Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday was spent doing more construction so I’d like to use this entry to sort of summarize my thoughts of the experience and its lasting impression on me. These entries don’t even begin to cover everything that happened during the week, which itself is really only a small snapshot, I am sure, of the Appalachian culture. But just by doing this blog and chronicling these events, I can see how the values that Jones identifies run through the region and people and provide both with strength. The region is united by its close family and community ties and a deep faith. It certainly faces hardships but it faces them as a united community rather than a collection of individuals. This gives me hope that the region can overcome the issues it faces and also inspires me to look for that kind of strength in my own community.

I think looking back on it that the one uniting theme that wove through all the other values that I’ve referenced to was sincerity. There is such an honesty to everything that the Appalachian people do. It pervades the interactions the people have with each other and outsiders, its art, and their worship. There are no facades or barriers here. With people that have so little materially, there is no need to put on airs. However, by subscribing to this culture of honesty the people of Appalachia are richer than some millionaires. The honesty that then gives way to the other Appalachian values allows them to fully appreciate every encounter and experience they have and become enriched by it. A woman, who the Farm regularly brings volunteers to visit, said that she “is dirt poor when it comes to goods, but how many other people can say they’ve met such wonderful people like you?”.

The trip reaffirmed how much I like being around people and being a part of a community. From the volunteers I worked with to the people I served, they all taught me something about the region and about myself. It sounds cheesy but what I’m trying to say is that the themes of Appalachia can be widely applied. For that’s what I discovered: while the region certainly has something uniquely Appalachian to it, there is a common humanity to be found as well. The nursing homes and senior centers can be found throughout the nation and there is construction work that needs to be done in every county of the US. A strong sense of family and community would make any society strong. As an aspiring physician I realize that “being there” for patients is another way of saying Ministry of Presence and is another facet to the healing process. I realize that to be a good doctor (or really any profession where people are the main concern) is to take that to heart. I was actually so inspired by the week that I picked up an application to become a Farm Manager for a year. Whether I end up doing that or not I hope I can take these realizations and apply them to whatever it is I do in the future. After all, the lessons learned on the Farm aren’t meant to stay there.


Thursday night we went to mass at the local Catholic parish, Holy Redeemer. As you can see in the picture on the left, it’s an unassuming building. It’s rather small since it need only serve the 54 Catholics who live in Lewis County. Looking back on it, it was a perfect depiction of the Appalachian value of sense of beauty that Jones describes. This church didn’t have the soaring rafters or intricate statues that grander churches might possess. But it was still beautiful in its craftmanship, which Jones notes the Appalachian people take much pride in. Some, myself at one time included, might say that Appalachian art is simple. Now I think this doesn’t do justice to the skill that goes into it. Instead, I think a better way to understand it is that the art is a reflection of the modesty and unassuming quality of the region as a whole. Beauty is found in practicality, not ornateness.

Especially noteworthy in the church were the handmade stations of the cross made by local artist, Charley Campbell. These were black and white sketches that are set in the local town of Vanceburg. While unpretentious, these stations pack a lot of rhetorical power. By choosing Vanceburg as the backdrop for his stations, Charley makes a conscious effort to see Jesus in his own community. Doing so makes them social commentary as much as they are religious symbolism. For instance, Charley says in reference to his depiction of Jesus’ first fall: “I tried to depict all three falls in the same way. Jesus was a very poor man and I am sure his house was not very nice. People here who live in houses like these feel like they are failures. I do not think that is right. Jesus lived that way and he was able to get up”. So much for being simple huh?

It’s thoughts like these that show that the so called “simple” art of Appalachia and the “simple folk” behind it are not simple at all but deeply philosophical in their determination of what is beautiful. They are like most of us, looking for an accurate representation of beauty and truth. As deeply religious and communally oriented people, as Jones' values assert, it is no wonder that they find it in Jesus, who they envision in their local environment. Patrick, the other Farm manager said that the people she's met have shattered any preconceived notions she held before coming to the region. I can see why.

I can’t resist pointing out that during the exchange of peace, Charley’s eyes lit up when he saw me and he said “Oh my gosh boy- you would make a fantatstic Native American! Your face is perfect.” See? The Appalachian people are always looking for beauty, even in the face of a college student who hasn’t shaved or bathed in 4 days.


Wednesday provided a glimpse into another of Jones’ Appalachian Values. This time it was religion. We had the opportunity to attend Mosby Pentecostal Church. Traveling deep into another holler led us to one of the most unique experiences of the week: a pentecostal revival. A revival is usually a weeklong period that the church uses to stir up the congregation’s enthusiasm by encouraging them to get others saved. The service was so different from any of the Catholic services I’ve attended. First, when they prayed, they prayed out loud. So when the pastor asked everyone to bow their heads and pray there was the commotion of 40 people all praying for different things at the same time. There were plenty “Amens!” and “hallelujahs!” both from the preacher and congregation. There was also some whooping for good measure. The service itself wasn’t as structured as I was used to. There was a sermon delivered by Brother Rick and they had a guest preacher deliver a sermon loosely tied to the beatitudes. After this they played music and called anyone to share music or prayer in a testimonial “as the spirit moved them”. There was no time limit to the service and it only ended when everyone in the congregation had their say. Brother Rick said that if the service kept him out until 3 AM and he had to get up at 5 AM the next morning, God would give him the strength to do it.

I reallly got a sense of the importance of Religion in Appalachia as the service lasted three and a half hours! The majority of this was the testimonials. I had to admire the passion that these people worshipped with. It was a cathartic process for them and a good number of them broke into tears or near it throughout the service. Toward the end, one of the kids from the Farm requested that we sing Amazing Grace. During this, one of the men in the congregation was moved to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. So not only did I get to go to a revival, but I saw someone get saved too! How’s that for my first Pentecostal service? I discovered yet another pillar of Appalachian strength that night. Many of the testimonials were about how the individuals had been in a low place, sometimes financially related, but that they kept their faith in God and they had pulled through. They all seemed to have such a steadfast belief in God’s power to get them through hardships. It was a powerful experience just to be a witness to.


Tuesday was the most grueling day of the trip. We spent the entire day in nearby Tolllesboro, working with People’s Self Help Housing. This non profit company builds and renovates low cost housing in Lewis County. Substandard rural housing is a problem affecting Appalachia as a whole. In 22 Kentucky counties, over 10 percent of all occupied residences were considered substandard according to the 1990 Census. In 2002, the proportion of homes lacking proper plumbing still exceeds the national average. For example, in a Tennessee county, while 79 percent of all households owned their own homes, 7.7 percent of all houses lacked proper plumbing, much higher than the less than 1 percent national average. While this has happened, federal funding for for rural housing programs has not kept up. It is in the face of figures like these that People’s Self Help Housing serves the people of Lewis County. We worked on two houses for the day. Both had experienced severe water damage due to water coming up through the foundation. Our job was to dig a foot deep trench from the house to the drainage ditch by the side of the road. Then we laid down PVC pipe and covered it back up. So much for not being asked to dig a hole and fill it right back up huh? In fairness I suppose there was a pipe in it. Even with 6 of us working on the job, it was hard work but it was certainly necessary. When we finished the first trench, we knocked a hole to release the water. There was literally a gushing torrent of water that didn’t stop for 35 minutes!

I wasn't kidding about the amount of water

Besides bringing to life the rural housing issue, the day brought out yet more themes and values of the region. The two that stood out were neighborliness and sense of humor of the people. During our lunch break we were able to interact with the crew. We had packed the ingredients to make our own sandwiches while they had gotten hot food from the local eatery. They were quick to offer it to us, insisting we have their fried chicken and potato salad. Like many of the encounters with the Appalachian people I had over the week, the offer was made with sincerity. It wasn’t a token offer made with the unspoken expectation that we wouldn’t accept it. I’m sure had we said yes, they would gladly have split the meal with us.

The actual work that they did also spoke to Appalachian neighborliness. It turns out some of the men on the crew live in homes that themselves need renovating. Yet here they were laboring over someone else’s project while their own needed attention. Upon reflection, I realize this is the ultimate definition of neighborliness. It’s one thing to help the less fortunate, which has its own virtues. It’s another to help another while you are in their place. It’s sort of the mantra of Christianity’s Golden Rule of “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). These men live that code and the region is known for it. One could look at it as an extension of the familial bond that runs so strong in the region. The people seem to treat everyone like family whether they just met you or have known you for 20 years. Opposed to my own neighborhood where I may exchange a greeting with someone who lives down the street from me, these people take the role of neighbor to heart and live out the responsibilities that come with it.

That brings me to the other theme of the day: sense of humor. In the face of the hard work that they had to do and the seemingly unending amount of it in the county, the men were always ready with a joke. I know that my group was too tired from digging to string coherent sentences together but here were these men laughing it up like they were sitting around a poker table. Most of the jokes were at the expense of each other but you could tell it was because they genuinely liked working with and respected each other. True to Appalachian form, they would often sprinkle scripture into their jokes. At one point one of the men came up to us and asked us if we had ever heard of the scripture passage about the blind man leading the blind. We responded that we were familiar with it. He then pointed to his supervisor and said loudly "well if you keep following that blind man there he'll lead y'all right into that there ditch!". Like Jones says about the Appalachian sense of humor, I couldn't help but think that their humor helps them weather hard times. And while John the supervisor wasn't pompous, he was an authority figure and they certainly schemed to "get his goat" by playing practical jokes on him as Jones puts it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Monday saw us visiting a local nursing home in the morning. We spent a few hours going around and visiting some of the residents. We then engaged in a rousing game of Yahtzee and finally capped it off with a few songs that we performed for the residents before lunch. Even this short trip brought out some of the cultural aspects of the Appalachian region. First, I noticed the deep family ties that run through the region. At least three or four of the residents had a family member visiting in the room when we entered. Another two or three that we saw said that a family member was coming to visit them later that day. I also noticed, while talking to the people, that families tend to stay somewhat close together. Most of the people I encountered had multiple relatives living in the area, some within a 10 mile or less radius. Much of the strength of the region is derived from the strength of family bonds. As Jones says, “Blood is very thick in Appalachia”. It is this sense of loyalty and responsibility that makes the people stay so close connected to each other and gives them strength in the face of hardship. In the same vein, it makes any outside influences which threaten this familial fabric, like prescription drug addiction, that much more ruinous. This also has implications for any proposed solutions to these problems. Any such solution has to leave these ties intact or risk worsening the situation.

The second theme that made itself present , this one about the region itself, was the general aesthetic beauty. In the afternoon we went on a hike after we were told by Jason, one of the Farm Managers, that there was a waterfall not far from the Farm. What we thought we were going to see

So off we went, picking our way carefully through a maze of branches and rocks, following the creek. While the “waterfall” (if you squint really hard at the picture at the right, you can technically see some water falling) itself was somewhat anticlimactic the scenery we encountered on the way there was beautiful. It was an unassuming beauty, something I think was very appropriate. It was a simple setting with a small brook with shingle rocks covering its bed and trees lining a steep bank on both sides. The real beauty was in its serenity, something I think could be said for the region as a whole. It can be dismissed at first as just another slice of the United States with a coal mining problem. Yet look deeply and you will be touched by the simple beauty it holds. Seeing a scene like the one on the way to the waterfall, or any of the ones we saw driving through the hollers helps me understand another of Jones’Appalachian values: love of place. It’s easy to see why the Appalachian people are so invested in their land, why they are loathe to leave, and why processes that scar the land equally scar the people. The land, as another source of strength, becomes a vulnerability when exploited. This is why making a sustainable Appalachia that is in harmony with the land is so vital. Like with the family structure, if the ties with the land are threatened, it threatens the fabric of its people.

So we didn't see a real waterfall... but we did see a dead possum!


Hey there!

A little bit of background information for you. First, about the concept of this blog itself. I am creating this as a reflection on my week spent in Vanceburg, Kentucky doing service for the local people through Glenmary Farm (more on that in a minute). While there I was able to experience a slice of the Appalachian culture and the problems affecting the region. I worked on such a wide variety of different projects and experienced so many different aspects of the region that I thought it best to flesh out some of those themes and lessons in this reflective format.

Here I will go through my week chronologically, bolstering my experiences with research on the different themes that each day brought out about the region. Most of these themes are noted by Loyal Jones in his work Appalachian Values. It’s amazing how in just a week so many of these values made themselves manifest!

I also wanted to take a little space and give you some background on the Farm as well. The Farm was founded by the Glenmary Home Missioners, an order of priests that serve rural America. It was founded by Father William Howard Bishop in 1939 in Cincinatti, Ohio. Glenmary has missions in over 50 locations in rural America spanning from Appalachia to the Southwest. They reside in areas where the poverty level is typically double the national average and where Catholics are a small minority of the population. Glenmary Farm is one of these missions located in Lewis County, Kentucky. It was originally founded as a way to recruit young men into the Glenmary order but evolved to become a Catholic volunteer camp where high school, college and various faith based groups come to serve the people of Lewis County in a week long immersion experience. True to the Glenmary paradigm, 28.5% of Lewis County residents live below the poverty line. This is compared to 12.6% at the nationwide level . The motto of the Farm is “Peace Came and Stayed”, an appropriate one I think it is a place of Peace for both the members of the community and for the volunteers that pass through. For its volunteers, it encourages simplicity and living in the moment, allowing them a unique and powerful service experience and honest reflection away from the hustle and bustle of fast paced suburbia. Without cell phones (they don't work anyway) or watches it's all about the service you're doing not what's next on the schedule. For those wondering there was a limit of one shower per week but luckily the outhouse was just for show possibly to freak out new arrivals to make them wonder what they're getting themselves into.