The last time I heard today’s readings, the Ministerial Association in my little West Virginian town was sponsoring an interdenominational Lenten prayer service at the Old Regular Baptist church. The reflection was given by an elderly, plain-spoken Pentecostal preacher in a rumpled suit. I remember his low, slow drawl. “Wearin’ a sparkly gold cross ‘round yer neck doesn’t show folks yer Chris-chan. It shows ‘em ya like gold. It shows ‘em yer ‘bout the easy life…An’ that ain’t Chris-chanity.” He boldly went on: “Wer not jus’ s’poseta take up our cross an’ follow ‘im. If wer doin’ it right, we git r’self hung up on it, right thar next to ‘im.”Just about every aspect of rural Appalachian culture demonstrates that this message has sunken into the very bones of the people here. The majority give of themselves completely, some would say to a fault, and no less to strangers in need. And they do so in the midst of poverty, joblessness, depression, sickness, and addiction.
If they didn’t learn it from the Gospels, they learned it from the land to which they’re inextricably connected. The mountains exemplify this radical call to discipleship, too. Their bodies are crucified daily, spines crushed, veins poisoned, by the extractive industries of timber, coal, gas and oil—all for our benefit, to feed convenience to a nation.
Along with the rivers, generations of tears have flooded these ancient hills, enough to round them off as they are. Paradoxically, that’s precisely why it’s “Almost Heaven” here. The veil between life and death is thin. One has only to look out the window to see nature taking its course. When you don’t have gold to lose, you only have your life to give, so resurrection is always just around the corner.
Jeannie Kirkhope has run the Appalachian Catholic Worker Farm outside Spencer, West Virginia for more than 15 years, addressing poverty in the context of all creation, through education, contemplation, and outreach. She is also the co-coordinator of Catholic Committee of Appalachia, an almost 50-year-old grassroots network raising a prophetic voice of justice for the region and its people. Jeannie is a graduate of John Carroll University.