You could drive through Donnellson, Iowa, a tiny farming town just a stone’s throw from the Missouri state line in southeast Iowa, and not see a living soul. It straddles old highway 218, but the new four-lane bypasses the downtown, and now Donnellson, once a vibrant rural crossroads with cafes and grocery stores and rail service, is struggling just to hang on.

But on a given Friday of the month, if you pull over in front of the Pilot Mound Bank Community Center and pull the door open, you may find 200 people at lunch, busy milling around, calling out greetings, and catching up on the local gossip. St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Donnellson hosts this lunch monthly for a free-will offering, serving up loose meat sandwiches, soup and chili, Sterzing’s potato chips made in nearby Burlington, Iowa, and a whole table loaded down with slabs of homemade pie. Proceeds go toward local mission projects – the food pantry, hospice, oxygen tanks for the fire department, whatever is needed. This community meal is one dab of glue holding a declining town together.

To Ukraine from Iowa with Love

But wait, there’s more. One member of St. Paul’s, a crusty old blues and folk guitar picker, was so moved by the plight of Ukrainian refugees that he organized a bunch of his musician friends from across the state to gather at the county fairgrounds in Donnellson on Sunday afternoon, June 5, for a six-hour jam to raise money for refugee relief. Dave Roth, who had also performed a couple of hymns each week from his living room for the church’s recorded pandemic worship services, discovered that donations shared through Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ would be forwarded directly and securely to UCC partner churches and agencies in Hungary, with no administrative costs deducted, so he decided that whatever he could raise would be channeled through his denomination.

“I decided it was time for me to get off my butt and do something,” Roth said, so he set up the “To Ukraine from Iowa with Love” benefit, to help support the half million Ukrainian refugees currently residing in Hungary. He raised $12 thousand that afternoon.  And counting.

Rebuild Nepal Education

But wait, there’s even more. While all this was going on, another member of St. Paul’s is currently in Nepal, reaching out to students and families affected by the 2015 earthquake through a nonprofit he started, Rebuild Nepal Education. Ernie Schiller, a retired high school science teacher, has led several volunteer trips to Nepal over the last six years. He has reached out to garner donations for school projects, scholarships for students, and food and hygiene boxes for families impacted by the pandemic.

The volunteers he shepherds teach lessons in the schools, distribute school supplies, and live with local peasant families, learning about Nepalese culture. Ernie was a recipient of Dolly Parton’s prestigious Chasing Rainbows award for his outreach efforts. Over the years he has raised over $300 thousand for relief and education support, and has led more than 130 North Americans on immersion trips to this remote region northwest of Katmandu.

A small, struggling congregation set in a declining rural population is making a major impact among its members, in its community, and around the world.

– By Rev. Bob Molsberry

Bob Molsberry is currently Acting Conference Minister for the Tri-Conference consisting of the Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota Conferences of the United Church of Christ. From 2016-2021 he was part-time pastor at St. Paul’s, logging 500 miles per week commuting from his hometown of Iowa City. He is Secretary for the Board of Directors for Rebuilding Nepal Education, Inc.