The despair in their eyes haunts me still. The dullness of emotion and deadness of spirit shall remain forever embedded in my memory.
I wish I could toss the memory into a sea of forgetfulness.
For years, I had wanted to participate in mission work in the Appalachians. It felt important to reach back and offer a hand to some not so fortunate.
I am always mindful that I’m one of the lucky ones for being born to two people who were courageous and brave enough to escape the cycle of poverty and fruitless dreams. They fled a place that hope abandoned years ago and never looked back.
As it is said, “There but by the grace of God go I.”
And so it was that Tink and I headed with members of our church north to the gorgeous but desperate back hills of Kentucky, a paradoxical place simultaneously blessed with beauty yet cursed with the ugliness of poverty. Its is where hope escaped long ago out of a broken window.
As the good Lord would have it, we spent a few days in Los Angeles on business. We came in from the airport and changed out our suitcases, trading dress clothes for durable ones.
It is a long way from Beverly Hills to the Eastern Kentucky foothills in more significant ways than mere distance. It is easier to leave behind thoughts of the lifestyles found in that wealthy enclave than the sadness of not much of anything. It is a place where less than a half acre of land will hold three dwellings of some kind, one right in front of another because no zoning laws are in those hollers.
In the past five years because of environmental legislation, coal mines have closed down rapidly, one after another. And when mines close, jobs go and other businesses such as stores and restaurants follow quickly. Only fear remains.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” said one kind, friendly man. “I spent 30 years in the mine and so did my daddy. It’s all we ever knowed.”
In a small church in a holler way back from a main road about 20 women gathered. They dutifully listened as I tried to convince them of Biblical truths, touching on a couple of the 8,000 promises within its pages. I also talked of a gracious higher power who loves and cares for them. From the look on their faces, some didn’t believe it. Not a flicker or recognition of hope came from some of the eyes that stared back at me.
As a child, I can remember preachers being so overcome with the spirit while in the pulpit they yelled out, “Can I get an ‘Amen’ on that?” To which the amen corner filled with deacons and visiting preachers would echo, “Amen!”
Of course, no “Amen” rose up from those women and the dullness of the room dropped an axe over any I might dare to think. One by one, I looked each woman in the eye and tried to will hope into her. Unfailingly, each one would look at me briefly then drop her expressionless eyes to the ground. They were afraid, or so it felt, to catch a glimmer of hope for they couldn’t bear one more disappointment.
Down the road a piece, Tink and other men worked on home improvements for dwellings falling apart from rotted wood and penniless neglect. He was stunned by what he saw.
Since that trip, we have discussed we might not have been of great service to them, though try hard we did.
But they were of great service to us. Our perception of life was forever changed, our gratitude for our many blessings forever increased.
Can I get an “Amen” on that?
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.