As John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blared through the speakers of our white Saint Ignatius van, the twelve of us entered a place so different from anywhere I have been before. Wheeling, West Virginia, only as far south as Columbus, welcomed us with rolling hills and a vast wilderness unlike anything back in Cleveland. The atmosphere felt strangely Southern for a place only two and half hours from home. We had finally arrived in Appalachia.
Our first few nights we stayed at a retirement home for the Sisters of Saint Joseph. None of us really knew what to expect; we were prepared for plenty of Bible readings and prayers. Instead, what we found were the most hospitable group older women who were so excited to have all of us. We talked with them at all of our meals, and they loved telling us about all of the fun they had in high school and all of the guys that they used to date. Staying with these Sisters really cleared a lot of misconceptions that a lot of us had about religious life. But this was not why we had come.
On the first day we took a tour of Wheeling and the surrounding cities. Our tour guide, Tom, was a wonderful man with a great vocal talent, and we were lucky to have his insight in a lot of things, as he’d lived there his whole life. During the tour, he spoke a lot in the past tense, as in “This is where the mill used to be,” or “This is what this town used to look like.” Even on our first day there, it was becoming apparent of the rampant deterioration of the economy in this area of West Virginia. All of the towns we drove through had old, dormant mills, leftover from the steel boom years before. What remains in these small cities are tiny pockets of neighborhoods and stores struggling to barely survive. Amidst all of the beautiful natural features of West Virginia, we first came across the struggles of the people living there.
Tom phrased it perfectly in saying, “The people of West Virginia are the poorest people living on a land of riches.” We learned that West Virginia sat on oceans of natural gas and mountains of coal, including miles and miles of available timber. With all of these natural resources available, the whole situation didn’t seem to make sense. Later that day, we learned how this was possible: We went to visit a coal mine. Tom explained to us the exploitation of these resources by outside interests. Big coal companies bought up all the available land in West Virginia right out under the feet of the pioneers that had pushed West. They brought in migrant, skilled workers to mine this coal and redistributed the profit to the non-West Virginian controlling interests in the company. With whatever land they didn’t own, they used shifty legal techniques to buy the mineral rights from locals under the guise of saving them money on property taxes.
That night at one of our nightly reflections, we were all troubled by how efficiently the coal industry could swindle so many people out of their rightful land at the slightest scent of coal. Tom had given us a startling statistic: One in every six people in West Virginia lives below $12,500 in annual salary, equating to roughly 300,000 people, all because of the lack of jobs available in an outsider coal industry. We talked to a coal miner from West Virginia who had beat out 8,000 other applications for a spot among 38 miners in one of West Virginia’s biggest mines. The system is so corrupt that a small percentage of people, most not from West Virginia, are making all of the profit off of the sprawling natural resources in Appalachia.
Most towns were built around large mills. Thus, back in the late 20th century, people didn’t go to college. They went directly into the mills because they knew that they could make a good living to provide for their families. However, when the Steel Belt rusted over, the economic centers of these towns collapsed, leaving many cities in ruin. We discovered that mindset around careers was so different from what we knew back in Cleveland. I couldn’t help but feel that I had taken for granted the education that Saint Ignatius was giving me. It was pushing me to pursue a career path that I would enjoy doing and giving me plenty of options for the future. For me, a career had always been a great opportunity to do what I love doing. Down in Appalachia, kids were pushed to get a job as soon as possible. A career was about making a living, not enjoyment. One day we helped out a school, whose kids were often neglected by their parents. The teachers there told us that many of the parents didn’t even tell their kids about colleges or careers and instead wanted them to get jobs straight out of high school.
We also found the surprising population of homeless and unemployed people as we worked at a soup kitchen and an organization called Appalachian Outreach that helped to shelter and furnish those in need across West Virginia. Many businesses, we were told, fail due the lack of customer base, due to the lack of jobs, due to the lack of business. We were finally exposed to the terrible cycle of poverty that existed there. People fought for jobs at McDonalds and Burger Kings, the thought of minimum wage pay so appealing to a great percentage of people living in Appalachia. In fact, the whole town of Wheeling was considered a U.S.D.A food desert, defined where at least ⅓ of the population lives further than a mile from a grocery store or whole food provider. To make matters worse, these areas provide a perfect environment for the growth of fast food chains, depriving the population of wholesome and healthy food. Thus, West Virginia also faces a health crisis as its kids grow up on fast food and sugar, instead of fresh produce and meat. We spent a day working on a GrowOV farm in Wheeling that hoped to return fresh foods to West Virginia to combat obesity and malnutrition. At the time, we had thought little of the weeding and cultivating we did that day. However, I can now think of the thousands of people benefitting from the literal fruits of our labor.
After working all week and trying to wrap our heads around the repeated injustices we were witnessing, we took a long reflective break to go hiking in the mountains. We enjoyed beautiful views—nothing like the flat plains of Ohio, and had Mass in the middle of the forest using a tree stump as an altar. While we did have fun, we also engaged in a silent walk for a couple of miles back to the vans to think about and soak in everything we had seen that week.
As we loaded up the vans to go home, we were all anxious to return home and yet hesitant to leave. We had seen all of this poverty but had barely scratched the surface in our week’s worth of work there. We had realized all of the things that we took for granted back home were horribly absent in the rolling hills of West Virginia. The beautiful country we had enjoyed on the way in now had an ugliness lying beneath it, as the coal companies continued their exploitation and the old mill towns continued to shrink. While we may never see all of the people we met in West Virginia again, we’ve already begun to think of ways that we can continue our mission of solidarity back in Cleveland and help to bring justice down to our brothers and sisters in Appalachia.