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, 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.