Posts

If You Want to Know More About Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Anna Pinckney Straight

What I found in curating this series of blog posts is more questions than answers. I still don’t know how to solve food distribution issues.

And I’m convicted by knowing that West Virginia not only has the highest rate of transgender teenagers of any state in the nation, but also higher than average suicide rates. There is work to be done.

So, if you’d like to know more, here are some places to start:

Elizabeth Catte’s What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia is my #1 recommendation. Written, in part, to respond and rebut J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, this is a good read for people who are new to Appalachia and those who have grown up here.

(Pro tip: if you like Hillbilly Elegy you’re probably not from Appalachia. If you’d like to know more about why it is NOT a book about Appalachia and why so many people dislike it, please get in touch and I would be happy to be in conversation with you).

In her text, Catte challenges stereotypes:

There are currently around 36,000 miners in the entire region. The real forgotten working-class citizens of Appalachia, much like the rest of the nation, are home health workers and Dollar General employees. They’re more likely to be women, and their exemption from the stability offered by middle-class employment is not a recent phenomenon.

She points out the folly of the word “Appalachia”:

…people woefully overuse the term “Appalachian culture.” This is particularly true in our current moment that fetishizes the presumed homogeneity and cohesiveness of the region and uses these characteristics to explain complex political and social realities. Appalachian scholars and activists often prefer to stress our interconnectedness to other regions and peoples rather than set ourselves apart as exceptions. Individuals in Appalachia, for example, offered support and solidarity to communities in Flint and Standing Rock, understanding that the struggle for clean water is local, but also national and global.

And, maybe best of all, she writes with hope:

How does life go on in “Trump Country” for those of us who never lived in “Trump Country” to begin with? It goes on much the same as it always did. For me, I will try to build power with likeminded individuals and challenge the institutions that harm us. I won’t do that by reaching across political divides that are far more complicated here than you can image. I’ll do it by exercising the basic principles of mutual aid and community defense. The people of Appalachia have never needed empathy; what we need is solidarity, real and true, which comes from understanding that the harm done to me is connected to the harm done to you.

If you’d like a broader look at the region through the eyes of economic history and critique, Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia may well be your cup of tea. In this text Stoll painstakingly goes through the history of this region through the lens of the land and the economy – who has the land, when they have it, who is kicked out of the land, and who makes money from its resources. His approach is both local and global with consideration for how the earliest American settlers found a land that was not empty but very much inhabited.

 

 

 

I’m still waiting on my copy through inter-library loan, but everything I’ve found that’s written by Edward J. Cabbell is well worth the read. There is a perception that Appalachia is very white. That’s not false, but it’s also not true. This is the classic text, I’m hoping it leads me to more modern insights.

If you’d like to hear Cabbell you can hear him talk and sing here.

Another such text is Affrilachia: Poems by Frank X Walker.

There are also powerful testimonies found in fiction rooted in Appalachia:

Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake

And for a great website with powerful stories: http://herappalachia.com/

Thanks for reading this month-  I hope that you will ask your questions as well as share your suggestions and observations in the comments!


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

What is West Virginia for Me?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Anna Pinckney Straight

What is West Virginia (and Appalachia) for me?

It’s people. Amazing people.

Even though those people can be a bit stubborn. They’ve had to be stubborn, to survive. Like a flower blooming at the side of a rock when it’s not yet spring and it’s not supposed to be blooming.

People who know how to feed themselves and know how to feed their neighbors.

(If you don’t know about pepperoni rolls, you can read about them here.  And yes. I have opinions.  If I can’t get my mother-in-law’s, I want Tomaro’s. Stick. No cheese. No discussion.)

Beauty. God’s country.

It’s also a place defined as much by its shadows as by the places where the sun shines.

For so much has been taken from this place, to make other places and other people wealthy and comfortable.

Coal. Gas. Our children and youth who have to leave to find better education or good jobs. So much, still going away.

Am I going away or moving in

To this place where I’m still searching for the ways in which it is

Imperative Observations from a Native West Virginian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Bonnie Thurston

Yes, I am a product of the southern West Virginia coal fields. No, I am not barefooted. Yes, I can read. West Virginia public schools prepared me better for college than did my classmates’ elite, private schools. No, I didn’t attend a ranting, snake-handling church. I received robust religious education at a small, main-line church. Yes, after graduate school, I’ve chosen to live most of my adult life in West Virginia. No, I’m not ashamed of being Appalachian. (It rhymes with “catch.”) I am from a distinct culture, distinct as that of African Masai or Highland Scots. I cut breaks for people who aren’t blessed to be from West Virginia where coal is not only a job, but a culture. I don’t doubt climate change science, but I’m waiting for a pundit to “get it” about coal and culture.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

Having been asked, I offer five personal opinions on southern mountain cultural identity. First: mountain people don’t often venture opinions unless asked, but then respond with blunt honesty, often in colorful Anglo-Saxon. Consider yourself warned.

Two: Don’t come to “do good” to us. We’re not a “missionary project,” but fellow Christians. If you come, don’t make fun of how we talk or what we eat or wear.

Three: Don’t rush in with suggestions and projects. Wait. Watch. Listen. Partly for historical reasons we’re not “backward,” but reserved, sociologically “Appalachian isolates.” History’s taught us to be suspicious of incomers; many came to exploit us, our resources, and our land.

Four: Well-intentioned folks, like pastors and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, came, but few stayed. We watched their tail lights snake down our mountains, out our hollers. So we’re slow to trust. Outsiders have broken our hearts so often.

Five: most importantly, we are shaped by this landscape. Its rough grandeur made us self-sufficient and self-effacing. Going to the woods is going to church. We look at these undulating, old mountains, listen to water singing in rocky streams, and know creation is bigger and wiser than we are. Even the crustiest old mountaineer tears up about our land.

Get to know us. Listen to NPRs “Inside Appalachia.” Read what we write about ourselves — writers like Wiley Cash; Denise Giardina; Ron Rash; Cynthia Rylant; Lee Smith; West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman; Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom; Ron Rash’s Among the Believers; Homer Hickam’s memoir; the 1975 Roman Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter “this land is home to me;” and The Telling Takes Us Home, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s 2015 “people’s pastoral.” This land is home to us. Pray, think kindly of us. Come here as to the home of hospitable, if peculiar, people.

Conveyors

I come home late by the back road
ruined and resurfaced by coal
which took the modest mountain homes
to install immense conveyors
to roll the stuff to the river
where barges carry it away.
The long belts slither through our hills,
their lights like malevolent pearls
strung to strangle friendly darkness.
Tonight the moon is nearly full,
draped mysteriously in mist,
eclipsed by the shining serpent.
Like Cleopatra’s little asp
they strike the breast of the mountains,
bring some relief and others death.

Quince

The new people have cut down
the old fashioned, messy quince,
its lumpy, misshapen fruit
squashy on the ground,
drawing bees that sweetened
long ago lives here, lives
now planted under old cedars
in the gone-wild cemetery.
Those folks aren’t from here,
don’t know bottled quince,
edible sunshine in long winters,
saved our kids from scurvy,
don’t know they’re kin to roses,
don’t know much and don’t ask.
They excavated the spring house,
but the spring now bubbles outside
its carefully fitted stone walls.
They can cut the trees down.
Other things don’t tame so easily.

Hope

It’s already mid April.
The first sign of spring,
pink tips on the Redbud
have just shown themselves.
It’s been a long winter:
snow, sub-zero temperatures,
flooding, and more snow,
more mines closed,
more farms destroyed,
more folks died from drugs,
more kids moved away
from home, kith, kin.
It’s like the future’s
up and died, except that
the Redbud’s blossomed,
sign that resurrection
comes to the mountains.

Country Roads Take Us Home

There is nothing much
hot or hurried about
our shaded lanes.
Ours is not a place
of super highways,
but twisted back roads,
lane and a half at best,
a place that teaches
the necessity of yielding,
the grace of giving way,
in part by narrowness,
in part by the obscurity
of noon green darkness
in forested valleys
and hair pin turns
hiding what comes next.
We cussed coal trucks,
but now there is
sad lonesomeness
in the winding emptiness,
the legacy of pot holes,
brokenness they left behind.
Still, travelling here
reveals the harsh beauty
of sparsely peopled places,
the proud integrity
of folks who stay on
knowing that somehow
origin is destination,
that the road makes us
what we become,
and, however circuitously,
will take us home.

“Conveyers” and “Country Roads” appear in Bonnie Thurston’s A Place to Pay Attention (Cinnamon Press, 2014) and are used with the kind permission of the editor. (www.cinnamonpress.com)


Formerly a university and seminary professor, Bonnie Thurston lives quietly near Wheeling, WV. Author or editor of 21 books on scripture and spirituality, she is a poet with six published collections, an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a Licensed Lay Preacher and Worship leader in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

Ties That Can’t Be Severed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Greg Bolt

“And thus it is with those nurtured in Appalachia — they leave, but they look back, remembering pleasant things. The land has claimed them, and its ties will not be severed.”

— Maurice Brooks from “The Appalachians”

I heard this quote as I sat in the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, WV for my little sister’s graduation from West Virginia University. The same venue where, a few years earlier, I had attended my own graduation from graduate school. It spoke to me then; it speaks to me now. In that time, I had already moved away from West Virginia, moved back, and was in seminary where I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be coming back.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s odd to me that Appalachia, and West Virginia specifically, has such a tug on my life. My parents moved there when I was in college, but when people ask me where I’m from I say — without hesitation — West Virginia. (I even sing the WVU fight song to my kids every night at bedtime.) I love that place so much that I get emotional just thinking about it. Part of that, I think, is the realization that I will most likely never live their again.

My wife and I are both teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church, we are both bi-vocational, we have two young kids, and it doesn’t feel like we can make a life in West Virginia. Nor would we seek a life somewhere else in Appalachia. Finding a church or churches that could support us and/or another job to support the work of the church seems too burdensome at this point. There are a lot of reasons that West Virginia doesn’t feel like a possibility (not the least of which is we don’t feel called there): economic, cultural, political, professional. I think any one of those reasons could be overcome but, when they are all working against you, it’s difficult. Sometimes the beautiful, close knit, tight hollows can feel like a warm hug welcoming you home to the place that you belong (to borrow a phrase from John Denver) but eventually they get to feel like a vise that constricts forward movement, that chokes off innovation, that stifles creativity.

The major problem with that is I know it isn’t true. Some of the most fantastic, innovative, creative people I know are from West Virginia. I also know a lot of people who have left for the same reasons. My family lives in West Virginia and has made a home there. I would love to live closer to my parents so that they could be in the same physical space as their grandkids more often. I’d love to walk through the woods at Bluestone Camp and Retreat, where my first professional ministry began. I’d love to call it my home again. Though that doesn’t seem likely now, I know that I have been claimed by the land and its people and those ties will never be broken.


Greg Bolt is the co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing in Red Wing, Minnesota. Greg is originally from the Southeast and attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Greg immediately enrolled in West Virginia University to study Athletic Coaching Education, where he received his Master of Science in Physical Education. After some trial and error, he entered seminary at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA where he met his wife Heidi and completed his Master of Divinity.

Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for http://hillbillymovie.com/, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.