The Hope of Appalachia

Last night I finished a novel by Silas House called Clay’s Quilt. It’s a book set in Appalachian East Kentucky in the 70’s and 80’s, detailing the life of a young man named Clay. A life of tragedy, of adventure, of heartbreak, of love. Only a true man of the mountains could have written that story…the imagery, the characters, the language. I felt like I knew everyone on Free Creek, KY, personally….and indeed I did, growing up with them myself…the Pentecostal Holiness folks, the coal miners, the quilters, the cooks, the family sages….I knew them well. They said things only people from the mountains say, like when Clay’s Aunt Sophie who attended the Pentecostal Holiness Church talked about how she would still smoke a cigarette before anybody got out of bed “of the morning.” Or, how the plural for years had no “s” at the end or the word, the world “told” ended with an “e,” not a “d,” and “haven’t” became “hain’t” (not to be confused with “haint” which was a ghost). I felt like I was sitting in the house at my Paw and Maw’s house In Simpson Branch or at my own house in Drift Holler when Granny came to visit, always a pot of coffee to drink, always cigarette smoke filling the air, looking out over the holler, watching the mist rise from the mountains.

Well, it sounds almost poetic when I say it like that….life in Drift, KY, was hardly what I would call “poetic” most of the time. House’s novel reminded me that Appalachian East Kentucky is a place of wonder, community, and loyalty….all with beautiful scenery and majesty to boot. But, it is also a very complicated place with deep-rooted problems and issues:  alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, and more I will refrain from listing. And, I believe every person that is born and raised there can sense the emotions brought on by every issue, whether it be shame or pride, down to the core of their very being, no matter if the conflict is religious or political, vocational or educational.

In reality, there isn’t a culture on the planet that isn’t riddled with issues and conflicts. I only speak of Appalachia’s struggles because I’m well aware of them personally. But, I know that wherever humans attempt to come together in community, there is no end of conflict.  Conflict is not necessarily bad and is in all accounts necessary.  But, there should be an end result; a resolution to it all.  And, the conflict about which I speak has no resolution.

Many would say that humanity’s problems stem from ignorance. If this were true, the answer would be more education, more information. And, while I don’t doubt the need for education, it is most certainly not the cure. I say this after seeing educated people that are so open-minded that they are intolerant of close-minded people (which produces conflict), as well as closed-minded people come out on the other side of an educational process more closed-minded than when they started (which perpetuates conflict). And, in our “Information Age,” I think we’ve found that more information just leaves us looking for more…no end in sight of people’s ideas or opinions, and no real answer.

Some would prescribe for every individual a process where they “find” themselves. And, while we all have to engage in self-discovery, it isn’t in and of itself the solution to what ails us as a culture.  The call towards self-discovery has the propensity to produce as many bigots and prejudiced individuals as it does accepting and open-minded individuals. Depends on our filters we use to process life, and we have a ton of them: Democrat, Republican, Independent; Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Jew, Muslim; Doctorate, Masters, Bachelors, High School Diploma, GED, Dropout.

I see one cure for humanity’s conflicts, and it’s the same for the hollers and the cities; the suburbs and the rural zip codes. It’s the revelation that…well…we CAN’T fix our troubles because the real root of our troubles is sin. It has brought chaos to the order that God designed culture to have. It was only when humanity traded God’s rule for self-rule that our conflicts began. And, it’s in our trying to fix those conflicts apart from God’s rule…our continuing to try self-rule….that the problems perpetuate and remain. It’s only in the Good News of the Gospel that we find out how hopeless and sinful we are, but how Someone…Jesus….came to set aright what had been distorted, offering the way back to God’s rule. Only in losing self-rule and submitting ourselves to God’s rule and then to one another as servants, brothers, and sisters can we truly see the changes in our communities, our societies, even culture.  And, we aren’t able to effect that change in us…it requires a new heart, a rebirth that only comes from the Creator of the heart in the first place.

Reading House’s novel has reminded me to pray for Appalachia, that they…we….might receive the Gospel; that God would send laborers there to declare the Good News; and that true change free from strife, prejudice, and economic depression will come to a beautiful land full of beautiful, amazing people. That is the hope of Appalachia….’pon my word and honor :).

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