Episode 4: Faith the Size of a Mustard Seed
Ralph Summers: All we need is faith the size of a mustard seed, and we can move a mountain.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural, the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m the founder and producer Megan Torgerson and this episode features Ralph Summers, a central figure in Dagmar, MT who has a unique perspective of the community given his work as a mailman, bus driver, taxidermist and preacher.
Summers: Yeah, it’s pretty unique. Or I like to say if you’re Norwegian you can say u-ni-kew.
Torgerson (narrating): Some of my first memories of Ralph are from the second grade when I started riding his school bus once a week to my piano teacher’s house. I remember feeling intimidated by the whole process. First, I had to pick out the correct bus in the long lineup of yellow colossal machines whose beady eyes stared down at me. Then I had to make that big first step into the school bus without tripping. And finally, I had to find a seat that wasn’t claimed by one of the kids who regularly took Ralph’s route.
Every time I boarded Ralph’s bus though, the worst case scenarios swimming around in my eight year old head would dissolve. As I’d grab the railing to hoist myself up the steps, Ralph would flash a moustache-framed smile my way, and give me a greeting that radiated with warmth and sincerity.
He has a way of making a person feel like they belong. Years down the road, after I moved away and would come back home to visit, Ralph again made me feel welcome. Now we may not share the same religious or political beliefs, but there is a lot I’ve learned from our conversations. Today, the site of his crimson Toyota pickup kicking up dust on his way to my family’s farm house to deliver our mail, has become a cherished symbol of homecoming and belonging.
Sound of Ralph’s pickup pulling up
Torgerson: Good morning.
Summers: Right on the ball.
Torgerson: Yeah right on time!
Torgerson (narrating): Ralph’s varied work keeps him busy and in touch with the spread out residents of our rural community. That is no small feat in a county where winter lasts half the year and your closest neighbor could be five miles down an unpaved road. Ralph and I began our conversation talking about the significance of home, family and neighbors.
Summers: Oh home is the place I like to be the most. You know it’s the sense of security and it’s yours. It just reminds me of when the kids were little and we were all one family, that’s home still. It’s a picture you have in your mind you never loose. Just like you see your wife the first time you married her. That picture is always how she’s going to look the rest of her life to you. It’s just a mental picture you have.
Torgerson: And what about in Dagmar and in Sheridan County, what about that larger community?
Summers: Well you know in Dagmar for a long time I felt like I was a little bit of an outsider because I didn’t attend the churches. They’re the main function in the community. But that has passed. Over the years I’ve ended up praying with almost everybody on the mail route at least once.
Torgerson (narrating): If you’ve listened to Reframing Rural’s first two episodes you’ll gather that the centers for community Ralph is referring to are the Lutheran sister churches near Dagmar, one of which I grew up attending. Ralph belongs to a non-denominational church in the neighboring town of Froid. But back to our conversation – I was just asking what Ralph has prayed about with the people along his mail route?
Summers: Oh, kids and trouble. Sickness, disease, money. Anything they have need of. Because that’s what the bible says – have not could you ask not – you might as well ask right. Might as well. So things like that. Just a lot of moral support. To say you’re normal and what you’re going through is common. That’s basically it. And mostly for kids need to hear that. You’re not weird your normal.
Torgerson (narrating): I have also felt like a bit of an outsider in Dagmar at times. My circuitous journey from rural to urban sometimes makes me feel like I don’t belong in either place. But like I said, Ralph is one of the people who comes to mind when I think about the feeling of belonging and home. This observation made me realize just how big of an impact even brief positive encounters with neighbors can have on us.
But beyond the scope of our conversations beside the mailbox, I wanted to know: what are Ralph’s memories of Dagmar, of the flat land, extreme weather and diverse wildlife ubiquitous on the highline. What does it look like to live in NE Montana and work outside the agricultural or oil industries? And what could he teach me about faith?
Ralph hasn’t quit a job in over 30 years. That doesn’t happen much among other generations now a days, so first I asked Ralph about the source of his work ethic and endurance.
Summers: You know if you don’t have land in this country, you got to work somewhere else. That’s the way it is. You start a business. And I’ve never been able to quit, because it would put my family in financial straits. You know you can’t go a month or two without getting paid in what I do. So I just hung on, worked harder.
Torgerson: What does a day in the life, a full day in the life of Ralph look like?
Summers: When school is on, I’m on a strict schedule then, but I get up at about 5:30, every morning. Don’t’ need an alarm clock anymore. Make coffee, check the weather and do whatever I need to do to wake up. And then as soon as the bus is done I start the mail route. And when that’s done I have about an hour break and then I do the school bus and then I come home and I usually start my taxidermy job about then, and work until 8, or 9, 10 at night. But I have to admit I’ve slacked off on my night work. I’m not as hungry as I used to be for one and I’m not as energetic. I like to lay around more than I used to. Believe me. I left out that nap in my one hour.
Torgerson: I was wondering what does that one hour consist of?
Summers: To eat and take a nap real quick.
Torgerson: Tell me a little bit about your relationship to land and weather and what kind of role that plays living here?
Summers: Oh, I look at land. Other people’s land and I think if I had it, I’d plan trees here or there. In my own mind, I’d turn it more into wildlife habitat. Yeah I just love trees, habitat, animals. That’s just part of my life. I’ve always liked them. Anymore to me it’s just like I said being out somewhere when the sun is coming up and it’s quiet and no one is around and you can just see animals in the natural way the go about things. I like that, you know.
Torgerson (narrating): Access to wildlife and nature is one thing Montana has in spades. Now as you know, access comes in many forms, and in the history of rural America there have been some things we haven’t had access to. Take for example free mail delivery.
Prior to the Rural Free Delivery Act of 1893, or RFD, in order to send or receive mail folks in rural America had to travel long distances to post offices or they had to pay private companies for delivery. RFD granted rural residents’ equal access to mailing services. This act was monumental. Not only did it enable rural residents to send letters and receive newspapers without having to spend more money or time on the process, but it also connected urban and rural people. Some of you rural listeners may recognize the RFD acronym from RFD-TV, a television network named after the act of 1893. Similar to Reframing Rural in its mission RFD-TV seeks to reconnect city with country.
Today of course the essential work of the U.S. Postal Service and indispensable mail carriers like my friend Ralph, has come into focus again. Thank you, USPS employees for delivering packages, treasured family letters and mail-in ballots.
Driving the mail route, and school bus, means Ralph puts in a lot of “windshield time” as my Dad likes to say. Which means time to witness the pelicans gather over Medicine Lake, to watch the Canadian geese assemble then migrate in autumn, to see the pheasants running wild in the ditches. Through Ralph’s windshield he can see hills with ancient tide lines that taper and curve into coulees. He bears witness to the snow collecting under chokecherry bushes and blanketing barbed wire fences. From his pickup he can see water fan out over prairie trails, and wild roses unfurl in spring. He has also seen miracles on the road.
Summers: Well I was on the mail route one day and it was a day like today. It was hot and dry and the dust was just boiling out the back of my pickup as you’re going down the road, and something came out of the grass, just past your, just south of your Grandpa Vic’s turnoff. It would be over the next hill. Something come out of the grass and I run over it. I thought t was a hawk of an owl, and it took me awhile to stop the pickup because I was going pretty fast and when the dust cleared I could see something laying in the road behind me in my mirror. So I backed up and here it was a coyote. I run over a coyote and it was laying in the road and it could lift its head up and it was trying to bite toward its back. You know, that’s what they do if there’s pain there they think they’re being – anyway this is what I. I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought it. I said Lord, I don’t have a gun that I can shoot this coyote and I don’t want to beat it to death with my tire iron. These are my exact thoughts, you know. And I can’t leave it here. It’s so hot and then I thought, I’ll pray for that coyote. So I put my hand up to this mirror, cause I was too close I couldn’t see it in this mirror. I said Lord, heal that coyote in the name of Jesus. And I was lookin’ at it and that coyote jerked like this and then it got its hind legs up, and then it got its front legs up and it started to run and it was wobblin’ but after 30, 40 feet, it took off and ran away. And I sat there on the road and I laughed to myself. I laughed out loud actually and I said wow, cause I just saw a miracle and no one around to witness it but me and this coyote. I said Lord, I want to do that to people.
Torgerson (narrating): When you live close to nature, you’re bound to witness miracles. I’m fascinated by Ralph’s experiences with prayer and healing. And I’m curious to hear more.
Summers: I have a good time praying for people. A lot of times you might not see what you’re praying for. But I still do it. But there’s been many times that people get healed and it just amazes me that the God that created everything would use me, a bus driver, to do something like that. It’s pretty amazing.
Torgerson: Can you tell me a story about when someone was healed?
Torgerson (narrating): My audio recorder fritzed out here a little bit. Anyway, Ralph was just beginning to tell a story about when he was waiting at the hospital in Minot, North Dakota, while a family member was in the intensive care unit.
Summers: So I went around visiting people in the waiting room and praying and there was a Native American woman and I asked her why she was there and she said that her significant other was up in hospice. His heart was failing, which means, that’s the end of the road and I said would you like me to go up and pray for him and she said, would ya? I think I said I’ll be there in twenty minutes. She gave me the room number and I walked in and here is this great big guy there on his back full of tubes and his name was Frank. I just told him who I was and I asked him if he knew the Lord, that’s the most important part. So I led him in a prayer – you know he was at the point in his life where it was time to believe. Anyway I said Frank I’m going to pray for your heart. So I prayed for his heart and when I was done I didn’t feel anything special, cause it’s not about feeling something, it’s about the word of God, does the work.
And he said where are you from? I said oh I’m from a little town out in Eastern Montana. You’ve probably never heard of it, it’s Dagmar. Dagmar, I’m from Plentywood, he said. Here was a notorious drinker, fighter guy who has been in trouble most of his life and, and Frank didn’t die otherwise his obituary would have been in the paper. He’s alive.
Torgerson: Well how long ago was that.
Summers: This was five or six years ago now I suppose. And again at the same time and at the same hospital three Indian women asked us, my wife and I if we’d pray for a friend of theirs that was hospice. You go into hospice that’s a terrible place to be. We went into that guys room and here he was 23 years old, dying of sorosis of the liver, from drinking. 23. 23 years old. I remember his name. It was Curtis. I said Curtis, you know I told him who we were. We’re here to talk to you about Jesus. Do you believe in the Lord, Curtis? He said no. I said would you like to hear about him, he said no. I said well I’m going to tell you anyway. He was in bed he couldn’t get out. So he was a captive audience. I just told him and the more you talked to him the more he softened, and so anyway I just prayed for him. I don’t know what happened to him, a lot of time you don’t know what happens. You never see these people, you just do your part. I mean I probably have hundreds of these stories.
Torgerson: Was there a faith tradition or spiritual background of your childhood that informed your beliefs?
Summers: No my mother became a Christian in the late 1960s. You probably don’t remember the Jesus movement where all the hippies were coming to the Lord. It was a time in the United States where – I guess you’d call it a revival – where the word of God was being just spread by the most in-obvious people that you’d never think – hippies a lot of them. And that’s when she became a Christian. She never beat it down our throats. She never made us go to church, but every Monday she fasted for her kids and never ate one Monday every week for fifteen years or more, seventeen years she did that. And now all of her children are believers, so anyway she did her part. You can’t force faith on people.
Torgerson (narrating): Whether you view life through a religious or a secular framework, whether you say “keeping you in my prayers” or “keeping you in my thoughts,” I still think that there is a need for meditation and prayer, and that principles of faith, hope, trust and good will are universal. I can’t say for sure, but I think that Ralph would agree:
Summers: I would just tell you Megan, everything, your questions, all revolve around faith to me. You know, I’m a preacher.
Torgerson (narrating): Another connection I’ve made recently is that the creative and contemplative practice of editing audio stories together must not be that far off from drafting a sermon. I asked Ralph how he finds inspiration for his sermons.
Summers: You know what, many times I say Lord what do you want me to talk about. Just one word, the Lord can give me one word. The last time I spoke was about rejection and being welcomed. You know you look at something like rejection and all the gamut it can run. Rejection is in the middle. On one end there’s murder. On the other end there’s suicide. If you look at it there’s different variances in it. It’s people that get hurt and they never recover.
Torgerson (narrating): Ralph takes one word – and by combining its meaning with emotional intelligence and empathy, he creates a powerful opportunity for reflection. One word. Maybe that word is reframe. Maybe it is belong. Maybe it’s people.
Torgerson: I don’t follow politics or religion very closely, but I do love people and I hope to welcome people in too and through this project too I want to welcome people who may not know anything about Ralph or who may not know anything about Kim to think about these are just people and we should love them and welcome their stories and welcome them in.
Summers: Well that’s the two commandments you know. Love the Lord God is first and then love your neighbor as yourself. I mean that’s it and you’re trying to do it. Good luck.
Summers: I mean it is a very lofty and rewarding goal. If you can do it one time. It’s like playing golf. You get one good hit on whole 18 holes, that’s all it takes.
Torgerson: And people are like so you’re trying to bridge the urban rural divide – this is too lofty – I’ve seen the election results. On both ends people are like I don’t want to know those people, but I feel like there’s more to it than that.
Summers: People are subject to what – have you ever heard of the parable of the sower?
Torgerson: No tell me.
Summers: It’s just – I’ll skip past that part, but at the end Jesus said “be careful what you hear.” And that’s what drives people, what they hear. If you believe it’s true, you go that direction in thoughts and philosophies, so you’ve got to be careful what you’re listening to because people aren’t telling the truth all the time.
Torgerson: Yeah you’ve got to be careful.
Summers: It is you’ve got to be careful and that’s like rumors and innuendos and all that stuff can ruin you the way you think about a person just in that aspect of it. So I never go around repeating rumors, so you have to listen close the first time.
Torgerson (narrating): I want take a moment and acknowledge that the people I interviewed for Reframing Rural’s first ever season “Coming Home,” are really putting themselves out there and entrusting me to frame their stories in a way that is true to who they are as people and the community at large. Trust is important to Ralph and it’s another virtue we spoke about at length.
Summers: Someone trusts you and you trust them, that’s life.
Torgerson: I think that’s part of the community here too that makes it so special.
Summers: Oh yeah, you live here long enough you know everybody’s – when they hit stress or grief, you kind of know how they’ll all react. You have an idea – they’re normal.
Torgerson: There’s less fear too when you can trust people.
Summers: Oh yeah, you have to humble yourself and ask for help. You have to have someone you trust pretty much.
Torgerson (narrating): So a week before I went home to Dagmar last summer to interview Ralph and others you’ve heard this season, two of my friends were involved in a severe four-wheeling accident. They were on my heart and mind and so I decided to try faith and trust in action and asked Ralph if he could lead us in a prayer for them.
Summers: You bet we can pray.
Torgerson: Thank you.
Summers: I want you to hold your hands out like you’re receiving. See in the bible, people stand in as intercessors, an intercede for other people, so you’re kind of that person since she’s on your mind and your heart, you’re interceding for her and I’ll just pray, so you have your hands out like you’re receiving. O.k. Here we go. Now Jesus said, now pray to the father, now I’m speaking to you now.
Torgerson: Oh, sorry.
Summers: In Matthew chapter 18, pray to the father in my name and he will give you what you ask if two can agree. So we agree that her name is Cassie? That Cassie will be good as new. Fixed up. The Lord has his way of doing things. He might work through the surgeons somehow and see a miracle. We don’t know. We’re just gonna pray for her o.k.
Father, we come together in the mighty name of Jesus, according to your word, where it says two will agree as touching anything. That pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus, your name Lord, and you will give us what we ask. We lift up Cassie before you Father. You know all about this accident. We just pray father. It is our desire for a miraculous healing. Right now. We just command that those bones in her face be restored, knit back together perfectly Lord. That's what we desire.
Torgerson (narrating): The prayers of Ralph and I, and so many others were answered. After a series of successful surgeries, Cassie’s full recovery was undoubtedly miraculous.
Now you may be asking yourself whether my faith has altered since I sat down with Ralph. I have to say, I fully believe faith and love are going to save us, but my faith still isn’t tied a specific denomination or faith tradition. I just wish to be part of the larger healing. Now there is one last nugget of wisdom I want to remind you of.
Summers: All we need is faith the size of a mustard seed and we can move a mountain. Just a little tiny bit of faith.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you Ralph for letting me share some of your story with the world. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan for creating original music for this episode, and to our friends Dan Sadomka and Ryan Manthey for helping us compose the theme music.
In the next episode we’ll hear from three Northeastern Montana farmers and ranchers including Thomas Ostby, my cousin Jacob Torgerson, and my Dad, Russ Torgerson:
Russell Torgerson: I looked and looked and looked and looked and I couldn’t find the rest of the cattle. I only found about ten head. Anyway, I found them up the top of the hill facing North.
Torgerson (narrating): Reframing Rural was made with support from Seattle University’s Arts Leadership Program and the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency. This episode was recorded on ancestral Assiniboine land and I produced and edited this episode on Salish and Kalispell Aboriginal Territories.
Thank you for listening!