Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Going "Home"

by Jessica Chadwick

One of the hardest questions for me to answer is when people ask me where I’m from. Not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because I’m not sure. We moved a lot when I was a child. By the time I was 22 I had lived in 6 different states. I don’t feel native of any area. I have many homes.

On the first day of the immersion course we were asked to introduce ourselves including, of course, where we are from. I said that I call West Virginia one of my many homes. I attended four years of college at Alderson-Broaddus and fell in love with the area. Lots of people in NYC often think that I am “from” WV. I guess because I talk about it so much. Sometimes it feels disingenuous to talk about West Virginia as my home. What makes a place your home anyway?

In preparing for the trip I was nervous about taking people with me back to visit places that I knew and loved so well in West Virginia. We stayed the first four nights at my alma mater and visited with community folks, agencies, and professors that I have deep connections to. I was nervous and felt responsibility for how both groups would receive each other. It’s hard to invite 50 people so deeply into your life. It feels really vulnerable.

At many points on our journey, I was scared of how this group of seminarians, social work students, and media organizers would interact with the people and community that I love so much. And some days it was hard. Some days, when people offered feelings and critiques of work that was being done, I got defensive. Its like when you can complain about your family ‘till the cows come home, but God help anyone else that tries to say something bad about your family.

On the other hand, I understood that this is a process and a learning experience for our group to better understand the region, the connection to religion, and various models for eliminating poverty. I knew that many times I had the same critiques that members of our group offered. I know how important it is to process and question things that we were experiencing.

This question of “home” kept coming up throughout the trip. Many of the people we spoke with, shared with us how people outside the community have used the Appalachian region’s resources or have come to proselytize or to exploit the communities. People are skeptical of outsiders, and rightfully so. As one not native to WV, what right do I have to call this place “home?”

During our textual reflections on the book of Ruth, the question of insider/outsider and the question of where is your home was also raised. Ruth follows Naomi back to a place where she is a foreigner and dependent upon others for her livelihood. Ruth vows to her mother-in-law that she will follow her and accept her people and her way of life.

On Thursday, in Charleston, Rev. Watts asked our group how many people felt called to ministry in WV. I raised my hand. Since moving to NYC I have felt called to return to Appalachia. Then on Friday we witnessed the “Gates of Hell” as Larry shared with us the horror stories of mountaintop removal. That seemed to seal the deal for me. It is clear to me that I must, at some point, return to WV to continue to work to eliminate poverty. It is my calling: to this work and to this region. After seeing the destruction of the earth and of people’s lives in the name of capitalism, how can I not go back?

Like Ruth, I vow to enter a land that I am not native to, but that I consider my “home.” “Your people shall be my people…”

Monday, January 15, 2007

God is here

by Ellie Martin Cliffe

A very dear person reminded me today that even though our experiences throughout this journey have exposed great struggle and injustice in Appalachia, God is here. In some places it was difficult to believe, especially yesterday. Then I considered ecotheologian Sallie McFague’s assertion that the earth is the divine body; we watched people mutilating God at the mountaintop removal site. Doesn’t this mean that by damaging and abusing the earth (the land and its people), we are hurting God most of all?

At the same time, I can’t think of anyone I’ve talked to who doesn’t have hope that something positive is going to come of this. People are noticing commonalities in their struggles (related to poverty, education, other human rights, and the environment). My hope is that eventually, maybe soon, people in power’s eyes and ears will be opened and they will finally see, listen, and act.

Myles Horton, the man who founded the Highlander Center where we are now, wrote that our anger and drive need to be smoldering – not burning; flames go out faster. This movement is smoldering, and everything we’ve experienced on this trip has in some way contributed more fuel for it to continue.

The Highlander Center

by Andrea Roske-Metcalf

I’m fairly certain that the most simple, straightforward, subversive organizing strategy that I’ve ever encountered is to build a circular room, fill it with rocking chairs, and invite the people.

photo by Colleen Wessel-McCoy


by Gayle Irvin

The trip to Chesterhill (on Wednesday, Jan. 12) included a visit to a house, the basement of which is believed to have been on the trail of the Underground Railroad. This immersion experience also included a drive - deep into the woods to see caves that hid slaves until they could be ferried to safe places. It was a moving experience…one where I could sense the danger and the spirits of the people who came before. It was the Quakers of Chesterhill who hid and ferried slaves, risking their lives and the lives of their families. Their motivation was born out of their beliefs – beliefs in social justice and equality. This experience is a mere footnote in this long immersion week in Appalachia, but it serves as a model of a people whose actions were born out of their religious beliefs, that is, they had a singular purpose, not to convert, but to do justice.

Gates of Hell

by Alix Webb

Today (Friday, Jan. 12) I saw a site I will always remember – one of the few mountaintops in the area not owned by large mining companies. I think that all of us (46+) on this trip will remember witnessing the horror of this process together – the conclusion of our time together in Appalachia proper this week. One member of our group asked our host on this mountain-top, “What is the difference between strip-mining for coal and mountain-top-removal?” He thought for a few seconds an the said quickly, “Well, I guess strip mining is about taking coal away from the mountain . . . and mountain-top-removal is taking the mountain away from the coal.”

Larry took us from his property – the peak of a rolling West Virginia mountain that his family has lived on for 200 years, covered in trees that are certainly lushly green in the Spring (465 more acres used to be in their care, before unable to read, they signed them away for “a dollar and change for per acre”) – to a place he calls the Gates of Hell. The Gates of Hell are at the edge of this remaining mountain. Literally, the edge. As you look over a mountain ledge, you see – the death of mountains. You see rock, stripped. Bombed and blasted for the visible slim black seams. Blasts that bend the nails backwards in Larry’s home on his peak. You see 15 men (3 shifts/day) who in three years will be able to turn a mountain, one of the many in this ancient range that is now ceasing to exist, into piles of rock. I watched dump trucks carry dusty gravel from what was left of a top, down to the side of a ragged shelled out crevice, lift, and empty, a small avalanche of shards.

It takes 3,000 years to create 3 inches of top soil. It takes top soil to grow trees. It takes trees to create top soil. And as there are neither, the Gates of Hell bear witness to a vast land once recently green, once free, once tree-covered, once alive, now stripped, devoured, destroyed so that truly, according to all research, nothing will grow on it again.

I thought of the passages of Ruth we have been reading this week. I thought of what choice she had to make. The choices of women without. I thought of loosing a homeland.

I thought of the soup kitchen and food bank I visited on Wenesday where in the poorest district of OH, cars begin to line up the street at 4AM for the beginning of the handing out of the boxes of food staples at 8AM. Where on food bank days, in a period of two hours, 750 families stand in lines down the block to receive their packages. Where breakfast and lunch are made for 500 Head Start children every day. And from which 100’s of packets of food are sent home on Fridays with children who won’t have enough food on the weekends.

I think of my talk with a woman who lived on a ridge outside Philipi, West VA. She is native mixed-heritage as are all of “her kind” (as she calls her surrounding family) who are the inhabitants of this ridge. I thought of her story of her mother dropping dead in front of her last year at 42 years old when she’d come to visit her daughter in the air force – so proud of the only person on the ridge to ever achieve such a level of education and position.

I thought of her stories of the poverty of her people today. Of her own struggle to find a job now that her tour is done. I thought of driving with her through the hills seeing the land and the homes that her family has lived in and on for 100’s of years. The river she body-rafts down every summer with her mother and sons. Her favorite place in the forest. The way she knew just what to do in the projects when a woman she knew there (as our group filled out surveys with residents) was in serious distress – drool hanging out of an alchoholic, epileptic mouth.

I thought of all the facts and stories and people and lives of this week.

And I thought about something that has been bothering me for some time. For some time, I have struggled with the concept of evil.

I fear the term. I have fought against the idea that it exists. I am quick to anger at the way it is used “lightly” though with such terrible consequences when applied to ideas, people, children, an nations.

I have wanted to fight with people for using it to apply to any of these things. I have stated that I do not believe in it –truly.

But today, I think I have realized another mind. Looking at the brutality of what has been done to this ravaged mountain – to a whole horizon of ancient land.

I don’t know what else could hold and embrace all the things witnessed by each of us this week in this terribly abused region – Appalachia – and all the unimaginable wrongs witnessed last year in the Gulf Coast, and all the unexplainable wrongs of Wards Island at the beginning of this trip, and of the growing poverty in this world that surrounds us daily.

For me, it takes something this enormous – the sacrifice of this mountain range – to hold for me all these terrors, all of this grief and rage, of millions of lives and millions of years. And in its being held so that I am able to consider it at this Gate, I realized that I may believe in and have witnessed evil – truly – in this world.

Evil that others will assault with a grace that for me is also held when six of us – two from Appalachia, three from Union, one from Columbia University School of Social Work, some brown, some white, some men, some women, all human, stand together deep in the hollers of a ridge on a snow-covered bridge surrounded in the beautiful roaring sound of a rushing river, sunlight, and a peace and perhaps joy in being there together. In what I believe was the hope of coming to know one another and the possibility of hoping together.

I leave this place thankful and thinking of strength to stand at the Gates of Hell an to stand on the Bridge and to enter them both completely...and then to step forward.

Mountain Top Removal

by Andrea Roske-Metcalfe

As we were walking toward the mining site, I asked Larry to describe the difference between strip mining and mountain top removal. “Well,” he began, “strip mining is where they take the coal from the mountain, and mountain top removal is where they take the mountain from the coal."

Holy s***, I thought, as I stepped up to the edge of the ridge…he’s absolutely right.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

At the Highlander Center

by Colleen Wessel-McCoy

This morning we gathered in the main meeting room of the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, and Erin Flemming (left) lead us in textual reflection on the book of Ruth.

Moving Mountains

by Colleen Wessel-McCoy

Larry Gibson from Kayford Mountain shows us the mountaintop removal coal mining operations that surround his propoerty.

Charleston, WV

by Kim Tomaszewski

Thursday afternoon we heard several speakers from John XXIII Pastoral Center one being Father Les Schmidt who focused his talk to us around Psalm 11:3. I’m not sure if he was simply informing us or doing this on purpose but he made a point of saying that he was using the NRSV translation. This is what I normally use but for a travel Bible I have an NIV translation that I had with me. Father Schmidt read Psalm 11:3 as “If the foundations are crumbling what will the righteous do?” This line really struck me and so I went to my NIV to underline it. However, my translation read, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

What does this say about responsibility? About the privilege of choice?
This morning we talked about the themes of Ruth and the relationship between these and coal miners here in Appalachia, as well as with the poor in general. Specifically we discussed the notion of having (or not having) choices when you’re poor. Ruth is dependent on Boaz for survival for the next generation, for her well-being, as well as for her mother-in-law’s. People who work in manual labor are thought of as expendable but they must work in the coal mines –dying early and cruelly, working in terrible conditions, forced from education into labor, and often times bringing your family into this line of work to face the same- in order to support their family; in order to survive. What is the difference in hearing “What Can you do” versus “What Will you do”?

This has been the crux of my experience with the Poverty Initiative – being presented with information, hearing people’s testimonies, experiencing the poor, and then being asked ‘ok, now what will you do about this?’. We must understand our responsibility to one another and to ourselves as connected to one another.

One last thing on this. I went to undergrad in central Pennsylvania. If I leave this trip with nothing else it will be the dichotomy of how immensely poor this region is but how few people are homeless. We have seen the working poor and this is exhausting to think of how we cover up our employment ratings, how Wal-Mart is the largest employer in West Virginia (driving out Mom and Pop stores and then making the same people work in their business or buy from them because of no other options), and other such infuriating things. We have addressed our stereotypes of the poor being lazy, etc. These people work with low or no benefits, awful pay, and long hours. And still, we stereotype them and place the blame elsewhere so we can live without guilt. (That was said to us at some point this trip but I can’t remember by who).

The relationship between my college and the community it was in was not a positive one. We were middle to upper class white students who did not appreciate the working poor that supported our late night Wal-Mart runs, our deli stops after the bar, the town that we called “ours” for our four years spent there. A local professor last night who spoke to us said “It is great that you want to help and that you give cans of food, but if you really want to make a difference, say hello to the cashier”. It is this element of responsibility that I come back to - Of understanding who is around us in our community (our state, our country, our world) and then also acknowledging our connectedness to them. What will we do, as the foundations are crumbling?

Thursday, January 11, 2007


by Derrick McQueen

The night before we used all but the heelpiece of bread to stretch dinner for my Mom, my brother and I. We had officially run out of food and had nothing to eat. My mom had a great job at AT&T as a single mother but was left with all the debts, the car breaking down right before rent was due and two boys she wanted to protect from it all. It was one of the first times I remember my mom really crying and not being able to stop. When I asked her what was wrong she told me that my brother had just eaten the last bit of bread in the house. Even though we had lots of family in town, Mom was just so sick and tired of borrowing a dollar here, some bread or milk there. Just three to five dollars would have gotten us through the next couple of days but my mom was just beaten.

As she told me all of this, when I was thirteen, I remember feeling so helpless. All I knew was that I didn’t want my seven-year-old brother to see us like this. Mom agreed and apologized that I had to be a party to this. I told her it was okay. She showed me what she was holding in her hand. It wasn’t just the bread that was gone, she was holding a gnarled and twisted tube of toothpaste that had been slit open from the bottom. There was not one bit of toothpaste left in the tube. Mom had put it on my brother’s toothbrush so that he could brush his teeth. For her that was just the last straw. I started praying for our little family, Mom joined in and when we finished she felt much better.

Today in Logan, Ohio I had the opportunity to tour a Food Bank that had a full kitchen and a process to feed thousands. I was told that on distribution day people lined up starting at 4 am to get their box of food. The facility opens at 8 am. The line stretches down the half mile of driveway and for several miles down the road. But people get food and get fed. This is not a report about the facility, I just wanted people to know how incredibly powerful it is to know that people who need food get it. It’s simple I know but it means so much.

I will be a forty-two year old man in less than week. As I am writing this tears are streaming down my face. You see today I visited the Tri-County Community Action in Logan, Ohio that houses a Food Bank, Meals On Wheels and a Headstart program. It hit me hard just how grateful I am that people here have banded together to do their bit to end poverty by feeding the hungry. Tonight in Logan, Ohio there is a thirteen year old somewhere that doesn’t have to watch his mother cry, not for himself, but because his brother won’t eat. And he won’t have to carry that for the rest of his life. To me, that is a miracle. By the way, in the mail that day after Mom and I prayed and cried, a tube of sample toothpaste, or what I like to call hope, arrived in the mail. And things just seemed to get a little better. Hope came in the mail.

How Much

by Ben Sanders

Last night, after finishing a long day, we met a Presbyterian church in Athens, Ohio for dinner. Many of us were exhausted. We had not slept much the night before, we had been in cars all morning and much of the day, and we spent the day traveling around different locations in southern Ohio. We were hungry, sleepy and irritable. I had spent my afternoon, with a group of others from the trip, reflecting on the passage of my ancestors through the Underground Railroad. I had also reflected on the delicacy of life and the tragic pain of death while standing in a Quaker cemetery. I wanted to turn my mind off, eat my lasagna and sleep. Just as I began to turn my brain off for the evening we were challenged even further by a dynamic presentation from Dr. Rich Greenlee of Ohio University. Dr. Greenlee challenged us to challenge the perpetuation of ignorant, stereotypical viewpoints of poor people in rural areas. His presentation was a brilliant display of personal testimony and academic research.

But I was tired.

After Dr. Greenlee’s presentation we loaded up our caravan of vehicles and headed to Parkersburg, West Virginia where we would sleep for the night. As I drove I thought about how tired I was and how much work there was to be done. Poverty is an enormous complex issue, I was exhausted, and I thought to myself, “Can I really do anything to change the injustice that exists?”

The answer came to me through my exhaustion. Dr. Greenlee had made me think of things that I did not want to think of. One memory in particular stands out. I remembered being in first or second grade and having had my fingers frost-bitten during a long, cold walk to school. Public bus after public bus passed my mother and I, but we just walked. This was the middle of a Chicago winter, the temperature was about 15 degrees, this is before the freezing cold wind blows and sends the temperature easily below zero. We were both wearing very thin gloves that did little more than cover our hands. I told my mom my hands were cold, then I told her they hurt, she told me to keep walking. By the time I got to school my hands were so cold they felt like they were burning (strange I know, but I’ll never forget this feeling). At the school my mom and I went into a bathroom and I put my hands under some warm water and this only made my hands hurt more. As I cried from the pain my mom told me to keep quiet, she didn’t want anyone to hear me and find out about our long walk. Dr. Greenlee had been right when he talked about often not wanting to ask for help in the midst of poverty.

The answer to my question (Can I do anything to eliminate the injustice that exists?) was clear: I must do something! If only because this kind of poverty baffles me to the point of personal anger, I must do something! If only because I know that there are millions of people living in poverty that are, like my mother was, too proud speak up about their situations because they mistakenly feel they are in poverty alone, I must do something! If only because I know that there are still children in Chicago, and all over the world, that walk to school with frost-bitten hands as warm buses and cars drive by them, I must do something! If only because I was once left out in the cold and continue to live a school loan away from being back outside again, I must fight, with my whole life, to do something.

Interests Outside the Region

by Jan Rehmann

Central Appalachia was not “left behind” by the Industrial Revolution, explained Bruce Kuhre, sociology professor at the University of Athens, but rather made it possible. It was an “internal colony” providing it with the raw materials it needed. At the heels of the lumber barons came the mineral hunters mapping out the sites for coal mining, oil and gas. A colonial economy, characterized by absentee ownership, with 80% of the land and of the minerals belonging to “interests outside the region”. The hills gutted out, families living in trailers: People and nature devastated alike. The abandoned mines spill their poisonous acids into creeks, streams, and rivers. We can see and smell the foamy liquid exiting a mine cave, covering the stones with an artificially shiny white (like tooth paste ads), while the people still complain about their drinking water turning rusty or black.

Working Together to End Poverty

by Paul Chapman

On Sunday and Monday we have been confronted with a theological challenge -- inspiring and at the same time complex and disturbing.

The largest not-for-profit organization that seeks to address the issue of poverty in northern Appalachia is an evangelical Christian agency that receives a significant share of its funding from United States taxes, benefiting from the government’s faith-based charitable choice policy. (More than $750,000 out of a total budget of over $2 million comes from public grants.) The organization combines a program to teach the Christian faith with their program to improve the lives of children and families.

There is no question that the services that this agency provides are of significant value for many people who live very close to the edge of survival. It is clear that the Christian church is deeply embedded in the lives of the people of this community. The language of faith is familiar to them. They have been sustained by prayer and the promises of the gospel. They are not offended when the gospel is proclaimed by a service organization.

They provide many programs, including selling building materials for home restoration at reduced cost. The highly motivated members of the 20-person staff perform a significant service for the people of the community. The children especially benefit from various after-school programs, including tutoring and mentoring. The children that we met appeared self-confident and hopeful about their future.

We agree that it is wonderful that people can live their faith by providing essential services to people. We believe that Christian commitment demands that we live lives of justice, and this includes primarily working with poor people to end poverty.

So what’s the problem? Why are so many of us here uncomfortable with this particular program. It’s one thing to be motivated by faith in Christ; yet, for many of us a flag goes up when the delivery of service is combined with the proclamation of the lordship of Christ. Is conversion to Christianity the hidden agenda in the good work that is done? Is Appalachia seen as a “mission field” and the success of the program will be measured by a deeper commitment to religious life? Is poverty seen as an opportunity for mission? We’re disturbed that this organization’s policy is to hire only those who are Christians. Some of us are uncomfortable whenever the church becomes a cause of this agency would hesitate to hire homosexuals?
This program claims to be dealing with the root causes of poverty, yet we wonder if justice will really be done. It appears that the primary decision makers are the agency professionals and that up to this point the local residents have little leadership role in the organization. Our suspicions were aroused when they spent many hours telling us what they do without ever inquiring what we believe and what we do. Would they have been interested that our group includes several people of other faiths?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Community Mainstay

by Eva Gordon

For many years, if not centuries, the church has and still is one of the stable support systems that rural and urban communities have depended upon to fulfill their basic needs. Food pantries, child care, education, political leadership, and other needs, is what the church has and is doing for people that society and government has forgotten about. World Vision Appalachia in Philippi, West Virginia has built a community center in the middle of Chestnut Ridge. Chestnut Ridge is a low income community nestled in the wood hills of Philippi. The World Vision is a result of Rev. Ruston Seaman, pastor of People’s Chapel, who is the host church of the program. World Vision Appalachia provides after-school tutoring, provide home building materials and vocational training for young adults.

From my observation, Rev. Seaman has a vision for the people of Chestnut Ridge: to release the captives, free the oppressed and bring sight to the blind. The question is how does Rev. Seaman include the community of Chestnut Ridge in forming the vision of their community? One solution is to hire people from the community. Candy Adams, a native of Chestnut Ridge, has been volunteering at World Vision and will begin full-time work in the Time Bank on January 15. Time Banking is a bartering system, where folks can exchange free piano lessons for free gardening work. Candy partners with Chris Mullet, who is also a native West Virginian, but from an upper middle class community 40 miles from Chestnut Ridge. Chris and Candy are hired to interview people to see what gifts they can put into this social capital bank. Candy has known Rev. Seaman for 25 years and is willing to work with him and the organization.

Chris has only met with people that are not in Chestnut Ridge and this is where Candy comes in. Candy stated that in order to understand how World Vision operates, she decided to put her skepticism to the test and volunteer with them. As a full-time employee, she will now be able to see if the international organization of World Vision can fulfill its mission to help her people. Candy is able to speak with the folks of World Vision, as well as speak with the people of Chestnut Ridge. Not only is she able to speak with them, she lives among the people who World Vision wants to help. Candy’s goal is to get her people working at World Vision and not just as kitchen help or janitors, but as coordinators and other jobs of influence. Who are Candy’s people? Natives of the Appalachian Mountain region, where many outsiders have stripped them of their natural resources, such as coal and minerals, leaving the region to struggle with economic development. These people are not just poor, many natives are also of mixed heritage: European, African-American and Native American. Candy admits to having this mixed heritage. This means that they are not only poor but not pure white and/or European heritage. Candy feels that privilege belongs to pure white people, whom she calls the outsiders of the Appalachia.

Chris, who admits to being an outsider, envisioned himself in Appalachia many years ago. When he first got married, Chris told his wife to not be surprised if he does ministry work in Appalachia. That was many years ago and he moved to Philippi about two months ago to work with World Vision, after being a pastor in Baptist churches for 18 years. Chris said that his goal is to have Candy eventually coordinate all of Barbour County, which includes Chestnut Ridge, so he could do the Time Bank for Braxton County, a neighboring county of Barbour.

I know I’ve said many facts about Candy and Chris. My take on Chris and Candy is the coming together of the have and have nots, trying to find their common ground, in order to reach the have nots. There are many religious organizations or individuals who use the name of Jesus to abuse and rob the forgotten. However, there are some organizations that do try to use the name of Jesus to work with the forgotten and neglected. I do believe that World Vision is one of them. Chris said that many social agencies focus on people’s deficiencies, but Time Bank focuses on people’s assets. If more organizations would focus on what each person can provide for their community, we might see a change in how church and community work is done.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007


by Colleen Wessel-McCoy

Today (Monday, Jan. 8) some of us visited the Philippi, WV Head Start, where the students sang for us in English and German.

We ended tonight in song, led by John Wessel-McCoy and Derrick McQueen.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Emanuel - God Is With Us

by Charon Hribar

The questions that I heard echoed several times today were – Where is God? and Where do we look for God?

The “answer” that then followed on this Three Kings Sunday was – Emanuel, God is with us. God is in our lives, in the midst of all that we are.

This was the spirit that I sensed emanating from the people whom I met today. From the sermons given by the pastors, to the friendly greetings of welcome we received from local parishioners, to the responses of Cody, a 10 year old boy from Chestnut Ridge whom I interviewed at the World Vision Community Center, God’s presence was real in the lives of the people.

But what does this mean for these people – what does it mean to say that God’s presence is real? What responsibilities were made known in their understanding of God? In Cody’s words, it’s about making the world a better place.

The people that we met in Barbour County today voiced the importance of community living. Pastor Ruston and others expressed the power of being in community and building genuine solidarity with one another in that community. He more specifically spoke to the need for people like us – social workers, ministers, and community leaders – remembering that the experience of living community should be much more a sharing relationship than a serving relationship. What was meant by this is that to work in community we must not come thinking we are here just to help “others,” but rather we must see the need to become a community and to learn that we are helping one another. We must work to build relationships and recognize that we too are getting something back from these relationships. It is about humbling ourselves to move beyond the arrogance of charity and to embrace the possibility of sharing our lives with a community and being changed ourselves.

My question for the day is – what would the world look like if we could learn to really be with one another? How can we begin to engage, listen, and share with one another? How do we move beyond our own assumptions, our own prejudice, our own fears, and our own self-preoccupation to truly be in community? It is in building such community that I believe we will come to understand the spirit of the people whom we met today – to see the presence of God in our relationships, to see God where God is – in the midst of our daily lives, in all that we are.

Country Living

by Tallu Schuyler

Saturday, January 7, 2007

Jessica told us this morning that we would be going to a country church called People’s Church here in Phillipi, West Virginia. I couldn’t wait for the wooden floors, the guitar music and the simplicity of the place. After arriving, I walked in to a newly renovated building to see lyrics of contemporary music projected onto a screen through power point. As the church band sang through the microphones, I noticed some of the walls were lined with Tyvek sheeting and many of the children wore T-shirts bearing the names of familiar television characters and state schools. This is a country church?

Country today is not what country was, but what ever was country anyway? What has been sold to me as perfectly country? I subscribe to a Condé Nast magazine called Country Living. The glossy publication offers me page after page of quaint interiors filled with antique fabrics and worn wooden furniture. It presents readers with photographs of empty, rolling land and lakes and rivers and running water that looks so easy to access. This is what I expect of country.

But having lived in rural East Tennessee, I know country is also crystal methamphetamine and Walmarts, poorly-funded public education and suburban sprawl, 4-lane highways that lead to the mall, struggling farms and unemployment.

People with money have stolen the word country, packaged it up and sold it to people like me, another person with money, who wants to look at pretty pictures. I also want to believe that somewhere life still exists untouched from the damaging effects of globalism, capitalism, and environmental degradation.

But on this second day of our trip, facing the realities of these mountains and talking with the people who live here, I realize the effects of such evils are impossible to escape.

Anyway, what is country living?

Day 3 - Philippi, WV

by Selene Kaye

Yesterday we were welcomed by a community into their church to be with them as they worshipped. Members of the People’s Chapel in Chestnut Ridge, WV made room in their small church for our group of 45 to join them and made time for each of us to introduce ourselves to them. I cannot imagine a greater gesture of warmth and hospitality than including us in such an intimate part of their lives and of their community. Especially because I didn’t grow up going to church, it was amazing to me to be welcomed with such open arms into something so unfamiliar to me. People I’d never met treated me like a good friend, smiled and shook my hand with no trace of suspicion about who I am or why I was there. And although I do not believe the same things as they do, I found so much in the service to relate to: thinking about what our role in life is, taking responsibility for our own paths, dealing with anxiety, and focusing on the journey rather than on achieving success. I seek answers to these questions in different ways, but I felt a connection simply in the fact that we are all asking them, and I felt admiration for the openness with which they seek answers.

We don’t all agree on the answers, or the process by which they should be determined, and there is inevitably discomfort in being confronted by traditions and beliefs different from our own. We are feeling many things three days into our journey: excitement, curiosity, confusion, overwhelm, connection, inspiration, exhaustion. But it is in the discomfort that we will be challenged to question our own beliefs and assumptions, and to grow and do the learning that we are here to do.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

World Vision

by Colleen Wessel-McCoy

Over lunch today we had one-on-one conversations with World Vision youth at the World Vision Community Center in Chestnut Ridge, WV.

Big Changes Will Come

by Stefanie Schoen

Against all expectations I really enjoyed the “charismatic” service in the small country church on the hills. I even liked the songs so much that I wanted to ask for the texts. The singer introduced herself as Renata. “I heard that my name is German, isn’t it?” She asked, after she learned were I was from. “Oh yes, it is common there but it’s actually latin”, I said, “it’s such a beautiful name. Do you know what it means?” “ What?” “It means ‘reborn’.” She started to smile, her eyes were shiny: “Really? I felt this way since I was a child. I was the only one of 8 eight brothers and sisters who knew the LORD. I used to play with him when I was a small child. And you know what? I know that big changes will take place here in this region. It will be such a big change that the world will learn to know about it. If we listen to what god wants us to do, we will know what our role will be” she said, her eyes filled with passion.

Sunday January 7, 2007

by Ellie Martin Cliffe

Today’s unseasonable West Virginia weather has been a good representation of my thoughts during these waking hours. My outlook was hopeful as I watched the sun rise over the hills, my first ever glimpse of the state of West Virginia in daylight. The rain started as the day drew on and we heard multitudes of stories about the joys and struggles of the people who live here. As the grass turned into fields of mud, my thoughts about our purpose for being here have changed and mixed with my reactions to what I’ve heard and seen in conversations with the people of Philippi. My preconceptions have all been proven wrong, and I’m thankful for that, but the complexity of all of this is much deeper than I could ever have expected.

With What Eyes Do I See?

by Paul Chapman

During Friday’s orientation for our trip, we heard two sharply contrasting descriptions of a New York City men’s shelter. William, Darren and Rogers, three members of Picture the Homeless, described their life in the shelter – the rules, the regimentation, the foul smell, the chain link fence, the ubiquitous police, the strict regimentation, and the difficulty of getting to the shelter that requires a $4.00 bus ride, round trip. We were later given a guided tour of the same shelter by a gracious employee who showed us the facilities and described the caring work of the case workers, the recreation and art programs, the good food, the effort to find permanent housing and so forth.

Each of these people was speaking the truth and describing what they have experienced. So who shall we believe, since both sides have their truth? Presumably what we see in Appalachia will depend upon our experience and our expectations. We may be expecting to find the poverty by which Appalachia is known, but is this the poverty defined by the text books or by the people who live it; and what does poverty mean to them? Will we have the sensitivity to understand the situation through the eyes of those who live in Appalachia – who love the land, the music, the support of family and community and religion? Will we hear of their aspirations for better health care and education and infrastructure on their terms without imposing our own solutions?

The Nikki Giovanni poem that we read together, “Nikki-Rosa,” likewise recognizes that ones’ situation influences:

I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me

because they never understand that love is Black wealth and


talk about my hard childhood and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy.”

Is not the goal of this trip is to enable us to see from the perspective of those who are marginalized, those that the world sees last and counts least?

Friday, January 5, 2007

Our Mission

What are religious leaders and other people of conscience to do in the face of growing poverty, homelessness, and misery? Over the next eight days faculty and students from Union Theological Seminary and the Columbia University School of Social Work, media activists, and grassroots leaders will explore the reality of poverty in Appalachia and across the United States. Together they will build relationships and learn practical tools to overcome and eliminate poverty.

A hands-on and experience-based project, the Poverty Immersion Experience will include dialogue with leaders of local and national poor people’s organizations and local congregations engaged in mission work, human rights trainings and documentation in poor communities, Bible studies, video-showings, and poverty reality tours.