The power of place

Editor's note: A delegation from the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) traveled through Appalachia July 16-21 to develop relationships in support of the denomination’s emphasis on “Ministry with the Poor.” GBCS’s chief executive, the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, led the journey to sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Minoka Gunesekera, a Duke Divinity School student serving a summer internship with GBCS, was a member of the delegation. Learn more at Connecting with Appalachia.

Beautiful. Tragic. Complex. The Appalachian region is one of the most beautiful as well as the most complicated places I have ever been. The beauty of the mountains seems to shield the pain of its people when you first drive by. As someone who claims Appalachia as home, a recent fact-finding trip by a delegation from the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) played an interesting role in my summer as an intern with the agency.

Minoka Gunesekera

Gunesekera

When this summer internship with GBCS started, I wouldn’t have been able to predict that many of the most profound insights to my summer would have been found not in Washington, D.C., but within two hours of my house in Blacksburg, Va. The trip was about listening and learning.

Sometimes I want to detach myself from the history of racism, sexism and oppression in Appalachia, but as Christians those mucky moments are where we are called. Not allowing the world to forget Appalachia is where I saw this trip’s value.

3 themes

When we traveled over 1,500 miles to visit folks in the Central Appalachian region, three themes emerged: pride, place and story.

There is pride in the unique place callled Appalachia. I hope the pride we heard in people’s voices will translate into a new identity for many communities in Appalachia facing a post-coal reality. I was surprised to hear many of the community organizers and residents we met speak not about how coal is affecting their lives, but how coal had affected their lives.

Appalachia vista

Appalachia vista while traveling from Tennessee to Kentucky. (Photos by Minoka Gunesekera)

Many people were coming to the realization that coal wasn’t coming back, and that as a community they needed to do some soul searching to see what was on the other side of the mountain in the life of this region. Whether through the campaign for a “Just Transition in Kentucky” or “What’s Next West Virginia,” I observed communities rallying with both a sense of resilience and of skeptical optimism as to what could come next.

A deep sense of belonging exists, not necessarily to a culture, but to a place. This sense of attachment to a region really hit home for me. As a person who grew up in the “hyphen” of being from Sri Lanka and Southwest Virginia, I never fully related to just one culture. While I was on this trip I joked to a friend at home, “I’m fairly sure I’m one of the only sari-wearing, curry-eating, twang-speaking, country-music-loving, farm-land-admiring, Sri Lankan Americans you will ever meet.”

Identity wrapped in place

Instead of choosing just one cultural identity, I always found my identity wrapped in place, especially my hometown deep inside the Blue Ridge Mountains. When the people at Emory & Henry College’s Appalachian Center for Civic Life or the folks at Appalshop spoke fondly of place as their identity, I felt like they were speaking to my soul.

Red Bird Missionary Conference

Another unique aspect of Appalachia is the art of storytelling. Each person we met used story and narrative to tell us, the outsiders, what it’s like to be an insider. Whether it’s the story of living in a town whose population went from 30,000 to 3,000 or the stories of chaplains tending to coal miners, the art of storytelling is alive in Appalachia.

The people in this region of the United States are telling their story. A corporation or a reporter or any other kind of “outsider” wasn’t mining the story, but rather the residents themselves are taking back their own narrative. The men and women, young and old, that we spoke with are making strides to take back agency and power to tell the story of their lives and history.

I see the work of the Church and of GBCS as supporting the people of Appalachia in determining their future. We have the responsibility to be resources as well as listeners.

Learn the truth

I never want to steal from what I heard or saw, but I do feel compelled to point others to the way to learn the truth about the region. I would encourage learning not just about the coal controversies, or the natural gas fracking, but also about the people:

Emory & Henry Appalachian Center for Civic Life
  • Learn about Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and how it is building grassroots movements to enable people to grasp the future in their own hands.
  • Learn about the Woodland Trust and how it is working to preserve land for the future.
  • Learn about the West Virginia Council of Churches and its work to equip both clergy and laity to be resources for coal miners and their families in times of disaster.
  • Learn about the nuclear plant in Tennessee and how bombs are still being built on U.S. soil today.

Faith communities have been truth-tellers for as long as time. This is the time for faith communities in Appalachia to help with the grief surrounding loss of a past, but also to help tell stories of hope about the future of this marvelous region.

Give space to the story

It is the role of faith communities outside of Appalachia to listen as well. As the Church universal, we all need to start giving space for the story of Appalachia to be heard. As we flip a switch and turn on a light in any room in the United States today, we are in debt to Appalachia for its historic and ongoing role in providing power to other parts of the nation. We need to start paying off that debt by hearing the voice of a hopeful future from the people there.

I saw the sun rise over the mountains each new day as a mark of rebirth from the day before. I am ready to see the Church rise with these communities. I am ready for the Church to bring a new day of better advocacy and more opportunities for conversation about systemic justice to enable a rebirth of Appalachia.