I have for much of my life identified closely with Myles Horton, though he died just a few months before I was born in 1990. With nearly a century between our births, I have often felt his legacy reverberating through my thoughts, his words and ideas casting shadows over my wonderings. We both grew up poor in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, learning early that hard work, that the “American Dream,” was not always enough to get one ahead, but that love, community, faith and family were the bedrock of justice and peace. We both attended small Presbyterian colleges, where we learned that both the political and the religious were best served by careful pondering and criticism. We left the safety and comfort of the hills and hollows that formed the very cores of our beings to attend Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. We left to gain perspective and try to learn how best to serve our mountains and our people.
Horton went on to found the Highlander Folk School in 1932, an institution based around the simple idea that if you gathered a group of people together to share their stories that those stories more often than not contained the solution to their problems. It was this popular education format that would be turn Highlander into a bastion of people’s movements in the American South for much of the past one hundred years. Highlander spearheaded labor right organizing in the region in the 1940s. It served as an important meeting place for Civil Rights leaders throughout the 1960s. Rosa Parks attended a workshop there only a few months before her famous refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Today, Highlander gathers activists from around the world on issues as diverse as immigration reform and LGBTQ rights.
If my time at Union has taught me anything, it is that all theology, all talk about God, has a context. Theologies don’t drop fully formed from heaven; they are shaped by the sweat and tears and experiences of people. Highlander is located only ten miles from where I grew up in Sevierville, Tenn. I constantly wrestle with my own commitment to my home in the wake of its long history. Its story reflects my story and my story reflects some two hundred years of the hard-scrabble lives of mountain folk. Story is important. It is integral to Appalachian experience.
I have had occasion in my first semester living in New York to take the long bus ride back home to Tennessee, meandering down I-81 South as it lazily traces the outline of the Appalachian mountains. This nineteen-hour journey tends to make quick friends out of strangers, as casual small talk evolves into lengthy conversation. I have come to find that many of my fellow travelers find my deep reverence for this region surprising. They associate Appalachia with either comedy - insert Beverly Hillbillies joke here - or the bizarre, that is, snake-handling, moon-shining and speaking in tongues.
As deep tapestries of autumn leaves roll by the windows, I tell them of the ecosystems laid waste by mountain-top removal mining just out of view of the interstate. I tell them of the kids I went to primary school with who couldn’t afford lunch or a winter coat. Perhaps most importantly, I tell them stories my grandfathers told me. Stories of backbreaking hours of work on farms and in mills, of dimly lantern-lit walks home from church on Sunday nights, of funny ghost stories their grandparents had told them; generations upon generations of family, of struggle, of home that mix together in memory and are passed down to me.
Wendell Berry wrote that, “I stand for what I stand on,” and it is here that I think Appalachians have special insight into faith. They can proudly stand on the fact that God’s word has long been received from the mountaintop, that mountains have long been sacred ground. Appalachians can offer a voice to a facet of faith that most of American culture today simply cannot - a sense of place. For too long Appalachians have struggled for a life of dignity, for simple hope, with a boot on their necks. They have continually been met by the wholesale extraction of natural resources, the humiliation of cultural stereotyping, and the invalidation of their own voices, their own stories. Grounded in a long history of suffering and poverty, situated amongst ancient mountains, Appalachians can proclaim, in the words of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia from their 1975 pastoral letter This Land is Home to Me, that “justice speaks loudly, where in the wilderness of idolatrous destruction the great voice of God still cries out for Life.” It is that cry for life that I am listening for as I study theology in New York City. It is that same cry that Myles Horton heard nearly a century ago. Won’t you join me in hearing God’s voice where it has long been ignored?