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.


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.


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.


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. (

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.

Accepting the Invitation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Glen Bell

During January, six servant leaders gathered in Sarasota, Florida, to begin to write a statement of faith. Katie Baker, Chris Currie, Brandon Frick, Bertram Johnson, Cindy Rigby, and Layton Williams came together to explore and proclaim what our Christian faith demands to in this moment of national difficult and discord. Jessica Tate, Robert Hay, and I hosted the gathering.

Did we all know one another? No.

Were we similar theologically, politically, personally? No.

Was travel easy? No.

Was the goal a bit daunting? Yes.

The process was filled with the yin and yang of dynamic discussion, replete with push and tug. There was a moment or two when some of us suspected we may not be able to finish. But it turned out to be a joyful, transformative experience of God-given connection with one another.

We have become convinced that stating our faith is NOT a task only for carefully-selected groups, empowered by a General Assembly. We believe that Presbyterians and Christians both within and across congregations are called to gather to discern and state God’s call for us.

We must proclaim our faith, not only in the familiar words we have received, but in our word  for our time.

There is something special about the Sarasota Statement – and also nothing special about it at all. It represents the heartfelt poetry and prose of six faithful servants, determined to answer God’s call. But most importantly perhaps, it points beyond itself, inviting and challenging all of us to do the same, in our place, in our time, right here and now.

Will we accept the invitation? A gathering of youth or adults in a congregation might study the Presbyterian confessions and then craft their own statement of faith. Three neighboring congregations could come together one evening to name and confess the most pertinent parts of our Christian tradition.

May God give us the strength and determination to reflect on our faith and to name and claim it anew!

Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Workshop Materials: Verse & Vision

Workshop: Verse & Vision
Presenters: Nancy Arbuthnot & Gerry Hendershot

Attached you will find a revised handout from the “writing from Scripture” part of the Verse & Vision workshop with Nancy and Gerry.

Verse and Vision

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nancy Arbuthnot

“What do the ordinary things of daily life—water, salt, feet, clothes—have to do with spiritual existence?” This question came unbidden to me one day a few years ago while I was at a writers’ retreat in rural Virginia. I had just completed my poetry translation project, days ahead of schedule (no doubt helped by the hearty, delicious meals prepared for us each breakfast, lunch and dinner time; cozy writing studios nestled into the rolling hills; enforced quiet zones in the residence hall; and the lack of internet and cell phone coverage), and with no other writing projects in mind, I picked up my Bible, propped my feet in the doorway of the cabin, chose a random phrase and gazed out over the bucolic countryside.

So began the meditative poems collected in my book, Spirit Hovering, and my quest to share my spiritual explorations. Over the years, I have led many “Writing the Spirit” workshops with church groups and the homeless and other vulnerable populations. Recently, Gerry Hendershot, another poetry lover and spiritual seeker, teamed up with me to create “Verse and Vision,” an online and real-time program promoting creative uses of poetry in church life. We have posted our first online blogs and presented poetry workshops at our DC-area presbytery meetings and in our churches. In our NEXT Church workshop, we hope to spread the word about ways poetry can stir our spirits and connect us to our spiritual source!

Our workshop focus is two-fold: to read and discuss poems to use in liturgy and spiritual formation, and to write our own poetic meditations based on scripture. Gerry will share resources for using poetry in difficult discussions of life changes (death, divorce) and social justice issues (white privilege, gender identity). He will also introduce choral-speaking of poetry in worship. I will share poems from Spirit Hovering as examples of how to meditate on scripture with a pen. I will leave you with a short poem from my book, inspired by John 6:35: “I am the bread of life”:


Bread breathing through a thousand
small holes—

bread his father baked
mixing yeast, sugar, flour, water
letting the dough rise
punching it down
the sweet moist aroma
filling the apartment

May I have some? the boy asked
and his father slicing
the still-warm loaf
placed a piece in his hands

What was wanted, asked for
What was asked for, given

Verse and Vision will be offered during workshop block 1 on Monday of the National Gathering.

Nancy Arbuthnot, a teaching elder at Western Presbyterian Church in DC, is professor emerita of English at the United States Naval Academy. In addition to Spirit Hovering, her publications include the English versions of Vietnamese poems in Waves Beyond Waves by Le Pham Le and a chapbook of poems about growing up in a navy family.

gerry hendershot After Gerry Hendershot retired from a career in health research, he was led by the Spirit into poetry, learning from craft shops, listening to great poets read at festivals, and spending too much on poetry books. Along the way he began sharing his love of poetry in his faith community—the Church of the Pilgrims in DC, where he is a ruling elder.

Nancy and Gerry’s website is

Vulnerability Through Writing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Shelby Etheridge Harasty is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of her post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Shelby Etheridge Harasty

When I first graduated from seminary I was not looking to preach. Ever. It humbled me, challenged me, and frankly, terrified me to the point that I did not enjoy it. Thankfully, that has changed.

As an associate pastor I preach once a month, maybe twice if it’s a month that includes Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, or another mid-week liturgical event. When the head of staff at our church went on sabbatical over the summer, all that changed. As the acting head pastor I was preaching almost every week, and even when I wasn’t preaching I was still writing liturgy and studying the lectionary to craft the order of worship and work with guest preachers.

There’s something about preaching, about praying, studying, writing and saying your own words out loud that allow for moments of vulnerability that don’t happen much in “regular life.” While my knees still shook every time I walked to the pulpit, I felt the preciousness of sharing something I had written, something I had labored over, put my heart into with people who are both strangers and friends.

379812751_96ea577a0e_oNow that the head of staff is back from his sabbatical and I am back to my “regular” preaching schedule, I miss that weekly opportunity for vulnerability. As odd as it may sound, I treasure the that moment of fear and awe that overtakes me when I start to say that first word of the sermon.

Writing has been a great way for me to continue to challenge myself to be vulnerable. Even though I’m not preaching nearly as much, I can still write. I can still write every week, even every day when time allows. Pressing “send” on a blog post offers that same thrill of fear and awe and vulnerability as that preaching moment.

When I first started in ministry, I didn’t realize that I would find so much grace and strength in vulnerability. Brené Brown is at the forefront of this vulnerability revolution, and she talks about it in her newest book, Rising Strong. She says “Revolution might sound a little dramatic, but in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance. Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people—including yourself. One minute you’ll pray that the transformation stops, and the next minute you’ll pray that it never ends. You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time… brave, afraid, and very, very alive.” [1]

And that’s how I feel when I write, when I let words take life and flow from my fingertips. Brave, afraid, and very, very alive.


[1] Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY, 2015. page 254.

photo credit: 7/365 5.2.2007 (self): Notes on Takayuki’s workshop via photopin (license)

Shelby’s National Gathering Workshop: Practicing Vulnerability

What does the vulnerability of God teach us about faithful practice at the crossroads? We will combine theological and Biblical reflection with the insights of Brené Brown to develop models of Christian practice that display vulnerability and courage. The practical ways that vulnerability can influence pastoral leadership and congregational ministry will be explored. Finding courage to be vulnerable – as God is – can deepen the ways we lead our congregations and live our lives. Offered Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register here.

Shelby Etheridge HarastyShelby Etheridge Harasty has served as Associate Pastor at Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, since 2013. The recipient of the Presidential Leadership Award from Union Presbyterian Seminary, she is especially interested in the intersection of art, prayer, practice and justice. She blogs at Courage in the Cracks.


Offering Words

I have always been impressed by the liturgy written by my friend and colleague, Jenny McDevitt. Those who attended the NEXT National Conference in Dalls (2012) will remember the beautiful and inspiring words offered in corporate worship. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people” yet I asked Jenny if she would be willing to write a blog about her process of crafting such communal experiences. I am grateful for her response and pray you receive the following as an offering. (Andrew Taylor-Troutman)

by Jenny McDevitt

I am weeks late in submitting this blog entry, in part because I have been unsure of how to respond. “Tell us how you write liturgy,” the request came. And so I have tried to put words to my process. Words that are slightly more helpful than what feels like the actual truth: I stare a blank computer screen and wait for a miracle to happen.

offering of wordsOn the off-chance the above-mentioned technique is not helpful to you, here are some additional possibilities.

Hear it

Whatever your scripture(s) for the day may be, read those words out loud. Seriously, out loud. I almost always catch something differently when I hear myself say it. Listen to the cadence. Catch unusually lovely (or just unusual) phrases. Ask questions of what is happening or being said, and let those questions shape the prayers and responses.

Tell it

Tell a story with your liturgy. Talking about grace? Remind us of moments of grace that began with creation and have happened ever since. Preaching about forgiveness? Craft a prayer with seven instances of shortcoming and then invoke Jesus’ beautiful, challenging, devastating, breathtaking words of seventy times seven. Wind the stories of the Bible with the stories of our culture and the stories of our lives. All of them speak to our experience. Not sure where to start? “In the beginning…”

Say it

Liturgy is meant to be spoken, so say it as you write it. I rarely write more than a sentence or two before reading it out loud. If a sentence is too long, if you stumble over some structure — cut it and begin again. While a complex sentence may read beautifully on paper, in liturgy it must also be easy on the ears. And take advantage of things that are pleasing — alliteration, repetition, patterns, effective uses of pauses and silence.

Say it (part two)

Has it been a hard week? Has something happened in your congregation that has broken your collective heart? Are your people angry? Does the scripture passage make no sense whatsoever? Does it seem to ask too much of us? Don’t be afraid to speak the honest truth in the liturgy. There’s nothing particularly holy about having all the answers or having the best theological vocabulary. Giving voice to the thoughts and emotions and questions running through your head may invite others to engage in the same way. It can be a gift. Careful warning: don’t forget the Good News. When lament is called for, lament away. But even the psalmist, who is a champion lament-er, always ends with a word of hope, however fragile it may be. And if it is one of those days when death is everywhere, speak resurrection. Give voice to the promise over and over. Put that hope into the air, let it hoover around you, and let it hold you (and your people) tight.

Rephrase it

Some friends disagree with this practice, but I often rephrase God’s words or Jesus’ words. Not because they need an editor, but because we need to hear them in as many ways as possible. I have often summarized the overall point (as best I understand it, anyway), and put it in my own language, even going so far as to say, for instance, “And in response, Jesus simply says, ‘Knock it off.’” Never once has someone come to me, confused about whether or not the bible actually reports it that exact way.

Related note: it’s also very effective to occasionally lift up what Jesus doesn’t say. That can be just as helpful. Case in point:

God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are of perfect pedigree and rosy cheeks, you who have done no wrong and you whose hearts are entirely intact.” God doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who have it all together, you who have never said a hateful word and you who wake up every day with all the answers.” God does not say that. What God does say is, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” What God does say, over and over again, is, “Come to me, all you who are broken and battered, faulty and frail, disappointed and disappointing. Come to me. You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

Unpolish it

I’ve inferred this all along, but it’s still worth saying: write your liturgy carefully, prayerfully, and honestly . . . and then unpolish it. This means two things. First, be sure your liturgy doesn’t sound too smooth. Too certain. Too easy. Too much like “everyone here has it all together.” Because let’s be honest: that’s incredibly unattractive. Not to mention totally untrue. And second (remembering that these are my guidelines and not necessarily yours), occasionally depart from tried and true words of tradition, perhaps the fancy-pants, five-syllable, theological-dictionary language. Or, if you’re going to use those five-syllable words, use much easier words to explain those concepts. In other words, don’t get hung up on sounding professionally, profoundly pious. Just focus on sounding real. Remember, things that are too polished can be slippery and hard to hang on to.

Believe it

If you lead worship with the same intonation you use when you ask someone to pass the green beans, I’m not going to be convinced you have any idea what’s so good about the Good News. Does this mean crazy-cheesy-fake-happy all the time? No, thank you. Let your voice match the truth of your words, whether it’s sad, elated, lost, or grateful. You’re proclaiming the Gospel even through your liturgy. For heaven’s sake (and all of ours), say it like you mean it.

Here’s an example from Easter, since, as it turns out, I’m better at writing liturgy than writing about writing liturgy.

In the beginning of all days

In the very beginning

It was dark

And chaos hovered over the earth

And you, O God, spoke a word

And light crept in from the corners

And creation began to dance


In the beginning of this day

In the earliest morning hours

It was dark

And chaos hovered over the earth and in our hearts

And you, O God, spoke a word

And light crept in from an empty tomb

And creation began to dance


The word, in both cases, was life

Your word, in all cases, is life


He is risen

Christ is risen


And yet, God,

even as we rejoice and sing and celebrate

we realize for many, the shadows of life have not faded in the morning sun


So we pray your peace for those who laugh and sing

and for those who sit and weep


We pray your peace for those who chase Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies

and for those who chase broken dreams or unrealistic expectations


We pray your peace for those who place flowers on a cross this morning

and for those who stare at flowers from a hospital bed this afternoon


We pray your peace for those who believe in the power of the resurrection

and yet face another day without a loved one


Peace be with you, Jesus says

Peace be with you, Jesus promises

Look at me, he says

I know what it is to hurt


He entered our story so well, God

He entered our story and changed the world

That’s Easter

So help us enter his story

And change the world yet again

That would be Easter, too, wouldn’t it?


Help us to be a people whose very lives speak this truth:

death is not the last word

violence is not the last word

hate is not the last word

condemnation is not the last word

betrayal is not the last word

failure is not the last word

No: each of them are like rags left behind in a tomb,

and from that tomb,

you come.*


Speaking, showing, sharing life


Help us do the same, won’t you?

Help us be your tangible proof to the world

That would be no less an Easter miracle


Creation began in a dance, O God,

and you have made us to sparkle in the sun

So help us get there


Trusting you will, and placing our lives in the hands of Life Eternal,

we pray as he taught us, saying:

Our Father . . .


* Words in italics are borrowed, with gratitude, from Brian McLaren’s Prayer for Pastors. (When you stumble across good words, use them (with attribution at least in printed form). Good words are always worth repeating.

McDevittJenny has been serving alongside the people of Village Church since September of 2012. She loves the way the church cares for one another and for the community, giving great attention to any and all issues of the heart. She loves stories (listening and telling) and believes that questions are an essential part of faith. Originally from Michigan, Jenny is a graduate of Kenyon College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has served churches in Ann Arbor and Virginia Beach. She lives with her dog, Reilly, who is dedicated to chasing the squirrels of Prairie Village.