I have complicated feelings about West Virginia. And, so, it took me off-guard when I arrived here yesterday on my road trip and was overwhelmed by feelings of deep affection for this place. At the end of May, I joined the Great Resignation and resigned from my pastorate. I am on a road trip traveling across the continent to reset my emotional, spiritual, and physical being.
Still, complicated feelings.
I lived in West Virginia for seven years when my wife was called to serve as pastor at the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Wheeling. I struggled to find work, not because I was unqualified, but because of a deep suspicion West Virginians often have of outsiders. The suspicion is understandable because outsiders have historically taken advantage of the people and destroyed the land. Still, hard to have left a tenured position in New York state to be rejected in West Virginia.
This rejection led me on a path toward ministry. Following a year’s stint commuting to Pittsburgh for an underwhelming job, I eventually began my own business doing educational consulting across the Mountain State as well as in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and beyond. The personal risk-taking necessary to promote myself as an expert in this created job challenged my introverted soul. Yet, those skills would be necessary as I was called into ministry. This is no success story, though I found the work satisfying, I only paid off the debt from that business since moving to Oregon. My deep hurt that West Virginia rejected my gifts complicated my joy in the work.
Yes, complicated feelings.
This is the Region of the church which affirmed my gifts, lifted me up, and supported me as I went to seminary at 52 years old. This is the Region that ordained me! My spiritual path to ministry was formed in no small way by the faith of the West Virginia men with whom I gathered annually in retreat. The Island Christian Church, my sponsoring congregation for ordination, taught me about radically loving community.
And, yet, my progressive, universalist, liberation, justice-oriented theology was at odds with the old-time religion of many in the West Virginia church. Despite that, a large Hare Krishna community calls West Virginia home. (I will be spending the night at New Vrindaban and will share more in a future post.)
Oh, West Virginia, you wild and wonderful place!
I’ve been known to suggest “I did my time” in West Virginia and that I have no desire to ever return. But don’t you dare make a hillbilly or cousin joke or say the people of this land vote against their interests! I will be the first to defend the people of the Mountain State. They are some of the friendliest, warmest, and smartest people in the union. They have endured the raping of their mountains by outsiders who have taken wealth out of West Virginia. They have remained rooted within these hills and care deeply for others. God, I love these people!
Yep, complicated feelings.
Early yesterday, I stopped to refill my cooler with ice shortly after crossing the state line. The charm – if uncomfortable familiarity, honey – of the clerk warmed me. In the parking lot, as I went through the daily task of emptying and repacking the cooler with new ice, a man noted my Oregon plates and struck up a conversation. The warmth, welcome, and friendliness I have received in West Virginia in the last 24 hours far exceed that of each and every one of the ten states I’ve traveled through so far on my pilgrimage!
There is a style of communication here that I find natural and endearing. I remember commenting on it to my wife when we moved here. It feels like home. Remarkable, given I am not a native and only lived here those seven years. I explain it by saying I grew up a part of the Appalachian diaspora. My mother was born in West Virginia; my dad grew up in eastern Kentucky. I must have picked up something from the family values and culture in my family of origin.
Ah, but I was always an outsider here. I suspect I could have been here the rest of my life and that wouldn’t have changed. And then there’s the politics! Yikes. True confessions, I voted for Joe Manchin when he first ran for Senate. But I worked with a small band of West Virginians who struggled to build a Mountain State Green Party during my time here. I organized a protest when war broke out. Maybe, that’s why I never quite fit in while also feeling like I was home. I didn’t match the prevailing politics.
Complicated feelings indeed.
The people of West Virginia are suspicious of outsiders yet welcome the stranger with warmth, friendliness, generosity, and unrivaled charm. They are also rightfully proud of the natural beauty of this place. Land and place. Sacred Appalachian land matters.
I have complicated feelings about this place called West Virginia. Do not believe the stereotypes of West Virginians that pass for understanding. This is a salt of the earth and complex people. They have my deep respect and love. It feels good and right to be here.