Last month I was invited to preach at the First Presbyterian Church of Hinton and present at a community-wide meeting sponsored by the Hinton Area Community Foundation.
Friends who knew where I was headed commented that I was going straight into Trump country. "That's Trump country, you know!" a number remarked. "Will you be safe? Why are you doing that?" I've already grown accustomed to the never-ending indictment of any person, any county, and any state that voted for Trump.
I've known this part of West Virginia for half my life. I'd first come to Hinton and Athens, WV in the mid 1980's to launch a community service program at Concord College. I later returned to write a federal grant to keep it going. When the Bonner Foundation launched its expansion of the Bonner Scholars Program at Berea College, Concord was the first college I called. Through a series of fundraisers, the match was raised that secured a five-million-dollar endowment. That endowment continues to support eighty students each year.
Over the past two decades, I've made the drive more than fifty times. It's five hundred miles, eleven turns, two gas stops, and somewhere between nine and eleven hours of road time.
I thought this drive would be the same as the others But as I drove along, something happened. I began to see the Trump signs. I saw "Lock her up" painted on the side of barn walls.
I remembered anti-Obama signs that I'd seen in recent years: "Stop the War on Coal, Fire Obama," "President Obama is not my President" over a red outline of West Virginia, and "Obama, your change destroyed our hope."
I remembered the story of the Clay County employee who celebrated Trump's election by writing on Facebook "It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I'm tired of seeing an ape in heels." I remembered that the mayor of the town Clay had responded publicly to that post by writing, "You just made my day."
I had become increasingly anxious and was somewhat fearful as I turned off the interstate onto route 20 near Sandstone Visitor Center and began to descend the winding road. It was dark.
After about ten miles, the road levels and then runs parallel to the New River. I drove through Hinton without seeing anyone on the street. After crossing the river, I did what I've done every time I've come this way for the past quarter century - I stopped at the Hinton Dairy Queen, a place Noah Adams describes in his book Far Appalachia as "the center of the universe." Banana splits were two for one and, for a moment, I forgot my fifty eight-year-old self and thought I could tackle two. I settled for a dipped cone.
In this familiar place, I forgot my fear. I recognized the accent of the young woman behind the counter and of the people who were ordering. I saw several customers wearing Concord University sweatshirts and hats. I owned the clothing, too, having served on the school's Board of Trustees.
Things began to feel different. They began to feel right again. I still had twelve miles still to go before I'd pass the entrance to Pipestem, a stunning piece of land that was turned into a state park by President John Kennedy in gratitude for what West Virginia had done in signaling to the rest of country that a Roman Catholic could and should be president.
After DQ, I arrived at Jerry's house, a man whose life and family has impacted who I am in the world. We immediately began talking about education rates, job statistics, the Camp on the New River, declining rates of college enrollment and falling retention rates, the devastation of the floods, the arrival of a new Untied Methodist pastor down the road, and the challenges facing the pastoral nominating committees in other congregations.
From the time I bit into my chocolate-dipped soft serve cone, until the time I fell asleep, I'd felt at home. I was back in a community where I invested my best self. It was a place that had adopted me
Over the following two days, I met with community members, students, business leaders, politicians, parishioners, clergy, educator and more. I met young people who've moved to the area to make a difference, and older people determined to make things better.
On Sunday, we gathered to worship and then broke bread for lunch in the church basement. We gathered the following day and talked more about the strengths and challenges, the hopes and the pains of the community. The challenges we discussed in our town meeting were similar to the ones I have heard throughout the country: opioid addiction, incarceration, public education, unemployment and the reality of grandparents raising their grandchildren.
Later that night I got back on Route 20 heading north, it occurred to me: I wasn't in Trump Country. I was in West Virginia, home of
- Mother Jones, the labor and community organizer
- Jerry West, whose silhouette is outlined on the NBA logo
- Homer Hickam, the author ofRocket Boysand hero of the movieOctober Sky
- Cleo Mathews, the former Mayor of Hinton whose daughter, Stephanie, leads theInternational Women's Forumand other daughter, Sylvia, served as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
- Bob Henry Baber, Mayor of Richwood and former candidate for governor with the Mountain party, whose town was recently ravaged by flooding.
- Kathy Ball, who for nearly twenty years has led the Bonner Scholars program and the 500+ students that have served and graduated
- James Ellison, the former head of the Laughlin Chapel in Wheeling who fought for legislation to feed kids during the summer
- A people who led a revolt against coal mine operators on Blair Mountain in a fight for worker's rights to unionize
- A community that spilt Virginia in half to reject the institution of slavery
Yes, most of West Virginia voted for Trump. But the people there are more than who they voted for. What I realized was that I was part of vilifying an entire group people without understating that it was destroying myself.
Repairing the Breach
When I preached that Sunday at the Presbyterian Church, the Methodists came from across the street for a combined worship. As we were together the thought came to "Revive the church, heal the land." It is what Nehemiah and Ezra were charged to do when rebuilding Jerusalem. It is what we are called to do today
The church, the very institution so many people feel caused this great political divide in the country, is the place that is called to bring us back together. The radical message of the gospel to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly offers the prescription for healing and reconciling. Church can give us the space, the setting, the relationships, the trust and the hope that we can repair the breach.
And that is what is happening in Hinton, WV. They not only invited me back to spend the month of July preaching, but also invited seminarians and other young people from across the country to come to their community. Some of the projects that were identified include:
- improving housing for disabled seniors;
- expanding Energy Express, a summer reading and nutrition program for children;
- assisting with the development of an assisted living community for seniors;
- developing neighborhood-based tutoring for improving academic achievement in early childhood; developing activities for middle school children that complement school work including recreation in the schools, scouting, 4-H, etc.;
- developing strategies for using the connectional church organizations to help struggling families.
All they ask is that we bring our best selves, to aid in addressing the many social challenges facing this and all communities, and to enjoy the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, the New River Gorge, the Dairy Queen, and the people.