Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reflections from Appalachia: Part II

Or, From Charity to Justice

When thinking about the work that ASP is doing, I am proud that I was able to be a part of it. Given the opportunity, I would go again. I am sure that next year we will plan a similar trip, and hopefully even more young adults will participate than this year. It is good to be drawn out of your comfort zone and pushed into a different culture and socio-economic situation than the one you live in. Although the participants go to help the people of Appalachia, I believe that in many instances the ones serving learn more and are ministered to more than the ones being served. ASP helps teach youth, young adults, and adults who come to serve about the realities of life.

One of the frustrating things about ASP for me, however, is the challenge of moving beyond charity and towards justice. Fixing someone's trailer is nice and certainly makes her situation more comfortable, but it does little to solve the societal issues that make her as poor as she is. Don't get me wrong--the work that ASP is accomplishing is very important for the individuals whose lives they touch. However, even though a person's trailer may be warmer, safer, and drier, she is still poor and unemployed. It's similar to a soup kitchen--feeding the hungry is a wonderful thing to do. These people have an immediate need, which is to eat. However, they will just come back hungry again tomorrow unless you work to fix the bigger issue that is causing them to be hungry in the first place.

I don't claim to know everything about ASP's agenda in Appalachia, and as I have already stated, I do believe they are doing a wonderful ministry there. Some of the evenings we spent in Knox County were spent discussing the issues of poverty in the area, what we think about it, and what we think we could do about it. We were asked if we believed that the situation there is hopeless. We were taught about the history that brought poverty into that part of our country. We were taught about the rich heritage there. We were also taught the statistics--in some parts of Appalachia, including in Knox County where we were, unemployment can reach 20%. That means that 1 out of every 5 people is unemployed. At what point do we move beyond fixing people's homes and talking about the situation, and towards doing something to improve the root causes of the problem?

The manual that I received from ASP prior to going to Appalachia says on page 17 that "[ASP founder Tex Evans] created ASP not to solve the poverty issues in Appalachia but to change lives." I think there is something missing here. ASP does a wonderful job at building relationships and increasing the understanding of poverty in those who come to serve. ASP also does a fine job at changing individual families' lives by making their homes warmer, safer, and drier. But--what is happening to change the root cause of the problem?

I have to admit that I know full well that there are no easy answers. I believe we should be moving from charity (fixing peoples' trailers) and towards justice (solving the problem of poverty in Appalachia so that everyone's quality of life improves), but I do not know how to do that. Maybe if I had made my home in Appalachia in service to the local people, I might understand better how to do that. But, maybe not. I lived in Africa for two years in a place where most people support their families on less than $1.00 a day. After being there for two years, I still do not know what the solution is to their problems. I do have some ideas about how to help solve some of them. But, they have been made victims of governments and militias and so many other powers beyond their control. How do we go about changing history?

I do not believe that the situation in Appalachia is hopeless. But I also wonder what I can effectively do about it. Rollie Martinson, one of my professors in seminary once said to me (I'm paraphrasing here) that the size of the problem may be as big as a beach ball, and what you can do about it might be the size of a marble. But, at least you have done that much, and if everybody did a marble's worth, then many marbles would eventually fill the beach ball and eliminate the problem. Maybe that is what ASP is doing--slowly filling the beach ball with marbles, one run-down trailer at a time. In the process, they are educating people about the issues in Appalachia. Maybe one day that will lead to a solution. Maybe we are slowly moving that way now... so slowly, that I can not see it with my limited vision.

Historical, social, and economic factors in Appalachia have aligned themselves in a frustrating and seemingly endless cycle of poverty. We can not change the past. How do we move ahead into a future with hope?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Reflections from Appalachia: Part I

This is part one of at least two! Please stay tuned for the second piece. I will be on the road again this week, so I promise to write when I can!

I just spent a week in Knox County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachian Mountain coal country. I went with a group of adults and young adults from Trinity to serve with Appalachia Service Project, or ASP. ASP is an organization that helps make lower-income families' homes in Appalachia safer, warmer, and drier. You can visit their website at

There is a lot of poverty in the Appalachian region of the U.S. One of the things that struck me during my time in Knox County was that we as affluent Americans always seem to think of poverty as an inner-city or a Third-World problem. My guess is that many people do not know about the extreme poverty that exists right in the heart of our country. There are not many opportunities for economic enrichment in Appalachia. The woman whose home we were repairing has lived in a trailer her entire life. When we asked her what she would do if she ever owned a home, she said she wouldn't know what to do with one. A run-down trailer is all she has ever known, and it is probably all she will ever know.

The woman on whose home we worked (I don't want to tell you her name for privacy's sake) makes about $600 per month from public assistance. She is unemployed and feeds her family (two sons and a daughter) and several animals with food stamps. The trailer was in complete disrepair, although it has a new roof and some new flooring because of work ASP did there last summer. We were there to replace the ceilings and insulation that have deteriorated because of previous water damage.

The work was hard, hot, and dirty. Six people in a small room in a tin trailer in June made for some sweaty and smelly work. Not to mention that bringing down rotted fiber-board ceiling and insulation also means wearing face-masks, goggles, long-sleeved shirts, and getting REALLY DIRTY! But the work was fulfilling as we saw the old insulation and ceiling come down, and the new insulation and ceiling go up, complete with new light fixtures and molding. It was nice to see the work taking shape, but even more magnificent was the look on our homeowner's face as she saw the rooms being transformed. It seemed like the little things, more than the big things, were what were most important for her. The new ceiling was great, but what she was really thrilled about were the new light fixtures, a newly-working ceiling-light switch in the bedroom, a no-longer-creaky floorboard, a fixed front screen-door spring, and a previously non-existent dryer vent in her bathroom.

I am still processing the importance of this experience for myself and for the homeowner who we got to know so well in such a short time. She has lived in Knox County her entire life, and has never been more than an hour from home. The fact that we came all the way from Pennsylvania just to help her was amazing to her. It also shows the contrast between our affluence and opportunity and hers. She will never have the chance to cross state lines to help someone else. One of the things that struck me is that in the town where we live, Pierre and I are not really considered well off at all. There are times when we really struggle to make ends meet. And yet, we have so much more than this woman, both materially and in terms of opportunity. It really puts things in perspective--maybe my problems aren't as bad as I think they are!

When I was in missionary orientation prior to moving to Africa, a man named Tony Gittins came and spoke to us about his missionary experience. He had spent 25+ years in Sierra Leone building houses, hospitals, and all kinds of buildings. After he left Sierra Leone, civil war broke out and all the buildings that he had worked so hard to build were destroyed. He said that people always asked him what he felt about the fact that everything he had built in Sierra Leone no longer existed. And he always replied that the work that he did that actually mattered wasn't building buildings--it was building relationships, and those couldn't be destroyed by war. What matters, he said, is the relationships you build, and the people you love, and the people who love you. THAT's what lasts, and that's what's important.

That's what I think ASP is about, too. Yes, making people's homes warmer, safer, and drier is an important and worthwhile task. However, the importance of the experience goes a long way beyond construction. We build relationships and minister to those families, and those families minister to us.