, from administrative tasks to community outreach. Many of the townspeople he comes into contact with don’t attend church at all. There are the high-school dropouts who find community through pickup basketball games at the Place of Possibilities, the church’s 12,000- square-foot multipurpose facility. And there are those who have been out of work for months and rely on the church to help feed and clothe them and their families.
After the last of the Sunday worshipers leaves the nave on this summer Sunday, Early and Villegas quickly review the coming week’s activities. In addition to regularly scheduled programs and meetings, Early will meet with Villegas and his fiancée, Elizabeth Miller, for the couple’s second premarital counseling session before their August 11 wedding in Duke Chapel.
Villegas heads out of All God’s Children toward the Lighthouse, the small parsonage located off of the church’s carport. A pack of neighborhood children shows up right on schedule. They know that once Sunday services conclude and all the people have gone home, they can come to Villegas for free Popsicles, which he keeps in steady supply for anyone who asks.