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Faith, When There Is No Work

A 'Common Good' team traveled to parts of Appalachia, where American, blue-collar work once shined, asking pastors what faith and work looks like when neither come easily.

A lot of energy goes into analyzing the coal dependent, opiod-addicted, job-desperate people of Appalachia. Now some churches are reclaiming the 'culture in crisis.'

After swallowing 30 Xanax, she felt bulletproof. The backs of her knees wrapped the cushions of somebody else’s couch and tugged her torso back toward the clenched hand striking the cartilage and fatty tissue where her nose and philtrum meet. Again. Again.

Sommer wasn’t bulletproof. Her face warped into an unrecognizable puff of shiny skin and blood. When she opened her eyes, whatever she saw swam. The blows and pills stirred into a numbing cocktail. She was 19 years old and in Columbia, South Carolina. She arrived a few days before to hide out. The details from this point blurred until, in the mental health unit of a hospital in Princeton, West Virginia, a portion of her consciousness regained, opaque and sweaty.

The unit, though technically a new experience, seemed familiar enough to Sommer. The home she entered in 1985 featured the same drug-muted chaos. And it catered more toward trafficking prescriptions than raising children. The birth of a daughter didn’t change that: Her mother’s new husband sold oxys, and the couple swallowed as much as they sold. Even with their child in tow. More than a few times in middle and high school,  Sommer spent a whole weekend in the back seat of a car while her mom and stepdad partied in McDowell County. Same clothes. No food.

Sommer smoked a joint for the first time when she was 11 years old. That’s around when her panic attacks started. By 12, after probation and almost any kind of trouble you can imagine, the state removed Sommer from her mom’s custody and placed her into her dad’s. She loved her mom, but she hated what their drugged-out environment did to her. Her husband supplied highs a daughter couldn’t, and source won out over offspring. Once Sommer moved in with her dad, she barely saw her mom. She didn’t call. She didn’t visit. Sommer learned at a violently slow pace that everything she hoped might happen just wasn’t going to happen.

So she stayed high. Pot gave way to gas and pills. Then heroin and crystal. The drugs exploded her world into white noise. She loved them, because she hated reality.

In high school, Sommer got busted. Expelled and arrested and her first time in jail. She spent the next two years either locked up or running. The farthest she ever ran was to Columbia. Which is how she ended up in a psych ward, hallucinating her way to sobriety. And, though she didn’t know it yet, she was pregnant.

Appalachia: Geology and Identity

The scorch of mid-July doesn’t affect the spring color of Appalachia. Not along the 650-mile loop we drive from Louisville, Kentucky, into eastern Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and back again. It’s striking country, sparse with people and thick with vegetation. The lush breaks every 80 miles or so, disrupted by steely hot civilizations called coal mines and coking plants. They’re partly why we’re here.

You’ve probably heard this area called coal country. That’s a geographically and geologically accurate moniker: Coal forms in the mountains of the central Appalachian range, and the area provides the majority of the world’s coal, some for power plants and some for forging steel.

But Appalachia isn’t really a place as much as an identity. The region leapt into national consciousness in 2016, when it became the muse of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the preoccupation of people around the United States who read the ferociously popular memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

The men and women of Appalachia came in the early 20th century to embody the American work ideal. Long, physical hours. Big pay off. This mystique is especially true of American Christians, who often imbibe a Thoreauvian sense that outdoorsy labor trends more godly. Yet the Christians who generally put the most thought into labor, career, and economics — the faith and work movement — tend mainly to discuss white collar, coastal, and even C-suite versions.

That’s the other part of why we came. To look at faith and work where the labor comes more muscular than mental. Surprisingly, though, almost all of our conversations began with the chemical.

At (a) Crossroads

We meet Travis Lowe at his church right on the outskirts of Bluefield, West Virginia. The building for Crossroads Church, a congregation of about 150 people in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, sits low on the side of a mountain.

If you’re around Travis long, you’ll hear him talk about Kentucky author Wendell Berry. Something in Berry’s agrarian, localized, and economically depressed writing resonates deeply with Lowe. Really he seems to resonate with the entire Appalachian population; in all but one or two cities we visited, Berry’s work came up without provocation. After college, much like Berry, Lowe left his home and embarked on a career. Lowe worked in banking for 12 years, including Woodforest National Bank, traveling from city to city opening up new branches. But when his dad died, Lowe felt not only the loss of his father, but regret at his own detachment from home. He moved back to nearby Tazewell County, Virginia, and by an unusual dance of happenstance and providence he became the pastor of Crossroads. That was about six years ago.

A photographer and I travel to the city of Bluefield because in many ways the city sits in the heart of Appalachia. If you haven’t been to Bluefield, imagine Detroit after the collapse. Only about six percent of the size and not even two percent of the population. Like the motor city, Bluefield represents a one-time destination turned metaphor for tragedy.

Downtown features a cluster of mid-rise, khaki buildings splashed alternatively with lawyers’ names and cardboard. Bluefield sits along a railroad the way many cities feature a river. Open-topped train cars heaped with coal slide back and forth. The majority of the coal from here doesn’t go toward energy, per se. It’s a cleaner, higher quality variety that burns hell hot. Coking coal, coal with the singular ability to forge steel.

The material in the trains doesn’t exactly come from Bluefield, but from the mountains just 10 minutes northwest, across an invisible line in McDowell County.

At the height of the coal economy, Bluefield stood as the retail and cultural center of the area. It housed the white collar coal workers — owners, executives — and everything that goes along with it: colleges, music, diversity, and a church on every corner. “A little New York,” they called it. Still today, about 80 percent of the land in McDowell County belongs to people who don’t live there. For almost a century, the 80 percent, give or take, lived in and around Bluefield. At one time, the coal tycoons in one of the neighboring towns formed the highest percentage of millionaires per capita in the United States.

But since 1980, the population in Mercer County (Bluefield) fell almost 20 percent, with almost all of the big money leaving. In the same period, the bottom fell out of McDowell County: A population of about 100,000 free-fell to just more than 18,000, as of 2017 census data. An 80 percent decrease in 40 years.

“What does it do to the psyche of a person when so many people have left,” Lowe asks. “You don’t feel like they just left here, but they left me. … There’s a difference between being from a small town that’s always been small, and being from a town that used to be rocking, and you’ve seen everybody leave.”

‘The Poorest, Sickest ... Place in America’

Talking about the Appalachian exodus, you might hear something like this: The demand for coal declined and so did its economy. No coal, no coal jobs. The people with whom I talked in Appalachia, though, tell me the mines produce as much today as ever. Only machines do the manual work now, ripping coal out of mountains at rates inconceivable even 15 years ago. Mining in 2019 just requires far fewer people than in 1989, and almost none of the people who once mined with flesh and blood.

Since the early 1990’s, according to most sources, coal jobs have shriveled by more than 70 percent. The states — Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, among a couple others — most affected by the job losses tend already to suffer from the country’s highest poverty rates. Of course, a vacuumed-out economic driver doesn’t help.

During the 1960s, when the region faced an inaugural round of jobs lost to machinery, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 as part of his signature War on Poverty. He launched the war from McDowell County. And, according to most measurable data, it’s worse now.

And like some coal-dusted, 21st-century epic poem, Appalachia now faces not one foe but two. You don’t have to look far to find out what happened here.

In the early 2000s, coal miners — working the most severe and injury-prone jobs in existence — claimed the nation’s best insurance. Opioid companies targeted them and drugs deluged into coal country. Reporting from Washington Post shows that counties in Virginia received 100s of pills per resident. On the extreme side, a tiny town called Norton filled scripts for 8 million pills — enough for 306 pills for each person in the town. This means that in a normal Appalachian household, an injured worker might form an addiction from over-prescription, and kids in the house might form addictions from access and boredom. We know, too, that when access runs out, other drugs tip-toe in.

Coal miner’s cocaine. Hillbilly heroin. Oxys. Fentanyl. Meth. Whatever you call it and whatever the variety, drugs now define Appalachia almost as much as coal. This place represents ground zero of the widely reported national opioid crisis.

West Virginia’s rate of drug overdoses, for example, doubles the national average, according to 2017 research in the Journal of Rural Mental Health. And the Appalachian Regional Commission reports that West Virginia shares the highest rate of overdose deaths in the country.

In droves, people leave Appalachia for economic reasons, and they leave in a more permanent sense, too. Statistically, you can see a direct and symbiotic link between unemployment and addiction. So you don’t have to guess why a magazine headline a couple of years ago declared McDowell County the “poorest, sickest, most hopeless place in America.”

State police picked up Sommer attempting the 50-mile, snow-covered walk from Tazewell to Grundy. She was wearing nothing but a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, and by then she was three months pregnant.

The warrants — for assault, for concealment, for a bond violation — that sent her scrambling to Columbia finally caught up with her. After three months, the state placed her into a rehab program. Her father invited her to live with him. But this arrangement wouldn’t work long-term. Soon, Sommer had a baby and a problem.

After three months, Sommer and newborn Cierra had nowhere to go. For a while, they more or less bunked in a two-bedroom, low-income apartment in Richlands, Virginia, with a woman from the drug court program and her four sons. Then Sommer moved into a trailer park at the west end of Richlands with Cierra’s dad, a guy perpetually and contentedly strung out. He was happy to sell, too, if it meant he could keep up the habit and get some cash. It wasn’t the ideal place for a new baby and a new life. But they were together for years, both in and out of consciousness and prison. And they shared a child.

But within a few months, Sommer landed back in jail, this time with a five-day sentence for not reporting drug activity. Those five days parlayed into a detention sentence at Richmond Women’s Detention Center, a Marine-like rehabilitation center meant to whip inmates into shape. Like her dad’s house, of course, Cierra wasn’t welcome. And because Sommer’s boyfriend and mother, who started living with them, got busted for selling, her baby went to the state.

By the time Sommer got out, she was 21 and owned only what she was wearing: a white t-shirt and underwear. She was sober, and she wanted to do good. She found some work cleaning houses then waiting tables. But the two felonies on her record squelched any other attempts at employment. What opportunities a drug record doesn’t end, assault and battery charges do every time.

‘I Need to Do Something About It’ Pt. 1

Lowe drives us into a mostly abandoned part of Bluefield and produces a key. He unlocks the door to a wide-open, exposed brick-walled, 4,000 square-foot parcel of a century-old factory building. Already, the space feels more like Brooklyn than Bluefield, and Lowe tells us he scheduled a guy to come in the next day to strip any remaining paint from the interior walls and columns.

What Lowe shows us will be the location of a maker space. With some grant funding, he plans to open a full-scale place where entrepreneurs — the Etsy shop variety — can use equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, and soldering irons. A place where anyone can work on creative projects, learn the equipment, and where underprivileged kids in his community can see and feel how ideas can become concrete (well, plastic).

The maker space represents the latest initiative by Lowe to re-energize the city. The latest, not the only and certainly not the first. Stated or not, it doesn’t take long to recognize the influence of Wendell Berry on Lowe’s pastoral imagination.

“The way I see it, my church is Bluefield,” Lowe says, evoking the Roman Catholic parish model of ministry. “If something is going wrong in Bluefield, that’s in my church and I need to do something about it. If joblessness is an issue in Bluefield, I need to address joblessness. If hopelessness is an issue in Bluefield, then I need to address hopelessness.”

Lowe’s parish-based approach to ministry in Bluefield stands in direct contrast to the way most churches in Appalachia work. One of the most consistent refrains I heard — from Kentucky to the West Virginia capital to Virginia — went like this: A hyper-applied, deeply ingrained dispensational theology often keeps Christians from engaging the drug-related and economic problems around them. The world is supposed to be getting worse, after all. And, after all, we won’t be here much longer. Instead of providing an apparatus for better understanding God and his work — what you probably want to get out of a theological construct — it seems to have claimed the opposite effect.

“Religion around here was, ‘Jesus is going to come back tomorrow; let’s lock ourselves in the church and wait for that to happen,’” Lowe describes. “Every bit of our religion was giving people hope that their lives wouldn’t last much longer.”

For many people in Appalachia, Christians and non Christians alike, hope mainly doesn’t come from church. And it manifests mainly as an economic hope, a wishful assumption that if jobs come back, the other issues will take care of themselves. But even that wanes nowadays, at least according to Justin Williams. He’s a Baptist pastor in Salyersville, a tiny town in eastern Kentucky where he has pastored the same church for almost 20 years and lived his entire life.

“For a while, you could still see a lot of people clinging to the hope that coal might come back,” he says. “There’ll be a revitalization, you know, truck owners will have to buy new trucks. It’ll boom again. Now what I see is that they, I don’t want to say they’ve lost hope, but they’re not clinging to that like they were.”

A pastor in Tazewell tells me that this kind of thinking represents the “predominant theological thing in these mountains.” The pastor, Barry Absher, says about a friend of his actually graduated high school but ignored college because his dad convinced him it would be a waste since the rapture would happen within five years.

Even in the more urban parts of West Virginia, pastors see the effects of this. In Charleston, which you could call urban Appalachia, Derek Roberts planted an Anglican congregation. Shortly after Hope Church launched, Roberts preached through the book of Revelation, which he says represented the first time most of his congregants studied the book since the flurry of the Left Behind books.

“The understanding of Revelation is that John gets raptured in chapter four, and after chapter four, the whole rest of the book is written to people who get left behind,” Roberts says, explaining what he sees as a theology of hopelessness. “It’s utterly unhealthy.”

The book of Revelation, Roberts says, has a lot to say to the Appalachian displaced: “The whole book is written to people who are in the middle of suffering. What’s a more powerful statement to this group of people than to say, God is on the throne and ruling and reigning right now? It adds profound meaning to the ordinary moments of life.”

Lowe doesn’t think Christians should stop looking forward to God’s promises. Just the opposite: He wants to see a more robust application of those promises.

“There’s a good sense of hope that says, Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” he says. “But if it’s divorced from a theology of redemption that says we’re here to make a difference, to put this world back together, it’s worthless.”

‘I Need to Do Something About It’ Pt. 2

Joblessness in the context of Bluefield — or really any part of Appalachia — carries a double meaning, because both individuals and businesses struggle to find (and retain) work. The pastors I meet don’t get a pass: Each of them works bivocationally in some sense.

Shortly after he arrived at Crossroads, Lowe began meeting for lunch with local business owners. The last recession caused several multi-generational businesses in the area to close up, and Lowe could feel the fear among the group. They’d talk through their struggles and try to come up with solutions.

Within a few months, Lowe’s businessperson lunch meetings grew from three or four owners to nearly 100. Most of these owners weren’t interested in incentives and policy changes; the main need was more business. Lowe used the meetings to help generate just that.

A Bluefield company called Blue Wolf, for example, makes cleaning supplies. At the time Lowe met the owners, the city of Bluefield bought cleaning supplies from California. One or two lunches later, Blue Wolf became the city’s supplier.

Among Bluefield civic leaders, Lowe tells me, a lot of energy goes toward trying — read: wishing — to land one big company to move its operations into the city. But he sees the solution differently: “I say if we could have 50 people start a business that employs five people, we’ll make a difference.”

He’s at least going to try.

In 2016, he ideated an initiative eventually called Launch Appalachia, a Shark Tank-style fundraising contest for would-be entrepreneurs. And this year, he collaborated with the business department at Bluefield College to start an effort specifically for the most economically vulnerable in the city: recovering addicts. Launch Recovery, which Crossroads hosted, gives people in active recovery a chance to get business training, workspace, and some funding. More importantly, it represents maybe the only opportunity many of them will get at building a career.

The first winners of Launch Recovery, three women,  started a pet grooming business — and they’ve already begun expanding.

“We have tremendous stories of recovery,” he says. “You would be blown away at the people you know, wherever you are, judges, teachers, doctors, who are recovered opioid addicts.”

I meet Sommer on a hot, hazy Saturday morning in July right outside Shear Blessings — the hair studio she opened in 2015. It’s meticulously decorated, a four-chair setup in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, a little town clustered together with Tazewell and Richlands. A lot of hand-lettered phrases and a lot of teal mingle on the walls along with pictures of Sommer, her husband, and  her teenage daughter, Cierra.

She got caught in what you could call the Appalachia trap: She cleaned up, but she couldn’t find work. Just waitressing. Similar to the people whose ideas Lowe helps nurture in Launch Recovery, Sommer’s record left her one option: entrepreneurship.

Sommer is trendy and chipper and a touch insecure when we first meet. But when we sit down to discuss her story, she delivers a breakless, 45-minute recounting of her life including details about which she seems neither proud nor afraid. About smoking crystal until her mouth was “ate out.” About the love she never felt from her mom. About taking a beating in Columbia, South Carolina.

And about the Christians who visited a mental health ward in Princeton and shared the story of Jesus with patients. About how she believed.

The psych ward changed everything for Sommer. And her story visibly pivots in the detention center. Because of what happened right before. Someone took Sommer to hear Barry Absher preach.

“I had never heard anything like it before,” Sommer tells me. “He preached a message of hope, and I left that church knowing I had a purpose in God and he was going to use everything that I was going through and he was going to turn it around for good.”

In the detention center, Sommer found a Bible she could understand, and she dedicated however long she had to be there to learning about God and serving others.

“I had never felt so free in my whole life,” she says. “I was full of the joy of the Lord to the point that they asked me to give my testimony. The workers came to hear it, because they were like, ‘What could you have possibly done to be in here?’ I’m like, ‘You have no idea.’”

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