Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Appalachia Service Project--Success!

We just returned from Mingo County, West Virginia. What a great week with the Appalachia Service Project! A sign of success? All of the youth said, "We gotta go back next year!" A lot of work. A lot of rain, but we managed to get some things done, make friendships, and to develop a deeper understanding about folks who live in different conditions than those of us who visited there.

Mingo County is one of the poorest counties in the United States.

The median income for a household in the county was $21,347, and the median income for a family was $26,581. Males had a median income of $31,660 versus $18,038 for females. The per capita income for the county was $12,445. About 25.90% of families and 29.70% of the population were below the poverty line, including 38.90% of those under age 18 and 18.60% of those age 65 or over.
The U.S. average is $41,994.

Yet the trains run on time sending out massive amounts of coal to power plants in the southeast.
One area resident says that Mingo County is the only place where the snow coming down is black. The coal dust and truck traffic have made her ashamed of where she has lived her entire life. Recently, a sister she had not seen for 38 years planned a visit. The reunion never happened: the road was too dangerous and the community too dirty.
There is a disconnect. Wealth, riches and power under the mountains, yet poverty for those who live in the mountains.

I did find enough down time to finish my book, Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake. She writes beautifully about the people who live in these mountains and the hold the mountains have on the people. She writes how they struggle with coal, particularly the latest extraction technique, mountain top removal. Her main character, Lace, whose home is directly beneath a slurry fill from a removed mountain writes about the hold the mountains have on those who live in them:

...maybe it was something about the mountains' layers. Something about everything layered in them dead. All that once-live stuff, strange animals and plants, giant ferns and ancient trees, trapped down there for 250 million years, captured, crushed, and hard-squeezed into--power. That secret power underground, that sleepy force lying all around, contagious somehow, catching, setting off the power pulls on top, the trickery and thievery, the violence and the loss, the way power will fight for power. The power under here, I told myself, if it can cause all that, it must also put a hold on us. Not greed for coal, not that kind of hold, we'd never got the the profits from that. No. But just the pull, the draw, of so much power in the ground, and the kind of hold that makes. p. 312
Our week with ASP was not about mountain top removal. That is my interest. We were there to meet the people these mountains have cradled. These are intelligent, hard-working resourceful people who are facing conditions and forces far beyond what many of us face. We were there to do our little part to make homes dry and safe as best we can.

And of course, most importantly, to connect.

"
Only connect," writes E.M. Forrester in his novel Howard's End.

Maybe we will make connections between turning on light switches in Johnson City and removing mountains in Appalachia. Maybe we can connect on the deeper level of a common humanity beyond the forces that wish to divide us for gain.

At the end of Ann Pancake's novel, she provides some websites regarding mountain top removal:

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Appalachian Voices
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth
iLoveMountains.org
Center for the Rocky Mountain West

To find out more about poverty in Appalachia and how the Appalachia Service Project helps to raise consciousness and make connections, check this overview of poverty in Appalachia:

Fundamentally, Central Appalachia's problems stem from the fact that in an eighty-county area, 72% of the surface acreage and 89% of the mineral rights are absentee-owned. Historically much of this land has been greatly underassessed and undertaxed. As a result of this undertaxation, local municipalities have had very little revenue to finance adequate educational systems, construct and maintain water and sewage treatment facilities, provide for county landfills, roads, and basic health care.

A 1982 land study discovered that in the eighty-county area, the average tax per acre was $.90, and almost 25% of the land was taxed at less than $.25 per acre. In this same area, 75% of the owners of mineral rights paid less than $.25 per acre.

In twelve counties surveyed in eastern Kentucky, the average tax for minerals was 1/5 of a cent. In West Virginia, the study revealed that absentee corporate landowners paid 16% of the total property tax for the state, yet they owned 50% of the land and 75% of the mineral rights.

With 72% of the surface land owned by people outside the region, local residents must compete with each other and with businesses and municipalities for the balance of the land. Compounding the shortage of land are the rugged terrain, steep mountains, and narrow valleys. Often the only places available for home sites are the mountainsides and the flood plains, thereby complicating the issuance of septic permits and increasing the likelihood of flooding and landslides....

....The people of Appalachia are rallying to preserve the beauty of their land and to provide future generations with stable employment, public utilities, strong educational systems, safe housing, and affordable medical care. Mountain pride runs deep. Love of the land is what brought people here and love of the land is what brings those who have left back. We encourage you to come to Appalachia to enjoy the grandeur of the majestic mountains, to listen to the people who live here, to share their joys and struggles, and to experience first-hand the work of the Appalachia Service Project.

The Appalachia Service Project is not just for youth. Throughout the year, adults can volunteer with ASP including right here in the Tri-Cities.

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