Grace and grit in southern West Virginia

Freelance writer Christopher Martin said he went to McDowell County, West Virginia because it was the poorest and least healthy county in the USA.

He found a lot of unemployment and opioid addiction there.  But he also found a surprising amount of optimism and resiliency, based on religious faith.

The area has a lot going against it.  It is hard to get to, accessible only by narrow, winding country roads along mountainsides.  Internet and cell phone connections are bad.

Coal mining, which used to be the basis of its economy, has virtually disappeared.  Walmart came in and drove local businesses out of business because they couldn’t compete.  Then it left, leaving nothing.   Local people say the area never recovered from great floods in the 2000s.

Opioid addiction and gambling addiction are big problems.  Martin saw many grandparents with grandchildren in public places, which he took to be a sign of absent parents.

At the same time, he didn’t see the outward signs of poverty and demoralization he found in big cities—no drug dealers on street corners, no bunches of young men standing around looking for trouble.  Crime exists, the murder rate is about the national average, but people don’t live in fear of crime.

He was surprised by the high level of morale among people he met and how welcoming they were to him, an outsider.  

He struck up a conversation with a retired coal miner and his wife he met at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  After they were done, the man gave Martin his address and contact information so that, if his car ever broke down nearby, he would know where to walk for help.  Martin said he knows of areas in big cities where a car breakdown could put your life at risk.

He talked to a volunteer at a food bank. a mother of three whose husband died in March.  Despite her hard life, she gave of herself to help others.  She told Martin she had considered suicide, but “God keeps me going.”

A restaurant owner told him that when she was a college student in New York City, she was on a subway and saw a man with a seizure.  She was the only one who tried to help him.  Friends with her told her she was wrong, that the man could be running some sort of scam.  

Somebody once told this woman she only likes McDowell because she has no point of comparison, and she always answers by telling this story.

Most of the people he talked to were Trump supporters to the extent that they had any interest in national politics at all.  But he did talk to one nice young politically progressive couple, recent graduates of the state university at Morgantown.  

Unlike many progressives he’d known, they were not alienated from their home town.  Just the opposite.  They thought the community’s problems could be helped by drug legalization, by construction of a major highway to make the county more accessible and by better Internet service.

He talked to a New England couple who came to the area decades before on an uplift mission and stayed to raise a family.  The husband told Martin that if he were an atheist, he’d have given up years before, but he isn’t.  

Moreover, the man said, the people of the area taught him more about God than he taught them.  Their suffering is spiritually redemptive, and God will compensate them in the next life.

All of this is different from what J.D. Vance wrote about the violent nature of Appalachian culture.  This doesn’t prove that Vance was wrong—just that human beings are complicated and hard to generalize about.

Political and business leaders told Martin that McDowell County’s future lies in tourism.  It has beautiful scenery.  The rough and mountainous terrain attracts lovers of ATVs (all-terrain vehicles).

A tourist industry would be less damaging to the environment than extractive industries such as mining.  But they depend on a continuation of an economy based on low fuel costs, which I don’t think is realistic.

Still, based on Martin’s description, I think the people of McDowell County are psychologically better prepared for the coming bad years than many others.  One woman told him that when the apocalypse comes, she’d rather be there than in a big city.

Martin left McDowell County feeling humbled.  He felt that, as an agnostic, he had nothing to offer people living there.  He took drugs at parties as a younger man, and doubted he could have avoided becoming an addict if he’d grown up there.  I never took drugs, but I feel the same way about myself.

Reading Martin’s article reminded me of Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll about American slavery.  He wrote that the thing that prevented enslaved black people from being spiritually and morally destroyed by slavery was their version of the Christian religion, which gave meaning to their lives.

At the time he wrote it, he was a Marxist atheist.  I heard him lecture once, and he remarked that, as one of Italian heritage, the only two things he could imagine being were a Catholic or a Communist.   Toward the end of his life, he reverted to being a Catholic

Of course religious belief does not necessarily make you kinder and more loving.  Both Catholics and Communists have massacred, tortured and persecuted people in the name of dogmas.  But even harmful religious faith can make you stronger and better able to withstand hardship and temptation.


Grace and Grit in Southern West Virginia by Christopher Martin for the Occidental Observer.

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