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MONTEVIDEO, MINN. – When the Rev. Jeff Fitzkappes is preaching about social justice in this western Minnesota city, he knows when he’s pushing the limits.

There’s one church member who will start “sliding down in her pew” when things get uncomfortable, Fitzkappes said: “I’ve kind of used her as a barometer.”

Fitzkappes may see more sliding parishioners in the days to come. As the state — indeed, the world — grapples with the issues raised by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, this small-town Lutheran minister is challenging his largely white community to take responsibility for the ingrained societal racism that has left so many people of color in Minnesota worse off than white citizens.

It’s a message that can be a tough sell in the state’s rural areas, Fitzkappes and others said. While individual racism may be frowned upon, many people in the state’s overwhelmingly white areas haven’t really considered how they’ve benefited from generations of membership in the state’s dominant culture.

In this prairie town of 5,100 where the Chippewa River joins the Minnesota, some 130 miles west of the Twin Cities, 90% of the residents are white, and many families have lived here for generations. That can make racism a hard topic to tackle, Fitzkappes said, drinking coffee in an outdoor courtyard at the Java River Coffee Shop downtown, where the reviving main street is dotted with Mexican restaurants and ethnic grocery stores.

“If you jump out and shame people, it just shuts down conversation,” he said. “It’s a balance.”

‘I made my own way’

Rural Minnesotans pride themselves on hard work as the solution to all problems and sometimes can’t understand why others struggle, said Reed Olson, a Beltrami County commissioner who was on the losing side of a vote earlier this year that banned refugee resettlement in the county.

“I think people are so set on the ‘I made my own way’ narrative,” Olson said. “And never mind that I’m a third-generation business owner, and that my grandfather was able to get a loan at a time when a black man or a Native American wouldn’t have been able to.”

Racist views have cropped up repeatedly in rural areas since Floyd’s death sparked widespread protests, riots and public soul-searching. The mayor of Blackduck, Minn., resigned after posting an inflammatory meme on Facebook; he said it was misunderstood. A teacher in Brainerd resigned after a similar social media incident.

And in Stockholm, Wis., a tourist town just across the Mississippi River from Lake City, Minn., a popular pie shop was the scene of an ugly racial incident earlier this month.

A 16-year-old biracial girl working at Stockholm Pie and General Store was told by a group of customers that they “wouldn’t eat at a table she touched,” according to store manager Abigail Halvorson, or patronize a place that hired “your kind.”

The store took to Facebook to speak out about the incident.

“No young person should have to deal with this,” the post read. “Sadly, it’s not an isolated experience for her and others.

“If you believe the way those folks do. Do. Not. Set. Foot. Here. You are not welcome.”

‘I just felt the hostility’

Many rural Minnesotans would be quick to disavow those views, said Julie Tesch, who lives in rural Waseca County and is president and CEO of the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

“At least in this area, when people think of racism, they think of the KKK,” she said. “And they think, ‘No, I have black friends, I work with Latinos.’ When we’re talking about systemic racism, it’s very different. I don’t think we understand the words.”

An example of systemic racism, Tesch said, is when white residents assume that people of color living in the area must be there because they have a family member in the federal women’s correctional facility in Waseca.

“Why wouldn’t they be here because they have a job, why wouldn’t they be here because they want to live in a nice community?” she said. “The stereotype is, you can’t be an African-American and want to be here because you want a low cost of living and good schools.”

Statewide, Minnesota’s population of 5.3 million is about 80% white, according to census figures. But in many rural areas, the white population is 90% or more.

Samuel Myers Jr., a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, remembers watching his daughter compete in high school swim meets in rural Minnesota.

“We would go into a restaurant and it was scary for me,” said Myers, who is black. “I made a point to wear a coat and tie, to make sure I looked OK. I just felt the hostility.”

Another obstacle, Myers and others said, is the state’s cultural inclination to avoid confrontation and shy away from discussing difficult topics.

“We don’t talk about race. And if you don’t talk about race, there can’t be racism,” Myers said, adding that it’s not just rural white Minnesotans who avoid the issue.

The violent protests in some cities, accompanied by looting and property destruction, have given rural Minnesotans another reason to shrug off talk of institutional racism. Olson recounted a recent conversation he had with some Beltrami County residents.

“One said, ‘I was listening to them, and then they took down a statue of George Washington, and that’s a bridge too far,” Olson said. He replied, “You’re not talking about your neighbors. You’re talking about a small group of people on the other end of the continent and using them to characterize the whole.”

‘No room for such evil’

Fitzkappes became pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Montevideo three years ago and immediately started preaching about social justice to his congregation of about 130 members. He consciously uses the language of Lutheran confession, stressing the importance of acknowledging wrongdoing, both as individuals and as a society.

“People don’t like confrontation. They’re ashamed,” he said. “But I don’t think I could do otherwise.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its leadership are wholly behind his approach, he said, “but individual congregations and members are much more conservative.”

Earlier this month, Fitzkappes made an impassioned plea in his regular pastoral newsletter.

“We need to talk about something that’s real hard and that most of us try to avoid,” he wrote. “You and I swim in a sea of white privilege in the United States that has been constructed and maintained through violence against persons of color. It has existed since our nation began and it continues today.

“There is no room in our Christian faith for participation in such evil.”

Some of his parishioners have been angered by his emphasis on social justice, Fitzkappes said. He’s had people shout at him, and some have left the church. Others are supportive.

“His message highlights it is just as important that these conversations happen in rural communities as in larger urban communities,” said Deb Hinde, a member of the congregation. “Before this past month, we may have ignored these questions, believing they didn’t apply to us.

“We are beginning to educate ourselves more, and we are learning there is a distinction between not being racist and the concept of being anti-racist.”

John Skoglund, owner of the Talking Waters Brewing Co. downtown, hopes those conversations continue in the community.

“I think it’s opened up some eyes,” he said. “I hope it has.”

But, he added, “A lot of it is, ‘That’s those people in the big city. That’s why I live here.’ ”

John Reinan • 612-673-7402