Meeting the Deplorable

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“My insurance is gonna run out soon. Truman promised to take care of us.”

When you’re immersed in Appalachia, this statement translates quite easily: I used to work in the mines.

But the coal industry that sustained life in West Virginia – and, if we’re honest, the rest of America – is now idle. Caught in the political crosshairs, tens of thousands of men and women are now without work.

The local pastor with whom our mission team recently served was quick to redirect our sympathy: “I can’t even go through a metal detector – I got metal in my knees and hip!”

It was a light moment before the grim reality of the region intensified: There is no money.

The scene, of course, is one I have encountered before. Men – young and old – don’t have jobs. But the scale is truly unfathomable.

Imagine everyone you meet has very few, if any, teeth.

Imagine your community cannot afford clothes to keep themselves warm.

Imagine your meals each month must come from a food pantry.

This is a snapshot of life post-coal. One of the outspoken church members, a former miner, took me aside and filled me in: “It’s no wonder Trump won. The EPA closed every mine.”

It seems, with the exception of one small region in the state, coal is in decline – perhaps even permanently.

To offer a little more insight, it is believed that for every one mining job, at least three others are created in supporting industries.

Quite simply, without coal, the infrastructure crumbles. The remaining mines in Central West Virginia have all closed within the last couple of years.

“Miners made good money,” my insider shared, “as much as $80,000-$100,000.”

But, really, who is to blame? Obama? The EPA? Coal mine owners?

To be honest, the unemployed miners don’t care. They just want their livelihood back.

And this is the population we served for two days – the chronically ill, the addicted, the broken. Given the political climate and loud media bias, I suppose I had prepared myself to meet Trump’s “deplorables”.

But, you know, the men and women had a hunger for something beyond a charismatic president, and their longing convicted me. I think – right there in that endless pantry line – their hearts were waiting for Jesus.

In the watching, conversing, and shivering, I could see the raw faith and humility that their circumstances require.

To wake up. To venture into the cold November rain. To take donations from strangers.

And, in this reflection, it is I who became the deplorable.

But their pastor simply called me “Sissy” with an unwavering smile. He may have escaped the mines, but he couldn’t escape the call.

And deep in the unseen holler, Jesus still shines in the darkness.

One Year Ago: Dear Single Parent Student

13 thoughts on “Meeting the Deplorable

    1. I was secretly hoping you would chime in on the conversation, as your economics lens is different from my own. The problems this population faces are incredibly complex. On top of the mine shutdowns, the 2016 West Virginia flood displaced hundreds of families (including 30 permanently from the community where we served). I have been a Christian long enough to know that prayer alone doesn’t instantly clothe or feed people, but I do believe we must do what we can wherever we are out of love. And the people we served? They just were grateful to be remembered.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is really lovely. Yes, I can imagine being remembered even by just a few when it feels like so many have forgotten you must be nice.
        Good luck and I hope you can carry a little light where you travel, don’t lose your sense of humour! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I really like David Brooks’s op ed in yesterday’s NY Times, and it somewhat reminds me of your post. Both you and Brooks shine light on those felt left behind.

        You’re right about the multiplier effect of 1 job loss in a smaller town. I remember when I was younger sitting in a meeting with my Managing Director (MD) and the CEO of a company. Due to an inability to compete with Chinese manufacturers, his company was in a bad way and we were going to sell off the factory to help recoup our investment.

        In the meeting, my MD was talking about how he’s looking for a house.

        “I know a large factory you could convert into a house,” said the CEO.

        Thousands of jobs were being cut and here he was sitting in our NYC office, far away, joking.

        After the meeting, I walked into my MD’s office, very concerned. “Do you realize what’s going to happen? All of the ancillary businesses that rely on those employees as customers are gone and their employees gutted, and so too are the businesses/employees that rely on those businesses. The city’s tax revenue is going to disappear. The multiplier effect is going crush this town.”

        “Oh yeah. They’re f–ked.”

        (To my horror, Joe Biden once mentioned this closure in one of his speeches.)

        What to do? At the city/state level, you have to lure large potential employers who are willing to train a cast-down, aging work force in exchange for subsidies/tax cuts. They would have to commit to building new factories and infrastructure to support these jobs, as I’m guessing office jobs won’t be a fit for this workforce. Now, with the automization of manufacturing, it would have to be light assembly type work. I’m thinking tier 2 or 3 auto or other machine parts suppliers.

        How many of these companies exist in America? How many are willing to move — they probably have subsidiaries where they are now. Is the power grid/infrastructure sufficient (assuming the coal plants aren’t going to be turned on again)? The inertia is so high that it will take leadership with great vision and real, achievable plan to make it happen. Otherwise it’s like pushing on a string. So I’m ruling it out.

        So the young are going what they should do: move to a place that matches opportunity with their skills

        The older: I would recommend they do some household (de)formation and move in with each other as much as possible to defray the cost of roof, utilities, and food. Basically, live communally and share so that food and other waste is decreased (Acts community, anyone?). So instead of 3 people paying for 3 roofs, 3 cable , 3 car bills, they have 1, 1, 1. They use whatever subsidies they have leftover and save it as a rainy day fund to help out whenever one of them is ailing.

        Not sure if it will work, but just typing my thoughts out loud while praying for them in my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Fascinating story and thoughts here – thank you for sharing. I definitely understand the overhaul of labor and, in many ways, culture that would be required here. Investment has always been the tragic flaw with relation to Appalachia – its geographical isolation preserved a way of life to the great detriment of progress and opportunity. I will say that the residents I met are problem-solving to an extent on their own: many families are choosing not to have children. It was both heartbreaking and encouraging to see.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. This whole circumstance was a journey in unlearning – of trying to go beyond the “talking points” surface to love people for who they are regardless of what they believe. It’s pretty amazing how similar we all are beneath the self- and socially-constructed layers.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This story plays out in so many parts of our country, but unfortunately, in coal country there’s just few other options. I grew up in the rust belt part of new york state, the old Erie Canal corridor. Just to give two cities as examples – Rochester & Syracuse, NY. In the 1950s & 1960s, they were both one of the wealthiest metro areas in the country. Each had an NBA team. Eastman Kodak provided an unfathomably glorious lifestyle to anyone in Rochester who was willing to show up and work, regardless of qualifications. Other manufacturers in town had to follow suit. And the cash cow was film, something we’d always need, right? Syracuse had more machinists per capita than anywhere in the world, and they made air conditioners for Carrier and components for street and traffic lights at Crouse Hinds and Allied Signal. We’d always need those, right? Where else could they possibly build them?
    Now those two cities have the highest rates of African American poverty of any city in the country. Numbers 1 & 2. Other groups aren’t faring better. Those cities have an advantage over Appalachian communities – good transit links, proximity to other metro areas, other sectors like higher education and health care. They’re starting to stabilize, but for thousands of families, future prosperity won’t include them, except in the form of a benefits check.
    This is the one question that will define the next 30 years – what do we do with people in these places? How do we connect them to new realities and help them find a dignified, productive place in the world again? I have no idea, except that the easy platitudes and policies about retraining and attracting new employers with incentives isn’t working.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “This is the one question that will define the next 30 years – what do we do with people in these places?”

      Excellent question – one that my husband and I ponder quite often, especially when we are on the road. As you note here, the problems aren’t unique to Appalachia. In the pocket of Southeast Georgia where we live, the sewing industry kept many towns alive for decades before the jobs went overseas. Now there seems to be a scramble for livelihood. I think regardless of political promises, the shift will not be entirely reversible, but I haven’t given up hope that a solution is within reach. It will take creative problem-solving. In my post from today, choosing to slow reproduction rates is one step some communities are taking. But my heart still breaks for those left in the crosshairs. I do pray that the political will will emerge…and soon.

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  2. I volunteered for a few years with Appalachian Service Project. At the time I lived in Tidewater and only knew of the coal industry from the railroad / shipping side. Was certainly an eye opener and an education. 34yrs later I live in Blacksburg and have learned even more. Good people that just wanna work.
    Keep up the good work. Let’s go Hokies!!!! Let’s go!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your note, Christopher! It’s always good to hear from a fellow Hokie. I grew up about an hour north of Blacksburg and had never even heard of “Appalachia” until college. Ironic, of course, because my county is considered to be within the region. I am grateful for the ways that attending Virginia Tech opened my eyes to poverty in the mountains through scholarship and research. Now, in my adult years, I am able to deepen the layers of my understanding and help others in the process. We moved from Blacksburg in 2012 and miss it every day! Go Hokies, indeed 🙂

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