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"Now those of you who want to be saved, just raise your hands right now."
Twenty-eight Harvard students sat uncomfortably in the wooden pews of the Lookout Baptist Church in Fayette County, West Virginia, as the minister solicited student souls for salvation.
We were participants in Harvard's first-ever Alternative Spring Break (ASB). We had come to West Virginia to do volunteer work, to get to know one another and to learn about the state and its people. We prided ourselves on our open-mindedness and tolerance. Now they were being tested.
The preacher railed against secular humanism and the Big Bang theory to choruses of "Amen" from the congregation. I squirmed in my seat, mortified by the thought that our group would return to Harvard remembering the church service as evidence that all West Virginians are gullible and naive. I hoped that my classmates would remember the piety, the charity, the resourcefulness, the selflessness and the perseverence that were evident in the community where we stayed.
I wished that the preacher would shut up before he embarassed me any further.
I am from West Virginia, about 40 miles from the community where our group traveled to build an addition to a low-income clinic and to transform a decrepit school building into a teen center and community public health center.
For most of the students who participated in the week-long program, the trip to Fayette County resembled nothing so much as an anthropological study. For me, it was a trip home.
I was well aware of the reputation that my home state--the only state wholly contained within Appalachia--has among the rest of the United States. West Virginia is beset by chronically high poverty and unemployment, corrupt and incompetent local political machines, geographic isolation and a long history of exploitation by irresponsible coal companies.
Nevertheless, West Virginia does not fit the Great Society image of ignorant hicks living in unheated tar paper shacks. Poverty and powerlessness are palpable in West Virginia, but the state and its people are not easily squeezed into simple generalizations about some mysterious place called Appalachia.
By almost every statistical index, West Virginia's economy is among the the worst in the nation. With a per capita income of $11,735 the state ranks 49th in the U.S., well behind the national average of $16,489. Almost 23 percent of West Virginians live in poverty--the third highest poverty rate in the U.S.
During the 1980s, the number of West Virginia families receiving public assistance increased by 50 percent. In 1988, 8.2 percent of the state's population received public assistance, the third highest proportion in the nation.
During the same decade, West Virginia experienced the largest proportional population loss of any state. In the past decade, 122,000 more people left the state than immigrated. West Virginia lost more than 40,000 mining jobs and more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 1989. Unemployment in West Virginia stands at 8.4 percent, nearly double the national average.
I joined the half of our group that worked on the clinic project, adding a 1400 square foot addition to a health center that offered low-cost medical care to poor residents. When we arrived, all that stood on the site was a ring of cinder blocks surrounding a sea of mud. When we left, the floor and walls were built and the roof was half completed.
Most members of the group had scarcely picked up a hammer before arriving at the work site. A pair of incredibly patient carpenters (one of them a high-school classmate of my father) supervised us, instructing us in the use of the tools and restraining their frustration as we bent hundreds and hundreds of nails.
For the first two days, we worked with a group of unemployed local residents who were enrolled in a federal job-training program. They lifted and sweated alongside us, their Dickies work shirts and diesel hats next to our turtlenecks and worn-out J. Crew sweaters.
They were scruffy, they smoked too much and they told filthy jokes, but they could drive in five nails in the time it took most of us to drive in one.
They were diligent and strong, and they were jobless. They were victims of economic dislocation and plain bad luck. One of them told us of building a home for his family, only to have it destroyed by a gas explosion a week later, before he had purchased insurance.
Fayette County is what a West Virginian might call "fair to middlin.'" With an unemployment rate of 10 percent, it ranks 27th out of 55 West Virginia counties, and 24th in earnings per job. Fayette County is neither affluent nor dirt poor. If you peer into the "hollers," you can find wretched poverty. But most of the area is dotted by modest, clean houses and neat yards.
The once-booming mining and railroad industries of Fayette County are now nearly defunct. The New River Gorge, once dotted with dozens of coal camps, now represents a different source of commerce for the county--white water rafting. And as Fayette Countians will readily tell you, the raft companies, unlike the mines, leave the mountains and rivers intact.
Two of the coordinators of the ASB trip, Sarah B. Thach '91 and Gia B. Lee '91, first saw Fayette County last summer while working at a day camp. Thach said she chose the Fayette County site for the trip because she saw potential for a positive contribution. "I didn't want a community service project that was disheartening," she said.
"I have been on a community service project where the recipients were very apathetic and didn't care whether the volunteers were there or not," Thach said. "I wanted a positive community service project that showed what community service can be."
"It wasn't a rich community, and a lot of people are on welfare, but they were interested in improving their community," she said.
On our first full day in West Virginia, we attended church in Lookout and then ate a covered-dish meal with the church members. One resident beamed at me and another student as he praised the clinic project. "Them doctors down in Fayetteville, they didn't want this clinic here, but Judy--she went to the meetin', and she got up in their face and told 'em we was going to do it. They didn't know what to say."
West Virginia in general, and Fayette County in particular, is a Democratic electoral stronghold. West Virginia has chosen a Republican presidential candidate only three times since 1940. Fayette County voters chose Walter F. Mondale over Ronald W. Reagan, 61 percent to 39 percent. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis beat George Bush in 1988 by a margin greater than two to one.
One night after work, we gathered at the Nutall Volunteer Fire Department for a lesson in local history from Dennis McCutcheon, a local 4-H agent who feverishly promoted the notion that hand-crafted items could be the salvation of West Virginia's moribund economy. To hear McCutcheon get steamed about abortion, secular humanism and the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, you might think you were in the heart of Reagan country. You might think this, that is, until you heard him tell stories of the life-and-death struggle against the coal companies.
It doesn't take much exposure to the residents of Fayette County to discern the profound social conservatism that permeates the mountain communities. One elderly woman at the church lowered her voice to a whisper to say "I hope they ain't any dope at Harvard." I suspect that the most hated phrase in southern West Virginia is "gun control."
But the people of Fayette County vote over whelmingly Democratic. For to most local residents, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is still revered. In the coal fields of southwest West Virginia, the memories of gun battles between union organizers and company thugs, of disastrous mine accidents and unspeakable exploitation, of scarred mountains and broken workers, die hard.
When I spoke the name of the Pittston Coal Company, which was involved recently in a bitter dispute with the UMWA, George Bragg, a local union member, instinctively spat. Although Bragg confessed that he worried about corruption and abuses of power in the UMWA's administration, there was no question about which side he was on.
President Bush made a point of playing up Dukakis' Harvard connections during the 1988 campaign in an attempt to stir up opposition to elitism among rural voters. Among the citizens of Fayette County with whom we lived and worked, we found no resentment toward our Harvard background.
My status as a West Virginian at Harvard made me something of a local hero. McCutcheon pulled me away from my plate at the covered-dish dinner to introduce me to every single member of the church. When a local television crew came by our work site to film the project, McCutcheon made sure that the reporter interviewed "the West Virginia boy."
If anything, many local residents had an exaggerated respect for Harvard. When I told Bragg about the Harvard activists who picketed Corporation member Robert G. Stone '45 for his involvement with the Pittston Coal Company, he said "We knew about that, and we thank you. We needed that help up there where the power is."
And as McCutcheon gave us his history lesson, he urged us to remember what we had learned about West Virginia when we became senator or president some day.
Thelma, the cashier at the local U-Save convenience store and Exxon station, also said she thought highly of Harvard. Her daughter graduated from here two years ago.
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