From Sunday, July 5 to Friday, July 10, a team of 9 adults from our UOC parishes journeyed again to Grundy, in far Southwest Virginia, to provide support to local Christian ministries active in the Buchanan County area in their work to serve those in need. The primary focus was reconstruction work on two homes in poor condition that required substantial renovation, particularly in their bathroom facilities. This year, Joe Truchan of St. Mary's parish in Allentown joined parishioners from St. Nicholas parish in Charlottesville, Virginia: including Karl and Karen Bowman, David Murphy, Tim Stratos, Brian Siebeking, Bill Black, Debbie Hutson and pastor, Fr. Robert Holet, for the 6 hour trek to the mountains of Appalachia.
In addition to the construction efforts, the team offered an intercessory Moleben to our Lord, followed by a Community Dinner with leaders from five local ministries who provide support to the area in an ongoing basis. Two team members were able to experience a 'Celebrate Recovery' program held at a local Pentecostal church which provides critical support for those seeking to break the bonds of addiction.
Life in Appalachia presents a daunting array of challenges to local residents as a result of widespread unemployment due to the rapid decline of the coal industry and the ever-present and ruinous temptations of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. This does not include the spiritual struggles they face as well.
As the Lord has blessed the ministry once again this year, we are grateful for the prayers and support of our fellow UOC members who have expressed support and solidarity with this ongoing effort. If you would like to join in the effort or would like to receive more information on other charity projects in the Appalachian region, please contact Brian Siebeking at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following piece represents the heart-felt observations of one of the team members.
By Reader William Joseph Black
Grundy is a long serpentine town of 1021 souls that winds along the deep valley of the Levisa Fork River in far western Virginia. Built on available swatches of flat land along the river, Grundy has been prone to flooding from its beginning, most recently in 1977 and 1984. Grundy is a coal town, and like so much of the surrounding area, times are good or bad depending on how things are with coal. And right now, things are bad.
Many people have left Grundy over the years, seeking education, jobs, a better life out of the claustrophobic confines of the mountain hollers. Others have chosen to stay, making a good life for themselves and their families, preferring to call the mountains home because this is where their family has always lived and this is what is home to them. But others have found themselves locked in soul-crushing cycles of poverty. Young men leave school to go to work in the mines and then after ten or twenty years get laid off with no skills other than digging coal. It’s probably the same hard life their fathers and uncles knew. Discouragement too often leads to depression which leads to self-medication with alcohol or drugs which leads to all sorts of self-inflicted tragedies with all manner of collateral damage on the lives of those close by.
Things are always more complicated than simple descriptions make them out to be, but you can begin to see some of the challenges facing the people who are living in this part of Virginia. Once a grandparent or a parent falls into the hole of poverty, ignorance and/or addiction, they tend to drag those around them in with them, and it is almost impossible to pull oneself or one’s family out again. Coal country is pock-marked with the blight of human brokenness. With no money left in the house from the mine salary or from government help because it’s been lost to drinking or drugs or bad choices, children go hungry, bills go unpaid, homes go unrepaired. But low incomes and various lacks are at best merely indicators of potential poverty. A family may have a big TV with cable or satellite, they may have a smart phone, air conditioners in the windows, a washing machine and a fridge. But they may also live in a trailer with rotting floors, or use an outdoor privy or worse, there may be alcohol addiction or drug addiction, there may be a poverty of spirit that negates whatever material things they accumulated.
This is the Grundy we drove into on Sunday evening, July 6, 2014. There were 8 of us from St. Nicholas Church in Greenwood, VA, joined by one more from Allentown, PA. We were partnering with Buchanan Neighbors United, a local Christian ministry that has connected work teams from churches with service projects all over Buchanan County for years. This is the 6th year the UOC in general and St. Nicholas Church in particular has made the trip to Grundy to help families in need.
The mechanics of our stay in Grundy were straight forward enough. We stayed at a local motel and gathered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at 8:30 am in the mornings to make our lunches and get our work assignments. We had two projects that we were working on, and the nine of us settled into a routine fairly quickly each of our sites. Our friends at BNU had done a fantastic job at giving us week-sized projects, and while we brought our own tools, they supplied all the materiel we needed to get the job done. So in terms of the construction part of our work it was just a matter of getting on site, assessing the situation, and then applying the necessary fix. Of course this was easier said than done.
The project I worked on was a thirty minute drive out of Grundy way up one of the hollers. The house was ‘pitiful’, as they say there. An old woman with lots of health issues lived there. Her house was rotting down around her, and she was reduced to relieving herself in a bucket. Three earlier teams had already done a lot of work on this house. One team built a handicap ramp up to the front porch. Another team tore down the rotting bathroom and framed a new one. A third team had put on a new tin roof. Our job was to finish the bathroom by installing the plumbing for the new toilet, shower and vanity, as well as do all the finishing work both inside and outside. Even before we started that first day, a chance discovery ended up saving BNU a lot of work later. We were outside going over the plumbing needs under the bathroom floor when a flood of water gushed from under the house and into the yard. Turns out the washing machine drain hose was simply stuck through a hole in the kitchen floor where it simply drained under the house. No wonder the place had rot issues! So my first job was to help plumb a new drain for the washing machine so that everything under the floors would recover from being the swamp it was. And so it went. Walls were spackled, or ‘mudded’ as they say, windows were framed, the shower was installed and then adjusted (which took a lot of math and geometry to build the three walls out enough so that the preformed shower pieces would properly fit), and then all the pipes for everything connected and then insulated underneath, and then a tin skirt put around the underside. Most of the guys on my team had lots of skills and experience. I was the junior member skill-wise, but ended up helping with all the plumbing and doing some of it myself. Imagine my relief when we turned on the water and everything functioned like it was supposed to! No leaks, no fountains, just water where it was supposed to be!
If only addressing the needs of the family who lived there were as straight forward was the repair work on the house. As with every family one is dealing with long-standing tangles of relationship and dysfunction which are not easily unwound, nor is the interior damage easily undone. This woman had lived in this situation for who knows how long, even though she has family nearby who could have helped her or taken her in. She did have one daughter staying with her, but she was recently out of prison for drug issues and who obviously had her own needs. The old woman herself spent the day either on the sofa watching TV with her two annoying yap dogs, on her bed, or on a chair on the porch watching the world go by, or moving painfully from one to another. One of the most moving times of the whole week was when our priest Fr. Robert offered to pray for her, and we all gathered around and asked God’s hand of healing to be on her as he anointed her with holy oil. It was a privilege to help be a point of grace in this woman’s life.
Our second project involved work on a forty year old trailer where a woman and her seven grandchildren, all of them 9 and under, lived. Two of her daughters, the mothers of the children, were either in prison or on their way there on drug convictions. Fathers were not mentioned. The trailer was in various stages of collapse, particularly the bathroom and bedroom floors (the eight of them were sharing three tiny bedrooms, all the boys in one bed). Our task was to rip out the old floors and install new ones. In the bathroom, that meant reinstalling the shower, toilet and vanity. Additional drama occurred when we unintentionally broke the water main. But with a lot of hard work and a constant readjustment of plans based on developments on the ground (sometimes literally), the trailer got new floors and kids could go to bed or to the bathroom without fear of falling through the abyss. And when a team member noticed that none of the children had bicycles, that lack was also rectified, to the amazement and delight of the five oldest kids who could ride.
A curious event occurred at this second site, namely a birthday party for one of the children. And while it was gratifying to see a lot of relatives show up, in particular a lot of uncles and other family members, one could not help but wonder where these men were as the trailer where their mother and nieces and nephews slowly sank into the ground, or how they could allow their relatives for whom they professed love to live in such deplorable conditions. But the reasons were hidden for us, and ours is not to pass judgment.
For me, personally, the week in Grundy allowed me to get to know people from my parish at a much deeper level than before. I specifically tried to get one-on-one time with as many of my colleagues as I could, for the purpose of finding out more of their story and who they really are. Moreover, after a particularly challenging year for me personally, I think what I appreciated most was the chance to do something for someone else. Physical labor and teamwork are good antidotes to living too much inside one’s head. And though I was physically tired by week’s end, I had that gratifying sense that a lot of good things were happening, with the project, with the people with whom we were working and helping, with my colleagues, and in my own heart as well.
I hope you get a sense of just how many benefits there are to participating in a project like this one in western Virginia. It is more than worth the effort to take time off work, leave home, make a long trip and immerse oneself in the world and needs of some of those living in Appalachia. But I think most significantly, it places us in a position where we can begin to learn just what ‘Christ-like’ actually means and looks like. I am personally against mission trips for the sake of mission trips – so-called mission tourism, where participants take glorified vacations and commandeer actual missionaries on the ground to be their tour guides and to come up with projects to give participants the impression of making some difference in the local situation. Such projects rarely do any lasting good in the lives of the locals or in the participants themselves.
The Grundy project, however, distinguished itself by being a ‘hit the ground running’ work project, with well-defined goals and tangible results. But as we found, it is relatively ‘easy’ to meet material needs (if one is willing to make sacrifices and work hard). Much more difficult, and yet much more necessary is the challenge of meeting the profound spiritual needs that are the root of all the poverty of life and soul in Grundy. Frightening people with warnings of hellfire to come seems to be a preferred strategy of many of the little fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that seem to have sprouted at every bend in the road. But this is an approach that simply has not worked in terms of engaging people at the heart of their brokenness. On the contrary, we Orthodox of all people know what needs to be done. Our strategy should be the same as was our Lord’s when He became incarnate and entered our world and touched our lives with His love. The heart of all successful Orthodox missionary work has followed this same incarnational example. Our challenge as an Orthodox communion is to pray about how to follow Christ and take our engagement with the people of Buchanan County to a new transformational level.