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Faith in Appalachia: A Lesson in Storytelling

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The cultural identity of the place I call home is about as complicated as the roads it takes to get here. I grew up in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, I attend a university that bears the name of this region, and I serve a church that has its fabric engrained within the mountains we know as home. If you ask someone what it means to be from the region known as Appalachia you will receive as many different answers as the trees in the Shenandoah Valley. You could get the 'official' answer based on a map (though there are a few maps that like to be called official) you could get your answer based on your dialect, your sense of place, or your love for this land. I have come to know a different definition, when you tell the stories that make these mountains move only for a moment to listen, you know what it means to be from Appalachia.

The stories I hear every Sunday in the community I serve gathers for worship is a lesson in faith. I've heard stories of how one church member's great-grandfather was baptized in a river not far from here in 1888, I've heard the heart-wrenching stories of families losing livelihoods for the expansion of civilization throughout these hills, and I've seen the joy of the tenacious ability to have a mountain festival from everything from apples to wooly worms.

Appalachia inspires stories, and stories inspire faith. I often wonder if the great faiths of the world could take a lesson from the people in this region. What would it look like if faith traditions could get back to the root of the stories they've come to know? Much of the conversation we have today is commentary of the story; we talk theology as if it is the spring of everything we hold dear. The reality is that all of us involved with a faith tradition are people intertwined with a story. We are human beings built with an existence that has been around long before we ever came along.

If you've ever been to my neck of the woods in Appalachia, you will have experienced the majestic beauty of the New River. I have the privilege of seeing it every day on my way to work, and though there is nothing new about this river (it's the third oldest in the world) I've often marveled at the sensation of watching the river go its course throughout the gorge it carved out even before the Nile River or Amazon River came along. One of my church members compares life to the New River, the winding twists and turns, the overwhelming terror and grace that life will continue to run through that gorge long after we're gone.

Our lives are haunted and charted by our stories. If one thing serving a church in Appalachia has taught me it is the authentic hope of telling our stories in such a way that it will be passed on to posterity. The stories, both big and small are a reminder that the chain of time is not disconnected but intricately woven into our beings. We are built by the stories we have come to live with. Ask anyone in Appalachia about the stories of their childhood, the blizzard of 1950, the mountaintop removal, or the chestnut trees now committed only to memory and you will hear a story about their very soul. For they have all come to know lessons in grace, hope, love, forgiveness, charity and justice through living the experiences that taught them who they are and ultimately whose they are.

I want to be careful not to iconize this area as a land of milk and honey where the stories are always as beautiful as the view from the front porch. Let me be clear, some of these stories are painful tales of the reality of living in an impoverished area of our country. The county I work in has the highest suicide rate in the entire state; there have been months without sun or warm weather. This is still very much the frontier in some regards, but ultimately that is what faith is anyway.

Faith is the frontier land of our existences in that faith calls us to go, to journey, to explore, to remind ourselves of what we consider important and valuable. Faith is that land just beyond the ridge that yearns for us to explore it. It was William Blake who said, "Great things happen when men and mountains meet." In this confluence of nature, culture, and history meeting the human element we see the beauty of faith. Won't you join me on this journey to the heart of our story, and the frontier of our intermingling with the Divine? Or as John Muir said, "The mountains are calling, and I must go."